Monday, December 29, 2014

The Insanity of Forgiveness

His eyes are crazy, deep pools of hatred. I grip my scarf until my knuckles are white as I watch him beat the helpless young man before me, striking him again and again across the face with his cane. It's not the first time. I know it won't be the last time. I feel wrath, even hatred, bubbling up inside me, and I wish I could hit this bully back, beat him twice for every blow he's given Louis. But there's nothing I can do.

There's nothing I can do because I'm sitting in the cinema, and the young man, Louis, is on the big screen. I'm watching "Unbroken." The movie posters declare that it's an incredible true story of survival, resilience, and redemption, which it is, but I would like to add one more thing: it's an incredible true story of insanity. The insanity of war and man's brutality to man, and the insanity of faith and forgiveness.

Forgiveness, when you think about it, isn't very "fair"--nor, perhaps, is it terribly satisfying. When I see Louis being tortured by the prison guard in the film -- or when I hear news stories of, for example, the Taliban massacring hundreds of innocent schoolchildren -- the anger that wells up inside me cries out for revenge. For justice to be served against the guilty. The kind of justice that takes an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.

It's at such times that I can resonate with David's heated pleas, "Oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!" (Ps 139:19) I can understand why God would hate sin and anything that hurts his creation. I can appreciate God's statement: "I do not excuse the guilty" (Ex 34:7). What I find harder to understand is when God says, "I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. . . I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live" (Ex 34:7, Eze 33:10). I cannot understand forgiveness.

It's one thing for God to forgive me. After all, I'm basically good, right? I haven't committed war crimes. I haven't slaughtered innocents. I deserve forgiveness. Wicked people don't. Surely, to forgive the wicked doesn't make sense.

Picture taken from
At the end of "Unbroken," Louie -- who has devoted his life to God -- returns to Japan, influenced by his faith to seek forgiveness rather than revenge as a way forward. The movie's website quotes Louis: "The one who forgives never brings up that past; true forgiveness is complete and total." That's insane.

To give up your desire to see the other person hurt in justifiable revenge? To offer unconditional forgiveness for terrible wrongs? It goes against every natural instinct. Forgiveness is something that, when I really try to think about it, is practically impossible to wrap my head around.

War and human brutality is insane. Forgiveness is also insane. It requires something superhuman. True forgiveness must be divine, and the fact that there is a faith that not only calls for forgiveness, but somehow also enables people to truly give it and live it -- as evidenced by Louie and many, many others -- is astounding.

There is something beautiful in the madness.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Jesus Claus

Dear Jesus Claus,

I know you have a list and are checking it twice, but by and large I've been a good girl this year. I'm sure I don't really deserve to be on the naughty list. So can you please, please send me a new car, a lot more money than I have right now, and a good man? Amen.

P.S. Oh, and can you hurry it up a bit? Thanks.  

Salvation is a free gift, but everything else has to be earned, right? After all, just like Santa Claus, God only gives nice things to those who have accumulated enough brownie points.

At least, that's what I realized I'd fallen into thinking.

I was journaling through some prayers, pouring out my heart to God and asking Him for something in one sentence, but in the next sentence agonizing over how I really didn't deserve such a gift anyway and hence I didn't expect to receive it. And suddenly I stopped short. What was I thinking about God?!

I began to write: "Do I really believe that any good I receive is because I deserve it somehow? That any time God gifts me is because I've ticked all the right boxes? That for God to bring something into my life I have to bribe Him with good behavior? Ouch."

God doesn't work that way. He is not some Santa Claus figure, weighing up my good deeds and my bad deeds before deciding whether I go on the Naughty or Nice list, and thus deciding whether I should receive any good gifts or answered prayers.

God is someone who loves to give and gives because He loves.

Over and over again in my Bible study this year, verses about the goodness and abundance of God have jumped out at me.  He promises that those who seek Him will not lack any good thing (Psalm 34:10). He "deals bountifully" with His people (Psalm 13:6), and brings them to "rich fulfillment" (Psalm 66:12). He promises that I can be "abundantly satisfied" with the "fullness" of His house (Psalm 36:8).

And all of this is simply because of who He is. Not because of anything I've done to be placed on a Naughty or Nice list.

How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Oh, continue Your lovingkindness to those who know You. You crown me with lovingkindness and tender mercies. Whoever is wise will observe these things, and they will understand the lovingkindness of the Lord. 
(From Psalms 36, 103, 107)

Thank you to Tamara Naja for giving me the suggestion and inspiration for this post.

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