Monday, November 12, 2007

The healing embrace

The concept of forgiveness intrigues me.

I was in a Bible study many years ago where we were talking about forgiveness. A single woman was talking about her yet-to-be-found future husband. She said that if her future husband ever cheated on her, she thought she could forgive him, but she didn't think she could ever trust him again. She said she would always have trouble trusting him, or wonder where he was when coming home late from work, or wonder who he was emailing. I don't remember what we said to her in the Bible study, but that story stuck in my head, because that is a story of forgiveness in which no one is actually forgiven. (It's actually more like the wrong kind of forgiveness.)

On the surface, forgiveness doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It seems to me that if you don't want a person to do something, like cheat on their husband, or steal, or kill, then you make the penalty so severe that it serves as sufficient deterrent. Plus, it has the added benefit of removing certain offending individuals from normal societal circulation so that their influence is minimized, if not eliminated all together as in the case of capital punishment.

Unforgiveness seems to make the most sense, because to forgive seems to mean that you open yourself up to being victimized again. Forgiveness seems like an invitation to a worrisome life, where you constantly have to cast a wary eye on the previous offenders, in fear of them offending again. Forgiveness seems to be an undesirable situation in which you have to adopt strange new actions that keep you from being hurt over and over and over by people who want to take advantage of your forgiveness. How does forgiveness ever really make sense?

As I've groped for a better understanding of the complex beast that is forgiveness, two Bible passages have shaped my thinking more than anything else, though the book "Faces of Forgiveness" comes close. One is Matthew 9:1-8, and the other is Matthew 18:21-35. (These passages are just 2 of many examples, but they tell the story in ways that really grip me.)

The Matthew 9 passage is a story about Jesus and the paralytic. When the paralytic's friends brought him to Jesus, Jesus told him that he was forgiven of his sins. After a bit of a scuffle with the teachers of the law, Jesus said:
Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home." And the man got up and went home.

It seems to me that Jesus here is linking forgiveness to healing in a way that we frequently don't think about. At least in this passage, they are synonymous. Forgiveness and healing go together to the extent that "Your sins are forgiven" is the same as saying "Get up and walk".

Using this lens of forgiveness and healing, other passages start to make more sense to me. The parable of the prodigal son, for instance, isn't just about the depth of the love the father has for the wayward son, but it is also about the extent of healing extended to the prodigal. The prodigal wasn't accepted back into family life as the black sheep who would always be viewed with suspicion. Instead, he was restored, re-clothed, and loved in a way that doesn't quite make sense. It was the other son, the good son, who showed the kind of forgiveness that seems to make sense - the kind of forgiveness that merely tolerates the presence of those who are wayward, but never really trusts or accepts them back into right relationship. The "good" son rejects the healing embrace of forgiveness. The father knows better.

Paul exhorts us to remember to debt of love we owe to one another. Viewed through the lens of the healing embrace, if the prodigal son were to re-offend he would not be deterred by the violence of punishment, but rather by the crushing reality of life without the radical love of his father. The debt of love doesn't make make the prodigal fear the punishment heaped on him by others, but instead makes him fear thee punishment he heaps on himself through a life without the healing embrace. Perhaps that is also why Christians should visit the prisoners - to help them understand the healing embrace that they may have never had, and to welcome them into a community they never want to leave. Without such love and forgiveness, it's no wonder they re-offend.

Here's my point. If we are truly forgiven to the measure that we forgive, then perhaps some measure of our (my?) spiritual dryness is because we haven't learned how to give the healing embrace. Maybe sometimes the distance there seems to be between God and me (us?) isn't some inexplicable dark night of the soul, but rather a symptom of my own inability to forgive.

Perhaps the strangeness we feel at our family gatherings, or with our spouses, or in our Sunday School classes happens because we are constantly surrounded by people who don't know how to give the healing embrace, and are constantly wary of a relationship in which they might get hurt. Or, maybe it is us who can't give the embrace. Perhaps a portion of the animosity the secular world has for the church is because we have all failed in our ability to forgive in ways that mend, correct, and welcome.

I wonder how often what we call forgiveness is really no more than saying "that's okay". Instead, I wonder what would happen if we, instead of dismissing the moment of forgiveness, remembered Matthew 9 and extended forgiveness and healing as if they could never exist apart from one another.

Perhaps the true Kingdom of God happens when the true healing embrace of forgiveness is offered freely, even to those who want to see us dead. Maybe we, as Christians, need to be reminded a little more often of what a true healing embrace looks like.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

No comments: