Thursday, January 30, 2020

On Forgiveness

The church at Corinth loved Paul. All of the churches where he preached loved Paul. So it was easy for them to become angry with someone who caused Paul pain. In the early words of his second letter to the believers at Corinth, Paul tells them in no uncertain terms that that's not the right response. He tells them, rather, to forgive the one who has caused him pain (2 Corinthians 2).

Man, that's tough. It's hard for us when someone hurts someone that we love. We see firsthand the pain that it's caused, and it's easy to be angry. It even feels righteous to be angry. There's something in our human nature that wants to lash out at them, that wants to strike them, that wants to make them feel some part of the pain that they inflicted. We want to be bitter and hateful and spiteful, and we want to call ourselves noble for doing it.

But what we need are more wise words like Paul's.

One of the things I've wrestled with in my life is how to tell the part of my story that involves my dad. It's a point of contention for me with members of my extended family. Some think you should only talk about the good parts of a person. Others think it's fair game to talk about the bad. For me, what I've found is that the best course of action is to talk about the authentic person. For every one of us, that's a mixture of good and bad. It's a combination of fallenness and redemption. It's our brokenness and our blessedness. We are dynamic human beings, each a product of our own story, each with our high points and low points. And I think we ought to be real about that.

A few years ago, I told part of my story that required telling part of my dad's. I chose to do it in this way, with a view to the authentic person that he was. When I finished, silence and tears filled the room. A little while later, a woman walked up to me and said, "I am so mad at you right now." I shook my head and said, "What? Why?"

She said, "Because as you were telling the story about your dad, I wanted to hate him. But the way you told it, you wouldn't let me."

That's the essential key to forgiveness. That's it, right there. We have to tell our stories in a way that they are real and raw and authentic and dynamic and everything we're living, but we have to tell them with enough grace that we don't engender bitterness.

I never talk about my dad trying to get others into some sort of "us vs. them" mentality where they feel like they have to "join" my "team." I'm never trying to start a fight. It's never my goal that they walk away justifying me, for I am a sinner, too, or denigrating him, for he was also a man under grace. It's not about what happened or how it happened or what it meant. It's about two fallen beings in relationship that messy as everything can get.

And that's what Paul is saying to the church in Corinth. It doesn't do them any good to hate this man, and it doesn't do the man any good, and it doesn't do Paul any good. Nobody is better off if the church is spiteful toward him. Nobody. So what he says to the faithful is, forgive him. You forgive him, and we're all better off.

Forgive him, and you don't have to hold onto your bitterness. Forgive him, and he gets to hold a measure of grace. Forgive him, and I (Paul) don't have to play into this story for the rest of my life. Because that's what happens - if you hold grudges and tell stories for the sake of making teams, then you end up with stories that tell you, instead of the other way around. They come to control you, to force you to be someone you don't want to be. And in turn, those who have joined your team become persons they don't want to be. And the sinner is someone he doesn't want to be. What kind of love is that?

It's not. That's why we have to tell our stories with grace. That's why we always have to make room in them for forgiveness. That's why we can't let others gang up and start a war. It's not worth it. Everybody loses. You included.

What would happen if we started to tell our stories not in black and white, but in the shades of grey in which we all actually live? What if we told them with authenticity, with the good and the bad, the broken and the blessed, the fallenness and redemption, all mangled together the way we actually live them? What if every time we talked about something painful in this world, we did it in such a way that we always heard that woman's words - I wanted to hate him, but you wouldn't let me?

What if, like Paul, we called our world to forgiveness?

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