FORGIVE AND FORGET?
By Chad West
Like God, shame is omnipresent, especially in our culture. Thanks to social media, our voice is everywhere, and even the slightest unintentional misstep is torn into by the ravenous wolves; the gatekeepers of the politically correct. But the ubiquity of baseless shame does not exclude a place for earned guilt. It doesn’t mean there aren’t times we should all crouch in fear at the knowledge that we deserve the sharp yellow tooth of the wolves in the cradle of our necks.
God is said to short-circuit that process. Not by covering our throats, or even lopping off the heads of the wolves. But by kneeling, and exposing the soft flesh of his neck. It’s a beautiful, upside-down action. Understanding that his life becomes ours, and our death becomes his, in every sense, is the defining aspect of the Christian faith. The misunderstood, neglected simplicity of the gospel.
If we misunderstand that, it’s no wonder we seem so confused about what to do when faced with failure. Either ours or others. We react in extremes. Some would toss the ugly sinner out on his tookus, and others: cover their eyes, poke their fingers in their ears, and yell, “grace, grace, grace, grace,” over and over. Ignoring the natural consequences of sin.
The ultimate consequences of sin, death and hell, have been taken by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The physical consequences of our adultery, theft, lies, and greed leave bruises and scars on others. Yes, when asked how many times we should forgive a brother, Jesus pretty much said infinity. By the power of the Spirit, we Christians engage ourselves in the process (sometimes a long one) of forgiving the person who betrayed us in some way. That’s the odd way of Jesus. But the natural consequences—the cause and effect—of our sin, may still linger. I’ll give you an example.
Your lifelong friend is having financial troubles. In a moment of desperation, she waits for you to leave the room and steals a hundred from your purse. You happen to walk in and catch her. You may immediately forgive her, even embrace her in empathy, and possibly even give her the hundred she was too ashamed to ask for. But you’ll probably also start taking your purse to the bathroom with you when out to lunch with her. Consequences.
Here’s a harder one:
Your pastor is over for tea and cookies and while you’re thinking about asking him to pray with you about your grandmother’s bursitis, he makes a pass at you. You turn him away. He immediately apologizes, turns the color of a ripe strawberry, and leaves. You forgive the guy, but do you let him in your home again? Do you warn your single friend Anna who has a counseling session with him Thursday? Do you trust your 15-year old daughter with him on a youth trip? Or does forgiveness mean inaction?
Forgiveness & Trust:
The argument goes that we are a people of grace. We are all sinners who have been forgiven so much, so how can we judge someone whose sin happened to be made public? It’s an argument that bypasses the medulla oblongata and strikes directly at our hearts. We feel that argument. We know we’re sinners, and that we’re called to forgive, and to love. And, in that respect, the argument makes sense. But to say that we should then allow the guy who was church treasurer and stole 100,000 bucks from the church back into his position because he’s repented doesn’t seem all that wise.
Even our enemies are to receive love from us. But the person who has sinned against us in some way doesn’t have to receive our instant trust. That has to be earned back. To be clear: it’s not something we hold over another’s head, or remind them of constantly. The friend, the pastor and the treasurer should be receiving unconditional love from us, not condemnation. But it does help us decide what decisions we make about what boundaries to let them through in our lives.
It can be a frustrating conundrum for a follower of Jesus trying to do the right thing.
Maya Angelou wrote the oft tweeted phrase, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” There’s a truth there that’s important to internalize. But we don’t write someone off for their sins. Everyone is loved by God, and is redeemable by God. Our job, as the Bible commands it is to “forgive one another” as we were forgiven by God (Eph. 4:32). That’s a complete forgiveness. But, in our forgiveness, not our bitterness, we can be smart based on what we’ve learned about the weaknesses of the sinner. We can be careful not to put them in situations in our lives where they might be tempted again. We also have a responsibility to warn others about an unrepentant sinner’s actions, even though we have forgiven, and love, him or her.
While we forgive, we allow others to set the boundaries of our relationship with them. We “believe them” when they tell us they struggle with lying, lust, or untrustworthiness, and we love them in that wisdom. In some serious cases, like physical, sexual or psychological abuse, those boundaries may not even allow us to love them in person.
We can love our friend, but not trust them with our wallets. We can forgive our pastor, and love him in the truth that his public ministry might be hindered by his ongoing private struggle with sin. There is wisdom in caution, in always being willing to move (or remove) those boundaries when it becomes apparent that God has changed the person’s heart. Trust and forgiveness, while related, are different things.