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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Forgiven and Forgiving: The Right Way to Start the New Year

I have learned a few things from the 13 years that I have lived outside of my home country, including a special tradition that most British people treasure: The Queen's Christmas day speech! Every year I say to Mark Tatlow, “Are you going to listen to the Queen's speech?” and every year he replies, “Well, of course”, as if to say, why in the world would you ask me it not completely obvious that this is what people do on Christmas day?! So while I must admit that I missed her speech as it was broadcast live, I did take time to listen it to in the days following Christmas. It was remarkable in its content and I must take this opportunity to quote some of the very significant things she included in her speech this past Christmas. She said, “Relationships that years ago were once so strained, have through sorrow and forgiveness, blossomed into friendship.” She went onto add, “Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history has taught us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves, from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world, a unique person, neither a philosopher or a general, but a Saviour with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God's love.” She closed by urging us to “Find room in our lives for the message of the angels and the love of God through Christ our Lord.” I was completely stunned by how beautifully she shared the core of the Christian faith, capturing so eloquently how forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith.
On a different note, Doug gave me a gift card to Espresso House as Christmas gift this year. I have it here with me, ready to use. But a gift card is only plastic unless it is redeemed. I must walk into the shop, order something and allow them to take the card and subtract my purchase with it. It is then and only then that I enjoy the fruit of this gift. It is of no worth as it sits in my wallet.
Perhaps this is a good image for us as we begin the new year. God's gift of forgiveness is like a gift card that's more valuable than anything we can imagine. He paid for it with his Son's life. God is holding that priceless gift card out to us, waiting for us to take it. If we don't accept it and use it, however, then it's of no value to us. The good news of great joy that we celebrated on Christmas day is filled with hope and the promise of forgiveness and redemption. After all, it is the birth our Lord and Savior that we celebrated. Did you get that, Savior...the one who can save us from ourselves, our greed, our meanness, our smallness. That gift is ours to enjoy. We must only accept it and allow Christ to redeem the dark places in our lives where we crave his light. The verses from Ephesians 5 remind us that we were once full of darkness, but now we are full of the light from the Lord. We are encouraged to live as people of light, which means that we embrace the forgiveness and redemption that it is offered to us through God's love. As challenging as it may be at times to embrace the forgiveness offered to us as a free gift through our Savior, perhaps the more challenging aspect of this gift is the reality that living in the light of Christ not only means living as a forgivEN person but also living as a forgivING person.
Forgiveness is a good theme for a new year for what good does it do us to enter this new year with past grievances being held over or wondering whether or not we ourselves can ever be forgiven for our own transgressions? Perhaps you've heard this saying, harboring anger or a lack of forgiveness against another person is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. We think the venom that we hold against another person is hurting them when all the while what it is doing is eating us up from the inside out.
A teacher once told each of her students to bring a clear plastic bag and a sack of potatoes to school. They were instructed to call to mind every person they had a grudge against. For every person they refused to forgive, they chose a potato, wrote on it the name and date, and put it in the plastic bag. They were told to carry this bag with them everywhere, putting it beside their bed at night, on the car seat when driving, on their lap when riding, next to their desk during classes. Some bags became quite heavy. Lugging this around, paying attention to it all the time, and remembering not to leave it in embarrassing places was a hassle. Over time the potatoes became moldy, smelly, and began to sprout "eyes." The metaphor becomes obvious, right? Think how great it would be to stop carrying around a bag of stinking, rotten, hurts. Often we think of forgiveness as a gift to the other person, but it clearly is a gift to ourselves.
I know what many of you are thinking however. You are thinking, well, it's easy enough to say this, but you don't know what I've been through. I have hurts so deep, betrayals so profound that there is no way I could ever think about forgiving those offenses. Except that I do know how you feel. I do know the pain of unresolved hurt and wounds that don't easily heal. I do know that nurturing anger and resentment feels pretty good for awhile, protective, secure. But the problem with it is that it also makes you hard, angry, unable to trust, eventually even unable to love and be fully loved. That's why we have to remember the profound love of God in Christ and embrace that first. The only way we are able to forgive the deep hurts that have wounded us so significantly is to more deeply experience the unconditional grace that knowing Christ offers us. In Christ, we can find the safety and security that we need in order to forgive another person. God knows that if we can come to a place in our lives where we are able to forgive others, then we will also be much freer to love others with the love of God but also to experience in a much richer manner the love He has for us.
But God also knows and understands the painful road that some of us have walked and wants to enter into the journey to forgiveness with us. Perhaps you want to forgive someone for an injury that they have caused and yet the hurt is too deep, the pain is fresh and the wound perhaps even still open. You want to forgive but you have no idea how to do so and so carrying the burden has simply become a way of life that you feel is impossible to change. But the good news is this: It is not impossible to change. Jesus is acutely aware the pain that you have suffered and has great compassion for the scars in our lives that won't fully heal. Jesus wants nothing more than for us to be freed from past hurts that hinder us from knowing him better and loving others more fully. So as we seek to take steps in this new year towards a life that is closer to God and one another, let's remember a few key things about living a life of forgiveness rather than one that carries grudges.
First and foremost, it is important to note that our ability to forgive takes time. It does not happen overnight and sometimes it cannot occur in the moment that it is asked for. God understands this. What is important for each of us however is to nurture a desire to forgive even in the midst of the seasons of our lives when forgiveness is elusive. This requires that we focus on God's grace instead of nurturing our feelings of anger, hurt and resentment. As we focus on God's grace, we begin to cultivate a spirit of forgiveness in our hearts as opposed to allowing a bitter root to take hold in our hearts. Bring your struggle before the Lord. Ask him for the courage to eventually forgive the one who has hurt you so deeply. Remember, we were full of darkness, but now we are full of light. Allow the light of Christ's grace and love to flood your life and eventually you will see how that spills over into your relationships.
Secondly, remember that forgiving someone does not mean that you are saying that what they did was all right. What they did is not all right. It was wrong and it will always be wrong. Extending forgiveness does not turn the hurtful act into a righteous one. But by extending forgiveness to the one that hurt you, you are acknowledging the painful history that you share but also saying that you are no longer harboring the depth of pain or bitterness that was brought upon you by their actions. But this may also mean that new boundaries and rules for engaging the person who injured you may need to be put in place. Because forgiving another does not mean that there aren't still very real consequences to some of the pain caused by others. Forgiveness does not remove those consequences but by forgiving, you are extending the grace that has been extended to you by Christ to the one who hurt you. Again, this takes time but if you can get on the road that moves you closer and closer to this moment, you will reap the benefits of letting go of the hurt that dwells so deeply in your spirit. You will know when you are beginning to forgive someone when you can begin to genuinely wish them well even when there may still be lingering pain as a result of their actions towards you.
A third reality when it comes to forgiveness is that sometimes when you forgive a past hurt, the relationship can be restored, other times it cannot. Forgiveness can take place even if the relationship cannot be healed. At times, such as in cases of abuse, it becomes obvious that a continued relationship would actually be more hurtful to the one who suffered the abuse. Sometimes we are unable to forgive because we feel that our forgiveness means we have to subject ourselves to more pain and abuse. That is never God's intention for us. God intends that we live as whole, safe, loved people so while that may mean some relationships need to be severed, it does not mean that we have to carry the guilt, the hurt, the burdens or the grudges with us. Forgiveness does not always lead to a healed relationship. Some people are not capable of love, and it might be wise to let them go along with your anger. Wish them well, and let them go their way.
If we can begin to see that our ability to forgive is actually part of the way that God shows his mercy to us perhaps it makes it a bit easier to move towards forgiveness. Our ability to forgive is merciful because being an unforgiving person only hurts ourselves. Not forgiving another does not make the pain go away, in fact it causes it go deeper for through our grudges we carry reminders of the hurt with us at all times. One writer acknowledges that “it is unnatural to forgive from a human perspective. And it can only happen by living in the stream of God's forgiveness. And as hard as it may be to forgive, remember that it is actually harder to not forgive and live a life that is marked with bitterness, resentment, and vengeance which ultimately leads to an emotional, spiritual and even sometimes physical death.”
So in the end, forgiving someone does not mean that you are saying that it's OK what they did to you. It is not OK. It is saying, because God has poured out his grace in my life, and because God has forgiven me, through the power of his light shining in my life, I am now willing and able to extend the same to you. It's hard. It takes time, sometimes a long time. But if we are able to forgive another, we will experience the richness of God's grace in our own life in a much more profound manner and we will know the joy that comes from dying to our anger and living in the light and love of Jesus Christ.
What a great way to begin the new more fully in the stream of God's grace. I can't really think of a better New Year's resolution than to be both forgiven and forgiving for I do believe that the Queen was right when she said that forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Forgiveness can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. For it is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God's love.
And so my sincere prayer for each of us at this new year begins is that we may know in deeper and more profound ways the depths of God's unconditional love and forgiveness and that we may be able to extend that love and forgiveness to another. We are people of light. May God's light shine brightly through us. Amen.