The Hardest Task

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Throughout the month of August, we’re taking a close look at 23 verses of the New Testament.  They comprise Ephesians chapter one, which paints one of the Bible’s most comprehensive pictures of what it means for ordinary people to be “in Christ.”  
Several years ago, I decided to surprise Mary Sue by cleaning out the drain in our shower.
I removed the small metal cover over the drain, grabbed the longest screwdriver in our toolbox, and began to work my way down through the accumulated gunk.  I was making excellent progress until the wet screwdriver in my wet hand suddenly succumbed to gravity.  It completely vanished down the drain.  I had no idea our pipes went down that far.  Now I had a different kind of surprise waiting for Mary Sue. 
By the way, if any of you need assistance with home repairs – plumbing, electricity, whatever – I’m available.
When it comes to do-it-yourself projects, I need help.  And lots of it.  When it comes to dealing with relational turbulence in a way that honors God, all of us are in serious need of help.
Author and pastor Eugene Peterson once observed that more than a few churches are intentional about certifying their members with regard to doctrinal purity.  We want to make sure people believe the right things.  But nobody has to pass a Love Competency Test in order to become a church member.  Nor do we have periodic reviews to see if people are growing in patience and kindness.
Perhaps we should.  We all have eyes to spot the “big sins” connected with money, sex, and heresy.  But anger, emotional manipulation, and hard-heartedness are by far the most common and most damaging sins in the average congregation.  Brothers and sisters in Christ routinely wound each other.  And we’re all pretty incompetent when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation.
This seems amazing, especially in light of the fact that love is unquestionably the centerpiece of the good news of Jesus. 
All of us can be guided, motivated, and empowered by the reality of verses like Ephesians 1:7: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.” 
We ourselves are forgiven by God.  Therefore God has called us to forgive each other.  But that doesn’t automatically translate into relational gentleness and goodness. 
We learn a great deal about ourselves when someone hurts us.  Are we able and willing to forgive?  To what degree has God’s love penetrated our hearts?  It’s tempting to go down one of three less-than-healthy paths, each of which fails to deal with the underlying hurt.
The first is denial
Denial is the decision to act as if nothing ever happened, or to conclude that I’m probably just being overly sensitive.  Denial paves over the pain.  But this is peace-faking, not peace-making, and it is sadly pervasive amongst Christians.  Love and lies do not mix well, however, and denying that wrongs were ever done or wounds were ever received is not a strategy for healing.
Nor is forgiveness equivalent to saying that evil shouldn’t be punished.  Justice must be brought to bear where justice is due.  Forgiveness, at the personal level, means tearing up the debt sheets that we hold over other people.  Instead of saying, “You owe me,” we lower our buckets into the deep aquifer of God’s grace and mercy and treat others as God has treated us.
Forgiveness doesn’t excuse someone else’s behavior.  But it does prevent their behavior from robbing us of our peace of mind. 
Second, we can try to forget
If we opt for spiritual amnesia, we can call it forgiveness.  Bringing up the subject will just open old wounds and make people upset, we reason, and it’s probably too late now to do anything anyway.  And isn’t it true that the psalms tell us that God will remember our sins no more?
In fact, God’s memory is quite a bit better than any of ours.  Forgiveness should not be confused with forgetting.  In most cases it’s impossible to banish experiences of trauma from our minds.  What God chooses to do, as an act of love, is to refuse to “remember” our sins in the sense of using them against us.  And we’re called to do the same – to refuse to weaponize our memories and nurse our grudges.
Third, we can surrender to bitterness.
We may conclude that since we cannot understand exactly why certain bad things have happened to us, we can never get better.  We become paralyzed because we think another party is obligated to take the first step toward reconciliation.  We’re left feeling hopeless and depressed. 
Author Ken Sande describes what he calls the 60/40 rule.  According to this all-too-common perspective, I acknowledge that I am at least 40% responsible for the conflict that I am having with you.  But that leaves you responsible for the other 60%.  Therefore you owe the balance of payments.  You need to come to me before I am obligated to come to you.  In the meantime, while I wait for you to take action, I will go on feeling proud or miserable.  Or both. 
But God did not wait for us to come to him.  The overwhelming message of Ephesians 1 is that prior to anything we ourselves have said or done, God has acted, God has intervened, God has offered forgiveness.  The only human being who ever had the right to be bitter said from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
I have shared before that for many years I didn’t think I was particularly qualified to talk about forgiveness.  That’s because I didn’t seem to have anything “big” to forgive.  Maybe I would skate through life as the Teflon disciple. 
Then, out of the blue, came a handful of shattered relationships.  I have never felt such anguish.  The cumulative pain robbed me of my sleep, my optimism, and my hope that life would ever feel safe and normal again.  I began to empathize with author Anne Lamott’s lifelong wrestling match with unforgiveness.  For years she went around saying, “I am not one of those Christians who are into forgiveness.  I am one of the other kind.”
That remark had always earned her a laugh.  But then it started to be too painful.
Lamott decided to begin forgiving people who had harmed her either directly or indirectly over the years.  She remembered that theologian C.S. Lewis had once said that if we really want to learn how to forgive, we should probably start with something easier than the Gestapo.  So she decided to start with her “minor enemies.” 
Even so, she was immediately assailed by contrary emotions.  She realized that she didn’t want to forgive.  “I had such awful thoughts that I couldn’t say them out loud, because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” 
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I didn’t want to forgive, either.  Years went by.  I was imprisoned by my own resentments.  I either rationalized my emotions or tried valiantly to bury them.
I once heard someone say that the resources of heaven are always aligned with those who choose to forgive – or who at least pray for the desire to forgive.   So as an act of raw obedience, I decided to speak aloud the names of the people who had hurt me: “I forgive So-and-So.”  My heart wasn’t really in it, and I felt rather foolish.  But for several days I kept at it, nonetheless.
And then the strangest thing happened.  I felt an inward stab of kindness.  My heart softened.
That’s how it starts. 
I gradually began to experience a power beyond myself.  Every now and then, I even began to wish those individuals well.  The more I opened myself to the possibility of God’s love and power, the more my heart began to thaw. 

I’ve learned that there are no shortcuts, and there’s still plenty of work to be done.  But the process of releasing deep hurts is underway. 
Wise people have pointed out that forgiveness means giving up all hope of having a better past.
Why would we ever do such a thing?
So we can welcome the hope of having a far more gracious future.