Thursday, January 26, 2006

To Forgive Really Is Divine

A few years ago I read a book by a woman named Debbie Morris called Forgiving the Dead Man Walking. I didn't know much about her when I picked up the book, but her story was capitivating. Morris was one of the victims of two men, one of which, Robert Lee Willie was the subject of the book and the movie Dead Man Walking. That book was an anti-death penalty piece, but Morris' story was more than just another angle on the crimes of Mr. Willie. It was Debbie Morris' recalling the events of not only the horrible atrocities she lived through, but also the emotional process of coming to learn to forgive her attackers. It didn't come easy. It was only through her coming to faith in Christ that she could even consider such a thing. Yet eventually Debbie Morris forgave the two men who had scarred her forever. Even as Sister Helen Prejean protested to have Willie spared execution, Morris was able to forgive him and come away from the mindset of vengeance.
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The whole issue of forgiveness took on a new light for me after reading that book. I saw that it really was possible to forgive -- not forgive and forget, but forgive and truly come to peace with those who have hurt me.

This post at MapleMonkey is inspired by one of Rob Bell's NOOMA videos. (A tip of the ol' ball cap to Monday Morning Insight.) Here's the meat:

[Bell] suggested that until you are able to look at someone who has wronged you and wish them the best in life, you haven't truly reached a state of forgiveness. It's one thing to say "I forgive you". Not that that's an easy step either. That step alone could take years. But to then look at the person (either figuratively or literally) and tell them that you want the best for them and that you hope their journey is 'blessed'--that's a whole different thing. Our natural inclination is to wish they get what they deserve, and not in a good way. We usually want that person to suffer for what they've done, or at least pay the toll. But that's a call for vengeance. That's a sign that you haven't truly let go of your bitterness or resentment. You haven't really forgiven them.

The blogger is right. There is a "theoretical" forgiving and a "heartfelt" forgiving. We can often say we forgive someone, yet still harbor bitterness. That's theoretical. It looks good on the outside, but the heart isn't changed. Jesus wants us to forgive from the heart as He did and still does. One of the hardest things to do is to forgive as Jesus forgave. You remember Jesus, right? He's the One who, while hanging on the cross, looked down through blurry eyes and streams of sweat and blood at his executioners and prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." How can I ever hope to do something like that?

In my daily life, I'm sure I offend many people. Just being a pastor is an affront to some. But then there's the fact that I'm a flawed human being and I do a fine job offending people via my behavior. I make stupid attempts at humor which aren't always appreciated (just as my wife). I assume the worst about people. Too often I'm too quick to fire back a response instead of taking the attitude of Christ Jesus. I don't like doing these things. I am sorry after I do them. I ask for forgiveness when possible. But I know that some will never forgive me. Some won't ever hear my apology. I know there are several people today whom I have hurt, and it hurts me to know that I've disappointed my Savior in the way I've dealt with other people.

But when the shoe is on the other foot, am I willing to truly forgive? Like Jesus did? Seventy times seven times? I try, but I fall short sometimes. But there's another factor to figure into all this -- I cannot do it on my own. Just as Debbie Morris found out, it is Christ in us that enables us to do anything good at all... especially forgive those who have wronged us.

Alexander Pope was right when he said, "To err is human, to forgive divine." We know all about the erring part. But forgiveness! How are we to forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart? By allowing Him to work in our lives. We can forgive only because we have been truly forgiven. And when we refuse to forgive, we demean the very forgiveness we have been granted by our Heavenly Father.

"Lord, forgive me for offending others, and I pray for their forgiveness even if I never know about it. But more than anything, show me how to forgive as you have forgiven me."

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