Back in the day, when I was eager and thought it mattered, I used to subscribe to a number of theological journals. Among them was Interpretation a theological publication of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. I enjoyed reading through the thoughtful essays and the ‘between text and sermon’ section near the back of each month’s journal. Each month covered a different topic ranging from exploring a different book of the Bible to serious theological propositions.

Last week I was perusing through some of my back issues and one in particular caught my eye. It was the April 2000 issue titled “Forgiveness and Reconciliation.” This was perfect given that my wife and I are currently praying and exploring how we can be forgiving people in some areas of our lives we believe need healing and reconciliation. Forgiveness used to come easily, but for some reason during the last year or so of my life, I have found it easier and easier to bear grudges and withhold forgiveness–especially towards brothers and sisters in Christ. I confess my weakness and failure in this regard.

This movement has been a terrible burden. It has made it difficult to worship. It has made it difficult to pray. It has made it difficult to think. It has made it difficult to study the Scripture. It has made being a man, husband, and father difficult. It has made relationships in general very, very difficult because in that place, that place of unrest and unforgiveness and bitterness, I found myself building protective walls–cutting off others so as to avoid all possibility of being hurt. I’m not offering excuses. I am saying that at the root of all that I have struggled with for the past year is, most likely, a terrible spirit of grudgery and unforgiveness.

If you have carried any such burden in your life, ever, at all, then you know full well the weight of the burden. Then that preacher at the church yesterday took out this gorgeous Katana, reached back, and drove it straight into my heart, without showing the slightest remorse: “When people love Jesus, they will love each other.” Why do preachers do that?

I have been living in that place; it is a cold, cold place. And I did all I could to douse the warm fires of the Spirit of Jesus with my own bitterness. Now the reservoir is empty. There’s no water left to quench the Spirit. Once again, I am undone, out of options. Jesus has cornered me and given me no other option. And it is that preacher’s fault. I think he is wise to allow us to use up all our water. It helps us realize that we have no other option but to forgive. It is also his way of loving us back into his arms. It is his way of saying, I’m not letting you go that easily. It’s his way of forcing us to name our sin and deal with it through prayer.

In the first essay in the journal from that month, Crafting Communities of Forgiveness, L. Gregory Jones who, at the time at least, was dean of Duke University Divinity School, wrote:

Could it be that in the capacity to discover what it means to be forgiven and to forgive depends on the richness of one’s communal habits, practices, and disciplines? Could it be that forgiveness is less a matter of the will and more a miracle that we discover by being found, and struggling to participate, in the practices of grace-filled Christian communities? (131)

In other words, the very thing that I needed in order to cultivate forgiveness and grace as a habit of my life, the very place where it was going to happen, was the very community I had cut off (or cut myself off from) in the first place. Forgiveness was ‘easy’ when I was firmly ensconced in the life of the church and rubbing shoulders with other people who were also practicing, but when I moved out of that place and began living among the Philistines–a people among whom grace and forgiveness is neither practiced nor prized–those things became more and more difficult and far more complex in practice. What I learned is that I am utterly incapable of being as forgiving as I had once imagined myself to be. That’s humiliating and humbling.

So, I have learned that I need the church (that is, the people of Jesus) far more than the people of Jesus need me. Jones concludes:

The questions raised earlier may now be stated in declarative form: the capacity to discover what it means to be forgiven and to forgive depends, in part, on the richness of one’s communal habits, practices, and disciplines. If we want to be faithful in our witness to God, then we ought to focus more attention on cultivating and crafting communities whose practices are marked by the crucified and risen Christ and bear witness to the eschatological work of the Holy Spirit. For, in so doing, we will discover with even greater power the active receptivity that makes it possible for us to learn the painful yet redemptive process of embodying forgiveness in faithful communion with God, with one another, and with all creation. (134)

Forgiveness is hard work best done within the community of God’s people–even when the forgiveness involves ‘all creation’ (that is, those who are not a part of the community). I believe we should be able to practice forgiveness in the church, but I wonder why it is so hard to do so? Why do I find it so painful to go to the people, the community of the crucified, and speak of forgiveness and grace and love?

Forgiveness is different and difficult for the people of God because it requires humility. We may end up having to ask for forgiveness before we ever dare assume the right of being forgiving.

Let me end with a question or two.

First, why do you think it is easier for us as Christians to forgive those who are not Christians than it is for us to forgive other Christians?

Second, how do we promote such a practice in our communities? Jones, in his essay (which explores this idea by explicating the letter of James) suggests that through the practices of singing, truthful speech, praying, anointing, confessing, and engaging in mutual admonition within the community, we learn to promote this practice. “…part of the gift of Christian life is that we do not learn to do any of them alone.” His idea is that in the practice of such things we learn to be a community of grace and forgiveness. What do you think?

Third, does such a community exist? Can the church be such a place?

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This entry was posted on Monday, August 16th, 2010 at 8:00 pm and is filed under Christian Living, grace. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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23 Comments(+Add)

1   Mike    
August 17th, 2010 at 9:43 am

I’ll take a stab at your questions Jerry. It is a shame that some of the most unforgiving attitudes that I have experienced have been in church. I’ve seen far too many pastors and elders run out of churches because of unforgiving attitudes.

1. I think Christians have trouble forgiving other Christians for several reasons. The biggest one, in my opinion, is that we expect them to be better since they are “Christian”. We expect them to be kinder, more loving, wiser, etc. When they fail to meet our expectations we get angry and hurt. A friend of mine used to say that “Anger is what happens when our expectations aren’t met.”
Ironically, we should be more forgiving, I think, of those who are with us in the body of Christ. And they don’t even have to acknowledge that they need our forgiveness, we just need to forgive. In the end, forgiveness probably will help us more than it will them anyway.

Also, just because you forgive someone, doesn’t mean you have to hang around with them like nothing happened. I know several people that I have forgiven that I have little to nothing to do with. However, my motivation is what’s important. If I avoid them because of anger, I need to pray and give that to God (sometimes I even do, lol). If I avoid them because I don’t want to give them a chance to hurt me again or even just because I don’t want to be around them because I don’t like their behavior, I think that is okay.

I have had several people who I don’t want to be around, come to me needing my help. My response always needs to be in love (help them) even if I would like to gloat and turn them down.

My same friend used to say, “Forgiveness is giving up your right to justice when someone has wronged you.” But since Christ did it for me, how can I do any less…

2. I think forgiveness in the Christian community is hard. Perhaps constantly acknowledging in ourselves that we don’t deserve forgiveness, but Christ gave it anyway. Perhaps by making sure that Christ is the head of the church and the focus, instead of people. More specific than that…no clue.

3. Does such a community exist? Maybe it will someday, in heaven, but now, I would say probably not. And as long as churches are filled with people, they will have problems with forgiveness. Still we keep striving in our own hearts to model ourselves after Christ. That’s really all we can do.

-Blessings

2   Joe    http://christianresearchnetwork.com/index.php?s=john+chisham
August 17th, 2010 at 10:24 am

I was discussing this with a friend and he asked me a pretty serious question. He said, “When does Christ actually forgive us? Is it not when we ask? And if we don’t ask for it, don’t we end up in Hell?”
I’m curious about the thoughts of others here.

3   Jerry    http://www.jerryhillyer.com
August 17th, 2010 at 10:24 am

Mike,

Thoughtful, honest answers. I appreciate it. You are right, too, about the way things are this side of the other side. Does this mean in ‘heaven’ all will be forgotten and there will be nothing to forgive or just that it will be easier to forgive?

I’d like to think that such a community can exist here on earth, now. I’d like to see it, belong to it, and practice with it. If it doesn’t exist, maybe we can pray it into existence. Maybe we can humble ourselves to such an extent that God would bring it into our midst.

On the other hand, maybe we deserve each other. :-)

Thanks for stopping by.

jerry

4   Jerry    http://www.jerryhillyer.com
August 17th, 2010 at 10:29 am

Joe,

I think the power, the motivation, the desire, and the ‘ability’ to forgive all exist now because of the cross of Christ. I think in some sense, yes, we have to ask. It has something to do with repentance.

On the other hand, though, ‘when’ is a difficult question to answer. Are we forgiven before we ask? I don’t know. Are we only forgiven if we ask? I don’t know? Are we going to hell if we don’t ask? I don’t know.

I do know this: I believe if we are cognizant of our sin and offense towards God then yes we have to ask. Asking is acknowledgment of our offense.

jerry

5   Rick Frueh    http://judahslion.blogspot.com/
August 17th, 2010 at 1:38 pm

When we are saved, we are not just forgiven, but we are declared righteous and justified. And that which is of God cannot sin, so our new man never needs forgiveness. It is that new man which will spend eternity with God.

6   John Hughes    
August 17th, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Joe,

I think the Scriptures teach that all the world’s sins — past, present, and future — were placed on Christ and forgiven once for all at Calvary.

Hebrews 10:14 – For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

Though I believe Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for all this forgiveness is appropriated by faith. This translates to:

All are forgiven, but all are not saved.
All are reconciled, but all are not saved.

That is why I always define “salvation” as the re-birth and regeneration by the Spirit. The wage of sin is death, but the gift of Christ is life. So to me salvation is not a sin issue but a life issue.

1 John 5:11-12 – And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son – He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.

So the Christian’s sins in regards to salvation have been forgiven whether they ask for forgiveness for individual sins or not in regards to their eternal destiny. Here, I think our position in Christ is paramount as we stand in His merits (i.e., perfect righteousness of God). Otherwise we are left with the works righteousness scenario of Faith + confession of sin

Further, in 1 John, I think the forgiveness John is talking about is relational, not positional, and that affecting only our fellowship (as opposed to our sonship) with God. We must confess and repent of our sin in order to be in fellowship with God, but this is not about salvation per se, which again is Christ in us.

7   Joe    http://christianresearchnetwork.com/index.php?s=john+chisham
August 17th, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Rick, could you unpack #5 a little bit more? Christians sin all the time.

8   Joe    http://christianresearchnetwork.com/index.php?s=john+chisham
August 17th, 2010 at 3:13 pm

John H. Is it fair then to say that you believe the people in Hell have had their sins forgiven?

9   Mike    
August 17th, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Let me dig into questions 2 and 3 a little more deeply.

The community of grace and forgiveness may exist in any church temporarily. However, no community of believers will be perfect (just like no believer is perfect) and there will be cases where people are wronged and refuse to forgive. People who forgive little need to be reminded that they have been forgiven much bt Christ.

If we keep our community focus on Christ, I think our forgiveness just naturally flows from that focus. It’s when we focus on ourselves or tradition or the building that forgiveness breaks down. Keeping our focus on Christ is the constant battle.

I think that the only place where forgiveness will exist completely and always, is in heaven or the new heaven and earth. How this will be brought about… that I am not so sure.

10   Mike    
August 17th, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Oh and nicely said John :)

11   Rick Frueh    http://judahslion.blogspot.com/
August 17th, 2010 at 3:26 pm

“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”

That verse either means the new man does not sin, or it means a believer does not sin at all. Since we know believers do sin, then we must conclude the new man, Christ, abiding inside the believer does not sin. He does not need forgiveness, only the old man who sins consistantly and predictably.

12   John Hughes    
August 17th, 2010 at 3:57 pm

#8. Yes. Their debt has been paid. They just did not appropriate it.

Again I equate “salvation” to the in-dwelling Christ and not the forgiveness of sin. Forgiveness + reconciliation makes salvation possible but is not salvation per se. We are “saved” from the penalty of our sin through the life of Jesus Christ jointed to ours creating a New Man, appropriated via faith in Christ.

13   John Hughes    
August 17th, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Therefore, one is readily able to juxtapose universal reconciliation and forgiveness against non-universal salvation if this is where this is going. :-)

14   Rick Frueh    http://judahslion.blogspot.com/
August 17th, 2010 at 4:56 pm

There is nothing so freeing, so liberating, and so spiritually exhilarating as extending unconditional forgiveness. It actually cleanses the soul and opens doors to God’s throne room.

15   Jerry    http://www.jerryhillyer.com
August 17th, 2010 at 7:07 pm

#14, I’m sure it does. But some of us are not so special that it comes to us like the rising son.

And I have to be honest with you that while that is a grand thought, practically speaking, and given who we are, it is not always so black and white.

Sorry.

16   Rick Frueh    http://judahslion.blogspot.com/
August 17th, 2010 at 9:31 pm

I meant no harm so your “special” quip is unfounded. Forgiving a woman who walked out after 30 years of marriage and received tens of thousands of dollars from me did not come “like the rising son”.

Sorry.

17   Joe    http://christianresearchnetwork.com/index.php?s=john+chisham
August 17th, 2010 at 11:10 pm

#13. Nope it’s not going there at all. I actually agree that there are forgiven people in Hell. It just cracks me up that a guy I’ve read about is called a heretic for saying the same thing.

18   Joe    http://christianresearchnetwork.com/index.php?s=john+chisham
August 17th, 2010 at 11:10 pm

#16. Do you mean tens of thousands of dollars at the divorce or over the course of your marriage?

19   pastorboy    http://www.riveroflifealliance.com
August 18th, 2010 at 8:56 am

There are not forgiven people in Hell. If they were forgiven, why are they being punished?

20   pastorboy    http://www.riveroflifealliance.com
August 18th, 2010 at 8:58 am

Hebrews 10:14 – For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

Those who are sanctified. Set apart. Made holy. THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN SAVED AND ARE BEING SAVED and WILL be Saved.

Not the whole world.
Not those in Hell.

21   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
August 18th, 2010 at 9:04 am

*sigh*

At least one John (Hughes) gets it. Forgiveness is not equal to salvation. One can grant forgiveness to an offending party, regardless of whether or not that party chooses to accept that forgiveness and be reconciled…

22   Nathanael    http://www.borrowedbreath.com/
August 18th, 2010 at 10:05 am

Hmmm…
If I break the law, and then a judge acquicts me because I have a good lawyer, I am found not guilty in the eyes of the court. But if I still choose to live as a fugitive, guess what, the bounty hunters are not looking for me. I either walk in the truth of that acquittal or I live in hiding. The verdict of the court has not changed.

23   Jerry    http://www.jerryhillyer.com
August 18th, 2010 at 11:47 am

Sorry, Rick. You just made it sound as if there is no work, no struggle. You made it sound like it is the easiest thing in the world to do. And I disagreed. I’ll try not to be so glib next time.