I remember the story about the little boy who was caught stealing cookies and properly chastened by his mother. (No it was not I, what would make you think that?) She then hugged him and told him that he was forgiven but to not take cookies without permission in the future.
However, he did not accept the forgiveness given to him.
So, a half hour later he came to his mother and said, “Mom, I feel so bad about stealing the cookies, I can’t get it out of my mind. Would you please forgive me and give me another hug?” The mom said, I have already forgiven you, you don’t need to be forgiven again but yes, you can have another hug. He came back 15 minutes later saying, “I really shouldn’t have stolen those cookies. I’m such a bad little boy. If I picked up my room, vacuum the front room and took out the garbage would you forgive me then?” The mom was a little frustrated. She explained again that he was already forgiven and he didn’t have to do anything to earn her forgiveness. But that yes it would be nice if he cleaned up his room and helped a little around the house. Half an hour later came back with a backpack filled with some clothes, a blanket and a couple of sandwiches. “I’ve been thinking, I’m such a bad boy and it is so hard to be a good boy, I don’t belong in this family. I think I’ll go live out in the woods until I can be good enough to deserve to come back.” About now his mom picks him up and wants to shake him and she said “you’re not accepting my forgiveness and trying to earn it, bothers me much more than you taking the cookies in the first place.”
So often we asked God to forgive us, and he does, but then, like a dog returning to its vomit, we go right back to trying to pay for our sins, back to beating on ourselves and not acting in or living in the forgiveness that has been given.
He whom the father sets free is free indeed. Once, they took a group of monkeys raised in captivity, and set them free on an island. The island was free of predators and they were supplied with bananas. They put the cages in the middle of a clearing and opened the gates to the cages and then retreated to watch what would happen.— The monkeys clung to the back of the cage terrified of their new freedom. How often are we like those monkeys? How often do we ask for forgiveness, ask for freedom, but, when it is granted, we have trouble receiving it?
I remember one patient who told me, “I’m not sure I would accept a God who would accept someone as bad as I am.” There is a great deal of humility necessary to not only ask God to forgive us, to not only admit our need, but to actually accept forgiveness and revel in the grace given. Truly I hold a debt I could not pay, he paid my debt he did not owe. Now I owe him everything in return. Maybe that is why we have trouble accepting forgiveness.
My pastor recently preached about the importance of forgiving others and I realized that all the truths in regards to forgiving others are true of accepting forgiveness and the two are tied to each other. If we do not forgive others we have no logical reason to believe that we are ourselves forgiven. If we do not accept the forgiveness given then we need to cling to bitterness and blame in order to balance our own guilt.
So what does accepting forgiveness mean?
- First and foremost it means entering into constant communion with the forgiver, talking with him, joining into what he is doing. (Most of us are uncomfortable hanging out with the one we have previously offended or we are just naturally aware of ourselves and do not want to do the work to be aware of him.)
- Second it means praising his great generosity even though it means letting others know about the debt I owed. (Most people want to put their forgiven sins in the past. Sure God forgives and forgets but we should remember enough to bring him worship of his generosity. It is wonderful for the king to forget the billion dollars he forgave his servant but it is not OK for the servant to fail to tell others and treat others in the light of his own forgiveness.)
- Third it means having hope and granting worth and being ready to restore relationship with those who have hurt us. (See my blog on what forgiveness means)
- Fourth it means living life to the full with a sense of worth and purpose. Paul called himself the chief of debtors and then turned the world upside down for God and stood up to the apostles when they were mistaken.
- Fifth, it means that no task or sacrifice is too big for him to ask considering what he has done for me.
- Sixth, it means that when things are not going my way right now, I remember that he does not owe me anything and what he has already done for me is so awesome that he deserves grateful worship no matter how things go. (Some of us will be rejected by family, starve to death, be killed in wars, thrown in prison, tortured for Christ. Still, he is worthy.)
- Seventh, it means that I need to ask. After all, if the Father gave his own son for me, how shall he not also give me all things I need to serve him? I need to ask for the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, for wisdom to help his people, for strength to resist sin, for impact in others lives etc.
Dear Lord, forgive me for not accepting your forgiveness. Help me to be a shining witness to your generosity and ability to restore and empower those who were your enemies.