Saturday, February 19, 2011

Repeat Offenders

This is the fourth in a series of posts on forgiveness.

In the criminal justice system repeat offenders face harsher punishment.  Previous convictions and imprisonment have failed to produce any change in the criminal’s behavior.

We can’t see another person’s heart.  And Jesus taught us very clearly to steer clear of judging the state of someone else’s soul.

Nevertheless, we can see from someone’s pattern of behavior that he or she is committed to a certain way of life.  To use churchy language, you can tell when somebody is unrepentant.

It’s difficult to say which is more galling. 

Some people continue to hurt others in precisely the same ways after saying, “I’m sorry.”   Repeatedly.

Others keep dishing out insult and injury without the slightest hint of remorse.

Surely people like this don’t deserve our forgiveness!

Contrary to what many people suggest about what Christians teach, this is exactly right.  They do not deserve forgiveness.

No one deserves forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a free gift, not a reward for contrition or an acknowledgement of adequate amends.  Forgiveness is an act of mercy.


Nothing drives this point home more soundly than what Jesus teaches us about relating to the repeat offenders of our own lives.

Here’s a key exchange between Peter and Jesus:

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

Apply Jesus’ words to the repeat offenders in you life. 

Maybe someone in your family stiffed you in settling an inheritance and has no intention of making things right. 

A boss makes jokes at your expense, a neighbor spreads lies about you, a loved one won’t stop drinking or gambling. 

It could be as simple as someone’s persistent refusal to carry their own weight with chores and caring for the kids.

Even if they apologize, you know they’re not really sorry.  They keep doing the same old thing over and over.

Surely they don’t deserve forgiveness!

As I said, no they don’t.  Jesus teaches us to forgive them. 

He doesn’t say that forgiving restores an obviously broken relationship.  I will say more about this in my next post.  There I will distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation.  For now, let’s stick to the idea that forgiveness is an act of mercy.

All forgiveness begins with my own admission that I have not kept the whole moral law.  And I myself am a repeat offender.  Jesus died on the Cross to give me the free gift of mercy: a forgiveness that I did not and could not earn.

Jesus then teaches us that recipients of mercy are finally free to be merciful people.  We do not have to wait for someone else’s contrition to refuse to let their behavior define our state of mind or our next step.

We can let it go and move on.  Not because of who they are, but because of who we are (or long to be) in Jesus Christ.

So does this mean that Christians are masochists? We just let others abuse us at will? Hardly!  As Lewis Smedes said somewhere, “Just because you forgive someone doesn’t mean you have to give them their job back.”

This brings us to the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation and the topic of the next post.

4 comments:

  1. I think that one of the keys to forgiveness is to remember that how much I am forgiven and I must forgive as such. We say so in the Lord's prayer, "Forgive me my tresspasses, as I forgive those who tresspass against me!" Another key is to let go of whatever/whomever you believe needs to be forgiven. The longer you hold on to the hurt, the more control and power you cede to the one who "wronged" or hurt you, thus allowing that person to control your life, when God is the one who needs to be in control. I have found that when I let go and forgive the one who has hurt me-the hurt becomes a dim memory in time. But the freedom that comes from forgiving is exhilerating and reminds me once again just how loved I am by my heavenly Father.

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  2. Thanks, SBO. I especially appreciate what you say about how destructive it is to hold onto hurt: "the more control and power you cede to the one who 'wronged' or hurt you, thus allowing that person to control your life." It's a good truth to hold onto whenever we wrestle with forgiveness.

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  3. I struggled with forgiveness and healthy boundaries for a long time. I wish I would have learned this lesson really early in life instead of trying to make my people happy no matter how bad I felt. I don't want to be a people-pleasing martyr... just some kind of comedian who can make people laugh while maintaining self preservation and humble merciful love, which was given to me.

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  4. Andrea, the people-pleasing club is a really big one. I think plenty of us have spent some time as members. I certainly have. It sounds like we both found out pretty much the same thing. Membership isn't worth the cost.

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