The Diamond of Forgiveness

Copyright © May 2003, by Timothy J. Arensmeier

 

While attempting to help reconcile a builder and a church whose building had gone significantly over budget, I was contacted by the daughter of one of the principles in the conflict.  What she told me shocked me.  She related that one of the elders in her church had raped her!  I immediately asked what had been done about it.  The incident had been three months prior, and she had told her pastor.  Her pastor had told her not to report it to the police as “Christians aren’t supposed to sue each other, or go to court with each other.  We’ll handle it within the church.”

 

Having worked in the field of conflict resolution for over 25 years, and having been privileged to assist in not only seeing some conflicts between believers in Jesus Christ resolved out of court, but actually reconciled, I’ve been Mr. Reconciler to many people.  However, in this matter, I told the young lady to appear at the district attorney’s office first thing next morning.

 

There was an arrest that day.  There was a trial within a very few months, as it developed that the same individual had fondled or inappropriately touched many ladies in the same church.  The man was sentenced, and as a part of that process, the lady was able to confront the individual in the judge’s chamber.  All in all, it seemed a closed issue, even to the lady.

 

However, some weeks after the trial, I was again in that state, assisting in the conclusion of the construction matter, when she again called my hotel, leaving a message that she and her husband wanted to see me again.  We met and after some casual conversation she said, “I’m having a problem with forgiveness.”

 

Not being one to want to waste time, I immediately responded, “I can understand that.  Who wouldn’t, given what you experienced.”  I was wrong. 

 

She said that the man who had raped her had been forgiven by her during the trial.  Her problem was that she couldn’t forgive her pastor!

 

Remember the story in the gospels of Peter walking on the water?  He actually did walk on the water, as Jesus had invited him to do just that.  Peter’s only problem developed when a large wave was heading his way, and rather than keeping his eyes on Jesus, he looked at it with what I’d guess was understandable terror.  Of course, he immediately started sinking and cried out, “Help! Lord!  Of course Jesus came to his rescue and subsequently chided him about his lack of faith.  That’s always bothered me a bit, as it would seem that Christ could have said something like, “Hey, Pete.  You did good there for a while, but when you quit looking to me is where you blew it.”  Or something like that.

 

The point is that I’d respectfully submit that Peter prayed the shortest prayer in the bible with those two words.  I’ve frequently found myself praying that prayer...silently...when in the middle of a conversation with a friend who is looking for some answers or assistance from me.

 

This was one of those times.  I knew that as a couple they had truly struggled with this matter, and they were looking to me for wisdom.  I silently prayed that “Help! Lord!” prayer.  It is of interest to me that God seems to regularly answer that prayer quite quickly.

 

I wouldn’t have thought of it, but I believe God gave me a thought which I unfolded to her.  I recalled some of our previous conversations and said, “Let me tell you what you’ve told me about your pastor:

1.       ‘he’s young,

2.       he is a good preacher,

3.       he is naïve,

4.       he is a wonderful administrator,

5.       he sometimes does something that is really dumb.’”

 

She looked at me quizzically, and asked, “What are you saying?”

 

I said, “You’re defending your pastor.”  I proceeded to remind them both that the blood of Jesus Christ does absolutely nothing about youth, naivety, dumbness or even stupidity.  It cleanses us from sin!

 

She couldn’t forgive because she wasn’t calling sin, sin.  Until she could see that what her pastor had done against her was sin, there was no way she could forgive.  Seeing the sin of rape had been easy, therefore she could forgive, but she didn’t really have the process in mind as to how to forgive, in general.

 

I suggested that we look at Ephesians 4:32.  In the New International Version it reads,

 

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

 

In the King James, it is, 

 

And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.

 

The first thing that needs to be understood is that in order to forgive a person, any person, who has wronged us, we must see that what they have done is truly sin before God, and of course, that sin deserves the penalty of death.  I know.  That’s not politically correct to think like that, but until we do think like that we’ll merely develop some fairly health bitterness towards that individual.

 

Between the two translations cited, and a few others, there is a phrase which rings of some pretty tangible stuff regarding forgiveness.  For starters, we’re instructed to do something just like God does it.  Or, in the same manner that God does it.  When we place ourselves in God’s room, most of the time He doesn’t like it.  We’re not supposed to condemn anyone, for only God does that.  This is why Jesus elevated the commandments above our capacity to accomplish them.  In Matthew 5:21-22, we hear Jesus saying,

 

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.  Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin.  But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

 

Whew!  But, later on, in Matthew 5:27-28, He says:

 

You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.”  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

 

Amazingly hard words!  Who can measure up to those standards?  The obvious answer is:  No one!  That’s why Christ came to this earth to not only die for us, but to live for us first.  His life on this earth has as much salvific significance for us as does His death on the cross of Calvary.  He and He alone perfectly satisfied every demand of the law of God, and faithfully glorified His Father in ways we can’t even imagine.  In ways we’re incapable of, even with the Spirit of Christ living His life out through us.

 

Then, to finish out the picture, Christ, who had lived a perfect life for us, which we offer up to the Father as our Righteousness of faith, along with knowing that the Father accepts that, He accepts Christ’s death as dying for us in satisfaction of His just demands for our inability to live life perfectly which Christ did for us.

 

All of this is necessary to understand and value if we’re going to proceed to understand the next facet in this Diamond of Forgiveness.

 

In order to forgive anyone for anything, as God in Christ forgives, it’s imperative that we appreciate how God the Father forgives us to this moment in time.  How does God actually forgive us existentially?  Meaning, in this exact instant in time.  Remember, the above couple of examples of how we need forgiveness in an ongoing necessity?  Our thoughts are not always, only, ever honoring to our Savior, are they?  We don’t necessarily get involved in the Seven Deadly Sins (well . . . sloth is one of them, isn’t it?).  We tend to overlook the fact that gossip is a sin in God’s mind.  Envy qualifies.  Lust counts.  Arrogance fits.  Ever see a friend drive up in a new car and have a little touch of covetousness?

 

Do you get it?  We need God’s forgiveness not only on a daily basis, but normally several times a day.  Would you believe, hour?

 

If I’m to forgive that other person like God forgives me, I’d better understand and have an appreciation of how He forgives to this moment!  Right?

 

I’ve asked several people in the intervening years, “How do you forgive someone who has sinned against you?”  To this day, I’ve never heard anyone articulate a transferable mechanism of how to forgive.

 

I submit that to this moment in time, when any believer sins, be that egregiously in commission, or absent mindedly by omission, God still accepts Christ’s death on the cross of Calvary and accepts that in the stead of demanding our death for the sin of that moment.

 

So . . . I trust you’re ahead of me, but I’ve learned that those things that needn't be said normally should have been said.

 

It appears to me that in order to forgive another person for wrong(s) against me.  I must see that the behavior was sin, therefore, the person should die, but rather than pulling the trigger myself, and being slightly sophisticated, I don’t want to do that as I’d have to go to jail for a few years, so . . .  it’s at this point bitterness replaces justice. 

 

Rather, I see that sin has been committed and death ought to follow, but by faith in Christ, and in obedience to His command, through the apostle Paul, I will, like God does, accept Christ’s death as being sufficient to pay the penalty deserved by the person who has wronged me.

 

And, trust me!  It works!  Just yesterday on the phone, a friend told me after we’d talked about this for just a while, “I feel as though chains of weight are being lifted from my shoulders, right now!”

 

She had told me of her problem.  I had asked about forgiving.  She had said, “I’ve asked God to take my unforgiving spirit away.”  I’d responded, “He won’t do that.  He expects you to do that.”  And, I believe that when we wake up to how God forgives us to this moment in time; by applying the blood of Christ shed on Calvary’s hill nearly 2,000 years ago to the matter, and accepting that His death atoned for this sin, too, we actually are forgiving as God does!

 

When we can grasp that, it truly liberates us.

 

When we forgive others, as God in Christ, or for Christ’s sake, forgives us, we’re released from the burden we otherwise carry as a result of not forgiving.

 

Another facet of this Diamond of Forgiveness includes how we respond to that person whom we’ve finally forgiven.  Do we write them a letter and apprise them that we’ve forgiven them?  Absolutely not!  They may or may not be ready to hear such.  They may not even know that we have been hurt or harmed by them.  No.  We love them.  Remember how St. Paul said it in Romans 2:4,

 

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?

 

What is it about God’s kindness that leads us to repentance?  His forgiving love for us, in spite of our sin. 

 

I ask people from time to time to tell me when their forgiveness was established in the mind of God.  Just yesterday, I heard:

 

When I became a believer.

 

Nice answer and a blessed reality to that person at that time in their life.  But, a wrong answer.

 

Two thousand years ago, when Christ died for me.

 

Another nice answer, and another good answer . . . you guessed it!  Wrong.

 

So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life--not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time...  II Tim. 1:8-9

 

Point?  Your forgiveness and mine were established in the mind of God from before the foundations of the world.  Does that mean that nobody will go to hell?  No.  But our forgiveness was established in God’s mind before He, through Christ, created the world. 

 

Now, it’s true that I don’t enjoy it until after I repent of sin, and believe in Christ.  It’s true that my existential appreciation of it is only mine as I proceed to follow Christ and work at being obedient to His commands, as an extension of my thanks to Him for saving my soul.

 

My point is that forgiveness from God, is what attracts us to Him through Christ.  We hear of His love and that His war against us was settled at the cross of Christ.  (Again, while that historic event took place 2000 years ago, it was settled in the mind of God before anything was created!)

 

In other words, if you forgive another person, just like God forgives you, by accepting Christ’s death in their place, you’re released from the burden, and can proceed to behave lovingly towards that person.

 

More than once, I’ve listened as a Christian, through clinched teeth has told me, “I’ll never forgive that person!”  Frightening.  I’ve learned to look them straight in the eyes and ask, “Just what is it about Christ’s death on the cross of Calvary that is inadequate to atone for that other person’s sin against you?”  If they’ll listen, I remind them of Christ’s comment regarding the fact that ...if [we] do not forgive [others] their sins, your father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:15).  Pretty scary stuff.

 

You don’t need to stand in front of their steamroller again.  But, you’ll not be carrying an unforgiving spirit towards them.

 

A first cousin facet in this Diamond of Forgiveness will sound like a bit of heresy, but try to follow me.

 

For around 20 plus years, I’ve taught people in small groups and some not so small to never, ever, ever, ever . . . ask anyone for forgiveness.

 

Another, Whew!

 

Here’s why.  We are not taught to ask God for forgiveness.  In 1 John 1:9, we’re instructed,

 

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

 

If you say, but in the Lord’s Prayer, we’re told to ask God for forgiveness, I’d suggest that the exemplary prayer is Christ setting out some guidelines for prayer, among other things, helping us to not overstep our relationship with God by appealing to Him for anything we’re unwilling to extend to others.  That comes out in the next verse, where Christ said,

 

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  Matthew 6:14

 

The real challenge as I see it is that we have a fundamentally difficult time confessing sin.  There’s a long history of this problem.  If you recall a fellow named Adam, when confronted by God with his sin responded with, “The woman you gave me . . .” And, here you must be very careful.  Adam was not blaming Eve.  Adam was blaming God!  

 

Our biggest problem in getting right with anybody, including God, is being willing to acknowledge that I have sinned and done that which was evil in your sight, Lord.  I believe this is one reason God said of David, before and after the sin with Bathsheba, et al., “He is a man after my own heart.”  When David was ultimately confronted with the bony finger of the bold prophet, and told “You are the man!” David acknowledged it, and among other interesting things said, in Psalm 51:4 

 

    Against you, you only, have I sinned

       and done what is evil in your sight,

    so that you are proved right when you speak

        and justified when you judge.

 

Now, I’d just guess that some of the families of the men whom David had killed in an effort to cover his . . . sin, might have argued with that statement, but David was right!  He had sinned against God.  That others had been damaged, hurt, wronged, left fatherless, widowed, is true.  When we sin against God, it frequently affects many others.  But, did you catch the essence of David’s heart?  He was freely acknowledging his sin before God.  He didn’t blame Bathsheba (after all she was apparently quite beautiful).  He didn’t blame his parents for a stingy allowance.  He didn’t even blame the government!  He owned his sin.

 

Proverbs 28:13, says:

 

    He who conceals his sins does not prosper,

        but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

 

Were I to wake up and realize that I’d sinned against God, and simultaneously damaged you, I submit that there is a right way for me to approach you . . . and a wrong way.

 

The wrong way first:  Mary, I’m sorry that I hurt you by not doing what I’d promised to do for you.  I know that it cost you not getting that wonderful job.  Will you forgive me?

 

Careful now.  That’s what we’ve all been taught, most of our lives in the church.  But, look at what I’ve just done to Mary.  For starters she’s reeling under the realization that I’ve really messed up her life.  Now, to add to that, I’m forcing her into telling me that she forgives me! 

 

I mean, doesn’t she have to do that?  After all, if she’s a fellow follower of Jesus Christ, and I know it, I know that she’s obligated to forgive me and she knows that, too.  And, further, she knows that she’s a sorry excuse for a Christian if she doesn’t forgive me, on the spot!  So, she says through her tears, “I forgive you,” because that’s the right and proper thing for her to do.  Right?  Right!

 

However, she may have just added to other matters the sin of lying to me because I forced her to.

 

The right way is to say, Mary, I’m sorry that I hurt you by not doing what I’d promised to do for you.  I know that it cost you not getting that wonderful job.

 

Difference?  I’ve not added those four fatal words, Will you forgive me?

 

I submit that when we add those four words, we’re committing moral blackmail!

 

It’s pretty easy to look a person in the eye, tell them you’re sorry, and ask for forgiveness.  I’ve done it hundreds of times.  It wasn’t until I started studying this many faceted subject of forgiveness that I realized what I was doing.

 

It started shortly after Jan and I got married (forty years ago this month!)  We had had words the night before, and while we have always attempted to not let the sun go down on our wrath (Ephesians 4:26), there have been some relatively less than warm reconciliations on the spot.

 

While having my devotions the next morning, I felt convicted about what I’d said to Jan and decided to go and apologize.  You’re ahead of me, I know, but this was a good learning experience for me.  I went downstairs and said, “Honey, I know that what I said to you last night hurt you, and I really didn’t mean for it to.  Will you forgive me?

 

A less than enthusiastic, “Yes.”  And, I returned to my devotions, feeling very spiritual.

 

I honestly don’t recall where in the bible I was reading at the time, but God, through that still small voice very graciously, but quite firmly tilted my heart and I realized that I hadn’t made anything any better.  In fact, by saying that I didn’t mean to hurt Jan, I’d rather backhandedly blamed her for being hurt!  Gasp!

 

I walked back downstairs after praying and telling God that I was truly sorry for what had happened.  I walked into our kitchen where Jan was feeding our first daughter, Shireen, and said, “Honey, I know that what I said to you last night hurt you . . .   And, here the look she gave me was something of a mix between perplexity (we weren’t even aware of the existence of Alzheimer’s Disease yet), but one of those looks, mixed with a certain tiny anger at what kind of a nut was I, seemed to also be there.  Without missing a beat, I continued, “and when I said what I said, I’m truly sorry to admit it but I did in fact mean to hurt you.  I was feeling insecure and just plain lashed out.  I’m sorry.”

 

At that point, Jan almost ran into my arms, for she knew that I was actually telling her the truth.  I had actually confessed my sin.  I didn’t add the Will you forgive me, and she could process it better as I wasn’t blaming her, nor forcing her into a box.

 

If, after openly acknowledging your sin to someone, or the fact that you know that you’ve hurt them, as a byproduct of your sin against God . . . if you feel the need to say anything more, you could ask, “Is there a way I could try to fix it?  Normally, it doesn’t seem to be necessary.

 

Interestingly, another facet of forgiveness is that when we learn just how much God is desirous of a relationship of intimacy with us, and that He has done everything necessary to establish, maintain and develop that relationship, we find that we can more quickly and actually more easily confess our sin to God.  And, knowing what it means to be restored to fellowship with Him, we may more easily and more quickly confess our sin to our friend(s), whom we’ve damaged.

 

God has forgiven us, In Christ, from before the foundations of the world.

 

We are directed to forgive others in the same fashion, manner or procedural way that God the Father forgives us in and through Christ.

 

We will frequently need to acknowledge to others that we have let them down due to our own selfishness. In so doing, we may acknowledge our sin against them with greater integrity, when we really have told our heavenly Father of our sin against Him, and have by faith accepted His forgiveness.  After all, faith is believing that God will be faithful in doing everything He has promised in His word.  Right?

 

Well, recall 1 John 1:9,

 

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

 

God’s promise is that if we confess (own, acknowledge, wrap words around our sin without attempting to share the blame, or blame anyone else) our sins, He’ll forgive them.  We know that He does this by still accepting the substitutionary death on the cross of His Son Jesus Christ, so . . . justice is fulfilled.  A death is accepted (Christ’s, not ours) and we are restored to a fellowship with God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ.

 

Forgiveness is a wonderfully rich truth which has so many facets that we have merely moved the diamond slowly and seen but a few of them.  I trust that the little glimmers of light which may have refracted around in your heart and mind will engender in you a desire to make the study of this wonderful doctrine a lifetime pursuit.

 

If I may be of any encouragement, or if you wish to take exception, please don’t hesitate to write to Tim Arensmeier.

 

-          Soli Deo Gloria

 

____________

 

Rev. Arensmeier is currently pastor of the Sonoma Valley Community Church, 181 Chase Street, Sonoma, California 95476.  707/938-8100.   Tim and his wife Jan celebrate their 43rd wedding anniversary this month, and enjoy living in Sonoma.  They have four grown daughters, all of whom are married.  They also enjoy their four sons-in-law, nine grandsons and two granddaughters.

 

 

 

Web posted:  May 14, 2003

Updated:  May 1, 2006

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