Continuing our exploration of forgiveness and forgiving, today I intend to go straight to the heart of the matter: why should we even consider forgiving—especially those who have done great harm? I will begin with something that may seem to be off the topic, but I think it helps us get to the answer.
I was reading N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus a couple of weeks ago. Wright is an historian of the first century, and it was his intent in the first half of this book to try to get the reader to see Jesus the way his contemporaries would have seen him. For me he succeeded in that, far better than any other author has done. Though Wright himself is a believer in Jesus, I actually experienced a crisis of faith from this book unlike any I’ve had in decades. I was seeing Jesus as he would have looked at the time: a young man, considerably younger than myself or most of my colleagues and friends.
On first view, before observing him in action or hearing him teach, I’m sure I would have viewed him as just some guy on the street, no different than anyone else. As Wright argues, though, he came (among other things) to overthrow the Jewish Temple system. This was a big deal. The Temple was no mere center of a religion. It was the center of Israel in every sense: the center of their relationship with God, the center of their political and social system, the center of their hopes for independence from Rome, the center of their very identity. For the ruling elite it was the seat of their power.
Above all that, it had been instituted by God himself. And this ordinary-looking young man came with the intention of saying, “That was then, this is now, and the days of the Temple are over. I’m throwing all that out and instituting a whole new way of relating to God.”
Here was my crisis of faith: how could we think that one relatively young man, just one guy (as he would have appeared on first impressions), could be the one to do that? How could we think he would do it the way he did, by gathering a tiny group of followers and teaching them? Now, part of that teaching included demonstrations of God’s kingdom breaking in to the world, through miracles of healing, resuscitation of the dead, multiplying food, and so on. That gave him vastly increased credibility, to be sure. But his fundamental approach was to teach and prepare a small group of men and women, and then send them forth with instructions to change the entire world. Does this make sense?
The author, Wright, was not trying to upset my faith; he argues strongly in favor of the Resurrection in the latter part of the book. But nevertheless I had to deal with what seemed to be the basic implausibility of the whole approach. Then last Wednesday evening I saw a music video depicting Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and suddenly it hit me, “It’s not implausible that God would do it this way! This is how it had to be!” Here’s why: We each live our lives one person at a time. We each experience our joys and our pains, our successes and our failures, one person at a time. We all fall short of what we intend to be, what we know we ought to be. We know that every person falls short. But we all fall short one person at a time. We have only our own individual lives to live.
Jesus showed us what it really means to follow God, one person at a time. He showed that the life God calls us to, a life of joy, love, obedience, giving, fruitfulness, and submission to the Father above, could be lived on earth. He was the living demonstration of God’s plan. Just one person; but it took just one person to show us how to live one person’s life; to demonstrate that it could be done, and to show how.
We all fall short. There isn’t a single reader of this blog who hasn’t lied, cheated, stolen, manipulated a relationship, intentionally used words (or worse) to hurt another person, desired to take from another person (their goods, their position in life, their sexuality…), harbored anger or even hatred toward another, wished harm on another. I speak from experience, for I have been guilty of all this and more. Jesus Christ alone was “the man for others” in all integrity, as Bonhoeffer put it, and at the same time fully a man for God. Our own falling short is most visible in our interpersonal relationships. On a deeper level, we also all fail badly in our relationship with God as well. To God’s character of love we say, “I don’t need it.” To his position as Master of his own creation, we say, “Step aside there, God, I’ll take over.” We thumb our noses at his justice. We ignore his omnipresent, omniscient Deity, as if it were an inconsequential thing.
We do violence against both humans and God.
For this, Jesus Christ did more than demonstrate a life lived well. That would only have frustrated us. He also died for our sins, opening the way for God to forgive us, paying the penalty for us that God’s justice demanded. Hanging on the cross, an instrument of slow, torturous death, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
God forgives. I have recently quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn on a very relevant point:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
We are not all guilty of genocide, but we cannot look at killers and say, “They’re the bad guys, we’re the good guys.” We are all co-participants in a common, fallen humanity. Hutus killed Tutsis in Rwanda. Had history taken a different turn, it could as easily have been Tutsis killing Hutus, and the wise among the Tutsis know that to be true. Had it taken a different turn it could have been Americans or Britons doing the same. Philip Zimbardo’s horrifyingly famous Prison Experiment provided empirical proof of this, in case any were needed.
So why is forgiveness a value? Because we all stand in need of it, first of all. But to receive it and not to give it to others is contradictory. Jesus Christ showed what it means to live one good and godly life, and in so doing showed that each of us in our individual lives fall short. Jesus told a parable about this in Matthew 18:23-35:
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents [a large unit of currency]. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
(Also see further Matthew 6:9-15 and Colossians 3:12-14.) To accept forgiveness from God is to say, “I recognize what grace and mercy are, and that I stand in need of that.” To fail to forgive others is to deny that understanding of grace and mercy.
To forgive even a murderer is to say, “What you have done is horrible. But we are both human beings made of the same stuff, and deep inside, you and I are much the same. I need forgiveness, and you need forgiveness. Knowing this to be true I give you that forgiveness that is mine to offer.” To do any less is to deny the other person’s humanness, or else our own. And it is to deny the truth of our standing before God, from whom we all require forgiveness, and who gives it freely to those who will accept it for what it is: a gift of grace to be accepted on the basis of trust in him, and to be shared with others.
I close this with a note for visitors who read this without having seen my prior entry on this topic, which gave a definition of forgiveness and described (briefly) the process involved in forgiving deep hurts. Without that context, it might seem that I am saying in this entry, “Were you hurt? Well, just get over it!” That previous post will help you see that’s not what I’m trying to say at all; so I urge you to read it along with this post.