Forgiveness seems counter-intuitive to me.
All of my life, I was taught to try hard to do the right thing. Be kind. Be loving. Be good. And then my faith became alive and that seemed even more true. Jesus wants me to love like He does. What a high standard! I am not supposed to be angry or self-centered or greedy or unkind or… And I am supposed to be other-centered, gentle, kindhearted, loving and more.
So I go on a mission to be more loving. I try harder. I pray specifically. I think ahead. I try to go above and beyond. And it turns out that I am “more” of the same. I am trying to love more, but not becoming a more loving man. I am doing the best I possibly can, but my change seems to be from the outside in, rather than from my heart – from the inside out.
And then a little verse appears inside a story told by Jesus in the middle of a larger encounter (Luke 7) with a man like me. His name is Simon. He is trying harder. He is a “good” man. And he isn’t getting any better either. In fact, he is acutely aware of those around him who aren’t trying as hard or as well as he is. And towards those who are blowing it big time, Simon’s attitude is – “pity them and keep them away from me!”
In responding to Simon’s harshness toward this nameless woman, probably a prostitute, who certainly hasn’t tried as hard as Simon, Jesus tells a story about two indebted people. One owed a month and a half’s salary; the other owed a year and half’s salary. Neither, however, could pay it back. But the debt carrier decided to forgive both debts. Which of the two, Jesus asked, would “love him more”?
Not which would be more thankful, appreciative, indebted… Which would love him more?
I got the story. You probably do too. Simon owed the smaller amount. The prostitute owed the larger. Which of the two would “love more” as a result of having their debt forgiven? Obviously the prostitute. Simon got the point. I got it too. Simon didn’t like it and neither did I.
Some of us know we are sinners. We know our mess and can’t get away from it. Forgiveness, if we can get our hands around it and really believe it, is like water on a parched soul. Our response to grace, if we are willing to simply accept it, is dramatic. And then we love more.
But some of us are like Simon (and me). We have tried hard and we want to believe that trying harder makes us better. We want to believe that somehow we can overcome the sin inside us with effort. We can’t.
And Jesus tells us that effort won’t make us more loving. Experiencing God’s mercy and forgiveness is what changes us. Moving into the sinful parts of my life, facing the times I am critical, judgmental, sharp, and arrogant – and being sorrowful for my debt is what takes me to the place when I need the love of God in Christ. The Cross becomes more real and the love of my Savior means something to me when I know that I need it. Knowing deep in my heart I need forgiveness and knowing that I now have it is how I become more loving. Trying harder, setting goals, working to be a good soldier – these don’t change me. I am changed as I experience being forgiven a debt I could not pay.
It is counter-intuitive. I become more loving by owning how unloving I am. I become more loving when I see that the real issue is with God and that I am powerless I am to change it. It is when I accept how unloving I am before God how and ask for His forgiveness that I actually become more loving.
Humility and dependence give me a new, softer, more genuinely loving heart. And I love more.
So if you want to become more loving, let God show you how unloving you really are (in real specific places in your marriage, friendships, etc.) and how desperately dependent you are upon His forgiveness. Somehow, that move, which seems like it is away from trying to be good, actually takes me to Jesus in a way that changes me. Now that is counter-intuitive.
Palmer Trice is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He is married to Lynne, has three children and has been in Charlotte since 1979. In his spare time, Palmer enjoys golf, tennis, walking and reading.
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