The Easter Equation

Strange, but with Easter coming up tomorrow I find myself thinking about people I don’t know, the Spitzer family in New York to be exact, and most especially, Governor Spitzer’s wife. Why on earth is she still there, standing beside that man? There’s no way to know for certain without knowing her, of course. Maybe she hasn’t left him yet because she is in shock. Maybe she’s only staying from longstanding habit. Even Mrs. Spitzer might not fully understand her reasons. But there’s always the possibility of forgiveness, and with Easter morning just a few hours away, it seems appropriate to think about forgiveness, and repentance, and the reason for the cross and empty tomb.

When a hateful thing is done, the first question we must ask is, “Do I care enough about this person to continue the relationship?” For a Christian, there should be one answer only. Jesus made it clear that we must pick up a cross and follow him, and the cross means reconciliation. Consider this:

Reconciliation = Repentance + Forgiveness

There is a missing portion of this formula which I will add, one last thing that makes it worth the effort, but first I want to point out that this equation means no one person can repair a broken relationship. It takes two, and hard things are required of both.

Maybe Mrs. Spitzer is standing there because she’s willing to do her part. If so, I salute her. Very few people seem to have that kind of courage these days. As a Bible teacher, whenever my classes get to passages dealing with forgiveness I like to bring up marital unfaithfulness because for most of us adultery is one place where the rubber really meets the road. It’s interesting how almost everyone will agree that people who do wrong ought to repent, period, and no excuses, but when it comes to the forgiveness part of the equation we feel free to apply conditions and equivocations. While all of us can easily imagine ourselves in the position of the wronged party, it’s a sad reminder of the fallen human condition that so much effort is required to put ourselves in the shoes of the wrongdoer. Any Christian who says, “I could never sin as horribly as Mr. Spitzer did,” has failed to learn a basic Bible fact. Remember Moses, the murderer. Remember David, the adulterer and murderer. Remember Peter, the betrayer. Heaven forbid I should ever see myself as less of a sinner than any of them, because such pride does indeed go before a fall. In fact, such pride is a fall. If I went around thinking, “I’d never sin that badly,” I would be sinning then and there. Jesus had a special anger in his heart for hypocrites.

Also, as a Christian I don’t get to say, “You’re only sorry because you got caught.” Being a Christian doesn’t mean I have to be naïve, so of course I’d be crazy not to watch for signs of that kind of insincerity, but in the meantime when someone comes to me and says “I hurt you and I have no excuse and I’m truly sorry and I hope you will forgive me,” then as a Christian bound to lift his cross, I have to say, “Okay, I forgive you.” Often, forgiveness is the very cross we have to bear. Only God can look into a person’s heart and know if they are insincere. The Bible does not speak of a spiritual gift of “discernment,” if by that we mean the ability to read minds. Prophesy, knowledge and wisdom, yes; mind reading, no. After all, if a person had discernment enough to know a confession is insincere, there would be no need for the confession, because such a mind reader could not have been betrayed in the first place. Of course a person with the gifts of knowledge and wisdom might say, “Most people are not totally sincere about repenting under these circumstances, so the odds are this guy doesn’t really mean what he says.” But a truly wise and knowledgeable person would also have to add, “‘Most people’ does not mean ‘all people,’ and no person can know for sure if an apparently heartfelt expression of repentance is sincere. Only the passage of time could reveal that truth.”

This is precisely why Jesus commands us to “turn the other cheek.” Being God, he did not pick his metaphors lightly. He meant we cannot read each other’s minds, so we must be willing to risk another slap. He also meant we must be willing to stand within slapping range. If that were not his meaning, he would have used a different metaphor. Again, he is God, and says just what he means. “Forgiveness” from a distance to avoid a second round of pain is not forgiveness, at least not by Jesus’ definition. When someone hurts me horribly, then they come and say, “I hurt you and I have no excuse and I’m truly sorry and I hope you will forgive me,” as a Christian, I not only have to say I forgive them; I have to prove it. I have to step close to them, to be with them, to re-engage with them. Although I may have done nothing wrong, I must risk another slap. This is not always a literal requirement. For example, I don't believe the Lord expects an abused wife to endure her husband's blows. But it is possible to get distance on one level while remaining within arm's length on another. Forgiveness exists for the sake of reconciliation, and reconciliation means relationship.

This kind of engaged forgiveness is very hard, but it must be remembered that the same is true of real repentance. True repentance is humiliating. Very humiliating. In a case like Governor Spitzer’s it means being willing to hang around a person who knows what a louse you’ve been, and never being able to deny it, or escape it, or downplay it. For someone who does not really believe they did a horrible thing, or someone who does not care, this is fairly easy. You hang on to your foolish pride through foolish denial. But for a truly repentant person, for someone who truly understands, accepts and mourns the depth of harm they did, it is misery to have to face your failed reflection in a loved one’s wounded eyes. How much easier to simply walk away, to get the emotional distance you need to at least pretend you are a decent person. How brave it is to stay there in plain sight, humiliated daily for the sake of the relationship.

How can any Christian turn away from that second slap? How can any Christian chose pride above the humiliation of sincere repentance? To endure a punishment not deserved, to endure the humiliation of a wrongdoer, are these not the very things Christ did for us upon the cross? Can any authentic follower of Jesus do less?

Yet if I was part of the Spitzer family this Easter weekend, I would wonder how any mortal could possibly carry such a cross.

The answer lies within the question. We can carry a cross because we follow the Cross. The example Jesus set is itself the Way to live by the example. Sacrificial forgiveness and repentance are required by God, and possible through God. He stoops down to make us great. And if he stoops for your sake and for mine, who are we to stand before each other when he humbly bids us kneel? God is love, which explains the rest of that formula, the part that makes it worth the effort:

Reconciliation = Repentance + Forgiveness = Love.

Humiliation for the sake of love. Sorrow for the sake of love. Suffering for the sake of love. This is what Christ did for you and me on the cross and in the empty tomb. This is also what he asks of you and me. So on tomorrow’s Easter morning, search your heart for bitterness and pride, and then confess, repent, forgive and above all, love, because he first loved you. This is the Easter equation, the only thing that adds up to a life worth living.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 3:45 PM  


Accidental Poet said... March 22, 2008 at 6:18 PM  

This has nothing to do with today's post, but I wanted to say I have just finished River Rising, and found it thought-provoking and achingly lovely.
Thank you.

Kay said... March 23, 2008 at 7:23 PM  

I don't know if true forgiveness is possible without the grace of God. But... with His grace, by His grace it is. It definitely is. I have experienced it as the forgiven and as the forgiver.

I was advised to be sure that the person repenting was sincere before I forgave. We can know over time by the change in behavior, I guess. But what I came to time and again was the picture of Christ on the cross, forgiving even as they were still in the act. What other example do I need?

Thank you for this post.

gb said... March 25, 2008 at 10:10 AM  

I read this yesterday and wanted to come back to say, "yes".

Nicole said... March 26, 2008 at 9:48 AM  

(Kind of an irrelevant sidenote . . . Mr. Spitzer's wife apparently wanted him to stay in office. Maybe she's stayed because she's known. Maybe she has a thirst for power or prestige. Maybe this is a good plot for a novel. If it weren't so tragic and another display of the human condition, the depravity in all of us. We ALL need forgiveness.)

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