|Series Theme: Forgiveness|
Title: 5. Forgiveness Illustrated
Here we have two versions of the same story that seek to illustrate what the teaching in the previous pages says.
Alan, when he was a child, had a problem. His Mum had been an alcoholic and as such she was often not in control of herself and wasn't able to care for the kids. And there was more. It wasn't until after Alan had left home and gone to college that Mum had sought help and gone on a programme that had enabled her to be drink free since. At age twenty, while at college, Alan became a Christian. Life progressed well for him; he married and had two children. He had a good job and couldn't ask for much more, except there was still a nagging doubt in the back of his mind as to whether he was good enough. When he talked with a counsellor friend, they gently pointed out that he always seemed to need to get everything just right. He was, in other words, a perfectionist, and as he and his friend talked it through, he realised that because of his Mum's state when he was a child, he had never seemed to be able to please her, despite however hard he tried. Mum's alcoholic haze had made her temper tantrums worse and Alan had often come out of it, the worse for wear.
Mum now lived over a hundred miles away from where Alan and his little family lived and so contact over recent years had been very infrequent. Now Alan was beginning to face up to his beatings and the demands on him as a child, which he had up until then accepted as normal. He began realise that he deeply resented his Mum and the years of uncertainty and anguish through childhood. As he talked it through with his friend, he realised that his feelings went a lot deeper than he had realised and hostility towards Mum was an understatement. Gradually his friend led him to thinking about forgiveness. “Why should I forgive her,” Alan demanded, “she was in the wrong! I am the injured one! I'm a mess because of her!”
“Yes, but we still have to forgive,” his friend gently insisted. “Aren't you a Christian? Isn't forgiveness a Christian virtue?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Alan grudgingly conceded. “But it seems so unjust!”
“You'll have to talk to her,” the friend pressed on.
“Homecoming” : Alternative No.1
Thus it was a couple of weeks later that Alan drove up country and knocked on his Mum's front door. He had rung to warn her he was coming. After about half an hour, over a cup of tea, Alan eventually plucked up enough courage and blurted out, “Mum I want you to know I forgive you!”
His mother looked rather startled, and responded not very graciously, “Really dear, what for?”
“For the years you beat me and went on at me!”
“Don't be silly dear, you deserved it!”
Alan didn't really know where to go with that. “Well I forgive you anyway.”
“Well that's nice dear, now let's hear no more of it, shall we.”
Which is why a couple of hours later Alan found himself driving home wondering what had been the point of the journey. When he told his counsellor friend he said, “Well it doesn't matter how she responded. The important thing is that you forgave her.”
“Right,” said Alan who still felt very dissatisfied by the whole affair.
“Homecoming” : Alternative No.2
A little while later, Alan happened to mention it to Brian, his pastor at church.
“How do you feel about it?” Brian enquired.
“Well I suppose I should forgive her, but if I'm really honest Brian, I still feel it's really unjust that she hurt me all those years and I've got to pluck up courage and broach the whole thing with her,” Alan replied. “She ought to be coming to me to say sorry.”
Brian grinned. “That's right, but unfortunately people often aren't very good at facing up to their failures and sometimes need a little help along the way.”
Alan wasn't very sure he liked the sound of that. “Can't I just say I forgive her and leave it at that?”
“How do you think you'll feel if you say that?” Brian asked gently.
“Well I'll have done what the Bible tells me to do, I suppose, but I'm not sure it will change much. I still have all these feelings about her and saying the words doesn't seem to take away the injustice of it all. She ought to be punished for what she did to me. Yes, that's what I really feel, I suppose, if I'm honest,” he added lamely.
Brian looked serious. “Hmmm. That would be justice wouldn't it. Have you received justice at Jesus' hands?”
Alan laughed to break into the serious way the conversation had been going. “No, of course not. I've heard you preach enough times to know I've received grace, not justice. It I'd received justice God would have judged me and that would have been seriously bad.”
“OK,” said Brian, “so when did God forgive you?”
Alan looked blank.
“No, come on,” Brian prodded, “when did God's forgiveness get to you?”
“Well I suppose it was when I repented and said sorry when I first came to him?” Alan suggested.
“That's right,” Brian continued, “in fact I think you'll find that throughout the Bible no one gets forgiven until they said sorry. Forgiveness always follows repentance.”
“But what about Jesus telling Peter to forgive seventy times seven times,” Alan questioned.
Brian opened his Bible and read, “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times . That's in Matthew's Gospel.” [Mt 18:21,22]
“Well that seems straight forward,” Alan broke in. “We've just got to forgive.”
“Hold on,” Brian came back. “Don't pick on odd verses. Put that alongside Luke on the subject and we find…” he paused as he turned pages, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, `I repent,' forgive him. [Lk 17:3,4] You've got to take the whole picture presented to us by Scripture. If one Gospel gives a shortened version of Jesus teaching, look at another Gospel if it gives a fuller teaching. Matthew's is a summary of the back end of the story.”
“What do you mean?” Alan looked confused.
“Well Luke gives us the fuller picture. There were four stages: first sin, second rebuke, third repentance and fourth, forgiveness.”
“Yes, and that kept happening,” Alan added.
“That's right, and the primary point Jesus is making is that however many times someone comes back and says sorry, we've got to forgive them. God didn't withhold forgiveness from us when we said sorry, so we mustn't withhold forgiveness from others when they say sorry.”
“But my Mum hasn't said sorry!” Alan put in rather strongly.
Brian acknowledged the strength of Alan's feelings with a grin. “No, that's why we need to look at the rest of Luke's verses that I read. If we have to wait for repentance before we forgive, then our role is to confront our offender to help them come to repentance.”
“Fat chance of that happening!” Alan retorted.
There was a pause.
Eventually Brian spoke. “What would it need for your Mum to come to repentance through you confronting her with the past?”
“God to seriously be on the move!” Alan responded quickly.
Brian grinned. “Right, but what part do we play in this?”
“What do you mean?” came the reply.
“Well in the Bible God calls us co-workers with Him, which means that, yes He will move, but so often He wants us to be involved in it as well.”
“Right…” came Alan's hesitant response.
“So what does God want from you, do you think,” Brian pressed on.
to forgive her?”
“OK, but I'm not sure what is expected of me then.”
“How do you feel about her?” Brian asked.
“Angry!” Alan shot back.
“Hmmm… can I give you a verse to ponder over?” Brian said as he turned the pages of his Bible. “Here it is: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . What do you think that's all about?”
“Sounds like it's about the impossible, if you ask me,” Alan came back.
“Would Jesus say it if it's impossible? Would he instruct us to do something he knows we can't do?”
“…Er,no…” Alan looked perplexed.
“So what does it need to be able to do that as a Christian, do you think?”
“A lot of grace, I guess.”
“Is God's grace sufficient? Brian asked.
“Trick question!” Alan grinned, “I remember you preaching on it two weeks ago. God said to Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient.' I remember it, somewhere in 2 Corinthians 12 isn't it?”
“Excellent, that's right.” Brian grinned back. “So what have you just said to me?”
“Oh blow! That I need God's grace to love Mum and pray for her, and it's there for me.”
“Good man!” Brian exclaimed enthusiastically. “What do you think God wants for you?”
“Oh, come on! This is a test on your past sermons! His best!”
“Does He want the best for your Mum?”
Alan paused and said quietly, “Yes.”
“And what do you think the best is for her?” Alan pressed on.
“That she's able to say sorry, receive my forgiveness and for us to be reconciled?” Alan tentatively suggested.
“Wow, it gets better every minute!” Brian now had a broad smile on his face. “Let's push on with this. If you approached your Mum and angrily confronted her with her past, how do you think she'd respond?”
“Defensively, with anger, and she'd probably reject everything I was saying. All right, I get the message. I've got to get my heart right about her before I go to her otherwise I'm not doing my best to ensure she comes through to get the best for her. Yes, all right!!”
“Yes, that getting your heart right with God's help so you can genuinely want the best for her is what many Christians call forgiveness, but it's not. It's simply you getting your heart straight as Jesus wants it to be, and that's a big enough hurdle to get over, before we think of anything else! Forgiveness is what comes after you go to her and, using God's grace, help her to face up to the truth of what she did to you, so she can say sorry. Once that happens you have the privilege of being heaven's representative to be able to declare forgiveness.”
“Wow, that's awesome. Can we pray together about this please?”
The two men prayed together.
Several weeks later the two men were both involved in a strategy in which they hoped the end result would be a blessed mother and son. While Alan drove north, Brian prayed back at home.
When Alan arrived at Mum's home and she opened the door to him, he smiled and said gently, “Hi Mum, how are you?” She invited him in and for about half an hour they talked about anything and everything.
Eventually Alan felt the time had come to broach the subject of the past.
“Mum, there's something I'd like to talk about with you. Can we talk about the past?”
“The past dear? What about it?”
Alan paused, “I'm sure I wasn't always the perfect child and I'm sure I could have helped you better cope with the difficulties you had when I was young.”
Mum said nothing.
Alan struggled on. “After I left home and went to College, I became a Christian, and it's that which I feel bad about, because I'm aware I haven't been around for you, and I'm sorry.”
“Darling you don't have to feel sorry, it was me that was being the problem and if anyone should say sorry, it's probably me, dear.” Alan couldn't believe it!
“What were you feeling in all those years Mum?”
“Do you really want to know? It's a long time back.”
“Yes, I really want to know.”
“Well, I suppose if I'm honest I just felt hurt about your Dad, completely out of control, didn't know which way to turn, felt utterly rejected by him and the family and I suppose that's why I started drinking more and more.”
“Since I've stopped drinking it hasn't been easy but I've managed with help from the local AA group and some good friends.”
“Oh Mum,” was all Alan could say, but before he could add anything more, she continued.
“Life was hell then and having you three kids around didn't help. I know I was a lousy mother to you all, but it was the drink doing it.”
“Have you ever wondered what I felt in it all, Mum?”
“Yes, I have as I've looked back, dear. I was so hard on you and I was so strung up that nothing you could do would ever please me. Life must have been terrible for you too.”
“I can imagine. When I think of the number of times I hit you, I don't know why you didn't run away. I am so sorry dear, I'm so sorry.”
“Mum, I forgive you.”
His mother's shoulders were shaking and tears were pouring down her face and the two of them just hugged.
Later in the day, when he had got back home, Alan called in on Brian to tell him what had happened.
“And the incredible thing was that I hardly had to say anything when it came to it. It was like she'd got this great burden she wanted to unload, and it just needed me approaching her with gentleness to let her start releasing it.”
“Yes, and God being there for you both.”
“So how have you left it?” Brian asked.
“Oh we're going to keep in contact and I'm going to take the family up there in a couple of weeks to see her.”
“And how are you feeling?” the pastor asked.
“Great, really great! It's like all the anger has completely gone.”
how's your Mum feeling?”
The conversation went on for another joyful half hour.