January 17, 2007

Making Bad Things Right

2007 1502 page24 capWO SWOLLEN, shiny black eyes? I couldn’t imagine the cause. Then I was told, “She didn’t fix dinner on time!”
Just before that, but at a different mission hospital, another eye patient had arrived, having been sprayed in the face with battery acid. What happened? Someone, in anger, had filled a syringe with acid, then intentionally tried to blind our patient. Fortunately, the attempt wasn’t successful.
With all the pain collected from the intentional, the accidental, and the incidental, life’s difficulties can loom almost insurmountable. If suffering could be measured, I would venture that the pain of relational problems far outweighs the pain of physical ones. It doesn’t take a General Conference president or a hospital chaplain to see that humankind oozes with relational brokenness; nor does it take a seminary professor or a ministerial secretary to be able to repeat God’s solution to our relational brokenness: “Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).*
Trying to capture the meaning of forgiveness is about as easy as trying to condense the Pacific Ocean into a perfume bottle. However, when God asks us to forgive, we expect Him also to explain His own meaning. We discover His clue on understanding forgiveness in Ephesians 4:32: “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” We are to forgive one another even as God forgives us in Jesus Christ. When problems arise, the Chinese respond with an expression that means respond with “it doesn’t matter, it’s not important.” The French say “sans probleme” (“no problem”). Generally, however, neither the relational problem itself nor its forgiveness solution is unimportant. All in all, we find that God’s kind of forgiveness is both crucial and comprehensive.
2007 1502 page24But asking how God forgives is like asking a flower, “How do you bloom?” Or an eagle, “How do you fly?” Forgiveness is God’s nature; it is core to His very being. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, the answer came in these words: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty. . . .” (Ex. 34:6, 7). God not only forgives, He is forgiveness itself.
As I have tried to grasp a snapshot of the forgiving God we are to imitate, I recall seeing Dr. W. E. Hurlow, the legendary surgeon of Maluti Adventist Hospital in Lesotho, kneeling on the grass outside his house before a tiny, barefoot village girl. After removing a splinter from her foot, he proceeded to clean the wound and patch it with a bandage. He appeared to take as much care with that poor child as he did with any “important,” paying patient in the clinic.
It seems to me that the great God of the universe is like that. He is eager, able, and ready to tackle every problem—small or large. He has something for every situation—for home problems, for office problems, for school problems, for neighbor problems. He brings healing to old people, young people, middle-aged people, and even kids. Indeed, our God, so to speak, is the bandage king!
God Values Relationships
Not only does God value relationships, He created people for the purpose of having relationships. He wanted people He could love, and who would love Him. He says: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 John 3:1).
Sometimes it is tempting to complain because we are forced to share life with “problem” people. Still, we must not forget that that “skunk who did us dirt” is God’s precious child; “that louse who betrayed us” is someone for whom Jesus died; “that fool who should have known better” is God’s friend; “that clod that dun us in” is God’s property. Even if it’s not our choice to be penned up with such a “bunch of turkeys,” we owe it to God, who is the Father of all of us, to respect His other children.
God Planned Forgiveness
When we consider forgiveness as God does, we discover it is a concept that was invented before the foundation of the world. In creating humanity, God knew friendship could occur only in an environment where there was choice; so He created us with the power to choose. But choice is risky and expensive. So our Creator included a plan for restoring relationships in the blueprints of humanity. Even after Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God has steadily and faithfully been progressing with that plan. When it is completed, we will be restored to face-to-face communion with God.
But until then, relationships will continue to sour between humans. We can expect interpersonal relational problems with spouses, children, neighbors, bosses, church members, siblings, coworkers—anywhere there are links between two breathing souls. But before collisions occur, we need to commit to a contrite attitude and plan of forgiveness, because that is the godly thing to do.
God Takes the Initiative
After Adam and Eve broke their relationship with God, He still sought them out. “Where art thou?” He called. Though they were afraid to answer, He persisted. And He continues to persist. He’s the shepherd who searches for lost sheep. He’s the salesperson who repeatedly knocks at the door. He’s the housewife who will not give up searching for her lost coin.
2007 1502 page24There’s no rug in existence that can long hide the sweepings of relational brokenness. Those sweepings hold “cancers,” “disease,” even “rats” that will eat the heart out of one’s inmost soul. People problems must be addressed or they will rot our life away and rob us of eternity with God. The sooner we face them, the better chance we have of finding healing.
Jesus’ style is to take the initiative and face the problem with courage. It’s more dangerous to harbor hate than to chance making a mistake in trying to solve the problem. Don’t wait. God bought the gift of forgiveness with love. He wrapped it in love. He tied it up with love, and delivers it with love. God’s forgiveness is a gift—100 percent. And the best way to thank Him is to continue the gift of giving, just for love.
God’s Forgiveness Supports Law and Order
Our forgiving God is still a God of order. The stars and planets obey God’s choreography. Holy angels find their greatest joy in pleasing God, because God’s laws are good. But remember, God doesn’t have a dual personality. He doesn’t promote lawfulness on one hand, then say “it doesn’t matter” on the other. He doesn’t bother to speak His commandments with His own voice and write them with His own finger (twice), only to reward lawbreaking with forgiveness. In His heavenly way, the cross was the strongest protest God could muster against lawbreaking.
God is building a kingdom and society that will be safe and happy for all. His laws are a gift to His earthly family. True, in pity He provides forgiveness for those who sin, but His plan is summed up in the words, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11).
God Provides a Forgiveness Protocol
God’s perfect protocol for forgiveness is found in Matthew 18:15-20.1 It gives God’s step-by-step process for dealing with those who err. But in approaching others, we do well to walk softly with gentleness and love. We also do well to be “humble as dirt,” because we share in the guilt.
The appropriate response for the guilty party is to repent, confess, and make restitution (though they may not choose that response route). “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper:  but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13). Zacchaeus understood restitution: “If I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19:8). The Levitical codes also endorse this idea: “It shall be, when he sins and becomes guilty, that he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by extortion, or the deposit which was entrusted to him, or the lost thing which he found” (Lev. 6:4).†
The process may need to be repeated, because Satan has us so thoroughly entrenched in sin, and because humans learn so slowly. When asked how many times one should grant forgiveness, Jesus responded, “Until seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22).
God Has a Delete Key
LeRoy, my good husband, postulates that “forgiveness is never a good solution—except when it is the only one.” We note that on the few occasions when Jesus specifically said, “Your sins are forgiven,” there really was no other solution. The debtor in the parable of Matthew 18 owed 10,000 talents, an amount he could never pay on a servant’s wage. God appears to only cover damage that cannot be otherwise repaired. But praise God, He is most willing to use His delete key whenever it is needed! He’s willing to do anything that heaven can do to reestablish friendship with earthlings.
God does not expect His people to be quiet, lovable pushovers, who can be easily stomped on by the cleated boots of greedy opportunists.
A tougher love for debtors grants them the dignity of taking responsibility for their own actions. Canceling the debt when the debtor has the ability to pay invites a cancellation of the relationship.
Five Additional Elements of God’s Forgiveness
1. It seeks total rehabilitation.
After Peter denied Jesus, our Savior went beyond using His delete key. He took the effort to help him, to “prime” him, to reaffirm his love—hence His thrice-repeated question: “Lovest thou me?” (John 21:15-17). Then Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus isn’t just interested in clean records; He seeks vibrant, delightful, dynamic, trusting relationships. That, too, should be our goal with each other.
2007 1502 page242. It nourishes and protects healthy relationships.
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things . . . , endureth all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7). The forgiving heart is a loving heart that will do everything it can to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships, even as God does through Jesus.
3. It doesn’t cancel caution.
Trust is a beautiful, fragile, human link; but once it’s broken, or found to have been mistakenly placed, it is not easily restored. When Peter denied Jesus, a trust problem arose. Ellen White noted: “Before being called to take up again his apostolic work, he must before them all give evidence of his repentance. Without this, his sin, though repented of, might have destroyed his influence as a minister of Christ” (The Desire of Ages, p. 811).
This commentary helps us know how to relate to the person we’ve forgiven. We use caution until we have evidence that the person is trustworthy. Even as God does not tempt us beyond our own abilities, we would not wish to tempt a forgiven brother or sister to fall again. But what a happy day it will be when trust is 100 percent restored! Meanwhile, we don’t leave our new Mercedes running with the keys in place when a forgiven car thief lives next door.
4. God has a dump.
“Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). If anyone ever asks God about some past sin that has already been forgiven, I believe we can hear Him say, “I distinctly remember forgetting” (see Jer. 31:34).
Oh, how tempting it is to cherish and replay an unhappy past! But bitterness is not God’s way.2 Yes, there will be scars, and the relationship will never be the same as the original, but placing the situation into the hands of the Creator means the relationship has potential for being strengthened.
5. God showed us the ideal.
The ultimate revelation of forgiveness was placed high on a wooden pedestal in an open-air gallery during a Jewish Passover festival 2,000 years ago, displaying both the Master and Masterpiece of forgiveness. In that event was enacted the Ephesians 4:32 ideal: “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”
Think about it. The cross was Jesus’ reward for serving more faithfully than anyone else. It was His paycheck for going on a missionary journey that took Him from the bliss and glory of a King’s palace to the dregs of earth. He had given His all for humankind—time, intellect, energy, resources, love. His thanks was a nail for each hand.
If ever anyone was unjustly treated, it was Jesus. He had every right to appeal for mercy for Himself and justice for His enemies, but instead He prayed for them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
As I ponder that scene, I am brought to my knees. How can I ever achieve that kind of forgiveness? Clearly, by myself I cannot. Like David I pray, “Create in me a clean heart . . . and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).
*Unless otherwise noted, the Bible texts in this column are taken from the King James Version.
Scripture quote is from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
1Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7, pp. 260-264, offers further advice on this.
2There’s an interesting account of James White’s struggle with treasuring old hurts in Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3, pp. 97, 98.
Carolyn Byers writes from a mission eye hospital in Togo, West Africa.