What Forgiveness Really Means

by Elizabeth


Timothy Sanford wrote about forgiveness in his book “I Have To Be Perfect” (And Other Parsonage Heresies). It’s a book for Pastors’ Kids and Missionary Kids (PKs and MKs) that I blogged through a couple years ago. In the book, Sanford teaches that when you forgive someone, you have to “absorb the damages.”

I didn’t exactly know what he meant by “absorb the damages.” For me it was a completely novel way of looking at forgiveness. I had always thought forgiveness meant releasing my anger and desire for justice. I never thought about having to absorb the damages.

According to this definition, forgiveness means paying. You take on the punishment. You walk through the suffering. You pay the price that no one else is willing to pay.  It is not just releasing a person from their debt. It involves accepting your own suffering. And this has certainly been my experience. Willingly or unwillingly, there have been times in my life that I have paid the price that no one else would pay.

Sanford’s explanation of forgiveness also helps me to understand the Cross on a deeper level. It’s easy to understand the mercy of a God who releases us from punishment. It’s much harder to comprehend why that same God had to suffer because of His choice to forgive. After all, He’s God. Why couldn’t He release us without suffering?

I have in fact heard people voice this very complaint, claiming that a violent, bloody cross was unnecessary for salvation. That if we, as humans, can “just decide” to forgive someone, then why wouldn’t the God of the universe be able to just decide to forgive us, too? He’s GOD. Can’t He just declare our debt null and void? Give us heaven free and clear?

I must confess, this postmodern recasting of God sounds really nice. It’s pleasant to the ears and inoffensive to the mind. But as I’ve processed through the ideas of mercy and forgiveness, the words of Timothy Sanford keep returning to me. They illuminate for me what the forgiveness of Jesus really means.

It is most certainly true that God wanted to forgive, so He decided to forgive. But in order to forgive, someone was going to have to pay the price. And in this case, the Person who paid the price was God Himself.

The “I can just decide to forgive” narrative works better with people we actually care about. When we are in relationship with someone, it is much easier to pay the price, to release the debt, and to forgive. The process is more akin to overlooking than releasing. So we delude ourselves into thinking that forgiveness means “just deciding” to forgive, apart from anyone’s suffering.

But I don’t want to worship a god made in my own image, a god whose ideas of justice and forgiveness are modeled after my own.

Forgiveness, whether it is God’s or ours, always means absorbing the damages. When we humans “just decide” to forgive someone here on earth, it is never a simple act of the will the way I’ve heard some describe it. There is always suffering involved. We suffer at the hands of another and choose not to repay evil for evil. Forgiveness means accepting that suffering. There is always a cost to forgiveness.

And that is the role of Jesus in our lives. The truth is, the cross is offensive. It is violent. It is God himself paying the price of our wrongdoing. Taking on the pain of our sin — a pain so massive we have a hard time comprehending it. Such a hard time comprehending it, in fact, that we are sometimes tempted to wave it all away.

But forgiveness is never free. The cost can’t be waved away. The forgiver always pays. Forgiving means acknowledging that there was pain and suffering and that nothing the perpetrator will ever do could ever make it right. The Forgiver Himself has to make it right.

Linking up with Velvet Ashes.

Small words. Big ideas.

Sometimes, I write things on Facebook. And then sometimes I compile those things into a blog post. This is one of those times.

So here are some thoughts on Grace, Sin, and Unforgiveness


Grace vs. Sin

It’s a hard balance, right? Do we preach against sin or extol grace? Can we do both?

I was recently reminded of Jesus’ master move when he was standing between a vulnerable woman who had been “caught in the act” and some very powerful men who wanted her dead.

After he challenged the guys and the older ones got it first, he found himself alone with the accused. He asked her, “Hey, where are those guys who wanted to condemn you and then kill you?” She looks around and says, “All of them are gone! No one’s left!”

Jesus whispers, “I don’t condemn you either.”


Tremendous grace is given freely to the scared and hurting and absolutely guilty.

Then Jesus says secondly the thing we typically say firstly, “Now go and stop sinning.”

We need to say both of these things and we need to say them in the right order. If we only say “STOP SINNING,” we miss the love and passion in our Savior’s eyes and the demanded obedience quickly becomes unbearable. Obedience gets disconnected from the heart of the Father. But if we only say, “Jesus doesn’t condemn you,” we’re selling people a cheap half-truth that won’t lead them anywhere close to sanctification.

Sometimes I’m scared. Sometimes I’m scared to tell people to stop sinning because they won’t like it. Then maybe they won’t like me.

Sometimes I’m scared. Sometimes I’m scared to talk about the LACK of condemnation. Maybe they’ll like it. Then maybe they’ll just keep on sinning because, whatever.

But I’m realizing that combining these two truths, and combining them in the order of Jesus, is powerful.

And I want to echo these sister truths more often, and with boldness.


“I forgive, but help my unforgiveness.”

This has become a powerful prayer for many of my clients. (And me too, actually!)

It’s modeled off of the father’s prayer in Mark 9:24, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” I find it fascinating that Jesus didn’t chide this guy for his lack of total and complete faith. He didn’t sniff out a smidgen of doubt and refuse to help. He healed his boy.

Sometimes I need to choose to forgive, as an act of obedience. At the same time, I need to recognize the reality that heart-level forgiveness is not a one-time-say-the-magic-words-and-it’s-all-better sort of thing. This prayer honors that reality.

If forgiveness is hard for you, if you’re wrestling with the ongoing impact of another person’s sin, consider praying this prayer, “Father, I forgive ______, but help my unforgiveness.”

And see what happens…




Conflict and Our Dustlikeness {A Life Overseas}

Elizabeth is over at A Life Overseas today. . .


Conflict. If you’ve been in church work for long, you know what it’s like. People abound, and conflict happens. Then there’s the big blow up or the cold exit or, even scarier, the explosive exit. I’ve been in church work for a decade and a half now, and big blowups and bad exits seem to be the default setting for church conflict. I don’t like this kind of conflict. I run away from it – and from the scary people who cause it.

Kay Bruner likes to say that there are difficult people on the field. I say yes. Yes, there are difficult people on the field, and sometimes, they are ME. Sometimes I’m difficult, and sometimes conflict comes because I am difficult. Not because I mean to be, of course – but my good intentions don’t remove my propensity to offend.

I have a hard time fessing up when I offend, and my reason for this is two-fold. First, I don’t really like the fact that I’m still not perfect and that I still sin against others. The acknowledgement is still so cumbersome to me. But secondly (and perhaps more importantly), I fear I won’t be forgiven. Oh, I know God forgives me; I have full assurance of that. But I still don’t trust God’s people to forgive me. I’ve been in too many relationships where people said they would forgive, but they never really did.

Lately, however, I’ve had ample opportunity to seek forgiveness, and God’s people are proving me wrong. They are forgiving me and showing me the love of Christ in tangible ways. Receiving their forgiveness and their assurance of committed love is an almost sacramental experience. It’s a direct connection with my Savior: someone is sticking with me. Someone is forgiving me, giving me a second chance. That is Jesus in bodily form.

Finish reading the article here.

But I’ve done all these good things . . .

by Elizabeth


The question came as Jesus was beginning His last journey to Jerusalem. It came as He was heading toward His most heart-rending task, as He was starting the long descent toward death: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

We all know the story. A young, rich, religious man calls Jesus good and then asks Him how to achieve eternal life. Jesus first scolds him for calling anyone “good” but God. Then, feeling genuine love for the man, Jesus tells him to follow the commandments and proceeds to list several of them.

The man defends himself. “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young,” he says. But Jesus informs him that there is still something he hasn’t done – namely, to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. The man’s face falls when he hears this, and he goes away sad, for he was a very wealthy man.

I’d always glossed over this incident, thinking it might not apply to me. (I’d also neglected to notice until now that it occurred just before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time.) But this month as I again worked my way through the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, it suddenly struck me: the story of the rich, young ruler is my story.

“I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young” — once upon a time I said those words out loud, too. I’d just been confronted by my own sin, and I was shocked. I remember protesting, “But I’ve spent my whole life trying to follow God!” My statement was just another version of the rich, young man’s statement; it was just another version of pride.

And like the man, my face fell too. When I saw my attitude for what it was — sin — I did an abrupt U-turn. I interpreted my sin as the worst of all sins and became very depressed. My sin wasn’t a sin that could be forgiven, you see. A sin like mine didn’t deserve God’s grace and forgiveness. Where before I had thought I was better than others, I now thought I was worse.

I rolled around in my sorrow and self-pity until a friend gently pointed out that I was exhibiting reverse pride: the kind of pride that says my sins are so bad they can’t be forgiven. I had flipped from the regular old pride of thinking I was a good person to the insidious, upside-down version of pride that said I could never deserve God’s forgiveness.

But my goodness was never good enough anyway, and reverse pride is a sin to repent of, too. So Jesus basically said the same thing to me that He said to the young man: “There is something you still lack.” That something was a humble awareness of grace. Because in the end, Jesus didn’t ask me to give up all my possessions. (Moving to Asia isn’t the same thing.)

What Jesus has asked me to give up is the idea of myself as someone who has done good things. He’s asked me to give up the idea that I’ve followed the commands well. Because I haven’t. And He’s asked me to give up the idea that any sin is beyond His reach, including the prideful belief that I have no (or very small) sins.

As Jesus watched the man in this story walk away, He explained to His disciples how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven. His announcement left the disciples wondering who in the world could be saved – because to a certain extent, we all trust in both riches and our own good works.

But here is where the story gets good, because Jesus told His disciples that “What is impossible for people is possible with God.” And He kept walking toward Jerusalem to make the impossible, possible. He kept walking toward Jerusalem to make the man’s question irrelevant. He kept walking toward Jerusalem to demonstrate His genuine love for us and to give a very un-good humanity the goodness that belongs to God alone.

Whether we’ve done “all these things” since our youth or not.

(Originally published at A Life Overseas.)

It’s Time to Trade the Yoke {Velvet Ashes}

I’m hosting The Grove at Velvet Ashes today. This is the first thing I wrote after finishing a “writing fast” a few weeks ago. (As an aside, completing this purposeful season of electronic quietness must have unleashed a torrent of words inside me, as evidenced by the sheer number of blog posts and Facebook statuses I’ve shared in the time since writing this post.) ~Elizabeth


At the beginning of this year I sensed God pressing the pause button on my writing. Not now, He said, not yet. I nodded and said OK. You’ve got stuff in your heart that needs to come out, He said —black, tarry, sticky stuff. I sighed and told Him I knew.

There was a stronghold in my life, a particular set of sins I’d been unequally yoked to. So I stopped writing and started working hard with God instead. Except I wasn’t always working with Him; sometimes I was working against. I complained, I reasoned, I argued. I contended that I was right and He was wrong. I kicked against those goads, oh yes I did.

Until one morning this month when breakthrough began, and the yoke began to crack. Later that day I sensed God lifting the ban on writing, almost as if to say, Ok, now you can start writing again, and THIS is what you need to write about.

Which is why I’m here today, taking a deep breath and walking to the front of the online support group we call Velvet Ashes. It’s why I’m steadying my feet, looking into your lovely virtual faces, and announcing that I’m Elizabeth, and I’ve been yoked to bitterness. I’ve harbored unforgiveness in my heart. I’ve been very, very angry.

Finish reading this post here.

A Few of My Favorite Things {October 2015}

by Elizabeth

Ladies’ Bible Class at my mom’s church. I don’t often get a chance to have deep discussions about Scripture with other ladies in real life, and this class has immeasurably blessed me (even though our travel schedule doesn’t allow me to attend all the sessions). We’re going through the Gospels chronologically, and I’ve been reading them through the Biblical Imagination lens that I talked about last month. I’m seeing all sorts of new things in the Gospel accounts, and it’s been fascinating, thrilling, and convicting. On a tangent, tell me your favorite Gospel and why in the comments! Mine has generally been John and not Mark, but I’m seeing each book in a new light now and appreciating each book for what it offers.

Going on regular walks with my husband. We used to walk together all the time, both before and after kids (during the stroller stage at least). But now, being in Phnom Penh, there aren’t a lot of great places to walk. So being able to walk in both my mom’s neighborhood and on some beautiful walking paths has been so enjoyable.

The joy of finding that old friends are still the same. It’s amazing to me that after four years, the people we were close to before moving overseas, we still feel close to. We can slide right back into relationship. We may need to update each other on our lives somewhat, but it’s comforting to know that the years and years we poured into relationships this side of the Pacific weren’t wasted. We’re different; we’ve changed. So have our friends. But I’m realizing that with Christ, our love doesn’t have to change.

The chance to witness Jonathan’s pastoral counseling. I’m not usually in the counseling room with him, but I had the opportunity this month to watch him in action. I was amazed. I had no idea he was so good at what he does. He listens carefully, sees straight into the heart of a person, and has such wisdom in knowing how to help them meet Jesus. All I can say is, um, wow!



Cloudy with a Chance of Faith by Katrina Ryder. I shared some of Katrina’s work last month. She is someone who definitely needs be on your radar. It’s hard to find someone who is both dedicated to Scripture and brutally honest about real life and raw emotions. Katrina is just such a person, and I so appreciate her writing. Incidentally, because of her discussion of God’s glory being in the cloud, when I got to the Transfiguration with my Ladies’ Bible class, I read the phrase “a bright cloud overshadowed them” with new eyes.

‘What’s wrong with a hug?’ on Christianity Today. So many things to love about this extremely important anonymously-written article. As someone who was abused in this way, I’m so glad someone is bringing attention to it. As someone who “paid the relational price” for trying to deal with abuse in a church setting, I’m glad someone is talking about this. And as someone who is trying to protect her children from abuse in another culture, even when it offends an adult, I’m thankful someone wrote this article.

It Would Be So Easy to Use Money to Solve This Problem. But We Won’t. Here’s Why. by Andy Gray of Alongsiders. I personally know Andy, along with Craig Greenfield, the founder of Alongsiders, and I really respect how they approach money in their ministry. Jonathan and I have first hand experience of “when helping hurts” from back here in the States before we moved overseas. To explore issues of ministry among the poor more deeply, I also highly recommend Craig’s personal blog.

Free Wine by Robynn Bliss. More grace, pure grace (from a blogger/writer I get to meet soon!!!).

Why Connection Matters (More Than Connection Groups) by Amy Young.  “Disconnection was never meant to be our story so God started rewriting it immediately.” I really appreciate how Amy expands the possible areas of disconnection in our lives to include disconnection from God, ourselves, nature, and others. As an aside, I love Amy’s focus on Eden in her writing in general.

When Someone You Love Dies and You are Far, Far Away by Rachel Pieh Jones. “She will be buried well, surrounded by loving family and I won’t be there. . .I am not with those who are mourning. I’m not with those who gather around food and photos and memories. I’m the hole, the absence, the space. I’m not with ‘my people’ to close the door on that life and to look into the faces that have her nose and his chin and to say, ‘I love you. I’m glad you are in my family. I see her living in you. I treasure the legacy I see in your children.’” It continues to amaze me that different people can experience grief from afar so similarly.

Giving Grace to People in Crisis — the Sequel to Stupid Phrases for Stupid People by Marilyn Gardner. Actual, wonderful things to say to people in crisis.

A Final Note for Those in Crisis by Marilyn Gardner. Because it’s ok to offer grace to people who don’t or can’t offer it to us. Which to me, is some of the best news of all.

When God Doesn’t Heal by Tanya Marlow. I think we all need this message sometimes; we all have things in our lives that God just doesn’t seem to heal. We all walk with a limp of some sort. Tanya is deep and you need to be reading her; here’s another good one from her this month.

Here’s Why We Need the “Mentally Different” by Glennon Melton. I love this take on mental illness, and I think it’s true — when we see the world as it really is, it’s so overwhelming that it’s hard to cope. And when we’re fine with the world as is, maybe we’re just not paying very close attention.

When Loneliness Threatens to Swallow You Whole by Elizabeth Esther. “What if my loneliness is homesickness for God? What if loneliness is homesickness for home I’ve rarely known, a home more Person than place?” Breathtakingly beautiful and true.



The orbits of the planets and their moons in correct time ratio (NOT size or distance). Goes through one full earth year. SO COOL.

Forgiveness by Kay Bruner. “Forgiveness says, ‘I want to be free.’ Forgiveness is my job. Healing is God’s job.” I found unforgiveness lurking in my heart this month. As I read through the Gospels with my Ladies’ Bible Study, I kept encountering the words of Jesus to forgive. I had this creeping feeling I was harboring unforgiveness (again, bummer), but I didn’t know what to do with it. I underlined Jesus’ words, I wrote them in my journal, but I knew I still hadn’t forgiven. I watched Kay’s video, I read Anita Mathias’s post on forgiveness. (Anita is another deep thinker and writer from whom I always learn something; you really need to go check her out, too.) Then suddenly one morning I was ready to forgive, to lay it all down again, to release people from their debt to me. It wasn’t a big emotional experience like it sometimes is. It was just a deep sense of peace and a firm conviction of what I needed to do. And so I did it. I felt such a burden lift off me. (By the way, Kay will soon be publishing an e-book on “forgiveness in the real world.” I got to help edit it, and so I can tell you ahead of time how very good and fresh it is.)



Adopted by Jeff Bourque. We sang this song in college, and I haven’t thought of it or sung it in years. But it came to me out of the blue this month, and at a time when I really needed its message. A time when I needed to preach the gospel to myself. The song is based out of Galatians 4:3-7, and to listen to it, scroll down the screen in the link several times until you get to “Adopted.”

Hallelujah, God has spoken and I know this changes everything.
Hallelujah, praise Him only sing the slaves adopted by the King.

Glory be to my Father who reigns.
For I met Him and I cannot be the same.
When in bondage to Jesus I came.
He took my place and He changed my name.

I Feel His Love by Laura Hackett Park. Love this song. Again, it came to mind at a time when I really needed it, especially that last chorus. As Laura sings elsewhere, sometimes you “gotta sing your way into the Truth.” Plus I love the story of how she wrote this song.

My faith, it lifts the weight of pain from lonely and mistaken days
Of hiding behind deep dark lies of worthlessness and selfish pride

My faith is my belief in truth that God above loves me and you
And He gave us freedom, He gave us life To walk in love through Jesus Christ

I am confident that neither life nor death can keep me from the love of Christ
Keep me from the love of Christ
And though I cannot see, still my heart believes
And I am filled with joy inexpressible

I feel His love dwelling up on the inside of me
All those years bound in shame, He is setting me free
His love goes deeper than the pain that I feel
His love is stronger than depression and fear

Great Are You Lord by Steve and Vicki Cook. My youth group used to sing this in high school, and I haven’t sung it in ages. But we sang it at church one Sunday morning this month, and I remembered why I loved it so much.

Holy Lord, most holy Lord, You alone are worthy of my praise.
O holy Lord, most holy Lord, with all of my heart I sing.

Great are You, Lord, worthy of praise.
Holy and true, great are You, Lord, most holy Lord.

Oh How I Need You by All Sons and Daughters. Love their message, love their earthy sound.

Lord I find You in the seeking, Lord I find You in the doubt
And to know You is to love You and to know so little else

Great Are You Lord by All Sons and Daughters.

You give life, You are love, You bring light to the darkness
You give hope, You restore every heart that is broken

Great are You, Lord

It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise we pour out our praise
It’s Your breath in our lungs so we pour out our praise to You only

All the earth will shout Your praise, our hearts will cry
These bones will sing great are You, Lord

Tree by Justin Rizzo. Another oldie-but-goodie that came to me this month.

Unmovable, unshakable, let my roots go down deep
Unmovable, unshakable in You

I want to be like a tree planted by the streams of living water

This will be my song God, this will be my prayer
Until the end, until the end

I Need You Now by Matt Redman.

On this thirsty desert ground, in a dry and barren land,
I bow down, I need You now

You will call and I will come, to Your river I will run
I bow down, I need You now

Oh, living water. Oh, God, my Savior,
If I ever needed You, I need You now
Oh, living water, Oh, God, my Healer,
If I ever needed You, I need You now

Eden by Phil Wickham. Phil Wickham’s music has an ethereal, almost other-worldly sound to it. Several years ago his music was my entry point into the more emotional, Spirit-filled music of the International House of Prayer (and others). At one point this month, after not having listened to Phil Wickham for quite some time, I had a sudden need to listen to this song. It expresses my longings so well. (You’re Beautiful is another good one of his.)

When the first light brightened the dark
Before the breaking of the human heart
There was You and there was me

Innocence was all I knew
‘Cause all I had to know was You
We were running underneath the trees

I want to see You face to face
Where being in Your arms is the permanent state
I want it like it was back then
I want to be in Eden

I remember how You called my name
And I would meet You at the garden gate
How the glory of Your love would shine

And I remember when the stars were young
You breathed life into my lungs
Oh I never felt so alive

I want to see You face to face
Where being in Your arms is the permanent state
I want it like it was back then
I want to be in Eden

To be naked and unashamed
In a sweet downpour of innocent rain
I want it like it was back then
I want to be in Eden

Where my eyes can see the colors of glory
My hands can reach the heaven before me
Oh my God I want to be there with You

Where our hearts will beat with joy together
And love will reign forever and ever
Oh my God I want to be there with You

Angry, Mean, and Redeemed {A Life Overseas}

Elizabeth is over at A Life Overseas today, talking about bitterness and repentance. . .


I lost my mind this hot season. Became unglued. Went a little nuts. Whatever you want to call it. Yes, everyone’s crabbier and more uncomfortable this time of year, and it would be mighty convenient to blame my meltdown on the heat. It would also be unfair, for I can’t in good conscience blame the external temperatures for my roiling internal mess.

I’d been angry at some disappointments in my life for a while, and it was spilling out into irritability and rudeness with my husband and children, who did not deserve my unkindness and snappiness. I refused to talk to God about these things because I was convinced He couldn’t change any of the circumstances anyway, and I didn’t want to be even more disappointed by His lack of intervention. So I just kept getting angrier and angrier, more and more irritable, and more and more distant from God.

Finish reading here.