Several months ago, I was listening to a co-worker speak highly of George Armstrong Custer, as he detailed a number of his military exploits. Unbeknownst to this co-worker, another co-worker named “Drake,” had a strong Native American heritage, and was sitting right next to him while he praised Custer’s exploits.
At a subsequent break, I told the co-worker who’d been glowing about Custer that Drake was actually part Native American, and that he might want to account for this in the way that he was detailing Custer’s “exploits”. The basic idea here, was that not everyone regards Custer as a hero; and in reflecting on his legacy, it might be genuinely helpful to acknowledge Custer’s significant failures as a leader.
Unfortunately, I had no idea that Drake wanted to keep his Native heritage secret. I felt embarrassed that even in the midst of seeking to serve Drake, I had shared something that he didn’t want shared. When I discovered my failure, I apologized to Drake for not being more circumspect with what I shared.
While Drake immediately said that he forgave me (because he’s a kind man); his response left me longing to experience something deeper in the practice of forgiveness than simply a verbal absolution: I wanted to be entrusted with the opportunity to succeed in the very sphere that I had once failed.
Have you ever experienced forgiveness as a verbal absolution, while longing for something more? I ask this, not simply for my own sake, but also for the sake of others. I can’t even recall how many times I’ve verbally extended forgiveness to others without even exploring how I can re-entrust them with the very sphere of responsibility in which they had once failed.  By God’s grace, this is beginning to change – and I want to change even more.
One of the things that’s quite moving about the Christian story is the way in which it narrates the nature of God’s forgiveness. Throughout the Word, the forgiveness that God offers his people is far richer than a mere declaration of pardon. For example, God will often draw his people into an experience of repentance, humility, and forgiveness – and then re-entrust them with the very thing that they had once violated :
In Isaiah 6:5, Isaiah confesses that his mouth is filthy. In response, God not only cleanses him at the very point of his confessed need (v.6-7), he also re-entrusts Isaiah with the very task that he had previously violated: speaking with his mouth (vv.8-13). Other examples abound:
If “the meek will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). , God is actually promising to re-entrust the earth to those who had once so foolishly violated it (Gen. 3-11; Rev. 21:1-8). In the gospel of John, Jesus re-entrusts the preaching of the gospel to Peter, even though he had once denied knowing the Embodiment of the gospel (Jn. 21:15-17; 18:15-18). Empowered with the beauty, depth and richness of Christ’s forgiveness, Peter then went on to preach like only a forgiven man can (Acts 2-4).
Why does all this matter?
- First, it matters, because Christians have an opportunity to embody a kind of forgiveness that is richer than a mere verbal absolution.
- Second, when expressed out of a delight in the gospel, a distinctively Christian practice of forgiveness reflects something that is true about God himself.
- Third, it matters, because one of the real difficulties of practicing this kind of forgiveness within an agnostic or atheistic framework; is that we are left to practice a kind of forgiveness that the One who gave us our very being cannot even be known to extend. Consequently, it seems to me that in an atheistic or agnostic world, even some of the richest practices of forgiveness can’t seem to transpire apart from a haunting loneliness.
If you’re reading this as a Christ-follower, may God grant you and I the patience, grace, and courage to embody this kind of forgiveness. May he also grant us the grace to travel well with those who presently disagree.
If you’re reading this as an atheist or agnostic, may God grant you a practice of forgiveness that has been grounded in an awakened delight in Christ.
Written by one who desperately needs the LORD (Psa. 51),
 I am acutely aware that there are violations that are so deep (and criminal), that re-entrusting someone (who demonstrates no genuine repentance) with the very sphere of service that they have violated is simply not possible. Wisdom can discern the difference.
 One of the things that I really appreciate about the book Embodying Forgiveness, is that it narrates the practice of forgiveness as being something that is far richer than a mere verbal absolution.