In the last 6 to 8 months, I have been learning quite a bit about the intersection of love and forgiveness.  In my youth, I was the one who would not think before I said/did something, and I would be the one asking for forgiveness.  My concept of what love looked like was a bit skewed and often hurt more than it should have.  I even lost dear friends due to the fact that the change in my character didn’t happen soon enough.  I almost lost relationships with my whole family from it.  Forgiveness and love isn’t easy.  I am learning it the hard way, and yet, I am grateful that God loves me enough to be willing to not allow me to stay the way that I am.  (today, anyway)

Often, my understanding of something comes from first-hand experience.  The last several months have been really difficult walking through these experiences.  Dealing with a few particular people, I have had my heart broken, both by the conflict that comes about when one has to love and forgive, and the realisation that I am found fallen way short of what Christ calls us to be.

Most of the time, when we hear the phrase “love one another”, it is in reference to how we as Christians (and humanity) are supposed to treat one another.  The idea that to love someone must have an external component isn’t a new one.  We show people we love them in many ways.  So many ways, in fact, that there is even a popular author who wrote several books on the 5 basic types of ways (languages) of love that we receive and give.  The books are widely popular, and effective for people who often don’t think about how their actions/reactions will be perceived by others.

Most of the time, when we talk about forgiveness, we again talk about how we as Christians (and humanity) are supposed to treat one another.  There are many pithy sayings involving forgiving and forgetting, and even one of my favourite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. is the following… Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.”  Forgiveness is often at the root of many maladies that we as a society suffer from, and it’s a significant stumbling block for many people.

How these two concepts mesh is where we tend to get confusing and conflicting information and points of view.  If we take the concept of loving one another from what Jesus says then we get:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” — John 13:34-35

And, if we take the concept of forgiving one another from what Jesus says then we get:

“If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” — Luke 17:3-4

Those two, coupled with the comments that God loved us enough to send His son as a sacrifice for our sins, and as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us, make the directive a hard one to really live out.

Yet, the way that society looks at love isn’t really close to the love that Christ has for us.  We’re taught that love is sacrificial.  So, we put aside our wants or feelings for the betterment of someone else.  Forgiveness is often treated the same way.  If you offend me, then I am supposed to forgive you no matter how many times it happens.  Yet, that seems to be a superficial way of doing things, at least according to how God loves us.

In light of how God loves us, we see that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is supposed to be transformational in our lives.  The love expressed isn’t truly love unless it calls someone to recognise that the sacrifice was because of who we are.  Broken, bruised, hurtful, spiteful, manipulative, and even malevolent… Christ’s death on the cross affords us to be able to choose a better way.  The cross makes a brutal and senseless act a choice for us.  We come to our crossroads and are given a choice… take up our cross and follow Him, or keep doing our own thing.  Christ’s love for us is not a happy or warm feeling, it’s a choice to be transformed to be like Him.

Forgiveness in that light means that we don’t only forgive someone the 77 times a day that someone does something wrong to us.  Forgiveness has to be restorative to the relationship but also transformational as well.  It should include within it the recognition of a choice.  The choice to learn a better way… to act, to feel, to behave, to think.  Too often, far too often, we err either on the side of forgiveness that keeps grudges or a tally sheet, or is far too lenient and does not offer the offender the chance to grow and change.  We as people don’t tend to know how to forgive in a transformational way.

After being offended repeatedly, we become less and less able to function without keeping score.   Essentially it’s rebuking without letting it go.  Or, we just chalk behaviour up to “just being so-and-so, it’s how they are” and the person never is confronted enough to change.  The first keeps us from actual forgiveness, and the second keeps someone in their sinful behaviour.

So, what do we do?  Loving someone enough to bear the slings and arrows of someone else’s actions, coupled with being in a relationship enough to be willing to see lasting change is a tough calling.  Most people would either write off someone who constantly is needing forgiveness, or would distance themselves from the person.  God’s calling often is to press deeper in a relationship with them, and be an instrument of change in their lives.  To truly love sacrificially means more than what we’re comfortable with today.  Most people could visualise a situation where they could give their life for another, whether or not they actually would go through with it.  Most people would not put up with someone constantly manipulating, stirring up discord, having to have their way, being so self-absorbed, not considering others’ feelings, offending repeatedly, or many other conflicts that happen everyday.  But, we’re called to be in a relationship where change can happen, through love and support, confrontation and correction.

It’s a difficult line to walk.

The folks that I have been dealing with are stretching me with their behaviour.  It’s truly easy to either write them off as victims of their actions or just stop interacting with them altogether.  It’s more desirable to just call them out, without being willing to stand with them long enough to see them change.  To say, “Here’s what you did wrong, fix it.” addresses the issue without the restorative love behind it.  I get it though, sometimes you cannot take another affront, power play, childish fit, going behind our back, gossiping, hurt-filled moment.  Even though it’s not the physical lashings of a whip upon our backs, our hearts sometimes cannot take another word or action that hurts us.  But Christ’s love was sacrificial, even to a humiliating death on a cross.  His love was transformational, even to give us new life.  His forgiveness was complete, but calling to a change in behaviour, thought, and character.

Our love and forgiveness should be nothing less than that.

For, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”  — Matthew 25:40

And, “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”  — Matthew 25:45

A hard word for me for the last several months, and I’m still struggling and learning.