Not long ago, I was reading Brene Brown’s new book, Rising Strong, and was impacted by a powerful concept that I should know, have known, but really didn’t know. Do you know what I mean?
Here’s the concept: In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die.
Simple, right? Yes and no.
It’s simply true, in order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. Something has to come to an end. There has to be closure to something, and often many things. I think this is actually the reason that we have a hard time forgiving and that we continue to have ongoing grudges, pain, and resentment. It’s because dying is difficult.
So, what has to die? Well, I can only begin to scratch the surface of the things that probably need to die in order for forgiveness (and ultimately, life) to truly happen. The first one that comes to mind for me is the concept of rightness, justice, and the need to win. It’s not that we would ever really say that we want to win in a broken relationship or a broken heart, but the reality is that we often believe that we are right, that we deserve justice, and that we should get either the rewards, the recognition, or even just the acknowledgement that we are and were right all along. You’ve been there, right? It’s not just me, is it? We often just simply have a hard time admitting that we might be wrong, or even if we are right it doesn’t matter. Have you ever noticed that being right rarely (if ever) repairs something that is broken? Being justified has never truly worked to heal a severed relationship, a damaged heart, or a stomped on self-identity? So, one thing that needs to die for forgiveness to happen is our need to be right, honored, and to prove something.
Another thing that needs to die, but is related to the above, is the need for the next step after being right or justified - and we might call it being vindicated. One way we often long to be vindicated when we have been wronged is by retribution, punishment, or consequences. It’s just not simpy fair if a person gets off Scott free (who is Scott, anyway? Is that some racial slur against the Scots I don’t know about?) Deep down, we often long for the sweet vindication that comes when someone is punished for what they have done. I remember an episode from the TV drama Blue Bloods (Season 5, episode 18, Bad Company) recently in which a young woman whose whole family is murderd is confronted by him prior to his death for his crime. To create more drama, this happens not long before her wedding day, and she must resolve her internal conflict before she says “I do.” The murderer wants to meet with her to extend his deep apology and ask for her forgiveness. He has been meeting with the chaplain, is now on medications to deal with his psychological disorders, and realizes that he was not in his right mind and that what he has done is wrong. Interestingly, he doesn’t ask to be exonerated. He believes he deserves what he’s getting and that what he’s done deserves punishment. He accepts the punishment. He just wants to express his sorrow and seek to somehow repair something deep in his soul before his death. In a dramatic moment of response, she not only refuses to forgive him, she tells him how much she believes he deserves what he’s being given and will never be forgiven. Now, I understand her potential inability to forgive given the horrendous circumstances of her family’s murder, and yet I felt unsettled as the show ended. I could feel it deep inside me - he deserved to die - and yet something in me longed for the death of the requirement of those consequences on his life because of his seemingly true and deep remorse. Something deep in my heart longed for mercy. Something deep within us knows that true forgiveness requires the death of the demand for vindication. There is a letting go of control of the outcome of someone else’s punishment that honestly gives us a kind of freedom we could find nowhere else in such a situation. So, another thing that needs to die in order for forgiveness to happen is our demand for the vindication that results from justice.
A third thing that needs to die is our memory of what could and should have been. There is an uncomfortable reality with forgiveness that forgiveness is only needed when something has changed in the preferred way our lives were supposed to be. We weren’t supposed to be betrayed. We weren’t supposed to be assaulted, robbed, spoken to that way, treated with disdain, abandoned and forgotten, hurt, accused, or more. It was supposed to be another way, and we can imagine in our mind's eye how it would have been if he had never touched us that way. We can imagine how we would feel if she had said different words. We can can imagine what the future would have been like if we had been given that opportunity. You get the picture. We have dashed hope for the future, and yet we hang on to the lost hope in ways that continue to eat like acid away inside our souls. And you’re right, it’s not fair. Life shouldn’t have been like this and that shouldn’t have happened and it’s just not ok that someone else made that decision and now you have to live with the consequences. That, too, needs to die. Our hope for a past or present that is different than the reality this side of the pain has to die.
There are certainly more things that need to die than these three, but these are three big ones. Honestly, if I could simply master these three, I would be a much better, happier, and more loving human being. But I also realize this. I think that God gets that these things need to die in order for forgiveness to happen. In the circles I run with other pastors and theologians, there is talk of atonement theory and of what exactly happened on the cross. Something we probably don’t talk enough about, though, is the existential reality that the death of Jesus is a powerful way for us to really let these things die. God sent Jesus to die in order for us to really be able to enter into the grace of forgiveness required to move into a new reality. Think of it this way: God has every right to demand justice, to demand vindication, and to demand a hope for the world to be different than you and I have made it. He has every right to those things, and yet He understands that something has to die instead for real forgiveness is to happen. Give it whatever theological atonement theory language you want, in Jesus’ death God communicates that he is willing to die instead of demanding the things he deserves.
So... where does that leave us? First, it leaves us truly forgiven by a God who could have demanded to be right, who could have demanded punishment, and who could have demanded a different reality. Secondly, it leaves us in a predicament. If we have been forgiven in this way, how are we going to approach others we need to forgive? I wonder... what needs to die for forgiveness to truly happen in your life?
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