Most of my postgraduate education was under the tutelage of Dr. James A. Nestingen, Jim. Among other things, he is known for telling wonderful stories of absolution. We’ve had him on the Thinking Fellows podcast many times, times that he has regaled us with several of these wonderful, Christ-centered tales. I have always loved Jim’s ability to lay the ground level with the word of Christ on his lips, handing over the goods with Christ’s forgiveness. Jim has an uncanny ear that is precisely tuned to hear a confession of sin. To be honest, I’ve aspired to emulate his ability to hear a confession and hand over those same goods to others.
This task has become somewhat easy when the party confessing is not related to me. It has taken some time, but I have tuned my ear to hear the confessions of strangers whose sins were not directed at me. It is quite easy to hear their sometimes-silent plea for forgiveness as they tell the stories of their woes, troubles, and misdeeds. It’s even easier to say to them, “In the name of Christ, I forgive your sins.” And, if I am honest, their relief at a burden lifted is glorious and very rewarding. I thank Jim for teaching me the importance of absolution in the life of the sinner.
But I have found that this is more difficult when it comes to forgiving those I love, who have harmed me in a personal way. In fact, I have found that forgiveness is hard. Several of my friends, pastor friends, have told me the glories of absolving their wives after a fight. (I wonder if their wives get to absolve them back? I hope so.) They tell me of how liberating it is. Some have even claimed that they then are able to walk around as if nothing has ever happened after said fight and absolution. Frankly, I find this hard to believe, because this type of personal forgiveness is hard.
I have found that for me, the most difficult thing to endure is the pain of the people I love, or the one I love the most, harming me in a way only they can. Our loved ones know our best parts and they know all of our flaws. They know exactly where to thrust the knife and when to turn the blade so that it eviscerates us. And we can do the same to them. As Jim would always say, you know when a marital fight has gone bad when the husband throws out the phrase: “you’re just like your mother!” These personal attacks are meant to destroy, and they go both ways; always aimed at the heart of the ones we hold most dear.
This is a pain and anger so personal, that even a confession of wrongdoing by the perpetrator seems ill-equipped to cover over what has been inflicted. So if you are like me, once the confession has been laid on the table, you know what you have to do. You have to say the words. You have to say… “I… forgive… you.” And the words come out like poison vomited up in a vain attempt to save a life. They sting and burn the whole time they escape the mouth. They are more often said out of obligation than true love or actual forgiveness. Yet, they are said.
Jim has said to me, more times than I can count, that the Word of life often comes to us on the lips of another. Those lips are, for sure, the lips of another sinner. Those lips will often be the lips of loved ones; friends and family. They might come when we have sinned, and they might come when we have been sinned against. They might even, from time to time, come from our lips. But the one thing we can be sure of is that the lips which bring us the Word of life, the forgiveness proclaimed on behalf of Christ, will never be pure lips. They will always be lips, not only tainted by sin, but by animosity and hypocrisy as well.
Our intentions to forgive anyone, especially those who have hurt us, are never pure. The intentions of the pastor who absolves the congregation on Sunday morning are also no purer than the injured husband or wife who begrudgingly forgives after an unfair fight full of dangerous words. We are all sinful and unclean. We all are self-motivated and are not to be trusted when we claim we have forgiven.
So, here is the catch. Our forgiveness, given in the name of Christ, is not our forgiveness. It belongs to Christ. We have not the inclination nor authority to forgive a sinner in general or a sinner that has injured us personally. That authority has been given to Christ alone. But, if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed. (John 8:36) And the Son has indeed set us free to be His little Christs to the world. And so, He tells us to forgive in His name. (John 20:23)
It is hard to forgive. Impossible, really. Thus Christ, who specializes in the impossible, uses our mouth to forgive and absolve. What a wonderful blessing. The Lord of all uses a sinful means, you and me. This is how He hands over His goods to a world desperate for a forgiveness, too hard for us to give.