God has been speaking into my life a lot lately about forgiveness.
I’ve been fascinated by what I’m learning, yet reluctant to tackle it here because there is so much I now realize I don’t know. So instead I simply invite you to journey along with me.
It all started when I attended a local roundtable where I heard a man speak candidly of his loss and immense suffering as a victim of childhood sexual abuse by a priest, a man his own mother trusted to shepherd her son to a life of service to the Lord. Instead the priest repeatedly and violently violated his promise by raping this little 10-year-old boy for more than two years.
In his testimony the survivor, now in his 60s, makes a point to say that he believes there are some “unforgivable” sins, including acts like this one, committed against innocent and powerless children. I want to agree.
For days after hearing him speak I wrestled with the question of where God was when this little boy cried out for rescue and deliverance. Why did He allow such incredible suffering to continue for so long? Is it really possible for a heart and soul as wounded as this one to find forgiveness?
Forgiving the Unforgivable
As I wrestled with these questions answers began to roll in over the airwaves of my favorite podcasts. The first was the story of Virginia Prodan, now an author and attorney, who grew up an abused and neglected child in the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu.
In her book, Saving My Assassin, she details how her search for truth in the world of Communist lies led her on a harrowing, yet miraculous journey to become a lawyer who defended Christians against persecution. Her faithfulness to this task resulted in her being terrorized, tortured and placed under house arrest without enough food to feed her family. Yet Ms. Prodan never stopped praying for forgiveness of her enemies, a practice that culminated in her witnessing to a man sent to assassinate her. Twenty years later she discovered that the assassin had become a Christian pastor who led his family to the Lord.
A few days later I was introduced to the story of Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch follower of Jesus who hid her Jewish countrymen from the Nazis. A neighbor turned her in, and her family was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp where her father died within two weeks and her sister also later died. Corrie too suffered greatly during her imprisonment. When she was released, however, she forgave her betrayer as well as her torturers, and continued throughout her life to be a powerful witness for Christ.
Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.– Corrie Ten Boom
And then at church I heard the testimony of a woman whose only daughter was killed by a distracted driver, who to date has not expressed remorse, nor suffered consequences for his actions. Despite his flagrant disregard the girl’s mother not only forgave him, but prays deeply and sincerely for his redemption.
Together these stories capture the situations that come to my mind when I think of “unforgivable acts.” It doesn’t take much imagination to sympathize with how these women must have felt or to sense how remote forgiveness would seem in their shoes.
Are they simply better people than the rest of us or is something more at work here?
7 x 70 = ?
Most of us are at least familiar with Peter’s question, recorded in Matthew 18, about the limits of forgiveness:
Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
Jesus then speaks to the “heart problem” by telling a parable that compares the Kingdom of God to a king whose servant owes a great debt that he cannot pay. The king orders the man sold into slavery. When the man begs for mercy the king doesn’t just spare his life or work out extended payment terms, he wipes out the debt entirely, an extravagant gift that the servant neither asked for nor deserved.
Yet, given the opportunity to pay it forward this same servant shows no mercy to a fellow servant who owes him a small debt in comparison. When the rest of the servants get wind of his wickedness they are outraged and alert the King.
Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”
In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart. (Matthew 18:32-35)
On the surface the lesson is simply that we are to forgive as God forgave us. But then I heard an interview with Dr. Bruce Wilkerson, and purchased his book, The Freedom Factor: Finding Peace by Forgiving Others…and Yourself.
Dr. Wilkerson says that’s only half the story; the other half is that if we do not forgive we open ourselves up to spiritual attack and “torture.” (And guess whom he quotes on the very first page of his book):
Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.
-Corrie Ten Boom
My inclination is to believe that God calls us to forgiveness because He knows torture is the inevitable byproduct of an unforgiving heart; He knows it is an open door to Satan. But I am afraid in this case I may be sugar-coating a warning that is much more direct and dire:
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Matthew 6: 14-15
Dr. Wilkerson explains it like this:
“Wait, what? Was Jesus saying, ‘If you don’t forgive the accountant that embezzled money from your business, or forgive your spouse for having an affair, you’re going to forfeit your eternal forgiveness and be condemned to hell’?
No. That’s not what He was saying. Eternal salvation from our sins comes from Christ’s death on our behalf. It is not related to any work that we do — including forgiving others….The consequence of unforgiveness is torment before we die….According to Jesus, when we fail to forgive, God has stopped forgiving us.
He adds, “When God decrees a discipline contract against you or me because of our unforgiveness, it’s serious. He removes His peace from us as part of the discipline process intended to turn us back to Him so that we humble ourselves and choose to forgive and end the contract against us. We are made susceptible to many unwanted things in our life because that protection is no longer in place.
And not only do we have the difficult task of coping with such painful torments, but we also forfeit so many blessings that could be ours. There could be a whole life of His joy, love, and peace, just waiting for our open hearts, but finding no way in.“
A Work in Progress
This is a post without out a neat, clever or happy ending. This is challenging stuff.
I heard at the roundtable, and later read in his book, about immense suffering in the life of the sexual abuse survivor. And I heard about peace, joy and abundant blessings in the lives of the forgiving women.
Yet, I’ve never suffered anything close to what these amazing survivors did. I’ve not confronted such unveiled evil or lost someone I love by the hatred or negligence of another. In fact, I find myself struggling to forgive from my heart for much smaller grievances.
But, I also know that when I am on the other end of the equation — the sinner in need of forgiveness — the burden of the things I’ve done brings me to my knees. It is in such moments that I am most aware of and grateful for God’s gift of grace.
Without forgiveness and redemption all of us, sooner or later, would be undone by our own dark hearts.
The type of extravagant forgiveness demonstrated in these examples, and so many others, is beyond human will; it is an act of the Spirit. It requires inviting God in to do the work in our hearts needed to forgive another and experience for ourselves the freedom it offers.
So why is this gift that is so infinitely valuable to receive so infinitely difficult to give?
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:12