Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Discipline of Forgiving

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Ephesians 5:31-32

When we were dating, my husband had the habit of sending me, along with his letters, four or five pink demerit slips he had earned while attending Bible college. At one point I asked him just how many he possessed, since he appeared to be drawing from a never-ending supply. He showed me the stack in the top drawer of his desk. It was impressive.

Now don’t get the wrong idea—they were all for relatively small misdemeanors, like leaving the lights on or the bed unmade. Over time, however, they accumulated into enough of a statement that he was called into the dean’s office and asked to give an account for his actions. Apparently small infractions, over a long period of time, can add up.

This principle is true in relationships as well. It is why Paul, in describing a godly kind of love, reminded the Corinthians: “Love is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” In this simple description, Paul gives us powerful preventive medicine for all of our relationships: we must maintain an ongoing discipline of forgiveness.

The Old Man of the Mountain, a massive granite formation which once overlooked Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, stood for thousands of years, most likely created by glaciers that once moved over northern New Hampshire. It was the state symbol, and beloved enough to earn a place on the New Hampshire state quarter. Thousands of tourists stopped each year on their way up I-93 to take photographs of this famous landmark. Then one night in May 2003, during a heavy wind and rain storm, the Old Man formation collapsed into the valley below. What could fell such a huge monument, after it had stood for thousands of years? Tiny individual molecules of water.

When water freezes, it expands. The collapse of the Old Man was a result of small amounts of water seeping into the cracks year after year, freezing and expanding, making the fissures just a bit wider each time. Finally, the cracks became wide enough to weaken the entire structure, and the monument crumbled.

Elisabeth Elliot wrote of this principle within the context of marriage: “Marriages break up when ‘small’ things accumulate and resentments build. Love is the intention of unity. Resentment is the destroyer of unity.” Making frequent decisions to forgive is crucial to the health of a relationship.

Easier said than done, you are probably thinking. What if the offending party is not sorry and shows no sign of repentance from the behavior that hurt you in the first place?

You are not alone—Peter struggled with this idea as well. “How many times must I forgive?” he asked the Lord. He then generously offered, “Up to seven times?” Rabbinic standards required forgiving up to three offenses. Peter was willing to more than double the standard. Surely seven times, the number denoting completeness, would be enough.

Jesus took care of Peter’s faulty expectation with his answer. “Seventy times seven,” he replied.

How can we choose to forgive on a daily basis? By keeping our eyes trained on Christ. By choosing to forgive, we are expressing what he has freely done for us. We were forgiven when we did not deserve mercy. That’s the meaning of grace: undeserved favor.

To indulge in harboring grievances is most often an exercise in self-absorption. We struggle to forgive a wrong because we feel we deserved better than what was done to us. Christ deserved better. He deserved honor and glory because he was God. Yet he chose to lay aside his equality with God and humbled himself to obedience, to the point of death on a cross. Amy Carmichael observed: “If I am soft to myself and slide comfortably into the vice of self-pity and self-sympathy; if I do not by the grace of God practice fortitude, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”

Choosing to forgive is really a reflection of our understanding of how much we have been forgiven ourselves. It is a discipline which often must be performed outside of our emotional state. We are choosing to love because we know we are loved. And as we imitate our Savior in forgiveness, we understand a bit more of what it took for him to bear our sin.

1 comment:

Loris said...

I love the way you have expressed this truth beginning with the apt title.