Repentance, Forgiveness, and Restoration (Oh My!)
There will be lots o' Lewis in this post, but let me start with this passage:
We want, in fact, not so much a Father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven . . . whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, "A good time was had by all" . . . I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don't, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction . . . The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word "love."
-- C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
We are currently in danger not only of operating with a trivial love, but also with trivial grace and trivial forgiveness.
Okay, let's be real from the get-go: Forgiveness is the obligation of the forgiven.
Who are the forgiven? Well, if Jesus has forgiven you your sins, you are. It is the Christian's calling and duty to forgive.
Let's also be real about the fact that it can be very, very difficult to forgive, even for believers who know it is required, even for believers who want to do it. This is why, by the way, the Lord's Prayer has the two transactions connected: "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us." The God/me forgiveness is inextricable from the me/others forgiveness because the latter is not possible without the former.
So not only is forgiveness the duty of the forgiven, the forgiven is actually equipped and enabled to forgive.
So now we know forgiveness isn't optional. Not for Christians anyway. Now we want to know, What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is the releasing of the forgiven from obligation. Forgiveness is not forgetting, because for most of us humans, forgetting is impossible anyway. The whole "forgive and forget" thing is very nice if workable, but can be a huge burden on the one struggling to forgive a wrong committed against him, because the confusing conflation of the two acts may make his efforts to forgive more difficult than they need be. Someone who is trying to forgive may wonder why he or she can't forget. "If I've forgiven him, why can't I forget about it?" The burden of memory is unavoidable; but mucking up the work of forgiveness with the demand to forget is avoidable.
Forgiveness is not dependent upon repentance. You don't have to be sorry for what you've done for me to forgive you. This is why "Forgiveness is the duty of the forgiven" is so important, because it makes my forgiving you about glorifying God (because of what He's done for me). Forgiveness necessarily entails a seeking amends with the offender, but it is not contingent upon the offender's interest in seeking forgiveness.
I am assuming the work of forgiveness has already been enacted between Dr. Foster and those he has hurt. Maybe Dr. Foster doesn't know about that -- remember, you can forgive someone without them knowing about it or expressing any interest in it -- but I trust that those who've been hurt are working on ways to embrace forgiveness.
Those of us looking in cannot rush this process. It's none of our business, really. Even though it has affected the church as a body so deeply and strongly, the people who have been hurt are individuals, and the work of personal reconciliation is their work, not ours. It's on God's timeline, not ours. We can't rush somebody else's forgiveness, and we can't demand it.
Let's talk about repentance: Repentance is also the obligation of the forgiven. In order to accept the forgiveness offered us by God, we have to repent of our sin against Him and repent of our sin against others.
Repentance is initially, but not merely, a changing of one's mind. It is not merely a changing of one's mind, because when the mind is truly changed, the body necessarily follows. It is, biblically speaking, a change of heart. It is my will doing a 180.
Does it go without saying that a repentant person admits his offense and he admits his offense is sin? He does not color it, excuse it, dismiss it, or spin it. He comes clean. He acknowledges the offense for what it really is. Going to C.S. Lewis again: "A man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness."
A repentant person recognizes repentance is an all or nothing offer. A repentant person pours himself out, a living sacrifice to those he has wronged. Repentance is not deal-making (I'll do this if you do that). A repentant person cannot demand forgiveness, he cannot make forgiveness a prerequisite for his repentance. Many repentant people go a very long time, sometimes their whole lives, without receiving forgiveness from those they have wronged.
A repentant person works hard at releasing the person he has sinned against from any more burdens or obligations to him. He demonstrates his repentance not just "making up" for what he's done wrong (in some cases, that is impossible), but by being a different person to the person he's wronged. In his words and deeds, a repentant person says, "That is how I used to be to you; this is how I will be to you now."
Because reconciliation pretty much means that the "obligations" of sin are not separating any more, reconciliation requires both a forgiving offended and a repentant forgiven. It can't really work any other way. Offender and offended may continue to work together, they might even live in the same house. But proximity and functional cooperation are not reconciliation. For true reconciliation to occur, the sinner must be truly repentant (see above for what this entails) and the sinned against must be truly forgiving (again, see above).
Before I say this next thing, remember my promises both to "talk hard" and not to mean unnecessary offense:
I have read Dr. Foster's latest posting, and as with his "I accept this" release last week, I am unimpressed. Why? Because absent in both is repentance. There is no acceptance for any of what has transpired, no recognition of having done anything wrong. Those of you wondering why he cannot be restored to his position need to think hard on what reconciliation and restoration entail. That efforts are not ongoing to get him his job back speak not to the lack of forgiveness, but to the lack of repentance.
Do you want to know what the greatest sin in the world is? It is likely not the Holocaust or 9/11 or the slaughtering of the American Indians. The greatest sins in your world right now is the one between you and God you have yet to repent of, the one between you and another you have yet to repent of, and perhaps the one between another and yourself you have yet to be forgiven for. The greatest sins in your life are the ones separating you from God and the ones separating you from others. Let nobody pretend reconciliation is easy. The forgiveness between you and God cost an innocent Man his life.
To quote C.S. Lewis again, "Forgiveness is a beautiful word until we have something to forgive." What steps are you taking, what efforts are you making to culture the spirit of forgiveness in your own life? Remember that forgiveness is the duty of the forgiven. So perhaps start with reminding yourself of the Great Commandment. Remember that forgiveness is an irrevocable calling, and it is an ongoing obligation (Mt. 18:22). Remember that you should forgive to the extent to which you've been forgiven. (Hint: That would mean a lot. ;-)
And remember that forgiveness is ongoing. The Lord's mercies are new every morning. Prepare yourself for the realization that forgiving someone doesn't make them suddenly sinless.
Lewis one last time:
To forgive the incessant provocations of daily life . . . How can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us." We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God's mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what he says.
-- from "On Forgiveness" in The Weight of Glory
The work is hard. Forgiving you meant Someone's death. Perhaps forgiving someone means dying to self.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
-- Luke 6:37c-38
I say "Yea, God!"
And . . .
(In exploring these ideas, I cannot help but recommend Robert Jeffress' invaluable book, When Forgiveness Doesn't Make Sense. I even stole the idea for the first Lewis quote from him. If you're so inclined, do read it. It is excellent.)