Sunday, July 7, 2013

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive…

An elderly woman standing at the door of a church, shaking hands as people file out. A balding man in a grey overcoat, slowly but surely approaching.  She sees not the grey overcoat but a blue uniform under harsh lights.  She feels again the shame of filing past him naked, her sister’s frail body just ahead.  When he reaches her, it’s as though time stands still.  He thrusts out his hand expectantly but she can’t move.  Finally, woodenly, mechanically her hand meets his and then something unexpected.  Her eyes fill with tears, her coldness gives way to warmth and she grasps his hand more tightly.  For a long moment, Nazi guard and prisoner cling to each other.

This scene took place in 1947 at a church in Munich where the woman, Corrie Ten Boom[1] had come to speak about God’s forgiveness.  During World War 2, the Ten Boom family had concealed Jews in their home during the Nazi occupation of Holland.  For their ‘crimes’, Corrie and her sister, Betsie were sent to Ravensbruck where Betsie perished.  When the guard from Ravensbruck approached Corrie that day, she knew she should offer him her hand in a gesture of forgiveness; ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’… but how?

In Chapter 7 of ‘Passion’, McKinley leads us on a thoughtful journey of what lies behind this familiar line from ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.

He begins by saying forgiveness is absolutely necessary for relationships because of the reality of sin.  But he admits it raises lots of questions: is there anything that is unforgiveable; who should be forgiven; what if forgiveness isn’t asked for; what kind of apology is required, if any; must justice be laid aside?

These questions only become more problematic when it comes to our most fundamental relationship, our relationship with God.  We offend God not only by how we mistreat Him but also how we mistreat others.  As the creator and sustainer of all, God is the offended party in all of our sin.

In answer, McKinley takes us to a naked man hanging on a cross, not yet dead; above his head a sign, “This is the King of the Jews”.  Amidst the mocking and sneering crowd, the man utters some of his final words…

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Luke 23:34

In accordance with his Father’s plan, Jesus deliberately walked towards his death on the cross to make forgiveness possible.  So it’s no surprise that as his life ebbed away, Jesus asked for forgiveness for his tormentors and perpetrators.

McKinley reminds us the cross is God’s solution to the problematic questions forgiveness raises.  The cross solves the dilemma of how a holy and just God can overlook our sin; Jesus’ death paid the price.  The cross solves our conundrums when it comes to forgiving others; if God forgives us, through the cross, we are enabled to forgive others.  Further, if we do not forgive others, it casts doubt on whether we have really understood our own desperate need for forgiveness found only at the cross (See Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:23-35).  It was this knowledge that drove Corrie Ten Boom beyond any human limitations to reach out to her tormentor.

If you look at that wrong you have been done, it will seem too great to cancel.  If you look at the cross and see it in the light of Jesus’ forgiveness of you, it will seem too small not to forgive.  Whatever – whatever – it is, the Christian can and must look to the cross and forgive… as I look at the Son of God on His cross, thinking of me and saying “Father, forgive”, how can I possibly refuse to forgive?  (p.105)

The reflection questions at the end of this chapter, though simple are hard to answer.  My thoughts were occupied for more than a day by just the first one: Do you tend to see yourself as someone who has been wronged, or as someone who needs forgiveness? (p.109)

The words of a friend and sister in Christ echoed in my head as I pondered this question. She said that as she gets older, it’s a challenge to remain humble especially when dealing with those younger than her.  As I thought about her words, I realised that increasingly, I do find myself feeling I’m the one owed an apology and decreasingly that I’m the one who needs to say sorry.  I recently celebrated my 48th birthday.  With those years, experience and hopefully a little wisdom have grown but something else has grown too, susceptibility to pride.  Pride means more and more, I expect forbearance from others whilst the compulsion to show grace withers.

There’s no better cure for my pride than looking to the cross.  When I look at the cross, my perspective shifts.  Stripped of any merit before God, I can approach others more humbly; we are all life-long learners.  Fully known and forgiven, God’s grace to me overflows into my relationships with others.

McKinley enriches each chapter by offering a poem or a hymn as a closing meditation.  In imitation, let me offer a hymn of my own, ‘The Look’ by John Newton.

Thus while His death my sin displays
For all the world to view
Such is the mystery of grace
It seals my pardon too
With pleasing grief and mournful joy
My spirit now is filled
That I should such a life destroy
Yet live by Him I killed 

Listen to a beautiful version by Bob Kauflin

A last thought from McKinley on forgiveness… God forgives, not because it’s His job but because it’s His character (Eg. Exodus 34:6-7).  Likewise, our forgiveness is not a grudge-filled necessary task but a sign of our transformed character.

[1] Read Corrie’s full story in her book, The Hiding Place.

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