Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 10, 2009

Forgiveness 101: For Stubborn Fools, Charismatics, Addicts & the Rest of Us

More news and views on the healing of relationships, and the fracturing of the church, in its many forms:

The other day I clicked below my blog on a Wordpress-generated link to an article on spirituality and psychology. It turned out to also be about charismatic Christian practices like fainting in the Spirit, peer pressure, faking it, and “groupthink” (none of which I am going to go into here),  but parts of  the blog were nevertheless instructive on personal spirituality as well.

I liked most and wanted to say something here regarding this line:

        “Being spiritual, in my opinion, is when an individual embraces every facet of their humanity with no apologies, knowing well that their shortcomings are not evidence of God’s absence but rather, evidence of life. True spirituality comes when we understand that in the midst of living, He will never leave us.” (Darin Hufford)

While I wholeheartedly agree with the basic premise of this statement (living without fear or shame regarding our humanity, our own brokenness, or our faith, and knowing God loves us), I also think this “no apologies” advice can also be taken the wrong way — especially now, in the era of  “extreme” behavior.

A crude example: when a young man puts a “NO FEAR” sticker on his truck window, then proceeds to run a redlight in his general cluelessness, that’s not something we should condone. Living fearlessly or unapologetically should not be used as excuses for being selfish or stupid.

The same can also be said about emotional and spiritual recklessness. We humans are steadily tempted to make excuses for our harmful statements and behavior. So we need to ask God’s help to own our mistakes. Practically speaking, making an apology, especially a difficult one, and submitting to another person, is often the surest way to witness to God’s own forgiving heart.

We have examples of this in the Bible, such as Jacob, who submitted himself to his wronged brother Esau and was even prepared to be killed by Esau as repayment for the original injury. Basic and godly courage and responsibility were not only shown by Esau, who did the forgiving, but were shown first by Jacob, who confessed and submitted to his brother. Futhermore, to put a modern psychological spin on this story, Jacob probably at the same time unburdened himself of years worth of regret, during which he had missed his estranged brother greatly, and felt immensely guilty. So whether Esau had forgiven him or not, the mere process of admitting fault and attempting reconciliation had already led to deep inner healing for Jacob.

Another example: we are often called to take risks as Christians. It’s part of following Jesus, a big-time radical and risk-taker himself. But we’re bound to make mistakes also. So when we take a risk and yet go too far (for fools rush in where angels fear to tread), we need to admit fault, and humbly ask forgiveness — all with full repentence and hopefully having achieved new learning, so we won’t make that particular mistake again. (And as for addicts, the repetition of that same mistake is part of the ” stinkin’ thinkin’ ” cycle we need God’s help in breaking. But more on that later…)

In other words, we try things out, hopefully operating in the Holy Spirit. But because we humans also *do* make mistakes, usually by not hearing the Spirit clearly (or just by being dumb humans/sheep), apologies usually need to be made in order to repair the damage. Because to be a mature Christian, we are also called to pursue humility and confession, forgotten virtues in this age of self-empowerment and relativism, where nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Although we are redeemed, yet we are still sinners. So we’re often required to make a genuine apology, to restore relationship, to not let the sun go down without an attempted reconciliation.

I’m sure most people don’t even have to look beyond their own families to see the painful results of an unreconciled relationship or an unforgiven act. Unforgiven sin tears people apart: it festers inside of us, and it separates us from each other. We cannot sweep it under the rug and expect everything to be hunky dory again. Nor can we offer a lazy “my bad”, move on quickly and expect the matter to be done, without that difficult but honest conversation about how much our actions hurt the other person. Trust must be restored, or it is not true and lasting forgiveness.

People who have gone through 12-step recovery programs  understand this point quite well. Steps 8 through 10 read as follows:

  • Step 8Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
  • Step 9Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
  • Step 10Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it

I think pride is the main reason that many would ignore or make an excuse about a mistake, or refuse to apologize, whether that mistake be a theological error or a hurtful behavior. But shame plays a role, too. We (especially the addicts and co-dependents) may already feel bad about ourselves, and don’t want any more blamed heaped upon us. And yet pride and shame, perhaps more than any other character flaws, are what keep us separate from the love of God and others. We want to either rise above others, or hide our brokenness from them, instead of just admitting we’re all in this mess together, all equally blessed and challenged, in our own way.

And if I may be bold here, I think pride is one of the easiest states of sin for Western Christians to fall into. Many well-intentioned but clumsy evangelicals secretly feel: ” Only I was given the truth. ME! Listen up, sinners of the world… here’s where you went wrong.”  (Perhaps you have experienced this temptation, or know others who come off this way?) Meanwhile Roman Catholics, by comparison, have a similar temptation that dogs them: “We are the True Church. Only we have remained faithful. All others are Bible-worshipping fundamentalists and pretenders.” I’m not claiming either approach is healthy, nor that all participants in these two traditions have this attitude. These are just common temptations. But either way, I doubt it’s the humble Jesus within these two types of believers that has them talking such trash in the face of their perceived competitors.

Plus, especially in the charismatic or pentecostal tradition, enthusiasm for the message sometimes gets confused with honoring the messenger. If we honor these genuine leaders too much (or if we seek attention for ourselves when doing ministry), we may fall prey to pride again, or tempt others to fall into that trap. It’s fine to love and learn from those with a real gift. But don’t forget the Giver. And don’t blindly follow the gifted, either. For rather than honoring the divine Source of that Good News, we’re often caught doing the exact (and wrongheaded) kind of showy prayer that Jesus said not to engage in, when he advised we go off in a closet somewhere to have our talks with God.

To God, we are all laymen. And thanks to the Holy Spirit, we are also all leaders… but we must be servants first, as Jesus himself was.

If I can get sociological for a moment here: many strict fundamentalists and charismatics have a judgemental, elitist “strut” about them that is very off-putting to legitimate and perfectly orthodox mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox followers of the Nazarene. I have found that Christians of various traditions actually have much more in common than we think, but in our rush to proclaim and honor own favored tradition, we too quickly end up trying to demonize our brothers and sisters somehow… or at least ignore them as irrelevant. In this, we are doing what Jacob did to Esau: trying to steal and horde the blessing of the Father (who unlike Isaac, loves all His children equally).

And as for actually learning from these other traditions? Or to be reconciled to them? Forget it. We’re too tribal to even take the risk of attempting it. In other words, certain proud, self-proclaimed Jesus Freaks look nothing like the man Himself… humble as He was in His strength and authority. He was always ready to sit down with a tax collector, to heal a Roman soldier’s child, and in dozens of other ways reach out to all humans as God’s children.  

What’s worse, that unapologetic, proud, superior or paternalistic attitude can also be downright angering, or cause despair, within unbelievers –some of whom intuitively know they’re sin-sick. They lack peace, yet they doubt the authenticity of Christ’s power to heal, based on their perception of his followers. And lacking that peace or acceptance, that sense that they’ll be forgiven, these are often the very same people who seek fulfillment in the wrong ways, who become addicted to alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, video games, sex, shopping, procrastination, pornography, television, the internet, or those silly Precious Moments figurines that your Aunt Betty collects.

(Regarding the figurines, a favorite line from Flannery O’Connor comes to mind here: “Sentimentalism is like pornography to Christians. It should be avoided at all costs.” –I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the idea –not substituting what is false and surfacy for what is true and authentic– is the point here.)

The sad fact is that too many of the flashy, invulnerable, shallow, judgmental, quick-fix, uncompassionate Christians that many non-believers have encountered are not very good ambassadors for Christ. Genuine searchers are often turned away from Christ, by Christians who stand on principle, who refuse to forgive, confess or apologize themselves, and who then refuse to engage with regular, messy, complicated people, meeting them right where they’re at, like Jesus did.

You probably know the kind of Christian I’m talking about. The one who blames the victim for why the victim is stuck. The one who says “not in MY backyard”, or “not with MY money”. The one who rationalizes away the Jesus who said “love thine enemies”. Or the one who helps build a “crystal cathedral”, and yet lets millions go hungry around the world. Yet in some ways, we all close our eyes and harden our hearts toward our own complicity in perpetuating such attitudes and uncaring systems.

It does not help to feel guilty about our pride or our errors, either. The feeling of guilt is part of what separates us from God and each other. Instead, we simply need to forgive, and ask forgiveness, and thus be freed up to serve each other again.

On the other hand, the fact is, often we are guilty. Through Jeremiah the prophet, God once said of us:

“My people are fools;
       they do not know me.
       They are senseless children;
       they have no understanding.
       They are skilled in doing evil;
       they know not how to do good.”  (Jer 4:22)

…and human nature really has not changed much since then, Jesus or no Jesus.

And despite the growth of other non-Christian faith traditions since Jesus’ time, they too have not managed to adequately solve the basic “sin” problem that Jeremiah’s talking about above. For if they had, we would recognize their “good tree” by its good fruits. But instead, they too have gone to war over who holds “the truth”, or have not fully grasped the greatness of God, nor have they found some flawless text or system to keep all people on the path of righteousness. Yet I am not criticizing those who have rejected or not been exposed to the true God. I mostly want to learn from them, or perhaps discuss our common bond as seekers of the truth. I want to be reconciled to them, despite our differences.

So –to repeat –sin is real, in the life of believers and unbelievers alike. Therefore we need forgiveness to be at the core of our being. And we need to confess to each other and to God, and then to clearly forgive others– seventy seven times if necessary, as Jesus taught — in order to keep the love  and trust free-flowing. Apologies and an honest moral inventory of ourselves will grease the wheels of God’s great forgiveness cycle, so that forgiveness rolls on. Forgiveness, unconditional and compassionate, begets still more forgiveness, and our wounds and resentments and errors will soon decrease, rather than piling up.

The Father set that cycle of forgiveness in motion by sending Jesus, but now we need to keep on being Jesus to those around us. And while we also need to hold each other accountable, we must do this without a spirit of blame or superiority. It is God who defines the standards of truth and virtue, and none of us completely measures up. So let’s stop pretending we do, and start figuring out how to help each other out instead.



  1. AMEN!
    I love an article that shines light where it needs shineing. I recently published a book called The Key of Forgiveness. I wasn’t completely sure in of my own writing, but after reading this post, I have a renewed confidence that I put the right words on the pages. Forgiveness is a commandment given to us by Jesus himself. It was so important that Jesus put it in the Lord’s prayer. As Christians, we need this as much as anything I can think of.
    Thank you for a thoughtful and inspiring post,
    God Bless, Glenn Smith Jr

  2. Thanks Glenn.
    Like you, I’m also not always sure of myself, but I take the risk of putting ideas to paper and letting others see them. I’m trying to stay true to a sense of what comes in my prayer and reading and fellowship, and what life has taught me, but there’s always a piece of the process that is about trusting God and the reader to “fill in the blanks”, where we know we will fall short of the complete picture on our own. And that’s okay.
    I’ll take a look at your book or your publisher site.

    Maybe we have more to talk about. Like who’s making money, or who’s paying money, to get one’s nonfiction or inspirational writing in print and out in bookstores, or online. This working for free stuff is getting old for me, real quick… even most ministers or spiritual directors have income for putting these ideas together on behalf of others.

    Thanks for stopping in. Hopefully you’ll keep reading, though I don’t always stick to religious or inspirational topics, so I recognize my blog is not for everybody.

  3. I can completely relate to the “working for free” thought. One of the reasons my wife and I started our publishing company was to help people gain access to a market that is otherwise “off-limits” to the mere common folk. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about taking your writing to market. I don’t have all of the answers, but I am constantly learning and I don’t believe in the impossible. Anything is possible to him who can dream it.
    God Bless, Glenn

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