|Our front porch, in warmer, more forgiving days
"I will never forgive her for what she did to me."
- A husband, about his adulterous wife
When I was a campus pastor at Michigan State University a young mother and her two-year-old son knocked on my office door. She asked if I could talk with her.
She began to cry as she told me the story of her beautiful little boy, and how much her husband loved him. I'm thinking, so what is the problem with this? Then she said: "My husband is not the boy's real father. And my husband does not know this yet." Fear was gripping her as she spoke of how her son was more and more resembling his real, biological father. "My husband is going to see that his "son" doesn't look like him! What am I supposed to do?"
What were this woman's options? She could not tell her husband the truth and hope he doesn't see the non-resemblance. She could hope that he doesn't find out through someone else. What if the real father one day wants to connect with his son? She could hope this would never happen. Basically, she could live in constant fear all her life that, one day, her husband will discover the truth that she has hid from him. But this is a horrible option. Think of living like John Voight, at the end of the movie "Deliverance," waking up to the nightmare that one day, the dead body on the river bottom will somehow float to the surface.
She could tell her husband. This would break his heart, since he thinks his "son" is really his. How would he respond? She was fearful of his potential responses.
"I don't know what to do! I love them both! I made a mistake with another man! Can you help me!"
I knew the answer. I knew what she must do. I knew how it could work out.
"Do you know Jesus?" I asked. She did. He didn't.
"Tell your husband the truth. Ask for his forgiveness. Tell him you've talked with me. And I will talk with him."
How could that help?
"If I can meet with him and introduce him to the Real Jesus, and he comes to understand his own need for the redemptive work of the Cross, then he will be able to forgive you."
I spent some time explaining this to her. We've all screwed up and failed and hurt others and fallen short of God's desires for us.
In Colossians 1:21-22 Paul writes: Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.
And Romans 5:10-11 - For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
I told her: "Christ died for all of us, not because we were so good, but because he loved us even though we were his "enemies."
One day I came to realize how screwed up I was inside. The thought came to me: 'I have a problem.' I was beginning to realize the depth of how my life was messed up and was messing up the lives of others. The realization of my own screwed-upness helped me see my need for redemption. For forgiveness. To be set free from the heavy burden of trying to self-atone for my own sins, and from making people pay for what they've done to me."
I told her: "If your husband could come to see his own need for Jesus and the Cross and forgiveness, if he could come to grips with his own failure and filth and corruptness and then experience God's love and forgiveness himself, he could forgive you."
As wild as this sounds, I have experienced this and seen it happen over and over and over again. Such experiences become victorious and celebrative moments of freedom. A person set free and saved from their own self will be able to forgive others. How could I not cancel someone's indebtedness towards me when I realize how much Christ has forgiven me of?
One day Jesus was at the home of a Pharisee. A prostitute heard Jesus was there, so she came, carrying an alabaster jar of oil to anoint Jesus' feet. Of course she's not there to do a favor for Jesus. She is deeply troubled. She's searching for redemption. She cries as she anoints his feet with the perfumed oil, so much so that her tears intermingle with the oil. A Pharisee named Simon is disgusted by this. Jesus tells him a story of a money lender who forgives the financial indebtedness of two people. He says, about this prostitute, "her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Jesus then turns to the woman and says, "Your sins are forgiven."
I love this story. It means so much to me! If the husband of the woman in my office saw his need for forgiveness and experienced God's forgiveness he could forgive his wife for her adultery and the hiding that followed. For her, forgiveness is the only possible answer. For those of us who are Jesus-lovers it becomes Christologically impossible to withhold forgiveness from anyone, even from our enemies, because we have a glimpse of the stuff God has forgiven us of.
Dr. Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin writes:
"Forgiveness cannot reverse what has happened to you, but it can reverse your reactions now to what has happened. If you take forgiveness seriously, and if you practice it faithfully, you can actually add love to your story as you give it to others, even to those whom you could not now imagine as being the recipients of your love.
This is now up to you - whether your story will be written with more or less love in it - because to love and to forgive are now your choice, now and in the future. To love and to forgive are part of your free will, your good will, and your strong will. Although forgiveness is not some kind of magical antidote to the poison of unfairness and others' failure to love you, you should know that forgiveness is strong enough to help you go back in time, in a psychological sense, and to mend wounds from your past. You need not continue to write your story with many subplots of bitterness and resentment." (Robert Enright, The Forgiving Life: A Pathway to Overcoming Resentment and Creating a Legacy of Love, 15)
Forgiveness is the only answer.