Forgiving From the Heart, part 1

I’ve been writing a lot about forgiveness lately (which means thinking and praying about it too), and I’ll be teaching a class on forgiveness starting Monday, 1/8, at Steelbridge resource center here in Albuquerque. Steelbridge, headed up by my good friend Pastor John Hill, reaches out to homeless men and women, not just to provide food and housing, but to help them get restored and redirected. I’ll be teaching a class of women who are in the intensive discipling program there. So, first installment . . .

A couple of years after Jane and I became followers of Yeshua, we left our remote mountain homestead for  Albuquerque, to work at DARE, a Bible-based residential drug rehab center. (DARE stood for “Drug Addicts Recovery Enterprises” and was not the drug education program with the same acronym. The photo above shows Jane, our kids, and me with DARE staff and students, circa 1979.) DARE was on a 72-acre farm in Albuquerque’s South Valley, and because of my hippie farming experience I was assigned to lead the work program for the men. These guys came there from lives of heroin addiction, acute alcoholism, abuse, crime, and imprisonment, but in the program we called them “students” and some of them became good friends over the years.

After we’d been there a year or so, the staff and students all attended an intensive week-long seminar on getting and keeping your life right with God. The speaker talked about repentance and about seeking forgiveness from those we’d wronged, which definitely was a relevant topic for these guys–and for us too.

That summer we went to Southern California for our annual visit with family. One evening after dinner, Jane and I asked my parents if we could talk. We went into the living room and there we asked them to forgive us for the sins and excesses of our old hippie life. We confessed our wrongs to my parents and we acknowledged how much they must have hurt them. Then we asked them if they could forgive us, and they did. A little later they asked them to tell us how we came to believe in Yeshua—for the first time ever.

For a lot of our students in the drug rehab program, the teaching about forgiveness hit them most strongly in an opposite manner. I’m sure all of them needed to ask their parents for forgiveness, but they also had a lot that they needed to forgive their parents for. Many, probably most, of the young women in the program had been sexually abused in their own homes as they were growing up. Some women told stories of being assaulted and raped continually, even daily, in their own homes for years. Fathers were often the perpetrators, or willing accomplices to other men who made their daughters into sexual objects. Mothers were often paralyzed by fear and years of male oppression—or lost in their own addictions—and became accomplices through their denial and neglect. Some of the men in the program had been victims of sexual abuse too, but the story that I remember most came from a young man whose father enlisted him to deliver drugs to his customers when he was a kid. The father figured that a 9-year-old boy on a bike wouldn’t attract any unwanted attention, even with a few envelopes of heroin tucked under his shirt.

Deeds like this, especially as they’re perpetrated on young kids, seem unforgiveable. And it seems unfair to expect a victim to forgive a perpetrator, who often remains unrepentant. But the power of forgiveness is undeniable and somehow it was essential to the recovery that these same victims were longing for. (See my last blog Who Deserves Forgiveness for more on this point.)

At the rehab program I opened up Yeshua’s teachings to our students. He told us to pray like this: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:11–12). And if that’s not clear enough, “Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your transgressions” (Mark 11:25). That’s clear and compelling, although not always easy in real life. And what makes it even harder is the moral of a story Yeshua tells his followers: we have to forgive “from the heart” (Matt 18:35). This might remind us of the father who tells Johnny he has to say he is sorry, but he has to really mean it. He has to say he’s sorry because Daddy tells him to, but he also has to feel sorry, even if he’s not! We have to forgive because the Master tells us to, but we have to do it from the heart.

Many times people do their best to forgive, because they know they’re supposed to, but nothing really changes, because it’s not from the heart. That sounds bad, but the good news is that the command “from the heart” implies that this might take time—hearts don’t change immediately—and that we don’t have to fake it. But how do we cultivate this genuine, from-the-heart forgiveness that has the potential to change our lives? That’s the subject of our class over the next few weeks.

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