The Layered Road to Forgiveness: Step 1

Forgiveness is a messy topic. I’d really prefer to blog about something simple and compact… something which doesn’t require cutting tiny pieces into crumbly layers. What I mean is that forgiveness is akin to eating a piece of cake.  So, we bite into the cake, thinking it’s simply chocolate with white icing, only to find more stuff inside. Forgiveness is like that.  Although it has a single expected outcome (to produce reconciliation), it contains many different layers baked into the process.

As believers, we all know we’re commanded to forgive others, as Christ has forgiven us…that’s its basis. However, in order to put real forgiveness into practice, different layers need to come together. So, allow me to explain the first ingredient in the layered PROCESS…. namely, to identify the real or perceived offense. Isn’t that the first step in any conflict resolution? After all, God identified our problem as our sin against Him. Likewise, ask yourself, “Exactly, what has this other person done to me that I should forgive them?” This may often seem clear cut, but I encourage you to step back for a moment and consider taking a closer look at the perceived offense. I believe it’s necessary to start breaking this down to know how to respond biblically.

Sin always and ultimately has to do with an offense against God. However, maybe someone has genuinely offended you in a way which has hurt or disappointed, but may not be sin. Maybe another individual has simply done something to you which has brought on irritation, frustration, resentment, inconvenience or imposition. (I would guess that ninety percent of our issues with others stem from these things.) Consequently, we need to distinguish the difference between true sin against us, versus merely the way someone else has preferred to relate to us.
All of us have preferences, but when we allow relationships to turn sour and unforgiving because we don’t necessarily agree with the way someone else prefers to do life, then we’ve trivialized true sin and have minimized the sacrifice of Christ. Our sin against God is real. We have flouted His authority. However, it’s possible that the person who has offended you hasn’t broken any godly laws, other than your own personally manufactured ones.

This isn’t a newsflash, but people don’t always prefer to do things the same way. Marriage is the most obvious example of that. To be more specific…..MY marriage could be the poster-child for The Odd Couple. Of course, Joe and I have the obvious preferences which are pretty typical of male-female relationships. He prefers for things to function well, without much regard for how it looks. The sun roof visor in our car currently has a zillion toothpicks sticking out of it because it allows him to pluck one out safely while driving. (I’m always afraid I’ll get impaled on them.) Convenient for him, but not a pretty sight. That’s Joe’s preferred way of doing most things…if it functions welI, it’s good. On the other hand, I prefer for things to look uncluttered, even if I have to go to great lengths of inconvenience. Right now, the crock pot is buried in a cabinet all the way back in the hinterlands of the pantry, requiring me to empty out a boatload of canned goods, just because I don’t think it looks good sitting out on the kitchen counter. Uncluttered and looks neat, but not convenient. That’s my preferred way of doing things…if it looks neat, it’s all good. Joe has to twist like a pretzel to reach his snacks (which isn’t all bad), but doing it my way looks more like House Beautiful, rather than his embarrassing toothpick display where some of the little, wooden irritants have actually found a home in my hair.  Neither of these differences in the way we do things is sinful, but, let’s look a little closer at how we might THINK about this difference.  At times, it definitely FEELS like I’m being sinned against as I’m thinking, “Okay, lover boy, knowing how much I hate your stupid toothpicks, if you really loved me, you’d store them in the console or glove compartment. ” See how this is a set-up for something ugly? It may seem like a trivial offense, but because it could possibly feel intentional, it has the potential to grow mountains out of molehills.  Individual preferences of others, which are different than ours, can foster intense resentment.

I’ve been particularly concerned about these differences in choice since we’ve just voted in an election, combined with this season of social unrest, vaccines, and masks. These types of scenarios are ones that can set up a grudge-fest. Conversely, it could present itself as an opportunity for us to realize our lack of patience, compassion, and the intense focus on our real or perceived rights. If we’re intent on holding grudges and judging others’ preferences which may be counter to ours, then it challenges the very essence of  our believing faith… to love because He first loved us. What right do we have to withhold love just because someone else chooses differently? If we allow that to happen, then it would be in our best interest to revisit the choice we’ve made to ignore the whole point of the cross. Remember? God’s love which overcame judgment of us, for the purpose of reconciliation at a great cost.

When someone merely differs with us in non-sinful preference, no forgiveness is really needed or warranted, but love is always the overriding objective, and it may cost us. Too often, we hold out hope the other person will realize how much they’ve irritated us and will sincerely seek to understand our position. Manytimes, we even expect them to ask for forgiveness if we should confront them with our complaint. Perhaps, we may even debate the issue in vain. What do we do when no common ground is reached?

The first biblical step to reconciling differences is making a sober judgment as to the offense, regardless as to how it feels or seems. In other words, identify the problem: Has this perceived personal offense violated what is legal, moral, or unethical? (We have a tendency to self-define these, at times.) Has this offense broken any of God’s laws? Would God be offended if He was on the direct receiving end of this? If any of these appear to be true, then it’s most likely sin, and would require granting forgiveness. (Remember though…. it’s a process.) However, maybe the real offense is that we don’t particularly like how the other person relates to us, or their choices are different, or they don’t even seem to care. Again, this doesn’t require forgiveness of them, but it does require a different filter on our part. It requires reorienting oneself to what has eternal value (relationship), versus what feels more comfortable or appealing. It requires the Holy Spirit to do a supernatural  work in us which  challenges who and what we live for…. God’s glory, or our own personal agenda. It stands to reason that our patience would bring God greater glory than our intolerance. This stuff is hard and often complex. We fail at it constantly, but our heart’s intentions can change, and God will honor the shift. It’s called repentance.

Turn Around and ask the Holy Spirit to change your perspective on life. Ask Him to remind you of what has eternal value. Ask Him to align your heart’s desire to your true purpose….a reconciler of God to man for His glory as you live a likeness of Christ to others (2 Cor. 5). Nothing demonstrates that more clearly than when we’re willing to love others who are difficult or different from us. Look in the mirror and see who God, in Christ, chose to have relationship with because He knew it would have eternal value and impact. Christ loved the will of the Father more than He loved Himself. He loved the Father’s purposes. Can we say that about ourselves?

More on this topic next time, as we further uncover the  crumbly layers of forgiving REAL sin.