The Experience of Forgiveness

I have led workshops and classes in forgiveness for a number of years, in varied settings.  One observation that I have made consistently  is that the receiving of forgiveness is a greater challenge for people  than the subsequest offering of forgiveness.  I say “subsequent” because I find that the experience of being forgiven is critically important to exercising the full freedom to practice forgiveness with others.  As I have indicated  in earlier posts, it is common for people to initially confuse forgiving with excusing.  Those who have consciously experienced the power of forgiveness themselves are much clearer about the differences, and much freer to act creatively out of their own forgiven state.

Even today, it amazes me that so many people have difficulty recalling their experiences of being forgiven by others.    Perhaps it is an unusual inquiry, leading us into unexamined territory. What are your experiences of being forgiven?

— When have you been loved in the face of your own painful or destructive behavior?

— When has someone interfered in a damaging cycle that has been swallowing you up, in order to make room for an alternative future?

—  When has someone taken the risk and invested the patience to speak to you honestly about hurt you are causing, while not forsaking their relationship with you?

—  Who has acted for your well-being when you have not been acting for theirs?

— When have you been given a second chance?  Or a third?

Try to be specific. If any of these blessings is familiar to you, then you know something about “being forgiven!”

But let’s not just define for-giveness in the context of injury:

—  When have you been gifted by someone else, quite apart from notions of deserving?

— Who has “seen the Christ in you” that you can’t see in yourself?

–Who has loved you only as they themselves would wish to be loved?

— Who knows you deeply and accepts you wholly?

Exploring the answers to any of these questions takes us into the terrain of blessed possibility.  Reflect on how these factors have altered your life’s course, even in humble ways.  How have these experiences made it possible for you to act differently?

Now let us consider God’s forgiveness, and its power in your life.  In my workshops, when I ask people about their experience of being forgiven by God, the most common response is a biblical or doctrinal one; God’s grace is understood more as a concept than as enlivening breath or daily bread.  I seek to reframe our consideration. “In what ways do you live as a forgiven person?,” I ask.  It makes for a great deal of exciting and unusual discovery.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the full receiving of God’s forgiving power is the (mis) perception that we are forgiven only as the result of something we do.  We have learned, mistakenly, that forgiveness is a transaction: we provide God with what God demands ( a confession of our guilt and unworthiness; adequate contrition, improved behavior) and God then parcels out the saving grace.  But most of us feel ill-equipped to satisfy God with what we can produce.    And it is worth mentioning  that when strings like that are attached, grace ceases to be gracious!

A deeper immersion in the gospels reveals a very different dynamic: the invasion of our lives by God’s unbounded love becomes the liberating force that encourages honest confession and enables us to shed the chains that hamper true repentance. Essentially, God’s forgiveness makes confession and repentance possible–not the other way around!  Our journeys can be ones of joy rather than shame. The proactive nature of God’s forgiveness — best written as “fore-giveness”– confounds us even as it saves. I AM WHO I AM acts in ways that continually claim us and pre-empt all our efforts at manipulation, negotiation, and self-justification. This God who removes obstacles– gifting us, releasing us, and inspiring us– is forever creating space for new life.  It is God’s Spirit that infuses us with the creative power that enlivens our relationships with one another; our relationships with God and with each other are intimately woven together.  We  might do well to revisit the questions above that I asked you to consider, this time in the context of our relationships with God.  What will such consideration reveal?

Jesus’ coming is something we neither earn nor manipulate, only receive.   His birth is initially hidden (at least substantially) in the midst of dominant history,yet no relationship will remain untouched or unshaped by the impact of the gift, and the flow of history will change. The meanings of all that we have lived until now will be transformed, and our futures infused with new possibility. The gospel narratives testify to both the joy and intense struggle of receiving.  Such is the power of  “giveness!”