Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Forgiveness Doesn't Leave a Scarlet Square

Now that I’m a homeowner, I’m paying special attention to what’s on the shelves in Goodwill. tools, shelving, plastic containers… I could go on forever with what I’m paying attention to. On one of my recent trips to Goodwill I was stalking up and down the furniture aisle just to see what was there when I came across a large chest or ottoman. It was covered in fabric on all visible sides, with a cushioned top you could sit on. It was faded, almost a light pink color like a glass of dirty pink lemonade, with the exception of one spot. On the top cushion part of the fabric was not faded at all—a bright square of scarlet was drawing attention to itself. Apparently another piece of fabric had been sown on at the beginning of this chest’s life, but had recently been removed. It wouldn’t have been noticeable but for the deep color contrast between what had been covered up for the majority of its life and what had been exposed to day after day of sun in some windowed living room. The scarlet was a visible reminder of what once was, and the pink was one of what now is. Put together, the furniture took on a monstrous malformed appearance that made it useful for little more than kindling.

This chest came to mind during a conversation I participated in at church last Sunday. Our class was talking about a number of things, but as we settled into a question about why it is so difficult to really forgive, I thought of the chest. It’s easy to say, “I forgive you.” But imagine if you loaned $1000 interest-free to a friend of yours with the agreement that he will pay it back to you $100 per month. After two months of payments, your friend says he can’t pay you this month, so you agree that for the next four months he can pay you $125 to make up the difference. But month after month he comes back with the same story. You decide to forgive him the debt—all $800 that he still owes. Yet you both tend to not spend as much time together as you once did. You don’t bring your kids over to his house, and he stops coming over on Fridays for Euchre or Canasta. The debt may have been canceled, but it hasn’t been forgiven. Like that chest with the scarlet square, the reminder of the debt is still there. You can’t help but notice it when you look at the chest, and you can’t help but think of the debt when you look at your friend.

Let’s say you then find yourself in need of $250, and your friend, lo and behold, actually has been doing well financially. You wouldn’t say, “You still owe me $800, so you better give me $250,” but you wouldn’t have a problem asking for the money and conveniently reminding him of his prior obligation to you. That’s not forgiveness. There’s still a debt. It may not be the same one your friend incurred when he borrowed from you, but there’s a debt for sure.

That’s why true forgiveness is so hard. It requires letting go completely. You may accept that the patch of cloth is gone, but as long as that scarlet square remains, you’re reminded of what is owed. It’s not a matter of forgetting, but of forgiving, of assuming the debt yourself. Debts are never canceled. Someone pays, either the debtor by paying, or the creditor by taking a loss. You can’t truly forgive someone and keep a constant reminder of what was owed. Forgiveness doesn’t leave a scarlet square.

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