Forgiveness: We can take it, but we can’t dish it out

Forgiveness is an issue about which most of us are of two minds.

When it comes to our own transgressions, whatever few we can bring to mind, we are hoping — no, we expect — abundant and copious grace overflowing. In fact, we would be quite surprised if all of our errata in life were not able to be expunged from the record.

When it comes to forgiving others, the abundant grace does not flow quite the same way. We are judicious in our parceling of forgiveness when we are the offended party.

The truth is we judge others by their actions, and we judge ourselves by our intentions.

Ironically, every week we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In other words, we are praying, “In the same measure as we have forgiven others, so forgive us, O God.”

We tend to hold grudges and seek revenge. If our own forgiveness depends on our ability to forgive, we are on shaky ground. It is really God’s forgiveness that we need to mimic. His is complete; ours claims reservations.

The book “Picking Cotton” is the true story of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. Jennifer was raped at knifepoint in 1984 by a man she identified in a lineup, a man whom she came to know as Ronald Cotton. He served 11 years on a double concurrent life sentence before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Jennifer had mistaken him in the lineup for another man. Certain as she was that Cotton was the perpetrator of her crime, she was wrong.

After Cotton’s release from prison, Jennifer feared facing him. After two years she summoned the courage and wrote, “I said to Ronald, ‘If I spent every second of every minute of every hour or every day for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn’t come close to how sorry I am. How I feel in my heart.’

“And Ronald said, ‘I forgive you. I’ve never hated you, and I want you to be happy.’”

The two speak publicly together against the death penalty and for judicial reform, because there was a time when Ronald as a black man might have been put to death for the crime of which he was convicted.

So forgiveness happens sometimes, but it is often mixed with guilt and remorse and sadness. Even when forgiveness happens, we don’t always forget.

Ask the wronged persons to be civil to the offenders, and perhaps it can be done. Ask them to be kind, and maybe they can muster that, too. Ask them not to exact revenge, and that can at times be achieved.

But do not ask them to forgive, to completely heal the relationship, to withdraw all of the painful memory and to extract any lingering poison. Civility is within our grasp, but true, deep-down, New Testament forgiveness is not a human possibility.

This is why our standard for forgiveness of our own sins cannot be our own spotty record in forgiving others. We must take as our model what God has done for us. In Christ we have already received true, deep-down, thoroughgoing forgiveness. We are meant to draw as close to that destination as we can.

Real forgiveness takes time, but God has the time to heal all the world’s brokenness, to restore all that has been shattered.

All of the Christian life is this way. We are always living God’s future in a broken present. The gospel is always a word of reconciliation from God’s future spoken ahead of its time.

As for the past, God knows and remembers our sin. As for the future, God remembers our sin as forgiven. As for the present, in the words of Ephesians, “Forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Dave Wise is pastor of Otterbein United Methodist Church in Greenfield. This weekly column is written by local clergy members.