The Forgiveness Factor
by Lewis Smedes
Text: 1 John 1:9
Topic: Why we can be absolutely assured of God’s forgiveness.
Big Idea: When we clear up confusion about confession and forgiveness, we’ll be able to hear clearly the gospel promise of God’s forgiveness.
Keywords: Forgiveness, Human; Forgiveness, Divine; Confession; Christ, the Cross of; Reconciliation
Illustration: An extended summary of the play The Black Angel, about a former Nazi war criminal who wants forgiveness more than his own life.
There is a close connection between confessing and forgiving.
Don’t be confused about confession.
It is not blabbing, explaining, or merely being realistic.
It is acknowledging responsibility, sharing pain, and gambling on grace.
Illustration: In the movie Tess, a young woman gambles that her new husband will forgive her for her past, but he doesn’t.
Don’t be confused about forgiveness.
It doesn’t mean forgetting or excusing.
It is the miracle of offering the other a new beginning.
Don’t doubt God’s forgiveness.
Illustration: In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha answers his brother Ivan’s cynicism about evil by speaking of Christ’s death and forgiveness.
The Forgiveness Factor
by Lewis Smedes
What do you do when you say, “I forgive you”? What really happens to you when someone you’ve hurt turns to you and says, “I forgive you”? What is the miracle of forgiveness?
This question haunted me in a new and powerful way after I watched Michael Christopher’s dramatic play The Black Angel at the Mark Taper Forum a couple of years ago. It was about a former Nazi general whose name was Engel who, after 30 years in prison (he was sentenced at the Nuremburg war crimes trial), was trying to make a new beginning for himself outside of a little village in France. There he began building a cabin in the mountains for himself and his wife. His past with its horrendous guilt was now forever behind him, paid for, he believed, by three decades in jail. Now he could try to forget it all. He had earned the right to make a new beginning.
But there was a French journalist by the name of Morrieaux, who could not forget. His family had been massacred at the start of the war in the village that Engel’s army had overrun. Everybody in the village had been shot dead. No, Morrieaux could not forget. For 30 years he planned revenge. If the Nuremburg court could not sentence Engel to death, Morrieaux would carry out his own sentence. Now after 30 years, the time had come. Morrieaux had gone into the little village and stoked the hatred and the fear in the minds of the village radicals and the crazed, and he did his work well. For on that night they were going to come up there as a mob and kill Engel and his wife, and burn down the cabin.
But there were some loose ends to the story of Engel, some unanswered questions that a journalist had to get an answer to. So the afternoon before the night of vengeance, Morrieaux went to the cabin, identified himself to the shocked Engel, and began an inquisition. All afternoon the inquisition went on as Morrieaux probed into the story. And as Morrieaux got inside of the soul of Engel, Morrieaux’s own soul began to change. Revenge began to taste sour in his mouth, and he changed his mind. And he said to the former Nazi general, “They’re going to come to you tonight, and they’re surely going to kill you. Come with me. I will save your life. I can get you out of here alive.”
The general waited for a long minute before he answered. And he said to the French journalist, “I will go with you on one condition.”
Morrieaux said, “What’s the condition?”
“That you forgive me.”
“No, no, no. Save you I will. Forgive you I cannot. Never, never, never.”
And that night the villagers came as a mob with the courage of anonymity that comes with wearing a hood over your head. They burned the cabin to the ground and shot Engel and his wife dead.
The play left everyone there gasping for an answer to the question of forgiveness. What was it that General Engel wanted more badly than life itself? What was it that he needed so much that he would rather die than live without it? What was it that Morrieaux did not have the power to give? What is the miracle of forgiveness?
Listen again to the promise of the Word of God: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us all of our sins.” The Word tells us that God can be counted on to forgive. It is about God’s unfailing grace to do what Morrieaux could not. But God’s forgiving is a model of our forgiving. So what happens between God and a sinner can also happen between two human beings alienated from one another. God shows the way.
We must notice the close connection between confessing and forgiving. If we confess, he forgives. But we mustn’t put too much content into that and make it say what it does not say. The text does not say if you do not confess he will not forgive. Repeat: The text does not say if you do not confess he will not forgive. The text only says that if we do confess, we are assured that he will forgive. What he does with unconfessed sin, we can leave to the mystery of his unlimited mercy. This we can seize onto. If we do confess, he surely forgives.
What is a confession? And what is forgiveness? If we get some kind of an answer to these questions, I think we will have heard the promise of the Word of God. So I invite you for a few moments to hang tough with me as we probe deeply into these two questions. What is it to confess? And what is it to forgive?
Don’t be confused about confession.
What is a confession? First, I want you to brush aside some of the pious debris that can clutter up the reality of a confession. Let me mention three things that confessing is not.
Confessing is not talking about sin. If talking about sin were confessing sin, our generation would be on a confessional binge. No people on earth has ever let it hang out the way we do. Celebrities race each other to the publisher with their secret sins, steaming manuscripts under their arms rushing to tell their private gossip to a noisy public. Fortunes are made on the premise that you and I are peeping Toms at heart. I’ve listened to my favorite radio psychologist on my car radio and marveled at people’s readiness to divulge their private peccadilloes to the radio psychologist and to a few million eavesdroppers. But blabbing our secrets is not confession. Spilled beans do not yet a confession make. Talking about sin is not the same as confessing it.
Second, confessing sin is not the same as explaining it. I want to tell you that I’m more than willing, usually, to try to explain my faults. I want everybody to understand me and appreciate the extenuating circumstances under which I was practically forced to do the crazy things that I sometimes do. I want you to know that I’m not a terrible fellow. I can explain everything. Well, that afternoon on the mountaintop General Engel explained. Morrieaux should know what it was like to have been a German general under that lunatic Adolph Hitler. Engel explained, but it’s not confession.
Third, confessing sin is not the same as being realistic about it. If realism were the same as confession, our generation would be the champion confessors of all time. No generation has been able to look at the grisly and tawdry side of human nature eyeball to eyeball without blinking the way we can. A few years ago, Dr. Karl Menninger, a famous psychologist, wrote a book called Whatever Happened to Sin? calling us back to realism about sin. I paged through his fine book and I noticed two missing words—confess and forgive. They are not found in the book. Realism makes us honest. It makes us tough. It makes us callous, but it does not make us confessors of our sins.
If confessing is not the same as blabbing, not the same as explaining, and not the same as being realistic, what in heaven’s name is it? I think that confession always includes three unmissable qualities.
The first one is an acknowledgement of our responsibility. To confess is to acknowledge responsibility.
Let me admit to you that as I grow older and see more tragedy, I am convinced that people are as often sinned against as much as they are sinning. They’re as often victims as they are culprits. We’re victims of many forces. I don’t know just how much you can blame on your anemic genes and chromosomes, or how much you can blame on your fouled up psychological childhood environment. I don’t know how much you can blame on something else. But this I believe—that somewhere in the dynamic of your decisions, somewhere in the dynamics of your act, you decided, you chose, you determined what you should do. It’s not my mother, not my father, not my toilet training, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. And I have not confessed until I have acknowledged my responsibility even though I am not fully sure of what it is.
Second, and this is most crucial, confession is shared pain. When I truly confess to you that I have hurt you, I am saying to you that the hurt that I caused you now hurts me, too. I feel the pain that I inflicted upon you. I wounded you, and now I am wounded by the cuts that I sliced into your life. Only when pain is shared does confession begin.
Third, confession is a gamble on grace. How do you know when you’ve held out your heart and you’ve held out your soul in your hand for the other person to look at in all of its faultiness—how do you know that the other person will not look at it and find in it reason to shut the door in your face? What a risk; what a risk is a confession!
In the movie bearing her name, Tess, a young bride, gambles her happiness, her very future on her husband’s power of grace to forgive. She risks everything by telling him on her wedding night about a tragic mistake in a past relationship that she had with another man. And as she confesses, his body stiffens. His lips go tight. His dry eyes freeze in a blank stare. And he doesn’t have the grace to forgive. She gambled on his grace and lost, and her life was over. What a risk.
Every confession is acknowledgement of responsibility, the feeling of shared pain, and a risk and a gamble on the other person’s grace. With these any confession can be the beginning of a miracle that tears down a wall and builds a bridge over which you can meet each other and begin again.
Don’t be confused about forgiveness.
What then is the miracle that happens after confession is made, when one confesses and the other forgives? Again, we need to brush away some misconceptions that can clutter up the reality of forgiveness and keep its miracle from our eyes. Let me mention two things.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is hard; forgetting is easy. It’s not painful. You need no miracle of grace to get you to forget. All you need is a bad memory or fear enough to force you to drive the memory into the dark pit of your unconscious. If God could have forgotten, he would not have needed a cross. He could have just said, “It doesn’t matter, I’ve forgotten it.” Forgetting is not forgiving. Forgiving is remembering and still forgiving.
Second, forgiving is not excusing. Oh, we all need a lot of excusing for the dumb things we do. I know that I often get excused because I’m working too hard. We workaholics always have the edge. Nobody dares refuses to excuse us for working so hard. So I’ve got it made on the question of excusing. But we all excuse each other for so many things. I know you’re a flake, but you’re my kind of flake. My husband is a clod, but with the mother he had to grow up with, what would you expect? You see, excusing is easy. Excusing is an end run around the pain and the challenge of forgiveness. You can excuse almost anything if you understand it well enough.
If forgiveness is not forgetting and if forgiving is not excusing, what in heaven’s name is it? What happens when God forgives a sinner? What happens when a hurting person forgives the person who hurt her?
Forgiveness at bottom is a very simple miracle. It is the miracle of a new beginning, a new beginning starting at the moment where you are, not where you wish you were but at the place you are together, to begin again. When you truly forgive someone you hold out your hand and you say, “I cannot excuse what you’ve done. I cannot understand what you’ve done. I cannot forget what you’ve done. Here’s my hand. I want to be your friend again. I want to be your husband again. I want to be your father again. Let’s begin over.”
When we’re ready to forgive we do not have to understand everything. We do not have to get the story straight. We don’t have to sew all the loose ends together in our minds. All we need to do is to begin where we are in our shared pain and determine to walk into the future together.
What future? Who knows—it may be a future where we will have more pain, more confessing, and more new beginnings. We never settle it once and for all. Forgiveness does not guarantee a painless future between you.
Nor can forgiveness turn back the clock. We have to begin where we are, and sometimes that means that we have to begin a brand new relationship. A divorced person may have to forgive her estranged husband, but then, other than as man and wife, they’ve got to begin again where they are. Sometimes a child, perhaps a very old child, angry at a parent, needs to forgive a parent already dead. And then the forgiveness has to be a new beginning with the memory of the parent now gone.
Whatever the quality of the moment, whatever the status of the relationship, when you sense that another person has shared the pain that he or she has caused you, you are ready to forgive if you have grace enough to do it. And there’s the rub. As long as we are relating as sinful persons to sinful persons, confession is such a great risk. I may not have the grace to forgive you. You have to risk it with me.
Don’t ever doubt God’s forgiveness.
The gospel is that with God all risk is removed. If we confess, he is faithful and fair to forgive us all of our sins. We can depend upon it. There’s no gamble. What makes the difference? The difference is a cross set in the soil on a Palestine hill, where a man once hung in shared pain for the sins of the world. Jesus suffered there, and in his suffering he held out his pain to God as though he were saying, “O Father, the pain that the human race caused you I am feeling with you now. I share your pain, O God.” And in the sharing of pain on the cross for us, Jesus made a perfect confession of sin for us. And the cross in God’s light is the guarantee of a new beginning for us, because Jesus made a perfect confession there.
Now any confession will work with God as long as it plea bargains on the basis of Jesus’ shared pain. Our confessions are never perfect. They’re often halfhearted, half complete, half intelligent, even half sincere. God’s forgiveness still comes through. There is a cross of shared pain in the life of God. This is why he can be trusted never to shut the door, never to turn his back. He can be relied on not simply to excuse us, not simply to forget, not simply to understand but to know and remember everything and still say to us, “Here’s my hand. I want to be your Lord again. I want to be your Father again. I want to be your friend again. I want to be your fellow traveler into the future with you. Let us begin again.”
In one of the most moving dialogues for me in all human literature, two brothers, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov, in Dostoyevsky’s great novel are talking in a tavern about the insufferable evils in our world that people commit against each other and especially against children. Ivan is an atheist, and with demonic passion he argues that there is no way in heaven or on earth for God and man to have harmony again, no way to bring God and man together in this rotten world. And Alyosha just sits silent with his face in his hands. He cannot conjure up a philosophical argument to answer his brilliant brother. He finally lifts his head and says, “Ah, but there is One who can forgive everyone everything because he has shed his innocent blood for everybody and everything.”
There is one who can forgive everybody and everything because he shed his innocent blood for everybody and everything, and that I do believe is the heart of the matter.
© Lewis Smedes
Preaching Today Tape #10
A resource of Christianity Today International
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