Things That Sustain: Christian Practices that must not be forgotten (or must be restored) if we hope to “Be Church.”
If any of you are like me, then you grew up thinking that it was generally the right thing to do to forgive someone when they did something bad to you. It was the response I was taught instead of retaliation, instead of ‘getting even.’ But as I grew older, I found myself thinking how it didn’t always seem holy or Godly to say to someone who’d done something wrong to me, “that’s alright, don’t worry about it.” Not only did it seem ineffective, it seemed increasingly unlike the picture of Jesus being formed in my head by experience, teaching from the Church, the Scriptures, and what I’ve come to know slowly as the encouragement and teaching of the Holy Spirit.
I want to assert today that what I was taught as a child was basically right, to forgive anyone limitlessly, but that it was also hampered by some cultural ‘softenings.’
Those softenings are what I want to talk about first; then I want to talk about the more ‘real’ versions of those softenings as I understand them. Finally I want to suggest a number of ways to reform our ‘soft’ forgiveness into ‘real’ forgiveness. (subsequent posts will cover the ‘real’ and the reforms)
Let’s begin with the example I started with above, saying that ‘it’s okay.’ The soft forgiveness found here is one of lying. If you hit me in the face and I say, with all intentions of being Christ-like, that it is ‘okay,’ I am lying. It is not true that it is simply okay, neither by personal or objective measures. That is, it is lying to say that it was alright for you to practice your right hook on my visage and it is also lying when I say of my feelings that they are unbruised (not to mention my jaw!).
So it is lying on two counts so far. But there is a third and more serious lie that relates to the Christian responsibility for our brother or sister. When I tell you that it’s perfectly alright for you to rearrange my facial features, I am handing you over to the devil. That is, by acting as if you had not sinned, I have cemented you by ignorance in that sin. My responsibility as a flailing but hopeful Jesus-follower is to do as Jesus taught me: love my brother and sister; and love must at least mean not leaving my brother or sister for dead! But this is exactly what I am doing if I lie and say that all is well, that neither our relationship nor your relationship to Christ is in peril.
What I am concerned with here is not the words themselves or the lack of confrontation but the thought and motive behind them. There are many times when silence and patience is our best way of communicating to our brother or sister that they have sinned against us. There are even times when the words, ‘it’s okay,’ are sincere and appropriate. But they are never appropriate (that is to say, never Christ-like) when they are said from the heart posture of avoidance, fear, and insecurity. Though we will definitely be feeling all those things, our response of forgiveness needs to come from love, and not just any love, but from the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as received and issued forth in the Christian community called Church. Saying that the sin of my brother or sister is ‘okay’ may look like mercy, but it is hatred. In fact, we may hear the words of Jesus here in regards to the third lie mentioned above: “Whoever causes these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for a millstone to be wrapped around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.”