The past few weeks, I've had the honor of team teaching in my Adult Bible study at church and we've been going through the Tale of the Prodigal Son from Luke (chapter 14, vv 14-32). Last week we discussed the forgiveness shown by the father in the parable and it provoked a passionate and intense discussion about what forgiveness looks like and how it works out in real life. I think, perhaps, the one thing that really fueled the flames was my statement that forgiveness is not a feeling but an action.
I'll say that again, and even put it in bold accents:
Forgiveness is not a FEELING
forgiveness is an ACTION
Oh, but, Kat - what about where the Bible commands that husbands are to love their wives? (here are a couple references) Um-hm. Look at the context of verses like these, and they are surrounded by ACTION commands, not things like "feel all warm and fuzzy for her" or "make sure your heart sings whenever you think of her." To show his love, the husband is commanded to DO: to honor, to cherish, to protect, to provide. Feelings accompany these actions, but the commands to love and to forgive are NOT based upon what we feel.
This is actually a very important - and in some ways, a very freeing - concept: The success or depth of my obedience to God is not based upon my feelings, it is based upon my faithful, trusting obedience to His commands. As an aside, I am not talking about a works righteousness here. I am looking at this from the perspective of Christian discipleship, taking up our cross daily and following after our Savior. As Christ said, He is the vine and we are the branches. If we abide in Him, if we rest on the power and grace He provides, if we trust and believe Him, He will work through us - but He certainly doesn't expect us to sit around and let Him do all the work! He has created us to do the good works He prepared from before the foundation of the world - so, in the words of one of my favorite science fiction characters, "Let's be about it!"
So, to get back to the specific subject of forgiveness...
God commands us to forgive, and He also gives a very stern warning about unforgiveness:
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. [emphasis mine]
That's pretty scary, don't you think? That is a conditional command - if you do this, then this will happen; but if you don't do this, then that will happen. Now, certainly there is a place for righteous anger, and sometimes we must act in judgement of another's behavior, but because we are so naturally inclined to arrogant pride, we often rush to anger and judgement far too quickly and act in an overly harsh and unloving manner. When we choose forgiveness as our normal response, we are in far less danger of sinning against God and against others.
Therefore, forgiveness is a pretty important topic in the Bible, wouldn't you say? And that brings us back to the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Last Sunday, we reviewed the circumstances of the Prodigal; how he had effectively told his father that he wished he were dead; how he took his share of his inheritance, cashed it in and then squandered it on "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." This was, comparatively speaking, as if one individual had taken one third of the capital of a Fortune 500 company, removed it completely from the corporate assets, liquidated it, and then used up the money by buying drugs, gambling, buying prostitutes, and trying to out do the escapades of Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson and the like. When it was all wasted and spent, the Prodigal then latched on to one of his former "friends" and was given make-work of a very demeaning nature just to keep him out of the way. He fell into the most humiliating and impoverished circumstances, and is truly in what, humanly speaking, we could call a hopeless and irredeemable life. This boy hit about a thousand levels below rock-bottom, didn't he?
Now let's turn to the father in this parable, who was the focus of Sunday's lesson. He was an influential and respected man in the villiage. He was probably one of the elders, and quite probably fairly - if not very - well off. In that culture, as in the modern Middle East, family honor was foundational to society, so when the Prodigal rebelled in such a public and disgraceful manner, he would - in a typical family - have been regarded as dead and never permitted to return. If, perhaps, he DID return, he would have been expected to grovel before his father and the rest of the village. He would have been scorned and shamed and would forever have lived on the fringes of the community, never to be welcomed back into the family.
That, at least, is what the Pharisees - to whom Jesus was telling this parable - would have expected as the only just and proper thing to happen. After all, if you may recall, the Mosaic Law commanded the death of a rebellious child, so I'm sure they were expecting Jesus to enforce that - except Jesus rarely does what is expected!
The parable continues with the Prodigal realizing his hopeless situation. He "came to himself" and resolved to go home, acknowledge his sin and beg for the position of a servant from his father. He knew he could not expect to ever be a son again, yet he hoped his father might make a little room for him where he could at least survive and have some food as he worked to give what pitifully small restitution he could.
And here is where Jesus gives the story a complete paradigm shift:
And [the Prodigal] arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.
Did you see that? Do you see what is happening here? Instead of the son searching out his father and being held at a distance, instead of the son falling at his father's feet and kissing them in remorse and contrition, instead of being a stranger-considered-to-be-dead, his father runs out to meet him!
His father has been searching for him, waiting for him, scanning the horizon day after day and watching for his son's return. His father has not stopped loving his son and longing for his rebellious child to come home. When the father sees his son in the distance, his heart leaps with joy, he abandons dignity and propriety and RUNS to meet him! He embraces and kisses his beloved son before the boy had a chance to give his prepared speech of apology and his plea for a crumb of mercy.
That is forgiveness, folks. That is the infinite forgiveness of God, ready to welcome anyone - anyone; His arms are open wide to all cultures, skin colors, languages and sinful conditions - who will come to Him and accept that forgiveness.
We need to remember that we are all the Prodigal Son: we have all committed infinite treason against the all-powerful and rightful Lord of Creation! And yet, because of the sacrifice Jesus made of Himself on the Cross, God has opened the way for each one of us to return Home. No matter the depth and depravity of our sin, the blood of Jesus has covered it - if we will only come to ourselves and come Home!
To put it in context, let me quote from Romans 5 (yes, yes, I know; I have a love affair with the book of Romans - deal with it! LOL):
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. [emphasis mine]
God provided a way for us to be rejoined with Him, even while we were still hating Him and doing our best to either ignore Him or throw our "independence" into His face. Yes, He longed for His lost sheep, He grieved over the sinfulness of the human race, and He wept over our unwillingness to come to Him; He had feelings. But to actually accomplish His forgiveness, He ACTED. He did something about it. He went to the Cross, and there Jesus suffered the full blow of His Father's wrath against ALL the sin and unrighteousness that His children committed against Him.
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
When we consider the profound seriousness of our offenses against the sovereign God of Creation and what He has done to forgive us, how is it that we do not do our best to offer that forgiveness - the forgiveness that God commands of us - to others?
Do you remember the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant?
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
“But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
“So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Simple truth, Christians: We are COMMANDED to forgive.
One thing that did come up in last Sunday's discussion was the question of whether we had really forgiven someone when we took precautions to protect ourselves - like, for instance, keeping an eye on property if the person we're working on forgiving has stolen from us; or being especially vigilant because of physical abuse. To this I would say it's not a whole lot different from a good and loving parent who can forgive a child for disobedience, but who will also make the effort to give proper correction and discipline so that the child will not repeat the behavior. I would consider normal precautions to be a way of coming alongside the sinner and helping them retrain themselves into better habits and actions.
All right: we are commanded to forgive, and forgiveness is an ACTION - then how does it work out in our lives? What does forgiveness look like?
First of all, I would say that forgiveness begins with humility on our part. We need to remember, as I wrote above, that we are sinners too, and that we ourselves are in desperate need of forgiveness. Since we have recieved God's abundant mercy, which He has poured out lavishly in our lives, we need to pass that forgiveness on in imitation of our Father.
Secondly, forgiveness is usually a day to day (sometimes a minute to minute!) choice. I am fortunate to have the sort of personality that really has to be driven to hold a grudge, but unfortunately once I do have one, I tend to hold on to it until it dies of old age - at which time I stuff it and mount it on the wall so I can smack it every time I pass by. That's definitely not a good thing! Therefore, I have to remind myself that I can choose to be obedient to God and lay aside my grudge. I have to choose to treat the person fairly and refuse to allow resentment and anger to color my actions - and this is very, very hard to do sometimes.
Nevertheless, the choice is there, and we must choose to act out of grace and mercy. We must choose to treat the other person justly and kindly. We must choose to give up any vengeance we may desire and trust that God, who is the Perfect Judge, will take care of the situation in His time and according to His absolute knowledge and grace. We must choose to trust that surely the Judge of all the earth will do what is right.
Thirdly, we must make the choice to forgive whether or not the person asks for forgiveness. This is definitely a huge sticking point - at least for me - for this subject, because it is very difficult for us NOT to want the other person to show humility, confess, and ask for forgiveness. When that happens, that's certainly a wonderful thing; it makes forgiveness easier and sets us on the path to reconciliation more quickly. But unfortunately, that's rarely the situation. But why should we forgive even if we never receive an apology? Well, have you ever considered that your grudge doesn't hurt anybody but you (at least initially)? Carrying bitterness in our hearts, cultivating resentment and anger over the sins of others, ends up poisoning our lives, while the person we are angry with probably couldn't care less. What kind of example is it to be bitter all the time? Who would want to hang around with a sour, angry, resentful person? Why would you want to lose sleep, suffer physical ills (and yes, anger and bitterness DO affect your body!), and walk around sniping at people just because you're pridefully holding a grudge?
And remember, the person you're mad at probably doesn't either know or care that you're pissed off!
Fourthly, we need to make sure we are in fellowship with Christians who can pray for and encourage us along this journey. We need our brothers and sisters in Christ to hold us accountable, pointing out bitterness and resentment, and who can make helpful suggestions to assist us in making that constant decision to lay aside our anger and choose to forgive.
Forgiveness sets us free to live a joyful and obedient life before the face of God. Yes, it is hard and we fail far too often. But so long as we continue to fall at the foot of the Throne of God in humility, asking for the wisdom to walk in obedience, seeking His forgiveness for our failures, trusting Him to complete the good work He began in us, and depending on His strength and provision in our lives, then I am convinced He will change us from the inside out and conform us to the image of His beloved Son. As He is working on us, we learn to walk in faith and let His glory be reflected in our lives.
Whom the Son has set free is free indeed - let us arise and walk in the footsteps of Jesus and act like the blessed people we now are:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3-12, NKJV)
Father, I ask that You bless this small meditation and use it somehow to bless and encourage someone who needs to hear of Your great mercy and compassion. I pray that I have done honor to Your Word and ask You to cover my errors with Your grace. Help me to remember these words so that I may put them into practice in my own life. Father, forgive my sins for they are many, and I thank You and praise You for the wonderful gift of Your Son, in whose name I pray. Amen.
(crossposted to Virginia Virtucon)