Friday, October 27, 2006

Choosing to Cancel a Debt

This week I finished writing the feature article for our December edition of our monthly newsletter on the theme of forgiveness and the Persecuted Church. This is a subject that I am hoping to do more writing on in the future (perhaps even another book), but I thought that I might share with you some of my thoughts. If you would like to read the whole article, you will need to subscribe to our newsletter. I would welcome any comments or questions that you might have.

It is important to remember that the Bible teaches that forgiveness is a choice, not an emotion or feeling. One forgives because one chooses to do so, not because one feels like it. A study of the Hebrew and Greek words found in the Bible for forgiveness emphasize this; forgiveness is the conscious act of letting go or canceling a debt.

As to why we are to forgive those who have harmed us and owe us a debt, the Bible is clear. We forgive because God, in Christ, has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:31-32). When Jesus died on the cross, the penalty for our sin was paid in full. He took our sins upon Himself and cancelled our debt with God. When we turn to Christ, His blood washes away our sin and we stand forgiven before God; debt free (Colossians 2:13-14). Our vertical relationship with God is that of reconciliation. God, in Christ, has forgiven us.

But this renewed vertical relationship has horizontal implications. God's forgiveness of us serves as an incentive for our forgiveness of others. Indeed, our forgiveness of others is evidence that we have truly received forgiveness from God. The forgiven are called to be forgiving. Where new life has been received, forgiveness is the natural, daily sign of the forgiven sinner's gratitude to God.

It should not surprise us then to read in Acts that the very last words of Stephen, the first martyr in the New Testament, are the words, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60). These words echo Jesus' on the cross and as one reads the account of Stephen's martyrdom, it is obvious that he is very deliberately seeking to follow the example of Jesus. Like his Lord, he chooses to forgive his persecutors with his last breath.

Does such forgiveness imply that the wrong done really didn't matter, that it was excusable, or easily forgotten? By no means! Forgiveness sees the wrong done exactly for what it is, in all of its ugliness and sinfulness, and chooses to deal with it in a Christ-like fashion. As you respond to God's grace in your own life, you release the wrongdoer from the wrong and trust God to work reconciliation and healing in his/her life.

Is any of this easy? Of course it is not, as anyone who has ever been harmed by another knows. The injury done to you may not have been as serious as that experienced by Stephen or Hanatu and her family. But it was real and you may still sting at the very thought of it. Perhaps you have a filing cabinet tucked away in your mind with a drawer labeled "Bad Things People Have Done to Me." You open the drawer and there you have stored some files. Some of them may be quite thick. You may have a file labeled, "Things Dad Did" or "Ways That Mom Hurt Me." Perhaps there is a file is labeled with the name of a friend or a co-worker whom you once trusted but who betrayed you in some way. And every time you glance through these files in your mind, you rerun the offenses and the pain reheats in your heart, and you hurt all over again.

Three years ago, a VOMC team traveled to Pakistan. Amoung those whom they met was a young Christian woman who had been mistreated by a Muslim employer and whose own mother had been killed while trying to defend her. When one of our workers asked Zeba what she thought of Muslims, she exclaimed, "I hate them!"

During the night of April 24, 1915, Turkish authorities in Constantinople arrested over 200 leaders of the Armenian community. In the days to follow, hundreds more were apprehended and sent to prison in the interior of the country, where most were summarily executed. Over the next three years, as the world was preoccupied with the First World War, the Armenian people (who were predominantly Christians) were subjected to deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre, and starvation by the Turkish government. After a year's reprieve following the war, the atrocities were renewed between 1920 and 1923, and the remaining Armenians were subjected to further massacres and expulsions. Of the estimated 2 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire, it is believed that one and a half million perished from 1915-1923, as the Turkish government attempted to put an end to their collective existence. In a century marked by genocide, the Armenian Genocide was the 20th century's first.

A couple of years ago, we received an email from the great-grandson of Samuel Manougian, who was an evangelical pastor in the village of Kharpert and was one of the first to "disappear" in 1915. He confessed that even after all of these years, "It is hard for me and for Armenians worldwide to forgive the Turks (as Christ forgave us our sins) since they deny that there is anything to be forgiven."

Forgiveness is rarely easy for anyone, regardless of where one lives or the nature of the offense committed against them. It is even more difficult when the wrongdoers refuse to acknowledge their offence. It is hard to love your enemy when you see him/her living a normal life, seemingly unaffected by what he/she has done to you, while you remain wounded physically, emotionally or mentally. Persecuted Christians often struggle to forgive their persecutors, just as we may not find it easy to forgive those who trespass against us. A forgiving spirit needs to be nurtured and developed in response to God's forgiveness and grace in one's own life. Perhaps this is why forgiveness is a central part of the prayer that the Lord taught His disciples (Matthew 6: 9-13).

Forgiveness frees you from the tyranny of remembering that others owe you a debt that they can never really pay off and which Jesus has paid for already anyway. Forgiveness liberates you to view your enemy as Jesus does. It transforms you from being a judge seeking revenge to being an advocate seeking justice and reconciliation. It alters you from being someone to whom a debt is owed to one who is indebted to extend the grace of God to even the most undeserving. One is never more like their Heavenly Father than when one forgives.

You may not be able to forget the offense, just as Zeba will never be able to forget the Muslims who killed her mother. But forgiving opens the door to God's grace of healing. Forgiving people reach out to their enemies in grace, seeking to bring reconciliation on both a horizontal, personal level and on a vertical, divine level.

1 comment:

Comfort said...

Bro Glenn,
I have discovered that one of the ways that a forgiving spirit can be imparted unto us is as we confess our inability to forgive and plead that He helps our heart. It seems as if we do not even want to be made willing. The pain runs so deep that we are reluctant to release the evil doer from the prison of our hearts. But once we realized that we are doing our spirit more harm and we may even find ourselves been alienated from the life of Jesus (for our heavenly Father will not forgive us if we do not forgive those who offend us), maybe then we can release ourselves and be willing to be made willing. Then, the Lord Himself will work in us both to will and actually to do of His own good pleasure in this matter of forgiveness. Flesh cannot fulfill the demands of Jesus, it is Jesus Himself who must help us. But we must be willing to receive His help in every way. We must be willing to be made willing.