Sunday, October 31, 2010

From Failure to Forgiveness

27The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD. 29In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989

God says a lot in His “Book” about forgiveness. It’s taught in a variety of ways; it’s also abused in a number of creative ways to suit what we really want. Just a quick search on my computer’s Bible software brought up over one-hundred references to forgiveness. In the Jeremiah text (verse 34) God not only promises to forgive, he says he will remember no more; God promised Israel that He would forgive AND forget!

A pastor’s son and his mom had been to a shopping mall and the boy had acted badly, wanting this and that, running off, etc. As they were driving home, he could sense her displeasure and said, “When we ask God to forgive us when we are bad, He does, doesn’t He?” His mother replied, “Yes, He does.” The boy continued, “And when he forgives us, He buries our sins in the deepest sea, doesn’t He?” The mom replied, “Yes, that’s what the Bible says.” The boy was silent for awhile and then said, “I’ve asked God to forgive me, but I bet when we get home, you’re going to go fishing for those sins, aren’t you?”[1]
There are two very different kinds of forgiveness – that of God, and that of humans; according to Scripture we need both. However as we are well into the second decade of the 21st century, there is a “forgiveness disconnect” in our culture. It seems nobody needs forgiveness, because we’ve come to the conclusion that our personal behavior is now a subjective issue; there are no absolutes in the arena of right and wrong. There is no all-encompassing standard for measuring behavior, except as each person measures it in his own life.
The self-help book “I’m OK – You’re OK” was first published by Dr. Thomas Harris in 1969. Three years later it topped the NY Times best seller list for over two years. It’s a self-help book that espouses the Gestalt, non-judgmental, very politically-correct sentiment: “I am not in this world to please you, and you’re not in this world to please me, but if, by chance, we meet…it’s beautiful”. In other words – there is nothing to forgive….we don’t need it; I don’t care what you think, and you shouldn’t care what I think.
The most popular “look through the keyhole” at life and philosophy in 2010 America is that we are basically very good, and sin is only a word the fanatics use. The prevailing message that our children receive educationally is that, with our technology and man’s inherent ingenuity, we have the ability to overcome any obstacle by sheer willpower and human brilliance! The short version is:
Man has ascended the throne;
We are God!
Swallowing this concept (hook-line-and-sinker) are even good people who’ve bought-into the idea that being good citizens and being nice enough to even populate the pews of local churches on a regular basis is an outgrowth of their own moral goodness. Somehow God has been relegated to a position of co-pilot in our lives – a sort of partner in our goodness. Certainly he knows our hearts and the whole spectrum of how we really are wonderful, and he is most pleased to have our attention occasionally – even if he doesn’t have our undivided attention.
The effect is that the idea of needing forgiveness from God is antiquated and wholly-irrelevant; we don’t need forgiveness from a God who is kept in a closet until something bad happens and we need some power outside our own abilities.
There are Exceptions
There are some exceptions that are too glaring to just ignore. We do have a legal system. There are plenty of rules that get transgressed on a regular basis. Although the court system has its flaws, society regularly holds persons accountable for all sorts of things that are “unforgivable” without restitution or payment. Allow me to offer a list…forgiveness must be obtained by those who:
· Murder, steal
· Start wars, spread disease and poverty
· Racists, hate crime perpetrators, internet scammers
· Child abusers, drug dealers, and…
· Failing to use your turn signal before changing lanes on I-40
Societal pressure created a whole legal system that says: “You shalt not!”
Question Begged
And, of course, this begs a different question:
If forgiveness is necessary when you break man’s laws….
how, and why, can we possibly presume that
forgiveness is not necessary for breaking God’s laws?
There are numbers of answers that could be proffered for the begged question about why we don’t feel we need forgiveness; however, there is generally one underlying reason:
We’d Rather Ignore Reality
We would rather ignore the reality that we need God’s forgiveness (or anyone else’s for that matter), because it hurts to admit that we have the need…that we’ve done anything wrong. During one Sunday school lesson, [the teacher] was trying to teach the children that we all need God's forgiveness. After the story she quizzed one of the girls. “Lisa, when is a time you might need God's forgiveness?” Noticeably perplexed, Lisa was reassured by one boy, who whispered, “It’s okay, you don’t have to tell her.” Then he looked the teacher straight in the eye and said, “We don’t have to tell you our problems. This isn’t the Oprah Winfrey show.”[2]
Admitting your own need of forgiveness requires letting go of anger and resentment towards others. Remember what Jesus taught us in his model prayer…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
It’s easier to overlook our own anger. Two little brothers, Harry and James, had finished supper and were playing until bedtime. Somehow, Harry hit James with a stick, and tears and bitter words followed. Charges and accusations were still being exchanged as mother prepared them for bed. The mother instructed, “Now James, before you go to bed you’re going to have to forgive your brother.” James was thoughtful for a few moments, and then he replied, “Well OK, I’ll forgive him, but if I don’t die in the night, he’d better look out in the morning.”[3]
There are two well-known basic realities about this business of forgiveness:
1. We Need to be Forgiven
The story is told in Spain of a father and his teenage son who had a relationship that had become strained. So the son ran away from home. His father, however, began a journey in search of his rebellious son. Finally, in Madrid, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in the newspaper. The ad read: “Dear Paco, meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon. All is forgiven. I love you. Your father.” The next day at noon in front of the newspaper office 800 “Pacos” showed up. They were all seeking forgiveness and love from their fathers.[4]
Deep down we all understand our need of forgiveness from God and each other. Scripture informs us in both the Hebrew and Christian writings that there is no person without sin…no person who hasn’t offended God. When we can stop ignoring reality long enough to be honest from the inside out, we know that. We need God’s forgiveness, and…
2. We Need to Forgive Others
Colossians 3:13 (NRSV) 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
God gave the command for us Christians to forgive one another. God doesn’t give commands just to throw his weight around; He knew that it is necessary for us to forgive so we can move on in life.
Dr. Thomas Tewell, pastor of 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York shared the following in a sermon:
Author Frederick Buechner warns us about the dangers of reliving past hurts when he says, "Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll your tongue over the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you."
Betty was a living illustration of Buechner's words. Betty was filled with anger at her husband because of an affair he carried on with his secretary. The worst part of it was how she found out. The morning after her husband was honored by the Rotary Club for outstanding service to the community, Betty was looking through her husband's desk at home to find an old photograph. Imagine her shock to find motel receipts in a file drawer from a local motel. When she confronted her husband, he confirmed the affair and rubbed salt in the wound by telling her that it had gone on for 15 years. Betty's husband was not the man that the Rotary Club nor she thought he was. Two weeks after Betty confronted him, her husband had a sudden heart attack and died! Betty was left with a huge beach ball filled with rage and resentment in her soul.
Betty told me this story at a conference several years after the death of her husband when she challenged my point in a sermon that forgetting is often the outgrowth of true forgiveness. Betty used to be a whistler she told me. She was known for her whistling. But she hadn't whistled since she discovered her husband's affair and she would never whistle again. She asked me how to forgive someone who had died? I suggested that she write a letter to her husband and be honest with him about the hurt he had caused her. I told her to write down the unedited rage in her soul. Betty thought this was the craziest idea she'd ever heard! I thought I had offended her because she didn't show up at the conference for the next two days.The day before the closing session, Betty came into the conference with a big stack of paper. "Betty, you look tired." "You're darn right I'm tired! I haven't slept in two days. Here's the letter and I'm going to read it to you—all thirty-five pages of it! (There's got to be an easier way to make a living than the ministry I thought to myself!)We went to the cemetery and on a bench near her husband's grave, she read the letter out loud. The catharsis in her soul was punctuated by tears, screams and long moments of silence when she couldn't speak. When she finished, we burned the letter and watched her rage disintegrate into ashes. I offered a prayer for Betty and she said one too asking God to help her forgive and forget. I believe God answered those prayers. Do you know why I think so? Because the last morning of the conference, I looked out at the congregation and my eyes locked with Betty during the closing hymn, Amazing Grace. Betty wasn't singing, she was whistling! That's the power of forgiveness.[5]
Christ forgave us; now it’s our turn!
In the name of the Father,
Because of the Son,
Cooperating with the Spirit
[1] Illustrations Unlimited, © 1988 by James S. Hewett.
[2] Ranai Carlton, Waterford, California. Christian Reader, “Kids of the Kingdom.”
[3] Illustrations Unlimited, © 1988 by James S. Hewett.
[4] Illustrations Unlimited, © 1988 by James S. Hewett.
[5] Thomas Tewell, in a sermon “The Things We Dare Not Remember”

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