Monday, March 12, 2012

Forgiving when you can't Forget

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We continue today our series on forgiveness and today I am preaching on Forgiving your Family Member. This was indeed a difficult task for me to tackle. I much rather prefer the reading and exegeting of a particular passage rather than actually putting into practice something difficult that the bible explicitly teaches. Imagine that. This topic was uncomfortable as I wrestled with my own relationships with both their sins and my own, within my immediate family, my wife and daughter, and with my extended family of brothers, parents, and so forth.
I relied heavily on the experience of others as I am still somewhat youthful and commend to you the book, Bold Love by Dr. Dan Allender and Dr. Tremper Longman III, as I stole extensively from their knowledge, experience, and direction to scripture. (Dan is on sabbatical and has travel blog as well as a website).I know my mom is most likely listening to or reading this sermon online, so don’t worry mom, all of the stories and examples I will share with you are from Dan Allender’s counseling experience rather than my personal experiences of family and are referenced by page number in this manuscript of the sermon. Before we dive into forgiving family members, the various types of conflict, and the war that this entails, let’s get on the same page by coming to a biblical understanding of forgiveness.

What is true forgiveness? Well, let’s take a look at what forgiveness is not and some common things we do to produce a counterfeit forgiveness. Then we’ll look at what forgiveness really is. Because biblical forgiveness is difficult, we, in our falleness, and I, myself the chief sinner among you, tend to gravitate towards an unbiblical view of forgiveness that is much easier to get through in the moment. We want the quick way out that often involves superficiality rather than the real work of forgiveness. True forgiveness is not forgetting. I know this is typically something we go to when we think about forgiveness. “Forgive and forget”, right?
I did an extensive search and that phrase is not in the bible. Often people quote Jeremiah 31:34 “"For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” There are other passages that convey this same metaphor. Psalm 103:12 states “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” and Micah 7:19 says “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” For some reason we take the metaphor in Jeremiah as literal, that God literally forgets our sin, implying we should do the same, but that it’s a metaphor in the other two cases. How silly, after all, would it be for us to set out on an expedition to find how far east truly is from west to understand exactly how far our sins have been removed? Our God is an all-knowing God, he doesn’t clear his memory banks literally of sin. Now, we are truly completely forgiven, all of these metaphors point to that, but forgiveness involves more than just ignoring the harm done, of pretending as though nothing happened. Think about our own forgiveness that we receive from God, did he just forget, or was there something more involved, something to do with a cross? False forgiveness often manifests itself when we say “Forgive and Forget” due to denial, deception, pretense, avoidance and seeking peace at any cost. Neither is true forgiveness something that by force of will we can experience. We are commanded to forgive, yes, but if forgiveness and the proper procedure becomes one more in the long list of laws, then we’ve missed the point and forgiveness becomes one more burden for us to bear. “A woman’s daughter quit school midterm to join a Christian rock band, without talking to her or addressing the loss of tuition. The same week, her husband lost most of their retirement funds in a get-rich scheme promoted by a flamboyant Christian business man. After all that had transpired…she vocalized her enormous pain and anger to her pastor. In what felt like another crushing blow, he rebuked her, saying, ‘Bitterness is an even bigger problem than all you have experienced. You must learn to forgive and forget; put these bad experiences behind you and get on serving God and others.’…The forgive-and-forget approach to forgiveness left her hopeless. She tried to repent, but she still felt hurt. She felt anger and wanted people to take responsibility for their sin…forgiving others [should not] seem like leaping into an abyss of further harm” (29).

So what is true forgiveness? True forgiveness is canceling a debt owed in order to provide an opportunity for a restored relationship.
Forgiveness is seeking restored relationship. Forgiveness has a definite goal in mind. Restored relationship, reconciliation and true shalom is the goal of forgiveness. We find that true forgiveness is most often longsuffering, something that occurs not in a single moment but rather is a process that takes time. “Forgiveness is far more than a business transaction [in which we agree to forget debts]; it is the sacrifice of a heartbroken Father who weeps over the loss of His child and longs to see the child restored to life and love and goodness” (163). A man told Dr. Allender about “the battle to restore a marriage he had broken through an extramarital affair. He said the hardest part of restoring the relationship was his wife’s absence of hurt and anger. She was kind and condescending, pleasant and vacuous, forgiving and self-righteous. It appeared that her forgiveness had no purpose beyond ‘doing what’s right,’ fulfilling an obligation rather than canceling a debt for the hope of heart-thrilling restoration. Though her forgiveness was robotic and passionless, all their friends marveled over her strong faith and balanced emotions. He longed for the passion of a soul that wrestled with the wrong done and then offered the same passionate embrace of forgiving love” (163-164). True forgiveness, forgiveness that is consummated in reconciliation and restored relationship, is much, much harder than forgetting.

True forgiveness is seeking restored relationship and true forgiveness requires repentance. There are actually two roles that require action in order for forgiveness to reach completion, in order for the goal, for restored relationship and reconciliation to take place. The first is that the party offended cancels the debt owed and refuses to exact vengeance or a price from the offender. We forgive our debtors as we have been forgiven. Forgiveness consummated, forgiveness completed, doesn’t end here. The second is that the party who is the offender repents from their action. Biblical forgiveness is always accompanied by repentance. Jesus says in Luke 17:3-4 “So watch yourselves.
‘If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him.’” Forgiveness opens to the door to a relationship, but the muddy clothes and boots must be taken off before entering the home fully. True forgiveness is not simple, it’s not a cheap forgiveness. Rather it requires repentance, long-suffering, and seeking for a truly restored relationship.

The truth is friends, that we are enmeshed in a spiritual war with not only ourselves but also in our relationships that either lead to a taste of heaven or a taste of hell. Love and forgiveness are weapons that we have in this war, used to destroy evil and to see the reconciliation received in Jesus Christ spread throughout the earth. Ephesians 6:11-12 describes this state of war that we find ourselves in:

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms

Indeed, every relationship that we have is strained by the burden of sin. Life involves struggle, and we find ourselves at war within ourselves and with others, even those in our families, well let’s be honest, especially those in our families and there are wounds from the battles. These wounds require forgiveness in order for us to continue forward together and often we must “take [our] stand” in this war of love and forgiveness rather than becoming a doormat. As we enter into this warfare, we realize that there are different types of wounds. There is friendly fire, there is enemy fire and there are different levels of damage. The greater the damage inflicted, the greater the difficulty to forgive. And the different degrees of damage, of emotional and spiritual hurt, require a different approach of love and forgiveness. There is a different type of spiritual warfare waged, depending on the type of person we are trying to find the ability to forgive and ultimately win a restored relationship. This is a spectrum, and obviously we can’t necessarily categorize each of our family members, but nonetheless categories help us to begin to get a handle on how our strategy for forgiveness and bringing someone back into relationship with us and more importantly with God, depends greatly on the type of person we’re engaging. The three types of warfare of love and forgiveness we’ll look at briefly this morning are siege warfare, guerilla warfare, and the last isn’t full out war but more like an athletic competition.

Siege warfare is the strategy we use when forgiving an evil family member. By the way, please do your best not to look directly at your family members as we talk about each of these categories. Who do I mean by evil family members? Evil family members are those who are vicious and destructive. They don’t necessarily appear evil, they don’t have an evil villain maniacal laugh, but they are the members in our families who emotionally, physically and sexually abuse. They are characterized by an absence of empathy, shame and goodness. In other words they are generally unmoved by the inner world of others and they have no respect for boundaries. The evil family member addresses differences of opinion with cruelty, and uses terror to drive home the idiocy of working for change. How do we effectively love an evil family member? How do we forgive them and move toward reconciliation? They are not going to be defeated by rational arguments rather we must be able to endure the losses they threaten us with, face the shame and hatred they will direct at us, and both set and enforce clear parameters as we take a stand against their sin. “Here’s an example of a ‘boldly loving conversation:’

DAD: Hi, honey, I’m calling to see when you will be arriving.
JANE (chuckling out loud): Well, Dad, I can at least say it won’t be in this calendar year.
DAD: What?! You know your mom is counting on you helping with the big Fourth of July party. She won’t be able to do it without your help!
JANE: Oh, that’s too bad, Dad. You know, a lot of catering firms do holiday spreads, and I bet there are some in your area.
DAD: Don’t get cute with me. You know your mother wants you here, not a catering firm. Now let’s get serious. You will be coming home.
JANE: Dad, do you recall the conversation a few nights ago when you yelled and called me some terrible names? Well, I told you then I would no longer allow you to sin against me or yourself by enduring your use of rage and shame. Before you get too much more intense, let me make it clear again: I will not stay on the phone if that is your manner of relating to me. Dad, are you willing to think with me about the way you deal with me and, frankly, almost everyone else in our family?
DAD: Well, fine! I’ll tell your mother about your decision. And let me tell you I have no interest in being lectured by a kid who has no more sense than…
JANE: Dad, I will look forward to the day you do desire to interact, so I’ll be talking with you soon. Bye, Dad.

The phone call was a major first for Jane. She had never been able to stand firm with grace and dignity. After the call, she shook like a leaf for hours…Almost two years later, Jane has not given up. Her parents are no closer to repentance, but her love, witnessed in new parameters and consequences, and even more in her moments of genuine sorrow for them, has curtailed the extent of their damage…If forgiveness, fulfilled in reconciliation, is to occur, evil must repent with clarity and conviction” (248). Sometimes, especially in the cases of physical and sexual abuse, we realize that “it is not loving to continue an evil relationship with a person who consistently and perniciously sins against you without some sign of repentance and change” (252). This withholding of relationship, excommunication, described by Paul in 1 Corinthians and again in 2 Thessalonians has the purpose and hope of that person coming to their senses by using separation as a way to call them into repentance and eventually a restored relationship. Loving an evil family member is like siege warfare because “the primary good gift for an evil person is to limit their opportunity to damage. It is similar to putting an enemy city under siege…[it] is tedious because the soldiers are doing little other than waiting for surrender” (299).

We look now at the second type of warfare, which is guerilla warfare. Guerilla warfare is used when forgiving a foolish family member. I don’t use the word foolish in a mocking way, but in the way that fool is used in proverbs to describe one without sense or wisdom. In fact all these categories today come from Proverbs chapter 1. A foolish family member is one who is resistant to change, not cold and unfeeling as an evil family member but avoids real depth of feeling and relationship. They are characterized by disproportionate anger, returning to normal interaction after a few minutes and they are impulsive, easily pleased, hating discipline and wisdom. A foolish family member wants to find a way around our brokenness and thus lives a life of disengagement, avoiding integrity in relationship. How do we love, forgive, and work towards reconciliation here? This is indeed much more difficult than the evil family member, who may be hard to identify, but once recognized can be followed as a snake in the grass. We have to expose their folly, provide consequences because they will not repent unless they feel like their way isn’t working, and the failure of love that has occurred must be discussed and worked through toward repentance. I have another example for you, “[a]ssume that Kathy fits the description of [a foolish family member], and Ralph, her husband, has been the kind of man who has ignored her cruelty for years and given his energy to his work and children:

KATHY: Honey, I am so sorry for how mean I’ve been to you while I’ve been working on this project. I hope you’re not too upset.
RALPH: Kathy, I am quite upset. Frankly, as much with me as with you. This has gone on for years, and I’ve failed you by ignoring it in the past. That is wrong. But I am encouraged, at least a little , by your willingness to admit that you have been mean. My question is, do you want to deal with this or are you looking for a quick absolution? If it is the latter, then I am far more upset than you can imagine.
KATHY (with slight disdain): Ralph! Do we have to get into one of these psychological discussions again?
RALPH: No, sweetheart, we don’t. You are mean. In fact, you can be cruel and contemptuous. But I feel no compulsion to deal with your heart if it is that hard and cold. I trust and pray that the woman who asked me to forgive her will one day come to the surface far more. What would you like for dinner? I know you’ll be busy with that project, but can I make anything in particular? (282)

“Loving a fool[ish family member] is like guerilla warfare – hiding, setting traps, exposing, and then waiting for the next best opportunity to come out of the forest to love [and forgive] again. It is less tedious than putting a city under siege, but it requires unusual commitment to the cause, a willingness to be constantly on the move, and a high degree of ‘good-intentioned’ craftiness” (299).
The final type of warfare is more of an athletic competition, it’s dealing with regular sinners, it’s forgiving a simple family member. The battle is still real, they are still capable of evil and sometimes indistinguishable from foolish family members but are characterized usually by envy, rather than the anger of a foolish family member or the manipulation of an evil family member, and by poor judgment and being na├»ve. Indeed our first response when confronted with sin in our family members should be to think of them as a regular sinner, to be longsuffering, waiting for a ripe time to grant instruction about our relationships with each other and God. As the data comes in, and time moves on, we may have to adjust our categories and our tactics of forgiveness and reconciliation.

So where do your family members fit in the spectrum? Where do you fit? Where do I fit? This is something I had to wrestle with and think about. Where in my relationships have I acted as an evil, foolish or simple family member and in which category to I “hang out” the most? I sincerely advise you to not run out right away and start fighting and confronting with bold love, at least not until you get off the church grounds. No, but seriously, as Jesus advised, count the cost, whether it’s siege or guerilla warfare, or more simply an athletic competition. We should be as intentional about loving others and forgiving them as we seek restored relationships as we are strategic in any other area of life. I encourage you, if you feel led, to begin the journey not with a sprint, but slowly and deliberately by praying, speaking with a trusted pastor, counselor, or friend, and spending time alone in reflection.
Finally friends, let us not forget that the greatest battle has been won. Jesus was, is, and will be our divine warrior, our God, and our help. Colossians 2:13-15 says “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins... And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” He defeated sin and death, delivering a crushing blow to Satan on the cross, he empowers us now by his Holy Spirit for the battles we face, and one day he will return and every knee shall bow to him as victor and king. It is only through Jesus Christ that we have the courage to wage a war of love and forgiveness and have hope for reconciliation with all in our families and that one day they all too would be reconciled through Christ Jesus with God. When we choose a cheap forgiveness, refusing to take a stand and wage a war of love, we do so because we are afraid. We fear that our divine warrior, Jesus, won’t be able to help us stand against evil, foolish, and simple sins that we commit and our family members commit against us. This fear, friends, is what prevents us from having restored relationships in our families and in all our relationships. Friends believe the good news, that in Jesus Christ we are forgiven, and as we realize the slings and arrows, the spiritual warfare that he went through to achieve that forgiveness and reconciliation for us with God, certainly not a cheap forgiveness, let us be willing to do the same for our family members as we seek restored relationships with them. And as Jesus called us to repent and believe, let us take our stand with the armor of God and be willing to do the same in our relationships.