Abstract thoughts on Christian forgiveness

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July 15, 2013 by jmar198013

The following is adapted from an e-mail exchange of earlier today, concerning forgiveness.

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I once read an article (wish I had saved the link) from a campus minister who said that he often had students come to him saying that they didn’t feel “close enough” to God, or couldn’t “feel God” working in their lives no matter how often or fervently they prayed, how much scripture they studied, even if they went to very on-campus devotional, prayer group, or worship service available to them. They seemed to be looking for a magic trick that would make them feel closer to God. The campus minister would tell them something along these lines, “Is there anyone in your life you’ve wronged? Is there someone you have a beef with? Is there someone you need to apologize to?” And everyone of them would answer in the affirmative, because let’s face it–we’re all in conflict with someone. And he would tell them, “Well, then I’d suggest you go and try to patch things up with that person.” His point wasn’t necessarily that, “God is ignoring you because you have an unresolved beef with your former dorm-mate.” Rather, he was trying to teach them that when we practice forgiveness and reconciliation with others, it brings us closer to God because by so doing we are imitating God. Our refusal to forgive can obviously put a wedge between us and God; but the converse is also true–when we work for forgiveness with others, it brings us closer to God.

One way that Christians try and figure out what forgiveness might mean is to embark on word studies related to “forgiveness.” They open up a handy concordance and find words translated “forgiveness.” Then they go looking in the lexicons and theological dictionaries to find out the etymology and nuances and hues of meaning for words translated “forgiveness” in their Bibles. If they are particularly astute, they may even look at how New testament authors appropriated the terms dealing with forgiveness. That is, they may take note that NT authors, following the LXX, used aphiemi to gloss words that in the Hebrew Bible meant “remit a debt” or “release a slave.” Such word studies can be both fun and instructive. They are often fine starting points. But they are not the end of the story. Words function within a context–they only convey meaning within a system of signs and cues. For Christians, words function within the biblical canon, and I would also argue (via Krister Stendahl), within Christian history as a theologically-charged category of meaning. Richard B. Hays calls this system the “symbolic world” of scripture. Take a word like hilasterion. Among pagan Greeks, this word meant “a bribe paid to a god so they would be nice to you.” Obviously, this is not what it means in the Bible. Agape meant “love in an altruistic sense.” But when Jesus and Paul get ahold of that word, the meaning is deepened. For Christians, agape means “how we’re acting when we imitate God.” The words hilasterion and agape mean something different to Christians than they would have meant to a Corinthian merchant or an Anatolian peasant in the first century. The danger of word studies is that we might assume that hilasterion means “a bribe paid to God” and agape means “altruism.” In fact, I am afraid that this is often what happens, with disastrous results for Christian understanding, witness, and ethics.

I am currently reading what is turning out to be a pretty swell book called Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, by L. Gregory Jones. Jones sees forgiveness as a skill or a craft we learn as we form the practices and habits needed to befriend God. Indeed, we learn the habits and practices necessary for the craft of forgiveness by becoming God’s friends. God is the master of the craft; we are the apprentices, learning the craft. For Christians, the ultimate illustration of forgiveness is found in the cross and resurrection of Christ. Jones writes:

[P]eople are mistaken if they think of Christian forgiveness primarily as absolution from guilt; the purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of communion, the reconciliation of brokenness. Neither should forgiveness be confined to a word spoken, a feeling to be felt, or an isolated action to be done; rather, it involves a way of life to be lived in fidelity to God’s Kingdom. Baptism provides the initiation into God’s story of forgiving and reconciling love, definitively embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In response, people are called to embody that forgiveness by unlearning patterns of sin and struggling for reconciliation wherever there is brokenness . . . In its broadest context, forgiveness is the way in which God’s love moves to reconciliation in the face of sin . . . It requires the disciplines of dying and rising with Christ, disciplines for which there are no shortcuts, no handy techniques to replace the risk and vulnerability of giving up “possession: of one’s self. (5)

In terms of immediate pastoral application, my favorite jumping off point for taking someone through the process is something Anne Lamott wrote: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.” God has already done so, in my opinion–that’s the deeper meaning of his conciliatory gestures, from the leather garments he made Adam and Eve, to his mark on Cain, to Noah’s rainbow, to the exodus, to the cross. God is saying, “I can’t undo these terrible things that have happened. But, children, I am still with you. Let us–you and I–work together to redeem the time that remains.”

Sometimes, the one I find hardest to forgive is not the person who has wronged me, or even myself, but God. In my most anguished and angry moments, I lash out God and ask why he put me or some other of his children in the situations in which we have found ourselves. Usually, I get some measure of peace from singing the chorus of an old John Prine song: “Father forgive us for what we must do, you forgive us, we’ll forgive you . . . ” And it eventually comes to me that when I have come to the point of “giving up all hope of having had a better past,” God has already come to that point numerous times himself.

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One thought on “Abstract thoughts on Christian forgiveness

  1. […] Those were words of forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus doesn’t browbeat his disciples for being wrong. He doesn’t tell his disciples what they might deserve to hear. He tells them what they desperately need to hear. What he gives them is the experience of forgiveness. We only learn to forgive by being wrong, doing wrong; and then being forgiven. Just like you can’t learn to swim without getting wet, you can’t learn to forgive without being forgiven. Forgiveness is a learned skill. […]

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