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The Hard Work of Forgiveness

Yesterday in our church we were challenged on the issue of forgiveness. This runs so against all that the world tells us. We only see forgiveness modeled when it is not really needed. We forgive those who those who didn’t mean any harm, and didn’t really inconvenience us too much. This makes us feel good about ourselves, and places us in the position of control. We get to feel the power that we are the ones who can grant, or not, forgiveness. Then in other areas we harbor unforgiveness, and feel justified. “Well, they meant to hurt me!” “I’ll forgive them when I see them show me they are REALLY sorry.”

I think this misses the point. Many of us can say the Lord’s prayer without even thinking about the words. We KNOW the prayer by heart, we say. But do we think about what it really says? Or more to the point, what we are really saying when we pray it? What is our Messiah asking us to say? On this point, He is asking us to tell God that we would like Him to apply our standard of forgiveness to us! “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” I like the NASB use of debts. Don’t we often talk of how someone “owes us something”? If we don’t let them off the hook, then in the Lord’s prayer we ask God to not let us off the hook. Oops! That’s not what I meant! But that is what Jesus meant. He is clear elsewhere that including this statement is not a mistake. In fact, the verses that follow the model prayer in Matthew make this point painfully clear (vs 12 quoted above, 14 & 15 here) “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your heavenly Father will not forgive your transgressions.” This makes it sound like it doesn’t even matter if we pray it, it is just how God works. He forgives us when we forgive others. Plain and simple, this must be a crucial exchange in God’s economy. Since this is the economy that really matters, I had better get my actions in line with the way the Kingdom works!

As we were reflecting on this in Church, Pastor John King (our pastor of young adults) challenged us to think of a concrete step of forgiveness we can take, and mentioned that he had that week mailed off a letter expressing release and forgiveness for someone who had wronged him in the past. I felt impressed that what God has called me to is similar, but with a twist. I need to write a letter to the biological mother of our adopted kids. If the stories that the family tells and the things our son seems to remember from time to time are completely true, or even mostly true, she had no idea how to be a mom and exposed our kids to things no child should have had to deal with.

In some ways, this letter is easy to write. I have never harbored anything but pity and love for her. From the beginning, we have earnestly prayed for her. As it became clear that the kids would be better off in our home, we continued to pray that she would turn her life around. The state offered her numerous resources to get her headed in the right direction, but she was so overwhelmed that none of it sunk in. We were genuinely saddened to see her continue to flounder around, lost and confused by all that was going on. Mistakes continued to mount, and she has spent time in prison for issues unrelated to parenting, but symptomatic of the problem. We know enough about the family history to know that she never learned the life skills needed to be a good parent. She was very young, never finished school, hooked up with a guy who was unreliable and ended up leaving her. Such a sad history. We don’t blame her, or hold her accountable for what she could not have known. We still pray that she breaks the cycle and finds healing from the One who can touch her as she needs.

What is hard about writing this letter is the care I want to show to her. I don’t want to come off holier-than-thou, or self-righteous. I want her to understand that we care about her as a person. She is not merely the person who happened to bring our kids into the world, but she is a creation of God. Someone God loves, should be someone we love and care about. I want her to hear that she need not beat herself up about what has happened, that God can redeem it for her and her children. But how do express forgiveness when you don’t know if the person you are offering it to even thinks they need it? We don’t know if she is to the point of realizing how devastating the years in her home were for her kids. We want her to have a letter that expresses for to her our forgiveness in ways that are meaningful now, but will be even more meaningful in the years to come as God continues to do His work in her life.


Another interesting effect of this journey was the reaction of my grandparents. My mother’s parents are Jewish, and have not recognized Jesus as their Messiah. When we told them about the kids, and continued to update them as the process went on, I mentioned some of what we knew about their mom. I expressed our concern for their mom, how sad we were about her continued poor choices, and that we were praying for her to get her life back together and on the right path. My grandparents were surprised that we would have that attitude. They argued that her continued poor choices helped our chances of getting the kids, so we should be happy about it and hope it continued. We agreed that it probably made things smoother on our path to getting the kids, but told them that we didn’t think it was all about us. Their mother is a person with great value to God, and therefore to us. During this process, my grandfather died, and I haven’t had the chance to continue the conversation much with my grandmother. I do hope that my explanation helped them to understand the difference that our Messiah has called us to live out in the world!

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