It was down one of those confusing but provocative theological rabbit trails that my mind went wandering early this morning as I sat, coffee in hand, Bible on lap. I had been reading Psalm 15 in which David was doing his own holy pondering about “who may dwell in [God’s] sanctuary, and who may live on [the Lord’s] holy hill?” The list of righteous behavior and attitude that David then suggests is more than humbling, and few of us, I suspect, would have the presumption to think we had even come close to passing such an acid test of holiness. Yet his conclusion was more than true: “He who does these things will never be shaken.”
It was the third verse that got my mind meandering. It is the verse that defines a righteous man as having “no slander on his tongue…, who casts no slur on his fellowman.” I would hope that I have managed to avoid speaking out too many slanders and slurs upon people in life. Certainly, I try to be careful with my words, knowing only too personally how cruelly and deeply words can cut when people give free reign to their pent-up angers and frustrations, callously throwing about critical accusations and brutal assessments of others’ intentions, integrity and character. Lest I sound too self-congratulatory, however, let me be just as quick to confess that if I have succeeded more often than not in controlling what I have actually spoken aloud, that does not mean that I have been innocent in terms of the things I’ve thought or wanted to say. Jesus commented that a man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. In like manner, how guilty I am in terms of slandering and slurring “in the heart.” Thus can I only cry (as thus surely must we all): O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And that is where my rabbit trail suddenly took a turn. Having experienced the bitterness of being slurred and slandered against, and finding myself having still more work to do at forgiving fully and finally those who savaged, not just my reputation but my heart, I began questioning why we find it so hard to offer that full and free forgiveness that sets prisoners free. You see, I believe with all my heart that God has given us this amazing gift and privilege of being able to forgive those who have hurt us so that two prisoners can be liberated. The first prisoner is the person who may be seeking forgiveness, to be set free from shame and guilt. The second prisoner, and this is the prisoner who most needs setting free, is ourselves. In forgiving those who hurt us, we escape the prison of our resentment and wounded pride. Forgiving people releases us from the bondage of living in the remembered pain of our past and takes away the burden of bitterness, grudges, fear and sorrow. Forgiveness, Louis Smedes said in his marvelous book Forgive and Forget, is that grace that above all brings healing to our own souls.
Yet while my head knows the truth, how often my heart decides to walk to the proverbial different drummer, and I find myself back quietly nursing resentments and busily stoking the fires of self-righteous indignation which I had thought I had cleansed and doused a long time ago. Like the dust bunnies under the bed that keep appearing no matter how many times we have vacuumed, some old wounds seem determined to keep demanding selfish attention.
It was at this point in my pondering that I also remembered Jesus’ words about forgiving so that God would forgive us. It was in the context of his teaching the disciples how they should pray – what we call the Lord’s Prayer – that our Master added the challenging affirmation that if we forgive others when they sin against us, God will also forgive us. But if we fail to forgive, neither will God forgive us (Matthew 6: 14-15).
I’ve always taken that passage as Jesus’ incisive acknowledgment of the simple truth that if we will not (not cannot) offer forgiveness to those who’ve hurt us, it evidences a closed heart and shriveled soul exists in us. And a closed heart which refuses to yield grace will ultimately be one which will not have the capacity to receive grace. It is not as if God ruthlessly metes out his mercy on a quid pro quo basis. Scripture repeatedly affirms the vastness of God’s desire to pour out mercy. The problem is in us, because the barrier is in us. The heart that will not graciously forgive (and forgiveness is always an act of grace and nothing less), simply stands in prideful, stubborn resistance even to the beckoning mercies of heaven.
Here’s where my “which comes first – the chicken or the egg” reflections began to formulate. Which comes first: our act of compassionate forgiveness towards those who hurt us or God’s extension of grace to us? It might seem at first glance that our decision to forgive goes before the bestowal of grace, until we realize how much grace God has already poured out into our lives, not the least of which was the sacrifice of his Son upon the cross by which we have been forgiven! Do you remember the beautiful old hymn, “When I survey the wondrous cross?” The final verse announces our impossible-to-repay indebtedness to grace:
Where the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
How dare I, how dare any of us posture and protest that those authors of our hurts and sorrows must first grovel in repentance or else be shamefully exposed in their guiltiness before we will yield a drop of forgiveness? Oh, I know that sounds dramatic, but like the slurring and slandering that we savor in our imaginations, don’t we in truth long for “our enemies” as the Psalmist puts it, to be given their public come-uppances and forced to “repent in sackcloth and ashes?” You see, most of us spend far too much time and effort silently rehearsing the wrongs we believe were done to us than we do earnestly speaking out our willful (in the best sense of the word) intentional declarations of mercy, pardon and forgiveness. Most of us give far too much attention to bemoaning the prisons of our pain than we do turning the ever present key of forgiveness in the lock and walking out into freedom and joy.
Grace, in holy and unbounded abundance, has been given. It’s ours in Jesus. All he asks is that we, as it were, pay it forward, and forgive greatly as we have been forgiven by the greatest power of love in this universe. When we do, it is not only freedom that awaits, but joy also.
O holy grace that has washed away my guilt and sin, shame and stain, may my gratitude and praise be sounded in the glad and unfettered echoes of grace I yield to others. That I might be free indeed, in Thee, my Saviour and my Friend. Amen