Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Cheap "Grace" and "Forgiveness"

Every so often I come across the idea--written, spoken, and expressed attitude--that grace is a duty and forgiveness can be demanded. I've been thinking a lot about both lately, and here's what has yet again been made clear to me through the Scriptures and my own considerable efforts to put them into practice.

First of all, grace is a gift. It originates from God and, apart from a vital relationship with God, is not a "natural" part of human living. We're too selfish, left to our own devices, to offer one another much grace. Grace is a lavish, wholehearted, selfless showering of godly love upon undeserving fellow sinners. It's neither ours to demand nor even expect. If it were, it would not be grace.

Forgiveness is one expression of grace. Similarly, it is a deliberate and wholehearted decision, specifically not to be bound by or to another's sin against us. If we have sinned against another, we have no right to demand that he or she forgive us.

Christians too often cheapen both grace and forgiveness. The "demand" for forgiveness cheapens the cost of sin; it glosses over the effect our sin has upon the other and seeks to absolve us of any responsibility for repentance and reconciliation. It short-circuits the restoration of true Christian community when we, the sinner, insist that the one we sinned against owes us his or her forgiveness. Which of us would dare to tell Jesus, "You HAD to forgive me; that was your duty"? None, I do hope! Yet there are Christians who stand firm in their unrepentant sin and loudly demand that those they've wronged, forgive them. No amends, no repentance, just ongoing sin--and the demand that it be forgiven because it's their Christian duty to forgive those who have sinned against them.

To me, that sounds an awful lot like the argument Paul refuted to the Roman churches (Rom. 6), that somehow they thought it was good to sin so that more grace would abound. No; instead, Paul showed that sin damages both the sinner and the body--the community, and it grieves the Lord who gave his life that we might no longer be slaves to sin. We ought to be outdoing one another in dying to our sins, not continuing in them even while demanding that those we sin against forgive us!

Grace is cheapened when it is expected. Forgiveness is reduced to a poor imitation when it is formulized and demanded. The sinner should deal with his or her own sin, with God's help, rather than meddling in the alleged lack of grace or unforgiveness of others. Each of us has plenty of sin to keep us busy repenting. We do not need another's forgiveness or grace in order to stop sinning and repent (turn another way) from it. We DO need to pay close attention to the leading of the Holy Spirit on what we ourselves can do to restore relationships broken by our own sin. And as mature Christians, we have a bitter lesson to learn: there are some relationships that may remain broken in this life. That can be a consequence of our sins against others. If we have consistently and unrepentantly torn into a brother or sister, he or she may not be able to trust us. It's going to take a lot of work on our part to become trustworthy, and we only prove our untrustworthiness when we demand "forgiveness" from him or her when we haven't even bothered to express regret or remorse for our sin, or stopped engaging in it in the first place.

The sham of blithe "I forgive you" statements TO people WE'VE sinned against, is especially cheap. When someone shows us that we've sinned against them, we ought to take that very seriously and stop doing it! If we're arrogant and proud in our continued sin against them, they are hardly sinning against us to tell us so. That pride in our sin is, itself, more sin on OUR part, not theirs. And even if they're not completely innocent in terms of sinning against us, we can only control our own behavior, not theirs. Claiming we're forgiving THEM, especially if we throw in a habitual insult in the statement, without ANY evidence of our own repentance, is meaningless. The most it could possibly do is deceive us into thinking we're without sin.

The other person's forgiveness of us, or lack of it, should have no bearing on our repentance. We ought to have repented and sought forgiveness long before they can even offer it. If our sin was unintentional, it's still ours to own and deal with once it's been shown to us. We who were bought at the price of the Lord Jesus Christ's death, can ill afford to deny the sins we commit against others. They may forgive us, but we're still dead in that sin if we deny we even committed it! The forgiveness frees the one we sinned against; we're choosing to live outside that forgiveness. It's no wonder that the self-righteous strive for outward perfection; "whitewashed tombs" was Jesus' description of such denial of sin.

Forgiveness demanded is the height of self-righteous delusion. A truly repentant person acknowledges that he or she has no right to expect any such thing. And in the upside-down paradox of God's economy, it is the truly repentant person who finds true forgiveness and grace, from God, if not always from others he or she has sinned against. One thing is certain, however: The one who insists on another's forgiveness and grace has a heart shut tight against the real article, for that one is still dead in his or her own sin. Repentance must precede acceptance of any forgiveness that may be offered.

Finally, it should be noted that many times, genuine forgiveness takes hard work. It can take time, and it is always a matter of choosing to forgive. It's like submission: if we're in a sinful system that demands it from us, it is no longer the real thing, but merely an outward behavior compelled by one who presumes to control us. That is not how Christians behave, not according to the Scriptures. None of us is in control over another adult believer, nor do we have any right to demand or compel premature forgiveness from another. Our own eyes' planks should concern us much more than the other's eye speck.

We are to take the "one anothers" of Scripture very, very seriously; how we treat one another, according to Christ, is how we treat the Lord himself. If we would not continue rebelliously in open sin against the Lord, we ought not to give even the appearance of doing so against others. If we wouldn't refuse to seek forgiveness from the Lord, we ought to rush to seek it from the brothers and sisters we've wronged. If we would be horrified to say "You deserve my insults" to Jesus, we should repent from insulting another.

If I want forgiveness, it's not mine to demand. I'm much more likely to get it if I do the hard work of ceasing to sin against my neighbor and seeking true reconciliation humbly, as the sinner I am. If I want real relationship with my brother or sister, I need to show myself trustworthy. If I want grace, I need to extend it--real grace, not saccharine words that bely my actions--to the other.

It's not easy to practice (especially if we're immersed in this world's "Me First" mentality), but it's simple. Even the world "gets" it, though it's not widely practiced. I even heard it in Basic Training: "What goes around, comes around." Jesus once again was right: "Do to others as you would that others do to you." I rather doubt that those who so loudly demand forgiveness from others while continuing in their sins, want to have forgiveness demanded from them by unrepentant sinners.


P.S. an after-thought said...

Wow, well written.

I would add that sometimes we feel sinned against, the other person doesn't realize what they did, and it might not actually be sin, but our own reaction to what they did because of some twist in our own background.

I have found that when I've needed to forgive, sometime the mechanical stating of forgiveness is the first step. It is practice for the real thing that will eventually follow. Jesus said 7 x 70 and I take that literally, in that there were times that I would forgive, with the help of prayer, but the feeling of hurt would come back up, like bile, and I needed to forgive again and again, and eventually, the hurt subsided and disappeared.

There is also the issue of the consequences of sin. Being forgiven doesn't usually take away the consequences. Even grace might not take away the consequences. People are changed, even killed, by other people's sins, and they are changed forever.

DH and I have had some disagreement regarding how we might treat another person. He said we need to emulate Christ and extend grace and I said that can sometimes be enabling. Details omitted, of course, but you can see that takes some wisdom.

Somebody demanding forgiveness when that person is the apparent sinner shows a deep denial and a projection of the sin. You are right: we can only control ourselves.

molly said...

Good stuff, Psalmist.

Psalmist said...

Thank you both for your comments.

P.S., I agree with you that sometimes the sin against us is completely unintentional or a misunderstanding. When that happens, however, and we let the other know that there has been harm done, a mature brother or sister will not dig in his/her heels and stand by the "right" to have done whatever it was, just because they didn't mean harm.

And I totally agree that we can and should forgive the other, whatever it is. That's a mark of a believer. Forgiveness is very different from enabling the sin to continue, and I think that's where some Christians cheapen it. We're supposed to make it easy for the other to make no changes and keep on sinning, as though that's grace. That's just being an accomplice to sin, IMO. ;)

Singing Owl said...

Well said!

Robert said...

I wholeheartedly agree with the contents of your post from both an experiential and biblical standpoint. The necessary part in the "living" grace is a complete knowledge and understanding of our position in and union with Jesus Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Even then one has to choose his "friends" carefully. It is my experience that I have to constantly be aware to only speak when and what is required in any situation; sometimes nothing, just listen. The tongue is the greatest way through which we commit acts of sin against others and vice versa.
I was greatly moved and encouraged by your acknowledgement of such deep and perfectly "in line with the life of Jesus" thoughts on grace.
May you continue to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ....and continue to share us.