By Glen Schmucker
Someone once asked an elderly black minister what he tended to pray about most as his life grew closer to the end. The old gentleman thought for a moment and then said, “I pray for three things. I pray that my body won’t outlive my mind. I pray that I won’t outlive all of my mourners. And, I pray that I won’t drown in shallow waters.”
It’s those shallow waters that are the trickiest part and the only part of those three prayers in which we have some power to fix the outcome. The shallow waters to which I think he was referring were the choices we too often make to live petty lives, lives that are not given fully to what matters most or allow ourselves to be drug down paths to places that are of no account because they are not the road of our true calling.
Awakening this morning, I realized that one of the shallowest of all waters in which we can drown is the shallowness of unforgiveness. Part of our problem with not forgiving is that we are, too often, waiting for something to change in others so that we will find them more forgivable.
I’m reminded of the way Eugene Peterson once put it. “It has always been more difficult to come to terms with Jesus as the way than with Jesus as the truth, more difficult to realize the ways our thinking and behavior” must become “fused into a life of relational love and adoration with neighbor and God, God and neighbor.” Yet, “only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life (Eugene Peterson, “Transparent Lives,” Christian Century, November 29, 2003, pp. 21-22).”
The Jesus truth and the Jesus way involve extending forgiveness before it is sought or earned. If we wait for an apology from the person who has offended us in order to forgive them, then we are not living the Jesus truth much less walking in the Jesus way.
Most all of our problems in life have some form of unforgiveness in the mix. And, the reason problems remain impossibly unsolvable problems is because we tend to think of forgiveness as a place toward which we are headed instead of the place we are to begin. It is the very character of God, as revealed over and over in scripture, to forgive first and ask questions later, if ever.
Some years ago, dear friend George Mason spoke at a Christian Life Commission conference on capital punishment. This is what he said that helps get the order of things in the proper Jesus order.
God’s forgiveness of us is “not the result of human repentance and confession that might allow us to be right with God and with one another. It is the beginning . . . While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, Paul says. Not, once we prove ourselves sorry enough for our sins and provide enough restitution to our victims,” will God then forgive us (George Mason, “Capital Punishment,” BGCT Christian Life Commission Seminar, Trinity Baptist Church, San Antonio, Texas, May 4, 2004).
Waiting atop the hill of piety and condescension until someone climbs to our presumed height of holiness, thereby proving themselves worthy of forgiveness in our estimation, is taking God’s place, or trying to. It is also coming at forgiveness from the wrong direction. Remember, before Jesus climbed Calvary’s mountain he first came down from heaven, to walk where we walk. Then, and only then, did Jesus climb the hill that would have proven impossible for us to summit.
God so loved the world that God forgave us before we were born into the world for which Christ died and, thereby, made God’s eternal forgiveness, past, present and future, possible. That’s not the question.
Repentance is nothing less than the choice to stop walking in shallow waters and to start walking on the higher ground of Jesus’ way.
The question is not the existence of God’s forgiveness for us and for the world, paid for before we even knew we needed it. The only question is whether, no matter how young or old we may be, we’re running the risk of drowning in the shallow waters of unforgiveness.