FORGIVENESS: Water to Swim In 8/19/2017

Many have asked me to share a message I delivered on June 19, 2017 at a Roman Catholic conference in Buffalo, NY where I was invited to be the keynote speaker. I estimate about 2000 attended. I am unaware of videos available, so I am simply sharing my notes (which my wife who has a PhD was kind enough to edit before the meeting). Following the message dozens came forward seeking prayer and counsel. All praise to Christ our Lord who saved and healed. May He be glorified.

The message…

Recently I met with Deacon Tom and Father Dave who asked me to speak to you on the subject of forgiveness. They had evidently heard of me through a mutual friend with whom I worked for several years at a clinic run by Catholic Charities. They also asked me for a brief bio sketch, and when they returned the conference flyer to me, I shared it with my wife, who laughed hysterically when I read it to her. I didn’t get it at first. Let me read it to you.

OUR PRESENTER IS GERALD TURK NP PC who years ago, after a conversion experience studied for ministry. But, after volunteering in a State Psychiatric Hospital he changed his vocational goals. (So far so good). He has been a mental health professional with a spiritual background for 42 years. (Okay… Now you know I’m old). He has a private practice and has worked at several mental health clinics run by Catholic Charities in Erie and Niagara counties. He is a family man married for 42 years with much to share with us. “That’s true,” she laughed. “Anybody who’s been married for 42 years MUST be an expert on the topic of forgiveness.”

It’s true, isn’t it? Offenses will come, and not always—or even generally—from strangers, but from those closest to us. The biggest hurts and the deepest betrayals don’t come from the Walmart clerk, but from our husbands, our wives, our children, our parents, our siblings, our close friends. And because those wounds are inevitable, the question is: “What are we going to do with them?” The fact is, time does NOT heal all wounds. And this is what we want to talk about this evening.

I have to say, that this most basic topic in Christianity—the issue that seems most fundamental, most at the very heart of our faith—is, in some ways, the most difficult to discuss.
The first question—“should we forgive?”—is easy: YES. ABOUT THIS JESUS IS QUITE CLEAR.

Matthew 6:15 AMP
But if you do not forgive others their trespasses [their reckless and willful sins, leaving them, letting them go, and giving up resentment], neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses.

Matthew 5:23-24 AMP
Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.

Luke 17:4 AMP
Even if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him [that is, give up resentment and consider the offense recalled and annulled].”

But despite knowing that we SHOULD forgive, the nitty-gritty of who we should forgive, why we should forgive, and how to forgive get murkier. These other questions are much easier to TALK ABOUT than to PRACTICE.

The question of forgiveness is at the heart of life. It is at the heart of God Himself. And yet, it very often seems to be missing from the world today. In our cultural context, it’s “every man for himself.” We are encouraged to “set boundaries,” “take care of ourselves,” “speak our mind,” “hold the line,” “just get over it.” There is, in fact, a very real implication that forgiveness is for the weak, evidence of “co-dependence,” a sign of serious mental illness, or a subconscious desire to become the proverbial “doormat.”

These attitudes can become infectious, even among believers. We know we should forgive, but answers about who, when, and how get at the very quality of life we end up living.

Empower us to walk in love toward our fellow man. We confess our pride, arrogance and our bigotry. We place these beliefs and attitudes at the foot of the cross and look to you for healing and deliverance. We desire to be the expression of your will and instruments of your love. Thank you Jesus, that your word does not return void. All this is committed to you in the matchless name of Jesus, Amen and Amen.

I take as my text a passage from the book of Ezekiel, chapter 47, verses 1-4. The metaphor in this passage, I suppose, can be applied to many subjects but I believe it speaks importantly to our topic tonight: levels of forgiveness.

“Afterward he brought me again unto the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward:

And when the man that had the line in his hand went forth eastward, he measured a thousand cubits, and he brought me through the waters; the waters were to the ankles.

Again he measured a thousand, and brought me through the waters; the waters were to the knees.

Again he measured a thousand, and brought me through; the waters were to the loins.

Afterward he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not pass over: for the waters were risen, waters to swim in, a river that could not be passed over.”

This beautiful passage in Ezekiel actually creates an impressive metaphor by which we can comprehend forgiveness. We can decide to forgive others only up to the ankle, so to speak. We can get into Ezekiel’s metaphoric river only that far. Like the shallow water, it’s a shallow investment and has little, if anything, to do with Christ. And because we’re not in that deep, we can always walk away. We can always get out. Out of the water, and out of the investment.

Ankle-deep forgiveness is primarily born out of social obligation. It is the cultural product of being told to be the “big person” in any situation. We have been instructed all our lives—by parents, kindergarten teachers, football coaches, and Hollywood movies—that forgiving other people is a good idea. It’s true. Have you ever been “forgiven” by someone you felt did it simply because they were supposed to? The words sounded good, but you left with a sense that it wasn’t sincere.

The next level in Ezekiel’s river is a little deeper—up to the knees. Here, the forgiver is a little more invested, but escape to the shore is still easy. This sort of forgiveness is primarily conditional, meaning, you will only apologize if you can escape responsibility, or if the other person asks for forgiveness. It is more sincere than forgiveness at the ankle level, but it comes with strings attached. This is often seen when the forgiver uses the words “if” or “but.” “I’m sorry if you think I hit you.” Of course you hit the person. You clobbered them. They’re bleeding. They fell on the ground. But here you are saying, I’m sorry if you believe I hit you. Do you see the conditions there? The person hit has something wrong with their perception of reality. Equally conditional is the idea that forgiveness is dispensed only on request, like a gumball from a machine for a quarter. But what if the person who offended us never asks? Are we then absolved of forgiveness? Is it conditional upon their begging or upon our beliefs? So far, we have obligational and conditional forgiveness. We have all given this kind of forgiveness, and all received it. But now, the water gets a little deeper.

Next, Ezekiel speaks of water to the loins. This kind of forgiveness is more genuine than the first two. It has much greater depth. It is the biggest investment yet, and probably carries some genuine sincerity. But its shortcomings are two-fold: it is occasional, and it is still safe. Your feet still touch the bottom of the river. You are still in control. You are in deeper, but you can still walk away. It still makes you feel good about yourself, and in this way it is primarily self-serving, even if genuine.

But the fourth level is beyond ankle-deep obligation. It is beyond knee-deep conditionality. It is beyond the feel-good loin deep. Ezekiel’s fourth level is waters to swim in. To reflect the life of our Savior, our feet will have to lose touch with all that’s familiar. We’ll have to give up obligation and feeling good about ourselves and all our conditions. We’ll have to give up all our control over who and under what circumstances we decide to forgive, and start swimming. No longer episodic, you are now swimming, immersed in His life and not your own. Reflecting His image, not your own. You are consumed in this way of life, not easily able to walk back to the shore. That sounds like a lot to give up: control, feeling good, obligation, social cues. But here’s the thing: it’s the only way to get free of gravity. And unforgiveness has its own kind of spiritual gravitational force. Unforgiveness—or forgiveness at the ankle or knee or loin level—still holds you earthbound.

Do you remember when you learned to swim? Do you recall that very first moment when your feet left the bottom of the lake or the pool, and you didn’t sink? Do you remember the gravity-defying liberation of that moment? This fourth level in Ezekiel’s river is not self-serving, but God-serving. It requires you to give up everything you know, and simultaneously sets you free.

Forgiveness would be ever so much easier if it came with amnesia. But it doesn’t. Forgiving and forgetting aren’t the same. Forgiveness begins with an act of will, not a flimsy emotion of the moment. If you determine in your heart to forgive someone, don’t worry if you still feel some pain. Don’t worry if you still feel sad at first. That’s like saying, “I can remember walking on land, so I must not be swimming.” That’s silly. True forgiveness begins with a solitary decision, and evolves to bear fruit. We get to the swimming hole, to speak, not because we feel like it but because we decide to do it, and mostly, because we ourselves are forgiven.

But let’s talk about the flip side of this coin: receiving forgiveness. Personally, I’m convinced that some people actually get a thrill out of forgiving others. In fact, they love to tell you how much they’ve forgiven other people!!! Some people are addicted to the feel-good sense of feeling like someone’s victim.

So what about this issue? What keeps us from asking for forgiveness? I suppose, on the simplest level, it violates our personal sense of rightness. It admits that something we said or did isn’t quite right or has hurt someone else. Here again, we are endlessly taught by our society that other people’s feelings are not really our concern, that being rude is actually acceptable, that admitting wrongdoing is a sign of weakness, that nothing should come between us and our perceived “happiness.” At its worst, in fact, the culture suggests that we each have our own truth and that we bear no responsibility for the wellbeing of others. But we do not believe that. We believe that we do bear some responsibility for others, both in forgiving and being forgiven.

So let me ask: what should our strategy for forgiveness be? Let’s face it—we can make it pretty hard to ask for forgiveness. We can set up barriers that short-circuit communication, that prevent hearing, that stonewall the courage and humility required to ask. And when we do that, we actually punish that person through our silence, our smugness, or our avoidance. In this way, we prevent ourselves from swimming in Ezekiel’s river, and we chain the other person as well.

Why should we forgive? Theologically, the answer is simple: Jesus forgave us and commanded us to forgive others. But beyond that seemingly simple statement, my consistent personal and professional experience is this: the person who does not forgive and who is not forgiven is an unhappy, unfulfilled person. No matter how “right” they might feel, no matter how “safe” they play it by surrounding themselves with familiar attitudes, no matter how bolstered they are by our “tough” cultural attitudes, they are chained in their very core.

All kinds of people come to me and describe their misery. In nearly every case, it goes back to some pain that was never forgiven. They have tried everything to fix it: drugs, prescriptions, relationships, you name it. And they are looking to me to fix it, but no pill I can prescribe can take the place of swimming in Ezekiel’s river.

At this time I like to share with you a personal story. It involves an episode in which I was challenged, perhaps of the first time in my life to forgive somebody I truly hated. I was about 19 years old and received my first real paying job on a 15 bed psychiatric unit in a small community hospital. This was in 1974. And because I had previously volunteered at a state psychiatric hospital I was hired to be the unit orderly. In those days men were hired not as nursing assistants but what was known as orderlies. Basically my job was to keep the peace on the unit and to make sure everything was done decently and in order.

The head nurse, we’ll say her name was Arlene, despised me from the moment I set foot on her unit. Now I weighed 125 pounds soaking wet at the time but she wanted somebody who was over 6 foot tall and weighed at least 250 pounds. She wanted protection from patients who might get out of control. Also I should share that I had a recent experience with Christ and he gave me a heart for patients with mental health issues. And somehow God gave me the grace to talk or pray with patients so that they might calm down and avoid the need for physical force.

But that wasn’t good enough for Arlene. I can’t tell you how many times she said to me “what good are you.” In her best efforts to get me to quit she would often send me into the rooms of a violent patients and asked me to get vital signs or give them a certain medication.

I remember one occasion in particular where a young, very muscular and healthy man was in seclusion, experiencing what was known as PCP psychosis. PCP was a powerful psychedelic available in the 70s that often induced episodes of rage and violence. Once in the room Arlene locked the door and apparently hoped that I would be sufficiently torn to shreds. No doubt after such an experience I would quit. As a matter of course the opposite happened. The young man calmed down after I began speaking to him and after I began praying for him out loud.

I remained in that job 5 years or until 1979 and left after I advanced my career and education. I was glad to be away from that place and hoped never to hear or see Arlene again. Well, 30 years past and Arlene was simply a faint memory. But to be honest I still hated her. However, it just so happened that my sister, Valerie who is a registered nurse and was working in a nursing home and taking care of Arlene at the end of her life. Apparently Arlene inquired about my sister’s maiden name and Arlene recalled working with me. She tearfully shared with my sister how she had thought about me all those years and how much she loved me. Of course Valerie had no idea how much I hated Arlene. But, upon hearing of her love for me I understood that she was communicating her need for forgiveness. I asked Valerie to pass on my love to Arlene knowing that I was offering a pardon to a dying woman.

When I heard of her death I cried uncontrollably. I wished that I had seen her before she passed. But more importantly, I begged God for forgiveness because I had held onto that resentment for over 30 years. There, in my own prayer closet I too received a pardon from Christ. You see, Christ had met me in the waters to swim in and I was set free from the chains that it held me bondage for decades. No, time does not heal all wounds but I know a Savior who does. And what he has done for me I know he can do for you as well. Thank you for listening to my story and thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts on forgiveness. God bless you all.

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