Saturday, August 09, 2008


One of my favourite authors is the late Lewis Smedes, former professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, who passed away in 2002. He left a legacy of excellent heart-felt communications and set a benchmark on what forgiveness meant. I heard of Dr Smedes way back in the late 80s, (or early 90s) where one of my pastors then mentioned him as a ‘great communicator.’ He was in Singapore and gave a series of talks at the SLF Building at Thomson Road. Indeed he is a master at communicating simple truths. His words about forgiveness and commitment in relationships remain one of the most memorable lessons for me as a young Christian. In a ChristianityToday classic republished in Dec 2002, just after his death, he talks about forgiveness being an act that has the potential to change our past. That is a very healing way to look at broken relationships or shattered history. Truly, one of the greatest human emotional moment is that instant of forgiveness between two parties. In that special time, what was previously far apart is now drawn closer together. What was damaged yesterday is now given an opportunity for reparation works today. In the act of forgiveness, the miraculous power to change the past becomes immediately available. This is not saying that we can wind back the clock to change events. It is not even talking about going back to the past to prevent unhappy circumstances from ever appearing. It is about establishing the peace to an otherwise tumultuous future resulting from an unresolved past hurts. Without forgiveness, we will continue to live under the shadow of brokenness and despair. We unwittingly allow the past to dictate our future. In forgiveness, we loosen the chains of blame; we release steam that threatens to blow up our humanness inside us; we empower others by granting them wings to freedom in their relationships with others as well. Smedes says it very well calling forgiveness and promises as twins to can change the past and secure the future respectively.
“God offers two answers to our deepest anxieties. He is a forgiving God who recreates our pasts by forgiving them. He is a promising God who controls our future by making and keeping promises. By forgiving us, he changes our past. By promising, he secures our future.”
The Apostle Paul may not have a degree in Psychology but he understands the spiritual need of Christians in the church. He prescribes forgiveness to the Corinthians, who are in constant bickering, paralyzing the church there with internal strife. Not only do they cause bad blood among the members, they do the gospel of Christ a great disfavour. Ron Susek, author of Firestorm agrees:
“With every church conflict, the first causality is the gospel of Jesus Christ because when the church is survival oriented, it cannot be salvation oriented.” (Ron Susek)“

No church is more than 24 hours away from a major conflict breaking out.” (Dr Roy Roberts)
In Firestorm, one of the key errors of leadership during times of conflict is indecision. When pinned to a corner to choose a side to support, leaders typically tend to take the middle ground or not making a decision in order to keep the peace. Indecision is not simply refusing to make a decision. It is a BAD decision in itself. I will suggest that the best way in times like this is to make an immediate decision to work at forgiveness, bringing in a mediator immediately if need to.

“If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven – if there was anything to forgive – I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.” (2 Cor 2:10-11)

Being a Peacemaker, not Peacekeeper
Paul here is playing the role of a mediator. He uses himself to come between two opposing parties and draw their attention to Christ. One may claim to speak FOR Christ, but it takes a peacemaker to act IN Christlikeness. Matthew 5:9 says: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” Indeed, there is a distinction between being a peace-MAKER versus a peace-KEEPER. One is active while the other is passive. The former acts actively to ensure that peace is preserved. The latter simply tries to keep the peace but will withhold active participation. Peacemakers look forward to a brighter future of peace and harmony. Peacekeeper tries to maintain the status quo. How can we allow ‘peacekeepers’ to maintain a status quo of internal squabbling? How can we ever keep the peace if it was never peaceful in the first place? Like a canoe going downhill on a rushing river, having only peacekeepers in the church is like asking everyone in the canoe to stop rowing at all. On the other hand, having peacemakers is like getting everyone in the boat to paddle upward to safety. Here, Paul seeks to make the peace by exhorting the Church to forgive, even as Paul in Christ has forgiven them.

There are five observations I want to highlight:
Firstly, the Greek form of ‘forgive’ in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is χαρίζομαι (charizomai, to show favour, to give freely). The primitive word in this verb is charis, which is grace and kindness. It appears to be an active verb that takes the initiative to bless and grant grace to another. This act of forgiveness is something that is done freely. In contrast to the other Greek word for ‘forgive,’ ἀφίημι (aphiemi, to send away, to leave), which has the image of abandoning one’s state of unforgiveness or negative behaviour. It is like putting away and leaving behind in contrast to chariszomai which is a putting ON of an attitude of grace.

Secondly, Paul’s use of the middle voice here is very curious. In Greek, the middle voice means two things: to initiate an action and to participate in the response or the results of that action. Paul wants the feuding groups to make the peace by initiating forgiveness and participating in the atmosphere of grace. In one word, Paul brings out two actions of initiating and participating. In forgiveness, we become vulnerable to the other party’s responses. No one can guarantee what kind of reply to be expected.

Thirdly, the audience is unnamed. It can mean the left or the right. It can mean anyone reading the epistle, including us. This letter is written for the benefit of all Christians, even though it is addressed to the Corinthians directly. Isn’t it so wonderful that the Word of God can have such timeless applications? That is one way that the mediator can behave, by not taking sides straightaway, but to teach the fact that any dispute involves all parties. It is not simply the aggressor against the aggrieved. It also involves the many silent majority, especially those who chose to watch on the sidelines without behaving like peacemakers.

Fourthly, forgiveness is made in the name of Christ. This is important. If a perfectly blameless person like Christ, chooses not to cast stones at the sinful woman, how dare we, as sinful beings encourage another toward culpable acts? The way to forgive one another is to do so in the spirit and person of Christ.

Fifthly, by forgiving, we pull the carpet under the devil’s feet, who is standing just outside the doorway of church divisions. Satan is most pleased when there is infighting among the children of God. In forgiveness, we pull ahead of any devilish schemes that can break down a church. We ‘outwit’ the devil as a result. Paul emphatically states that he is ‘not unaware’ of the devil’s schemes, indicating that he is careful not to exclude the possibility of spiritual warfare going on. Here, I will like to add a quick comment about blaming the devil. It is sometimes very difficult to distinguish whether the cause of church divisions is due to the whims of the flesh or the darts of the evil one. While both deceives, their origins are different. It has been said that while not all church divisions are due to the presence of the devil, it is certainly true that disunity comes largely because of the absence of the Holy Spirit. I will not go to the extreme of casting this statement in concrete. As much as we try to be aware of the schemes of the devil, we must be even more conscious of the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit. The leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit is in the way of forgiveness.

Truly, forgiveness is the key to any healing of rifts; the catalyst for bonding of relationships; the essence of being human. It is enshrined at the core of the Lord’s prayer. It is to be done unto others and for others to do unto us. It is something that we can do on our own, yet makes us dependent on others to reciprocate willingly. That is why it is grace epitomized.

Indeed, when we forgive others, not only do we set others free, we realize that when that happens, the greatest beneficiary is us. Let us shake loose the chains of hatred and enmity. Let us open the prison doors of pride. Set ourselves free from self-imposed incarceration. Recognize that the act of forgiveness not only set others free to forgive and forget. It turns one narrow path of relationship and transforms it into a highway of goodwill and peace. In forgiveness, we learn one of the basic tools of being a peacemaker. Let me end with Smedes's five things about forgiveness:
  1. "Forgiving is the only way to be fair to yourself after someone hurts you unfairly.
  2. Forgivers are not doormats; they do not have to tolerate the bad things that they forgive.
  3. Forgivers are not fools; they forgive and heal themselves, but they do not have to go back for more abuse.
  4. We don’t have to wait until the other person repents before we forgive him or her and heal ourselves.
  5. Forgiving is a journey. For us, it takes time, so be patient and don’t get discouraged if you backslide have to do it over again."
Great tips indeed. This last quote should get us all eager to forgive.

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis Smedes)



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