In March of 2009 the headlines were saturated with the name of an Austrian man, Joseph Fritzl, who was arrested in Austria for imprisoning his 18-year-old daughter Elizabeth and holding her captive in less than a thousand square feet under the backyard for 24 years. During that 24 years he fathered seven children with her down there. Three of the children he snuck out as newborns with forged notes saying, I belong to this religious organization, they won't let me have a baby, would you please raise the children, and they would mysteriously appear on the front doorstep during the night and his wife or he would discover the baby in the morning and so, his wife, not knowing what was going on, and he, were raising these three, which she thought were grandchildren from an absentee daughter. The other three he left with their mother in the dungeon, and until 2009 they had never seen the outside world. Just that 800 or so square feet that they lived in with mom. The seventh child died as an infant, very young, because Fritzl would not allow him to be taken to a hospital for fear of getting caught himself, and so it died and he found ways of disposing of it.
Now, if you are Elizabeth Fritzl, spending over half your life being raped by your father and raising your father's children through you, imprisoned for 24 years in a dank and dirty place, what would it mean to forgive your father?
Let me push the issue from a slightly different angle. Early in my ministry I was involved in a case, I'll call her Samantha, whose stepfather abused her from age 7 to 15. At age 15 she tried to commit suicide by jumping in front of a city bus, except that she miscalculated its braking power and it stopped before it hit her. Shortly there after she set their apartment building on fire and so that led to a trip to the school counselor where finally the sordid details came out. What would it mean for Samantha to forgive her stepfather?
And a more generic angle to approach the case from. Take the battered spouse. Their husband or wife gets angry or feels that you have not stayed duly under control and they take it out on you physically over a period of time, and you are battered, bruised and assaulted. What would it mean to forgive?
Does forgiveness simply mean dropping charges and let's pretend it never happened? If that's the case, does dropping charges and pretending it never happened relegate me to a life of perpetual victimhood, always forgiving but never delivered from problem. What does it mean to forgive?
The problem is further complicated by the fact that we use the term forgiveness in more than one way. For example, our two-year-old in the high chair happens to, aaaaah and there goes the cup of juice all over the place and we're not happy, but we know it wasn't malicious. They don't have good judgment and spatial things and so we say we forgave them for spilling the juice, and it becomes kind of the equivalent of excusing. But that doesn't quite seem to work for a case like Elizabeth Fritzl. There's something bigger and more crucial at stake there.
Closely related to this is the more meaningful offense, but we effectively equate forgiveness with amnesty. Amnesty comes from Greek root meaning literally no memory. We get the same root as amnesia. Let's forget it. But how could Elizabeth Fritzl or Samantha just forget it? Something about that violates something in us. There's something wrong that we can't quite put our finger on.
Or in a twist of the amnesty view, it's what I call the cost-benefit analysis and basically this says, it's not worth it to hold all this anger. It's beyond your control. All it's going to do is eat you up, so you might as well forget it and save yourself all this vexation. It's a benefit to you to let go of it. There is a measure of truth to that but that still has problems, because if you're Samantha or Elizabeth or the chronically battered spouse, how can you just say it benefits me to let go. Is there no protection from future hurt? Future damage?
Or to go in a different direction, we sometimes use it more in the context of a kind of penance thing where if a person cries enough tears and says enough I'm sorry's and makes enough compensation, then we'll say we forgave them because they've kind of paid their dues. But how do you compensate for 24 years of terror underground? Particularly when you're arrested in your low to mid 70s of age and the probability is you're not likely to live more than 8 or 10 years. How do you compensate?
So what then is Biblical forgiveness? Well let me start with a basic definition and then I'd like to start unpacking. I'd like to suggest that forgiveness is God's way of healthfully healing a relationship between a victim and offender, so that they can have a meaningful and healthy relationship after the offense. This means it has to be more than just dropping charges and amnesty kind of stuff. It's got to be more than just, ah, let's pretend it never happened. There's something deeper that we have to find, but too many Christians today, I think, misunderstand what forgiveness is, and it can lead to some severe hurt and dysfunction in homes and churches. Because, like Elizabeth Fritzl, there are deeper issues that these shallow approaches do not adequately address. And yet, at the same time, we're not supposed to hold a grudge and be vengeful, so what are we to do with this problem of forgiveness?
Now I'd like to introduce the element that I think is missing in the discussion up to this point and I will introduce it by having you turn to Revelation 6. I guess the question I'm trying to ask can be put this way. When the wound is deep and it hurts like the dickens what does it mean to forgive? Revelation 6, we start in verse 9. He opened the fifth seal and I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had born. They cried out with a loud voice, O sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will what? Judge and avenge. How long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth? What is it that the souls under the altar have not had resolved? Matters of justice. They have been unfairly and unjustly killed and thus they are beyond the recourse to seek justice for themselves. Someone more potent and more powerful has denied them justice. They have been unable to secure justice and they've died without hope of justice, and here they are symbolically represented as crying out to the Lord, Lord we know you're just and are going to take care of it, but how much longer? When are you going to settle the issue? When will the wrong be righted and dealt with?
Justice is a near primal instinct, especially discernible in children. They use a slightly different word, right? It isn't fair. And we don't like unfairness. Particularly when we're the victim. But it's one thing when something unjust happens to you and you have enough power to seek help and recourse, but when you're powerless, now what happens? That's what these souls under the altar and that's what's missing in the discussion of forgiveness with people like Elizabeth and Samantha. When you suffer unspeakable injustice what does it mean to forgive?
Now we need to expand this slightly because we were made with a sense of justice in order to protect us in a sinful world from unjust people. So we can say, oh, he's starting to hurt me, let me take some precautions here. But sin warps that good quality and we start to move from issues of justice and God-given rights that are violated to personal expectations. And regardless of how unreasonable my expectation is, I begin to invest that expectation with the same level of a God-given right, and now you don't fulfill my expectation and I start to cry injustice happened. Now I'm not going to go down that road so much today, though I think the solution is similar when we think we've been treated unjustly what do we do? Well, we can try the excusing game again or one that I forgot a little earlier. Sometimes we can recast the situation. You know, well, they really didn't mean it. They had a hard day and we find some way to say, you know we forgave them, kind of excuse it away. But there's no way Elizabeth Fritzl can explain away 24 years. That's not just the result of a bad day. This is intentionally malicious and inexcusable. And when we can reframe and excuse and weasel our way out of it, when the wound and sense of injustice is so deep, what does forgiveness mean?
Well, Marlin Yeshke in his book, Discipling in the Church, suggests that in the modern church we tend to have two popular approaches to forgiveness, both of which are inadequate. The first one he calls the lenient view. This is probably the most popular view today and it's closely related to the amnesty concept. In this view forgiveness is about changing the forgiver. The forgiver is the one with the psychological hangups and the anger and hurt and pain and whatever else and so forgiveness is the tool we use to treat ourselves to get rid of the pain and agony and so forth and so on. This is the one where anger is like the acid and the more I hold it the more it burns and eats me, therefore if I let go and forget it, it let's me heal and it benefits me. It's about me. The focus of the problem is the forgiver, not the offender. I find a lot of this in Guideposts magazine for example. Oh, I let go of it and I lived happily ever after.
But how do you let go of this if you're Elizabeth? He's going to get away with it. The benefit is when you do play the risk/cost-benefit game it does help you not eat yourself alive, so there are some benefits here, but the fundamental problem is the offender is left unchanged and unchallenged to change.
Consider the abused wife, the battered wife, when she says to her husband, I forgive you for beating me, and she hopes that moves his heart to change his behavior. What is she assuming? She's assuming that her husband agrees that his behavior is wrong, and the problem is most abusers don't see their behavior is wrong. They think they've got every right to discipline their wife or husband. And so when she says, I forgive you, he thinks, you stupid idiot, there's nothing to be forgiven for, but if that makes you feel better, and he keeps right on abusing her. And this sets up a scenario where we forgive and become the perpetual victim.
The other side of the coin is the strict view. Again, the pennance model where they're going to earn it and the focus here is on compensation. If you make enough compensation; emotional, physical, monetary, whatever; then you finally are entitled to forgiveness and we'll let you off the hook. I like to illustrate this one with basketball star Kobe Bryant who got caught seeing some ladies he ought not to have been seeing the way he saw them and he had a tearful press conference about, I was a bad boy, and I need to change my ways and so forth and then he went out and he bought his wife a $4 million ring. So if I spend enough money on an expensive gift and weep enough tears, etc., now I can be over it. I'll promise to be a good boy. She'll forgive me, etc. etc.
One of the obvious problems here of course, is that when we make a person squirm and wait for forgiveness and if he finally proves himself good enough I might think about forgiving you. That seems to defeat the purpose right? Furthermore, the offender is still left unchallenged to change because as long as they can make adequate compensation they don't need to change. Put it in speeding ticket terms, if there were no point limits on your license and you're rich enough, you could drive through Collegedale and get a ticket every day as long as you have the money to pay it. Right? That's the weakness on this side. Both views fail to call sinners to change and transform because neither address the deeper issues of justice.
Whatever forgiveness is then, I suggest that it has to grapple with the issue of justice, and one of the problems that has damaged many Christian young people is that they had been forced by the authorities in their life to forgive in a way that makes them perpetual victim and violates justice. And it is this issue why many mental health professionals have difficulty with what many Christians preach about forgiveness.
I remember in Samantha's story, she was a member of a neighboring district and in a great quirk of fate, the stepdad ended up in the County jail and she ended up in the County psych unit for trying suicide the two buildings were on the same piece of property. Her pastor visited her and then he got in his car and drove the quarter-mile around and visited the stepdad was not an Adventist, hoping maybe this was an evangelistic moment. The psych unit got wind and thought he was trying to broker a forgiveness arrangement where she would drop charges and so they responded by putting all Adventist pastors off-limits from visiting in that facility. The mother finally negotiated, that's a little bit rash, but why don't we have a rule that Adventist pastors don't visit both halves of the equation. You visit one or you visit the other, so they finally agreed to let that be the rule and since her pastor had already visited the prison, he would become the prison visitor, so she needed a new pastor to visit in the psych unit and she called me.
But of course I had to go see the head psychiatrists. I walked into her office and there was religious memorabilia of the Jewish faith floating around. She pointed at a chair in front of her desk. She was maybe low 30s, high-powered personality. I sat down. There was no handshake, there was no, it's nice to meet you, my name is. She looked me in the eye and I'll adjust the vocabulary slightly. She said, I'm not going to let you visit in this facility unless you promise not to discuss Christian forgiveness baloney. I thought, boy, aren't we professional today. So I asked her, what do you understand Christian forgiveness to be? And it was basically this lenient view. Oh, let's just pretend it never happened and hope they change and blah blah blah. And it leads to hurt, wounds, dysfunctions and perpetual victimhood. So I asked her if she would mind if I explained to her what I understood Christian forgiveness to be. Well how could she say no. So I took about 5 minutes and in about 4 and a half minutes a little smirk started to come on her face and by the time I got to about 5 minutes she was smiling and she said I have no problem with you and gave me full access.
This lenient view, in particular, has been noticed by the mental health industry for its tendency to perpetuate victimhood in the name of forgiveness, and their sense of justice is violated and they don't want to hear about it.
So what does that mean to us? What then is missing in these views of forgiveness. Let's go to Matthew 18 now in our Scripture reading. Right before our Scripture reading where Peter says how often should I forgive, what happens? Jesus goes through this drill, if your brother sins against you what are you supposed to do. According to the lenient view, forget. According to the strict view, make him sweat. When he sweats enough then you forgive him.
What's Jesus way? He said, go talk to them and if he hears you, you have what? Gained your brother. So we have a goal in mind here and the goal is to gain the brother. To restore a relationship, and so the reason we go privately is so that we don't make them lose face and embarrass them and so forth and so on and hopefully our respect of their dignity helps open a door for them to say, yeah, there's a problem here, I agree, and then we have the right spirit to negotiate a healthy solution. But he says if that doesn't work, you bring a couple of witnesses, again to protect the dignity, keep it confined, but the point is, forgiveness confronts the problem. It doesn't sweep it under the rug. So then, of course, it goes to the church and if that doesn't work then we have to treat him like an unbeliever, which means an evangelistic interest.
So Peter says, well Lord, how often do I have to go through this process of going to my brother, or taking two witnesses etc. is three times enough? And Jesus says, no no, 70 times 7. Wheew.
And now Jesus tells another story to expand on what Peter has asked. There was a certain King and he was doing his ledgers and he discovers a man who owes him 10,000 talents. Folks, that would be like you on your paycheck owing the national debt of the United States to somebody. And he called the guy in and he says man you've got trillions of dollars of here and the guy says I know but don't worry, give me enough time and I'll pay back every penny. It's absurd. Please notice, this guy doesn't think he has a problem. Give me enough time, I'll get it fixed. Like the abuser. He doesn't think there's a problem. But the King quote forgives him anyway. I'll come back to that in a moment, and this guy because he's not in the mode of grace and forgiveness, but man I've got to show this guy I'm going to pay him back, so he runs off and finds somebody who owes him money. Maybe he's running a pyramid scheme. It's kind of collapsing on him. So he tries to collect some of his pyramid so he can make a down payment so he can show the king that he's going to pay off its debt. One of the lessons we get there is, again, unconditional forgiveness without admission of wrong and the proper confrontation doesn't accomplish much.
But I want to go to the King's side because that's the focus of today. What does it mean for this King to forgive this guy his debt? What's the first and most obvious thing it means? He's got to eat 10,000 talents. He's got to eat the national debt. Forgiveness is costly. I'll develop that in a moment. Let's get the other half. Why is he eating the national debt. Is it so that this guy can go out and rack up another national debt? No. That would defeat the purpose of the forgiveness. What's the purpose of the forgiveness? I eat the debt so that what? So that you can change and live a debt-free life so that we can have a proper relationship. Without the liens and background held against you. The forgiver absorbs a cost and that cost involves justice.
At our level, what we have to do is give the judicial side of justice to God and his agency. It's not my job to prosecute the case. You follow me? And so what I told this doctor is this girl needs to prosecute the stepdad because he's not admitting he's got a problem. He needs some help. But she's doing it for his good, not her good. And then, once he acknowledges, I have a problem, we just don't say, oh good, let's pretend it never happened. That's a great way to become a victim again, right?
Forgiveness does not put the relationship where it was before the offense. What it does is provides a new slate, not attached to the past, to build and earn a new reputation on. So if the abusing father wants to go through the steps that show he's changing and becoming safe, then over a period of time he might be able to re-earn her trust as she sees it's safe to trust. See, the other side of the coin is, if he goes through all that work to be safe to trust and she never lets go, they'll never be able to have the relationship. See it's both sides. The forgiveness is about putting the relationship on a proper and healthy footing, and to do that, the forgiver says instead of prosecuting you I will absorb and will pay that cost myself to give you a chance to change.
And this brings us to ask a question about the meaning of the cross then. Why does Jesus die on the cross? You know, Rob Bell's recent book Love Wins, which I've read the book reviews but not the book, but it's raised again the issues of the atonement, and both in Adventism and out of Adventism we have some people who think God is too loving and nice. He would never punish anybody. He just simply tells us how the rules of consequence work and so Christ was demonstrating how sin is consequentially dangerous. And I find that inadequate to explain forgiveness.
But the other side is the more penal substitution side were kind of the angry God, his wrath against sin is satiated by the death of Christ and now that the price is paid and the compensation is made, he can be forgiven. And this leads to an almost bloodthirsty view of God.
I'd like to suggest, there is a third option. The cross is God incarnate, self sacrificially absorbing the cost of justice for sin so that you and I can change into what he wants us to be without the sinful past being held as a liability against us. Forgiveness does not subvert justice. It fulfills it. But it fulfills it with the other person. It's the forgiver who satisfies it, not the offender who satisfies. But it's still satisfied.
In amnesty there is no satisfaction of justice. It's just, Huh, forget it. And God cannot do amnesty, because if you just drop it that's an exception and once we make an exception, the rest of the creation starts to presume that they can mess around and still get an exception. And so to avoid that chaos, God makes no exceptions, but he steps in and says whoever wants to change and leave the life of sin and be under my Lordship, I'll absorb the cost for you so you can change and build a new reputation with me without the past being an anchor holding you back. Amen?
And so the cross is the great grand expression of a God who initiates and willfully absorbs the cost of justice before we respond to him in order to make a compelling appeal to which we can respond.
And so it is with us. For us to be forgiving we are going to initiate absorbing the emotional cost of justice to reach out to the offender and say, I'm willing to build a new relationship with you if you're willing to admit there's a problem and let's work on a healthy solution. Now we've got something.
Let's sing about the power of a God whose self sacrifices to absorb the cost of justice that we have a way to change and become what he wants us to be.
Lord Jesus, help us to appreciate that while we were still enemies, you absorbed the cost of justice to give us place to change and enter into saving relationship with you. Help us, as the victim, be willing to absorb costs of justice like you, to restore, not dysfunctional relationships and perpetual victimhood, but to build new, healthy and healed relationships, we pray in the name of Jesus.
Hymn of Praise: #245, More About Jesus Scripture: Matthew 18:21-22 Hymn of Response: #336, There Is a Fountain
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Sermon at McDonald Road transcribed by Steve Foster 6/29/11