Forgiveness when you get no or only a “so-so sorry”

At Harbor Community Church, we just finished our last sermon in the series “A Powerful Community.” I mentioned that it was apropos we ended with forgiveness, because I think extending and receiving forgiveness are perhaps one of the greatest displays of the gospel power we see in this life.

Of course there are extreme examples like those in Rwanda or Louis Zamperini in Unbroken, but there are many other forgiveness stories which might not be subjects of books. Yet they still bear the imprint of the work of the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness can happen in the extreme but is just as important on the everyday level.

While I was finishing  Seeking Allah and Finding Jesus on my Iphone this past Sunday, I received a question via text message. It was solid question: Can you really forgive someone if they didn’t or don’t ask for forgiveness?

The context of the passage Colossians 3:11-13, and thus the sermon, focused specifically on Christian community: the church is to forgive as Christ forgives. It presupposes some form of repentance. When I quoted Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, that too, presupposed someone has apologized.

 Someone may have robbed you of some happiness, reputation, opportunity, or certain aspects of your freedom. No price tag can be put on such things, yet we still have a sense of violated justice that does not go away when the other person says, “I’m really sorry.” When we are seriously wronged we have an indelible sense that the perpetrators have incurred a debt that must be dealt with. Once you have been wronged and you realize there is a just debt that can’t simply be dismissed— there are only two things to do. You can forgive. Forgiveness means refusing to make them pay for what they did. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death….Yes, but it is a death that leads to resurrection instead of the lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism.

So what happens when someone isn’t sorry? Can there be real forgiveness? Keller defines forgiveness as the releasing of some sort of debt, “refusing to make them pay for what they did.”

Do you release someone from a debt if they don’t want to be released? In that sense, you could say no.

But I’d caution a simplistic answer here, on either side. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing, but they are connected. Forgiveness can lead to reconciliation.

In As We Forgive, we see forgiveness and reconciliation. In the book Unbroken, we see simply forgiveness. Did Louis Zamperini really forgive, if his Japanese tormentor known as “The Bird” never confessed? They never reconciled, but did he forgive?

I think it would be unfair to not call this forgiveness. Louis wanted to tell this man about Jesus and to extend him grace. Grace is unmerited favor. The hope was that the Bird would be moved by this grace. Reconciliation isn’t possible outside of confession, but I do think some form or shape of forgiveness is.

Whatever “not forgiving”  someone because they haven’t confessed actually looks like, I know what it can’t look like:lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism.“-Keller. We are called to remove bitterness. Ephesians 4:31 “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Even if you never apologize, we have to let Jesus take our bitterness.

Seeking confession if necessary for your good AND theirs. Seinfeld’s George Costanza reminds James Spader’s character that he can’t skip the apology step in the 12 step AA program. George pursues him selfishly, not for the good of the other, but simply for his own satisfaction. However, even so, George does want a real apology, not just words. A real apology is something we can seek.

Love covers over a multitude of sins. Do I need to seek confession every time someone sins against me? I don’t think so. My love for you should allow me to release you from debt. If I can’t forgive, then we can talk.

We also have to understand that God seeks reconciliation with us. And he takes the first step. Showing grace to someone else might actually move them to repentance. After all, God’s kindness moves us to repentance, why wouldn’t our kindness move someone else to repentance? Showing grace to those who don’t repent is powerful. It didn’t move the Bird, but it has moved a number of people since.

Who is at fault is not always clear. Often times two parties can both be at fault, and perhaps the response to the offense was a sinful response. We don’t know whose fault it was that Paul and Barnabas split in Acts (if it was a sinful disagreement). Maybe both? But Paul does speak positively about John Mark indicating reconciliation. So something had to have happened. One party moved toward the other. I’ve seen people make confession a pre-requisite to even talking. That’s ludicrous. I know there are instances when one party is completely innocent and one is guilty. But let’s not presume that is always or even often the case.

Jesus asked God the Father to forgive those who nailed him to the cross. Stephen did the same thing when was being stoned. Did Jesus really forgive them? Did Stephen really forgive? Well, both seem to forgive. And who knows what it did to Paul, who was there for Stephen’s execution? It did nothing at the time, but Paul did say in Acts that God asked him why he “kicked against the goads.” Who knows if a seed was planted? Regardless, we see the desire to release someone from a debt based upon their ignorance of what they were actually doing.

Forgiveness is messy. It is not formulaic. It doesn’t happen overnight (though declaring forgiveness can) but can take years. Can forgiveness really happen outside of confession? Good question. Perhaps technically not, but possibly so, based upon what Jesus and Stephen desire?

I don’t know that trying to be technically correct is really the best way to go about forgiveness.  I know that God in His infinite grace moved toward me. And he still moves toward me when I don’t want to confess to my wife and kids that I’ve sinned against them. But He does. Sometimes when I ask Him, and sometimes it is uninvited (but welcomed!).

So in the end, we have to let go of bitterness, even if the debt has destroyed the relationship and the other person. We can seek confession for the good of BOTH parties, but we may never get it. Let grace have the final say and remember the cross. You probably have missed confessing sins (how could you not!) and the cross covers them all. Remember that in the context of relationships.

Riley, Repentance, and Redemption?

After several months of “Rome-less” radio down in Bradenton, my wife let me know that Jim Rome was actually available on FM. That was music (ironically we’re talking about ‘sports talk radio’) to my ears. Rome discussed the whole Riley Cooper racist tirade caught on video while at a Kenny Chesney concert (his first mistake). The “N” word was dropped like a set of dumb-bells by a meat head in a weight room. Only this meathead wasn’t big enough to scare people after the racist ranting video went viral. Tebow’s former teammate, and roommate, is in some serious trouble.

While the NFL doesn’t seem likely to suspend him right now, it is tough to rebound from such a debacle. Remember Michael Richards who played Kramer on Seinfeld after his tirade? While he certainly has a career to think about, Cooper has to come to realization very quickly, that what he said (and probably thought-though seeing into the heart of another is impossible) was terrible and the consequences of said words could be around to stay long after.

Marcus Vick, who has done nothing good, well ever, has never been a great spokesperson for his older brother Mike. Getting kicked off Va Tech’s football team opened the door to playing for the Miami Dolphins. For a pre-season. But with the help of a famous brothers name, and twitter account, you can always make enough noise to be heard by a number of folks. He actually put out a “bounty” (a la Greg Williams and the Saints, allegedly) of a 1,000 for a safety to take out Cooper in a game. Not sure where he gets that kind of cash, but that’s for another day.

For today, I want to look at Vick’s response.

“I know what type of person he is,” Vick said of Cooper.  “That’s what makes it hard to understand but easy to forgive him.”Mike Vick also disagrees with his brother’s remarks about Cooper, saying that Marcus should “not show a level of ignorance himself.”

Receiver Jason Avant also forgave Cooper.  “I just know him,” Avant said.  “He’s not racist.”

I wonder if there’s also something else going on. Most people are centering their forgiveness around the words. But what about the thoughts? Could that be forgiven? If so, by who?

By someone who had been forgiven of something really big. Really stupid. 

Mike Vick did jail time for his role in dog fighting. It was bad. It was stupid. It was evil. But I wonder if that plays into his quickness to be able to forgive. Grace begets grace.

In Jesus parable in Luke 7:36-50, which he tells to some self righteous religious folks, he poses the question which person would be more thankful, someone with a small debt cancelled or bigger debt cancelled? The answer is obvious. Then he expostulates: 

47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Whoever has forgiven Vick, or whomever he feels forgiven by-whether God, teammates, owner, friends, fans-it probably plays into his take on forgiveness. He has loved Cooper much because he has been forgiven much. For those unwilling to forgive such racist remarks, or racism in general, it reveals how small a debt they had cancelled. Of course it does take time, and it seems as though it may take time for other teammates to come around. But if there is belief in the gospel, even racism, not just words, but beliefs, can be both called out as evil, while the forgiveness process (provided there is repentance) can begin.  

Book Review: In the Presence of My Enemies

I regularly check Tim Challies blog for kindle deals. He has them almost every day. On many occasions I find books for under 4 dollars, and every so often I’ll get one for free such as In the Presence of My Enemies by Gracia Burnham.

At first I feel a little weird about reviewing a book I paid nothing for, but then I realized, several of the books I’ve reviewed have actually been sent to me by the authors for free so that I would review them. Most of the “professional” reviewers do this anyway. Although this is a non-commissioned book review, I promise the cost of the book did not lower my expectations the way Net-Flix streamers tend to lower their expectations when browsing the plethora of “free” B quality movies.

For those unaware of the Gracia Burnham-which was me before I read the book-she and her husband Martin were missionaries with New Tribes Missions in the Philippines. Martin served as a pilot and Gracia did everything else besides flying, often even serving as air traffic controller. While vacationing away from their children on a nice anniversary trip, a militant Islamic group called the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped the Burnhams along with a number of other vacationers.

The book chronicles their journey from that island paradise to a remote hellish rain forest  “with devils filled (another more famous Martin coined that phrase).” Burnham, do doubt assisted by fellow writer Dean Merrill-how much assistance is anyone’s guess-gives more than just an amazing survivor story, but details how the two arrived in the Philippines in the first place. Because missionaries are not born but made over providentially guided “circumstances,” this was very helpful. I mean, before you ask yourself, “How in the world did I get myself kidnapped,” one deals with a much more existential question, “How did I get to the point where I put myself in this position?”

In her introduction, Gracia acknowledges the fact that she wants to honor her husband Martin. That should tip off the reader that the story does take a sad turn before her rescue. It saddened me greatly, as I got to know this couple and loved them even more with each click of the arrow button.

I found the writing simple but engaging, enjoyable, and painted all the picture I needed to get a grasp of what it would be like to be kidnapped by a gang of incredibly self-righteous yet hypocritical militant muslims. What would it be like for you and your three children? You miss a whole year of their lives while they wait and pray they will see you again. Unbelievable.

But there remains yet another battle beyond the homesickness, kid-sickness, uncomfortabilty and uncertainty: God-sickness, or rather “sick” with God. What do you do with a God who doesn’t answer your prayers for rescue? Well at least not for 15 months and then you only get half your prayer answered. She details her struggle and how Martin walked with her through the dauting jungle of doubt and despair. 

Theologically I give it two different grades: one for the applied theology, another for her stated theology. In regards to applied theology, the Burnhams clearly demonstrate a powerful grip on their sin and the gospel. Gracia recognizes her own sin in new and deeper way. It is only through this recognition, and the concomitant deeper picture of the gospel she embraces, that she begins to have love her enemies. Very challenging stuff and they get an A+ for applying the theological truth of depravity and need for grace.
When it comes to a stated theology, I give her a B-. How do you reconcile God not answering your prayer for deliverance (or rather answering with a “no” which He is OK doing), or for God allowing such evil like the Abu Sayyaf in the world? Free-will. God will not violate someone’s right to be completely autonomous. She compares this “hands off” approach with the way America desired to perform the rescue operation, but yielded to the Philippines. The latter had right of first refusal and they wanted to do it their way. America had to respect the Philippines’ rights as a sovereign nation and would not exert its will. As a result, the Phillippinos came in with guns a-blazing in the middle of the day and accidentally shot all three hostages. Gracia alone survived the rescue attempt.

I realize this is a common perception of God and evil. He has his hands tied and can’t do anything about it. But can you imagine God talking in a booming voice, with the Earth shaking, “Sorry dude, I can’t do anything about it. They have free will, which I will not violate. I want them to choose me and do the right thing, but I have my hands tied. Sorry buddy!”

That’s not the God of the bible. At least how I interpret it. 

What made this analogy so saddening, if not befuddling, is that Gracia clearly gets the depths of the sin which has made its home deep in her heart. Yet I don’t think she follows through with its implications. If a Christian is that sinful, and needs God to intervene on his/her behalf (isn’t that what prayer is?), is it that much of a stretch to realize non-Christians need God to do the same thing for them? And that if he doesn’t, they remain dead in their sins (Ephesians 2:5-6).

While she didn’t connect the dots like I had hoped, I would only hope that my applied theology would be one third of hers. Of course, God is the only one who can make us love our enemies. So to Him be the glory and to us be the encouragement!

I highly recommend this book to you. We can read about WHY we should forgive. We can read about WHO and HOW to forgive. But there is something quite powerful to see WHEN people forgive and love their enemies. I’m encouraged and challenged the most when I  SEE the gospel change people. You’ll see it here. It will renew your hope that people like you and I can love our enemies.

Reggie Bush and public apologies

Last week I saw an interesting interview with current Saints (at least as long as he doesn’t demand the 12 million dollars owed him this year) running back Reggie Bush. The interviewer reminded Reggie of his fateful tweet after New Orleans drafted Alabama running back Mark Ingram in the first round of this year’s draft: “Its been fun New Orleans.”
Of course a bit later, he posted something more “diplomatic,” according to Pat Yasinkas:
“Congrats to Mark Ingram on being selected to New Orleans. He will be a great addition to the Saints backfield just as he was in Alabama.’’ 
The second tweet no doubt (in my mind) came after his agent informed him of the stupidity of his first tweet. At least, that’s the scenario I presume. Usually with agent motivated apologies, they reveal about as much remorse as one coming from a sociopath. 
But in this interview, you could really tell that Bush owned up to his mistake. He even berated himself for ignoring the NFL’s yearly social media reminder to pause before you press “send.” Its no wonder if these public or internet apologies are real or simply diplomatic. Yet is it possible that they could eventually lead to real heartfelt sorrow? Sometimes? Whether this response was motivated by an agent or fear of actually losing his job, I think it is possible even publicly “forced” apologies can result in real repentance down the road.
Here are a few quick takes:
1.) In a similar way, I think that corporate confession during worship, even though you’re not “feeling it” at the time, can end up leading to real confession some time after the church service ends. I don’t know how often it does, but I’m eager to start paying attention to how it affects me personally during the week.

2.) It is nice to see someone admit, “I was just dumb. It was my fault.” Few things gain respect more than someone admitting his mistakes. Now if/when he owns up to his mistakes with the USC disaster….

Merlowe Joe Maddon’s 30 minute rule

The last two nights I had both a rare privilege and frustration: watching the Tampa Bay Rays on TV. Unfortunately when the Rays are on TV, it is because they are playing either the Red Sox or Yankees. On back-to-back nights they lost by one run to both. 
One of the announcers, Rick Sutcliffe, commented on whether or not losing 1-0 to the Red Sox in 16 innings the night before would have a tangible adverse affect on the Rays playing the Yankees the next night. He believed the frustrating loss wouldn’t hurt the Rays, citing manager Joe Maddon’s “30 minute rule.”

The 30 minute rule means that the team can/should reflect on the bitterness for the loss for only 30 minutes. After that, they cannot dwell on it anymore. It’s in the past, and they have to play another game the next day (more often than not with 162 game season).
I’m not sure that there is a minimum time limit we should mourn for the bitterness of our sin. The sacrifices of God are a broken and contrite Spirit, and that obviously involves being bothered by our general and particular sins. However, particularly in regard to our particular sins (but the general as well), we should be reminded that we must not remain in such a mournful state for too long. Christ has already forgiven sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God (I Peter 3:18).

But there has to be a maximum time limit on mourning our sins or else we will walk around like Eoyore, forgetting the victory which Jesus has secured. Repentance must lead to rejoicing (or it isn’t repentance) because God’s mercies, and our experience of them, are new every morning (Lam 3:22-23). A good reminder to us all, especially when we experience the consequences of our sin.

Unbroken thoughts

For a while I felt almost addicted to “Office” re-runs. I personally love the show, and have found it helpful in connecting me to both those a bit older and younger than myself. But I knew the only way to get out of the TV rut was a good book. Reading stuff for ministry isn’t too hard since I dedicate some of my schedule to read and study. Reading stuff at night time becomes harder because its not necessarily part of my job. The only prescription is not more cow-bell-though who couldn’t use more cow-bell, but simply a good book. Some of my previous books which have helped me out of the night time rut include Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy, No Bag for the Journey (a fellow Jesuit High alum turned Episcopal Priest chronicles his journey riding a bike across the country), and The Glass Castle
This time, Unbroken came to my rescue. The most exciting book I’ve read in a long time. 
Laura Hillenbrand can certainly spin a yarn with the best of them. Her biographical writing rivaled Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer, but she did a great job of simply getting out of the way to let the story of Louie Zamperini almost tell itself. Sometimes I feel guilty recommending something already on the best seller’s list, because its obviously not a gem that I’ve discovered. But this book kept me up late into the night for a week or so, as I clamored to get to the next page and chapter of Louie’s life.
After crashing at sea, floating without food, surrounded by sharks, Louie and the pilot were intercepted by the Japanese. It only got worse, as they POW camp-hopped all over Japan. The brutal treatment they received at the hands of the Japanese really tied me into an emotional knot with anger and sadness wrapped around each other. 
I can’t imagine what I would have done after being liberated from such an evil (37 % of Pacific POW’s died as compared to 1% in Europe). When men in one camp became free, some no doubt thought about repaying their captors’ evil with evil. But after a Thanksgiving service, “They were told that they must not seek revenge; they were officers and gentlemen, and they were to behave that way.”
This was one of the most memorable lines in the book. I wonder what I would have done if someone tried to stop me from retaliation and only gave me the “you’re a gentlemen, so act like one” command.  Not sure that would have worked for me. I might have said, “Etiquette class and cotillion does not a gentlemen make,” and would have at the very least given each guard an atomic (though I would have probably used a different word) wedgie.
But it did “work” for these guys, at least on the surface, and for a time. Most didn’t retaliate in the slightest. I guess that says a lot about the “greatest generation.” Unfortunately though, the scars of the P.O.W. experience were decidedly deeper than the skin, and many like Louie remained haunted by their tormentors back in the States.
In fact, it was only through a one-time enemy’s act of atoning sacrifice that would free Louie from the nightmares and anger. After he had seen (through the eyes of faith) an enemy die FOR him, he put aside his quest for revenge and returned to Japan to share the gospel instead of mete out judgment (which he actually had plans to do!).
That sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient today to curb our retaliatory dispositions to those who truly deserve retaliation. Showing “class,” or trying to play the “bigger man” might stop the action, but it will not stop bitterness, anger, or nightmares.

Unbroken describes itself as a story of redemption, and it delivers. Ultimately it is only through Jesus, that any of us can experience such holistic redemption.

Chris Paul, forgiveness, and me

If you’re of those who follow the NBA playoff’s, you’ll know that the L.A. Lakers received a very poor Mother’s Day present from the Dallas Mavericks: a near 40 point “beatdown.” Sometimes we need a “villain” to keep things interesting: the Lakers were that “villain” to me: someone to root against. Now, I just don’t care.
While I don’t offer you any suggestions on a team to pull for in the play-off’s, I do offer you a player to pull for in the next NBA season, should they have one. It is very clear that very soon the NBA will head the way of the NFL and players will be locked out. So, provided there is an NBA season, or a shortened season next year, here is a lad whom you will want to root for: Chris Paul.
I knew New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul was a believer; after all, he was on the cover of the Sports Spectrum (a Christian sports magazine). In fact, he was on the cover of the most famous Sports Spectrum volume, the edition containing sports-related devotions by a host of athletes, coaches, and an associate pastor (ME). My name looks a little out of place alongside Indianapolis Colt’s Center Jeff Saturday. So that edition, in the minds of many, will forever link Chris Paul and myself. Chris knows what I’m talking about. Obviously.

Check out this story about Chris Paul, how he honored his grandfather, and offered forgiveness to the teens who brutally murdered him. It will no doubt move you, surprise you, and perhaps challenge you. It did me. You may not be pulling for the Hornets next year, but you will be pulling for him. I promise.