This article consists of some questions I prepared for the Spurgeon's Study Group meeting 29 April 2004 on the theme of 'Forgiveness', followed by some thoughts prepared for a sermon the following Sunday - the 'Reflections on Forgiveness'.
As a theological study group, we should not be afraid to tackle the most difficult and challenging issues. Forgiveness is surely one of the hardest, deepest, and most fundamental of all the aspects of human life we deal with.
Everyone in the church knows (at least something of) the doctrine: we are forgiven, and we are to forgive. But putting it into practice is something else again.
What is our church culture, our corporate position on sin? Do we confess to sinfulness in general, but never admit to anything specific? Are there specific sins it is okay to admit to, while others are unthinkable? Do we follow the Catholic tradition of dividing sins into the categories of 'mortal' and 'venial'? Do we preach against adultery and homosexuality, while allowing church leaders to be selfish or gossips without challenging them?
How many people in our churches actually believe that they are forgiven? How many believe that they are fully, totally, finally and irreversibly forgiven? How many continue for decades to carry an unsupportable burden of guilt for past sins? How many cannot believe that they are forgiven over and over again for the ongoing ('besetting') sins they have not yet found victory over? How many carry guilt for weakness and limitations that are part of the human condition and not sinful at all?
Why do so many people in evangelical churches believe they alone are troubled by serious doubts, that they alone continue to commit serious sins, and that they alone are failures as Christians and frauds every time they tell others about a gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation?
How do we encourage and enable people within the church to adopt a higher level of honesty about sin and failure, without making it seem that we are taking sin and disobedience lightly?
How do we help people understand and receive forgiveness? How do we achieve this in our preaching and pastoral care? How do we flesh it out in our institutions and structures?
We know we are supposed to forgive, but so many Christian carry bitterness and resentment with them all their lives. OAPs will often and frequently talk about people who let them down and wrongs that were committed against them fifty or sixty years earlier. Do we even understand what it means to forgive? How often do people tell you they have forgiven someone, when you know they are fooling themselves, or attempting to fool you, or just saying the words they know you expect to hear?
We tell our church members they are supposed to forgive, but do we tell them how? We can tell them they should leave punishment to God - after all, '"Vengeance is mine," says the Lord.' Can we trust God to punish the people who have harmed us? After all, what if they decide to become Christians?
Is the commandment to forgive sometimes given glibly or superficially? Do we really recognise the depth of the hurt and bitterness we are asking people to let go? Sometimes people cannot even admit their pain to themselves: if they do not know, how can they forgive? And if they believe forgiveness to be essential and yet find it impossible, how can they even start to recognise and admit their need to forgive?
Do we understand how people forgive? Do we equip and enable them? Do we provide the context in which it can happen? How do we provide the opportunity to forgive, without making 'you must forgive' into another law that crushes and destroys lives?
"I forgive because I have first been forgiven" can be a wonderful testimony, but it can also be a dreadful piece of emotional blackmail. How can we avoid this?
Can we help people to understand forgiveness as a command and an urgent necessity, but also as a choice and as a difficult, painful and often long process? How do we allow people the time they need to go through the process without making it okay to hold grudges and acceptable to be unforgiving?
Can we help church members drop the mask of being nice, 'sorted' people, and the expectation that others will keep up the same pretence, and allow each other to be weak and vulnerable people who have started to go down the road to healing and wholeness?
Can we enable people to believe in the effectiveness of prayer and the ability of God to work in direct and miraculous ways here and now, while at the same time discouraging them from expecting everything to be sorted out by a prayer and a word of good advice? Prayer does work, but how do we respond to the "Dear God, please help Helen to forgive the man who raped her, and Dave to forgive the man who smashed a bottle over his son's head" sort of prayer?
Can the experience of being forgiven by others (especially in church?) open us up to the possibility of forgiving others? Could this be a valid justification for introducing the practice of confession and absolution?
How do we understand forgiveness? Where does it come from? How is it received? Is forgiveness received and experienced as a single, one-off event in our lives, or piecemeal?
As Christians, are we forgiven all our sins automatically? How does this relate to the problem of 'cheap grace'?
Is our forgiveness unconditional? What about "if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:15)?
If we are to reach people like this more effectively, we need to narrow the gap between what we say and what we do.
I'm not talking about the superficial blackmail you sometimes get from needy and desperate people. "Call yourself a Christian? If you were a Christian, you would help me." If you are troubled by this, the Crisis Centre can help you. We can offer training and experience that will provide the understanding and confidence you need to respond appropriately.
No, I'm talking about the much more serious gap that exists between our words and our actions day by day. It can be seen in various aspects of life, but we don't have time to consider all of them this morning.
One example of this gap is forgiveness.
We know the theory, don't we?
We know that Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins. We are offered a new start, forgiveness, a life free of guilt. But in order to enjoy these things, we must receive forgiveness, and offer it to others. We are to forgive, because we have been forgiven.
Every week we pray: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. We are saying, please God, don't forgive me unless I forgive others. We know the parable of the unforgiving servant.
We know the theory. It is taught, and generally taught well, in every evangelical church in the country. But in every evangelical church I have ever known, and I doubt that people here are much different, real life is not that simple.
Time after time, when people are being honest with me, as opposed to acting the part of the successful Christian we are all so practiced at… time after time, when the barriers come down and the truth comes out, I hear good and faithful Christians telling me they are weighed down, sometimes crushed by a sense of guilt they carry all through their lives.
And in talking about events in the past, I hear of pains and disappointments and betrayals that apparently cannot be forgiven, and sometimes there is pain so deep it cannot be put into words. Do you know what I am talking about?
We know the theory. "Father, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us." But in the quiet of our hearts, when we are being honest, we deny that God would forgive us that, and we cannot believe that we are expected to forgive this injury or that betrayal. When we are being honest, some of the time, we just don't want to forgive.
How do we bridge this gap between the words we say, and the reality of our lives?
I know we are commanded to forgive, but sometimes we react to commandments. Sometimes the free offer of the gospel comes across to us as emotional blackmail.
So perhaps we should let go of forgiveness as a command for a while - we can always come back to it later - but perhaps we can find different ways to approach forgiveness?
For me, forgiveness is both a possibility and a promise.
Forgiveness is never easy. It is always difficult, and often takes a serious amount of time. But God does not command the impossible - if He tells us to forgive, that means we can forgive. It is a real possibility, and sometimes I have to hold on to that as a statement of faith when it feels like forgiveness of this event in this situation is absolutely impossible.
Jesus on the cross opens up to me the possibility that I too can forgive and know forgiveness. And if it is a real possibility, I can pray for it to happen, I can be open to ways in which God's Spirit wants to work in me and in my circumstances, to bring that possibility into reality.
And forgiveness is a promise. Sometimes the most important change is not in what is said, but in how we hear and understand it.
For example, in the OT, we are commanded: you shall love the Lord your God with all you have. By way of contrast, in the NT, we are promised: you shall love the Lord your God with all you have.
Jesus has already accomplished everything I need in order to live in the good of the victory He has won for me. And that includes both giving and receiving forgiveness.
One day, if we belong to Jesus, we will stand before God, and there will be no more pain, no more tears, no more sorrow, no more guilt. That's a promise. You may not be able to experience all of that right now, but you may well be surprised at how soon you can experience freedom from guilt and bitterness and resentment… if that is something you really want.
The price, the main price is honesty. You have to face up to the pain and guilt - you have to accept it as your own, to own it, before you can be released from it. This is not easy, and it may not happen overnight. But if you are prepared to be honest with God, it will happen.
Wholeness comes about through healing. We all need healing, and for most of us it is not instantaneous. But when we do open up our lives to God's healing, it can be surprising how fast He is able to work, and to create a new reality and a new life for us to enjoy, free from guilt.