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"As We Forgive"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on January 7, 2024
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4

The morning sun glinted off the glass of the driver's side window, but I could still see Mr. Ben's face as he passed us in his pickup truck. This happened recently when we were in my hometown, visiting my parents over the holidays. I was driving with my mother and father in the car, my wife and children there with me. No one else saw Mr. Ben pass, but I did. The friendly exchange we shared lasted only a second, but I have been replaying that moment in my mind, the knowing glance he gave me.

I've known Mr. Ben for going on 30 years now, and I've never seen him offer me anything less than a warm smile, even in the fall of 1996 when he learned that it was me along with some of my friends who had trespassed his property and toilet papered the trees in front of his house. Once I knew that he knew that it was me, I was ashamed every time I saw him. I did my best to avoid him, but this was practically impossible because we went to the same church. And that's when I saw him just recently, on the way to church. And maybe it's a reflection of God's sense of humor that even now 30 years later, I'm still running into him, to Mr. Ben. And it's always the same: the same knowing smile, not vengeful, not resentful, just the gracious understanding of an older man who knows what it's like to be a stupid, self-absorbed 17-year-old kid, and who knows what it's like to forgive and be forgiven.

Everyone knows something about forgiveness. Like me, you have done wrong to another person and have hoped to be forgiven. You've suffered from someone else's wrongdoing, and you've struggled to forgive. You know something about forgiveness. We're beginning a new year, the time of resolutions. So what if, aside from the standard resolutions about exercising more and getting more organized, what if you and I included forgiveness as a resolution? Something like, "I resolve to be a more forgiving person. And when I'm in the wrong, I resolve to admit it and ask for forgiveness." But why? Why is this a worthy resolution? For starters, we could appeal to our mental health. Losing weight is usually good for you, so also would shedding the excess guilt and resentment that is the alternative to forgiving and being forgiven. Carrying around that soul- crushing guilt, carrying the toxin of resentment and bitterness in your system, it's not good for you. So let's say you and I make this our resolution: to be more forgiving when we're hurt and to ask for forgiveness when we've hurt someone else.

Now, what motivates me to make this resolution? Partly it is the mental health benefits, the emotional wellbeing, but also because I'm a follower of Jesus. And I'm learning that if something is important to Jesus, it ought to be important to me also. And forgiveness is clearly important to Jesus. You can hear it in the famous prayer that He taught His followers to pray, the Lord's Prayer. Right there in the middle of the prayer you find forgiveness. "Our Father," Jesus teaches us to say to God, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Jesus taught His followers that forgiveness should be at the heart of all of our relationships with God and with other people. Jesus also gave His followers this special meal to share, the Lord's Supper, we call it. We're supposed to practice it regularly in memory of Him and of what's important to Him. And right there in the middle of this meal, when we eat the bread and drink the wine, and we hear the words of Jesus repeated: "Take. Eat. This is My body. Drink of it, all of you because this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." If you're looking for a resolution, forgiveness could be it. And if you're not a follower of Jesus or if you're somewhere on the fringe of following Him, this could still be a good resolution, even if only for the sake of your emotional health and mental wellbeing.

So let's talk about it. Let's talk about what forgiveness is and what it isn't. What's involved with forgiving and being for forgiven? We need to clarify this because there are some half-truths about forgiveness. Let's talk through two of them: two half-truths. One half-truth about forgiveness is that it's unconditional. Another half-truth is that forgiveness offers closure.

Before we talk about the other one, let's talk about the second one first: that forgiveness offers closure. You hear people say that sometimes, right? "I need closure. She's just looking for some closure." Now, it is true that giving or receiving forgiveness can give a sense of closure because forgiveness aims to set you free from the bitterness that would blind you, set you free from the guilt that would cripple you. It's true. It's just not the whole truth. Because forgiveness is not just about you and your feelings. Forgiveness is given and received in the context of a relationship, a friendship, a marriage, a family, a church, a partnership with neighbors, co-workers, teammates. That's the proper context of forgiveness.

So forgiveness is less about closing and more about opening. Like an open-heart surgery to clear a blocked artery, forgiveness aims to give life to a dead or a dying relationship. Forgiveness is about getting closure on the trespasses of the past. But it's more than that! It has to be more because there are ways that you could look for closure without forgiveness. You could just try to forget about the trespass. You could pretend like it didn't happen. You could act as if that person no longer exists. You could stop talking to them, stop thinking about them, avoid them altogether.

Cutting a person out of your life is a way to look for closure, but it's not forgiveness. Forgiveness isn't just therapy for better mental health because forgiveness isn't self-focused. It always involves at least two persons: the person who was trespassed against, and the one who committed the trespass: the toilet papered and the toilet paperer who crossed the boundary and violated another person's personhood. And forgiveness is the path to repair that breach of trust. Forgiveness is an exchange that takes each person out of themselves and toward the other. The one who committed the trespass starts to consider the hurt, the anger, the resentment the other person might feel, and wants them to be free of those toxins. And the one who is trespassed against starts to consider the guilt, the embarrassment, the shame that the trespasser carries, and wants them to be free of that burden. Forgiveness isn't self-care. It's an exchange. It's the close of one chapter and the start of another, a bigger story that helps each person see the other in a new light. Even without reference to God or Jesus or another religious tradition, there are strong social reasons to seek forgiveness rather than just closure.

For example, try imagining a world in which every time you were trespassed against or you were caught trespassing, you looked for closure either by getting even with that person or by avoiding them altogether. A world like that would be unimaginable because being human we need other people. It's not good to be alone all the time. We were made for relationships. And keeping any relationship intact for the long haul would be impossible without forgiveness. So we're stuck. We need relationships to thrive, and we need forgiveness to repair relationships with imperfect people. And that's also why it's not quite true to say that forgiveness is unconditional.

That's our second half-truth about forgiveness: that it's unconditional. It's only half true because forgiveness is always conditioned by relationships. Because forgiveness serves relationships. It's like how an engine is conditioned by the car it drives. It's like how words are conditioned by the language they speak, or how an engagement ring is conditioned by the marriage it proposes. So also forgiveness is conditioned by relationships.

But why do people, and Christians especially, why do we sometimes say that forgiveness is unconditional? I think what we're trying to say is that forgiveness isn't a calculation. Forgiveness isn't saying, "I agree to not hold this against you because I'm counting on the benefits I'm going to get from you in return." That's not forgiveness, that's just manipulation. That's getting even by other means. Real forgiveness isn't calculated for self-benefit, but it is conditioned by relationships. Go back to the engagement ring. For the ring to count as an engagement, there must be a marriage in the works. So also for an exchange to count as forgiveness, there must be a relationship to support.

To review: forgiveness isn't just closure, because it aims to write a new chapter and a bigger story between the trespasser and the trespassed. And forgiveness isn't unconditional because there are strings attached, so to speak, not puppet strings, but something like the lifeline between alpine mountain climbers, the ties between family members, the bonds of friendship and partnership and companionship. Living a meaningful life would be impossible without these ties and keeping them intact and strong would be impossible without forgiveness. Because forgiveness alone offers a way forward that doesn't seek revenge, but also doesn't simply condone or ignore the trespassed. And that's why forgiveness alone offers freedom from guilt and resentment. And all this could be said without appeal to a specific religious tradition.

But if you ask why, why is the world filled with so many signs pointing us to forgiveness? As a follower of Jesus, I am learning that it's this way because God, the Father of Jesus, the Creator of the universe, is a relational God who created us for relationships. Even if you're not sure what you believe about Jesus, consider what it would be like in the event that His story in the Bible is true.

The story goes something like this. Before Jesus was born as a human being, He existed eternally with God, His Father, forever, in the love of the Holy Spirit. The Father with the Son and the Spirit created the universe, not because He needs to, not because He was bored and hoped we would entertain Him, not because He selfishly calculated the benefits we might give Him. No. God created out of abundance, out of the overflow of joy, out of love. God the Father created all things by His Spirit through His Son as a gift for His Son, because God is overflowing with love and wants to share His life with the universe He's created. But then, we, His human creatures tried to sneak in and take it for ourselves. We crossed the boundary. We violated God's love. We trespassed against God. So God as the injured party has a choice: He can get even and make us pay; He can cut us out of His life. Or He can move toward us with forgiveness. And the heart of the Christian message is that God in Jesus Christ has stubbornly chosen the way of forgiveness, a way that led Him to a cross, to a crucifixion.

Jesus was crucified because He willingly took on the conditions of a relationship with us, with trespassers. He didn't sit at the window, arms crossed, eyeing us resentfully. No. He turned toward us with a gracious smile. He came down from heaven and took on the conditions of our humanity. He never trespassed against anyone, but He put himself in a place where He could be trespassed against, injured, harmed, killed—and it all led to a cross. And the Bible says that there in a way that you and I could never calculate, Jesus paid for all the damages done, for all the injuries sustained, all the trespasses committed, for the entire cleanup operation.

Now as the Creator, God could have snapped His fingers, and made it all go away. God could have erased us, and started over with a whole new universe or millions of other universes. But instead, He freely chose to come under the conditions of a real relationship with His creation. He chose to marry Himself to us. He chose to offer us a new chapter to this hellish story we'd been writing for ourselves. And so He gave up His Son to die for us. The cross of Jesus Christ is closure on this chapter of human guilt and resentment and estrangement that would drag us all down to hell. But God raised Jesus from the dead to open a new future, to write a new chapter in the bigger story of His life with us.

The signs of forgiveness in this world come from the Creator's cross: forgiveness offered to us like an engagement ring from God. Will you receive it? Will you put it on and wear it? Will you be set free to follow God's Son, and pray "Our Father forgive us, as we forgive"? Could this be your new year's resolution: being a more forgiving and forgiven person, wearing God's forgiveness like a ring on your finger, never taking it off, appreciating all its facets?

If so, I invite you to continue listening with us over the next several weeks in this series on forgiveness. It'll be good for us. But like starting a new diet or exercise regimen, it may not be easy. Not every exchange of forgiveness is as relatively painless as the toilet-papering trespass I started with. You may have been unspeakably hurt by someone you trusted, and can't even imagine forgiving them. You may have done someone unspeakable harm and can't imagine ever being forgiven by them. Or maybe the person you harmed is dead or gone and can't forgive you even if you asked. Or maybe the person who harmed you is unrepentant and won't ask. In this life the forgiveness that we share, that we give and receive from others, is incomplete. And maybe that could be part of what Jesus means when He teaches us to pray "Forgive us as we forgive." As in forgive our imperfect forgiveness.

But it also means that our forgiveness is a work in progress, because we are learning to see ourselves and others in the light of Jesus. Jesus promises to return and raise the dead. He says that no one is too far gone. No one is unforgivable because His grace is unconditional—unconditional because God's graciousness is His character. It's just who He is.

The man I mentioned at the beginning, Mr. Ben, he is for me a reflection of God's gracious character. I didn't apologize to Ben right after the incident. I didn't even offer to help him clean up his yard. He did it all on his own. Mostly I just tried to avoid him because I was embarrassed and ashamed. It took me several years to come around and ask him for forgiveness. But even before that, he never stopped being gracious toward me, as God is toward you. I don't know Mr. Ben all that well. But I know where he lives, and I know that he's got a lot of nice tall trees in his front yard. And I know that we have the same Lord, and we pray the same prayer: "Forgive us as we grow and struggle and learn to forgive those who trespass against us."

Let's pray that prayer together now. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with His favor and give you peace. Amen.

Reflections for January 7, 2024
Title: As We Forgive

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, on-demand audio, and more, go to Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Thanks, Mark. Today I'm visiting with Dr. Dan Paavola. He's a professor at Concordia University in Wisconsin and teaches classes about the Bible and living the Christian faith. Welcome Dan and Happy New Year!

Dan Paavola: Happy New Year and thanks for letting me be a part of the program. It's a joy.

Mike Zeigler: I really like what you've done in this book. You've mentioned some of the content. You've written this book titled, Flowing From the Cross: Six Facets of God's Forgiveness. So again, I appreciate that you're helping us see the many dimensions of forgiveness. What prompted you to write the book?

Dan Paavola: There are facets, that's what we call them, or different sides, to forgiveness—not different forgivenesses, but different ways for us to picture how has God forgiven us. That really encouraged people to say, "All right, forgiveness is God cleaning us." Or He covers us. It's far away, it's fixed in place. It's many, many words of God; it's one word. And there's more to that as you unfold it, as time goes on.

Mike Zeigler: In the book, you have this wonderful metaphor of God's forgiveness. You say it's like an engagement ring that God gives us. And thank you for that. I use that in the message today. Another image you use in the book is that of a cube. And you even suggest that the reader might take this up as a wood project. Tell us a little bit about that.

Dan Paavola: Well, I lived for 12 years in Butternut, Wisconsin, as far north as you can get, basically in Wisconsin. Wood everywhere. That's what we did. And I was a woodworker and all the more in Butternut. And so it struck me that—because I love wood—that we could make a cube with contrasting sides, of course. And that there would be a distinct wood that goes with each side that I think tells a story, and I hope it works for people who can imagine it. I'm actually holding that cube right now. And it's just, on the one hand, we've got maple, that's clean, it's almost white. Ahh, opposite it is black walnut. And it covers by its darkness, and its price, by the way. We've got, oh, far away, butternut from Butternut, to Wisconsin, Butternut, that's what we're named for. But on the other side, cherry and cherry is rich and it is deep red. That's a wonderful picture for it's fixed on the cross, which is far away, butternut, far away. Red oak does the job for us in two ways. We've got a parquet of five pieces of red oak, like a parquet floor. By the way, that's just like the chapel here at Concordia; there are many pieces. On the other side, one big piece of red oak, just one. And that's our many in one.

So for me, it works. And by the way, I've heard from leaders, pastors, who have made their own cube. I saw one just a month ago. By the way, it was like three times the size of mine. It was huge. And it made a much better visual image in the service because it was so big. So I salute those woodworkers who have gone beyond me. And by the way, use your own wood. It's something more creative than mine. Absolutely.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah. My dad is a big woodworker. And I was reading your book over the holidays, and so you actually, you inspired me. I've got my six pieces here, but I have to put them together into the cube. So we can maybe talk about that more as we go. I got the black walnut. Walnut's a very common wood in Missouri. And instead of butternut, we used some Koa wood from Hawaii. So that's far away, too.

Dan Paavola: That is far away. Oh, my gosh. Think about what you said, Mike. For you, black walnut is common. Here, Wisconsin or northern Wisconsin, rare as can be, and oh the price for walnut. For you, not so much. That's wonderful!

Mike Zeigler: Yeah, this was actually from an old barn door in Missouri my dad had found. So yeah, if you like projects, this is a good way to really engage with your hands and your mind of this image that Dr. Paavola is giving us. Thank you so much for being here and visiting with us, Dr. Paavola.

Dan Paavola: Thank you!

Mike Zeigler: And again, his book is titled, Flowing from the Cross: Six Facets of God's Forgiveness. You can get it wherever books are found. And come back and we'll talk more with Dr. Paavola next week.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.

"O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

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