Finding Faith: The faces of forgiveness

I was brought up as the next generation of a prominent family in New York state. No one talked much about family issues, but abuse and bigotry became self-evident to me as a youth. You don’t hear much about the “Secret Caste System” in America today.

The “Caste System” conjures up imagery of third world nations and times like the Middle Ages. Make no mistake, the lines of the classes were set in stone when I became of age. But the country was changing and the quiet prayers of one “Black Baptist” woman took root in me.

I did not know that she prayed for me, or the substance of those prayers, until I received the call for ministry and ran like Jonah until there was no place left to run. Mrs. Johnson came to my Grandfather Reynolds funeral while I was running from God on ships in the sea services.

My life had been planned by one family of the “Patrician Class,” but was at this moment in time derailed by prayer. Many people affirmed the call on my life by God, well before I yielded and accepted His forgiveness. This is the first face of forgiveness—Acceptance.

To my Grandmother there were hard and fast rules concerning dating, courtship and marriage.

In the shadow of the assassination of President Kennedy, the “Caste System” began to break down and those of the lower classes were raised up to the “Upper Middle” Class. But that break down did nothing to stop the ridicule I faced from my family at-large for my romantic feelings for a Roman Catholic Italian girl.

I found myself sitting before the family matriarch who began to inform me of the path my life would take and the plans for the economic demise of the aforementioned girl’s family through reliable people at IBM. It would not be possible to accommodate both my romantic interest and the rule of the family matriarch. Being an immature adolescent, I hurt this girl in the areas of self-image and trust when I broke up with her. I did not know the severe damage I had caused her until I began my graduate work in Clinical Pastoral Ed.

No economic attack came upon the girl’s father and for the moment, I remained a member of the family. But there has been a part of me from those years that continues to love that young girl.

In later years, it came about that one of the family members was dying of “Lung Cancer.” She had long desired to know the truth of the Gospel and the burden of her sin had weighed her down beneath the waves of anxiety and fear, as she was literally drowning in her bodily fluids.

At the same time, she appeared like one whose countenance was dying of thirst in the desert.

She wanted to receive forgiveness and grace, but not necessarily absolution. She accepted responsibility for her actions and released her terrible sins at the foot of the cross. The Lord is always able to forgive sin. But because I was close to the person that the dying woman hurt, she could see the expression of the love of God and mercy on my face. This is the second face of forgiveness—Mercy.

It is my experience that family secrets often include abuse. In general, when abuse has taken place; it is very difficult for the victim to forgive the abuser. There are two parts to this equation: (a) Boundaries are proper when abuse has taken place (b) The act of forgiveness does not supercede boundaries that were set into place.

After all, Christians are not doormats who are expected to absorb insult upon insult. Turn the other cheek, yes. But if that person, or authority, does not respond to that demonstration of faith and act of kindness in a favorable way, then batteries are released and the issue(s) are decided on the field of battle.

Ultimately the warring parties will have a need to reconcile their difference with one another through a humble spirit and forgiveness.

Age and memory loss can cloud what was done and by whom. How can we hold an elderly person with memory issues accountable for events from years long past? It came to me to handle one of these cases.

I wrestled with the idea of reaching out to this person, even though they had forgiven by the victim in past years. As it turned out, I did reach out to that person and nothing terrible has happened as a result. On the contrary, without a face to face conversation whereby compassion could be demonstrated that person could not experience forgiveness.

Even though they had no memory of the incident, that person knew that enmity existed and they wanted to restore that relationship. This is the third face of forgiveness—Compassion.

Everyone knows that forgiveness is not extended to every perpetrator by every victim. I think that each person facing death as natural and logical consequences for their actions desires and needs forgiveness. Yes…even the worst of the worst.

We have the consolation that God does “forgive our trespasses as we forgive others.” That is His standard and His promise. But when we refuse to forgive, how then do we have a reasonable expectation that we shall be forgiven?

If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not of the Father, but of the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

Is forgiveness, the forgiving of others, within the parameters of God’s will? In ministry I have been asked often, “what is the will of God,” meaning in the life of that person.

The long answer is found in the Beatitudes. The short answer is…does the Lord’s Prayer contain a direct order from the Commander-in-Chief?

Do we forgive others as we have the expectation of receiving forgiveness from Him?

If we withhold forgiveness from people who need to be forgiven, then is the love of the Father in us? Or is the pride of life and lust of the world in us?

This is the fourth face of forgiveness. From the “Virgin Birth” in Bethlehem to His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead — it is His love that sees us through. It is the face of Jesus Christ, the face of forgiveness to which we owe everything.

“Sin has left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow” (Paraphrased from Isaiah 1:18; also Lyric from Jesus Paid It All).

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Finding Faith is written by area pastors. This week’s column comes from Rev. Dr. Bryon Reynolds of Charlton Chapel, an American Evangelical Christian Churches Charter Church.

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