Father, Forgive Them

A few months ago a friend asked a question on Facebook. It concerned forgiveness, and the willingness of “the world” to forgive, compared with the willingness of those in the Church. It made me think. A lot. Forgiveness, seemingly such a simple concept, has become a hugely complex and difficult subject in the heart of mankind.

The Bible speaks often of forgiveness. As Christians we are exhorted to forgive one another.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13)

These verses are in the context of living as a Christian community. But Christ doesn’t seem to limit the scope of forgiveness when he says, immediately after teaching the Lord’s Prayer,

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

He is emphasising one verse from the prayer. Think about it. Jesus is emphasising one verse from the most famous, most widely spoken prayer in the history of the world. What does that say about the importance of forgiveness?

There is something about these verses though. Something that I think our fallen hearts focus on even if we are not aware of it. We see a transaction taking place. God forgave us and so, in return, we should forgive others. If we don’t forgive others then, in return, God will not forgive us.

And sometimes that’s how we forgive. We do so because we know we should, or worse, because we want to be seen as good Christians – or if we are not believers, to be seen as good people. Like the giving, praying and fasting of the hypocrites in Matthew 6, we forgive for show, not for love. For forgiveness to count for anything, it must come from the heart, as Christ explained in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

There’s another way our hearts lead us to misunderstand forgiveness. Consider these words of Jesus.

If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them. (Luke 17:3-4)

It is an unambiguous instruction. Depending on the nature of the sin, it might be a very difficult instruction to follow, but Jesus never said that following Him would be easy.

But I’m not thinking about the difficulty of forgiveness, so much as what comes before it in the verse – repentance. Repentance and forgiveness go hand in hand at various points in the Bible. And we have come to believe that repentance is a condition for forgiveness. Unless the one who has sinned against us repents, apologises, begs forgiveness, in some way admits their wrongdoing, they don’t deserve our forgiveness, and we are entitled to withhold it. (Oswald Chambers wrote a short, interesting devotional on repentance, you might like to read it.)

In this world there will be times that we feel sinned against when the “sinner” has actually done no wrong, but the hurt is based on some kind of misunderstanding or disagreement, not on any intention of harm. But even when harm is deliberate, and there is no sign of repentance, we can still forgive.

When I consider this, I remember Gordon Wilson, who lost his daughter Marie in the Enniskillen bombing of 1987. After describing her last words to him, he said to the BBC,

But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.

Tears come to my eyes as I read his words again. This is true forgiveness, from the heart, born out of faith, unconditional.

And that brings me to Christ’s words on the cross,

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

I think about the Roman soldiers casting lots for His clothes as Jesus forgives them. I think of the people of Jerusalem who had cried out for His crucifixion, not understanding who He really was, and He forgives them as He hangs there.

It was only when I thought about His words again recently that I realised He was also speaking of me. I understood that this was the moment in history that Jesus saw all my sin and prepared Himself to suffer the full consequences of everything I will ever do in defiance of God’s will. And He knew that in my humanity I can never completely change, that every day I will sin in word or thought or deed. He knew that sometimes those sins would be wilful, and sometimes neglectful or thoughtless. And He knew that I can’t possibly truly know what I’m doing, because I can barely comprehend the cost of my sin or the depth of God’s love for me in spite of it.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

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Calling It In Its Face

If you have a minute to spare, you could do worse than to spend it reading this short post by one of my favourite Christian writers, Frank Viola.

http://frankviola.org/2016/12/08/face/

As I was reading it again today I was struck by the personal example I encountered yesterday.

I’m a fairly swift walker, and I was walking, fairly swiftly, across a crowded bridge in the early evening. I was listening to a podcast through headphones but I was well aware, as I usually am, of what was going on around me.

I was approaching an elderly lady who was walking in the same direction, but was naturally slower, and there wasn’t much of a gap through which to pass. She moved slightly to the right and the gap opened. I started heading for it and she moved slightly to the left so I held back just behind her.

I wasn’t in a hurry, so there was no need to ask her to “excuse me” or to find an alternative route. I decided to slow down and follow at her pace.

A moment later I heard someone calling “watch out!” and two younger ladies grabbed the older one and pulled her to the side. I heard them warning her about the selfish oaf who was about to run over her, and I felt the tension rise inside me.

Years ago I would have stopped, removed my headphones, turned to those “helpful” ladies and angrily explained their mistake. It would have been intimidating to them, and they would most likely have assumed that they were in fact right about me and that I was only trying to justify my bad behaviour by bending the truth to suit myself.

Instead I walked on. Yes, they undoubtedly thought they’d done a good deed, and that the man walking ahead was ignorant and rude. And yes, it frustrated me hugely that I’d been so misrepresented. I would have loved to set the record straight but the anger was there and no matter how fair and well judged my words might have been, my voice would have told a different story and the situation would have escalated unnecessarily.

So I’m pleased that I didn’t react to defend myself, that while I was angry I did not sin. I hope and pray that as I let the Holy Spirit continue to work in me the day will come when anger doesn’t start bubbling up on such occasions.

But at the same time, this brief incident is a reminder to all of us that things are not always as they seem, that we can easily misinterpret others’ intentions, and that doing so can bring unintended hurt to innocent parties.

Those young ladies thought they were doing the right thing, and I’m pleased that they acted on the impulse to help their neighbour. But I’m much more pleased that the One who will ultimately judge me doesn’t look at outward appearances, but looks at my heart.

Teach Me

I’m thankful to Pastor Samuel Cole and Pastor Dena Cole for bringing this wisdom to the front of my mind, where it belongs. Before anything else, I want to pay tribute to my dear friend. Pastor Sam, we haven’t seen each other for some time now, but you remain close to my heart and regularly in my prayers. When I was starting on my journey of faith, you gave me the most powerful encouragement, and you showed me what it means to be salt and light in a world so bereft of both. You have continued to inspire me through the years. I don’t think there’s another human being who has done more to strengthen my confidence in the goodness of God in all circumstances. I’ve learned so much from you, and I love you. Thank you, my brother.

Teach me thy way, O LORD; I will walk in thy truth: unite my heart to fear thy name. (Psalm 86:11)

Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God: thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness. (Psalm 143:10)

Teach me thy way, O LORD, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies. (Psalm 27:11)

Teach me, O LORD, the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end. (Psalm 119:33)

I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye. (Psalm 32:8)

Too many people speak and act as if they know it all. It’s a common human failing but it bothers me more when I see it in Christians. And I see plenty of it, sometimes in person, and very often online.

Why does it bother me more? Because we of all people, who recognise the almighty power and knowledge of our Creator, should also recognise how small we are in comparison, how blinkered in our vision, how narrow in our knowledge.

And yet, when we should be demonstrating humility, instead we display hubris.

There was not one perfect man or woman until the birth of Christ, and there has been none since. If we really knew the whole truth we would be unable to sin – the knowledge of the consequences would make it impossible.

In fact, even as we recite “lean not on your own understanding” we are busy constructing our own personal moralities, interpreting scripture in our own image, and condemning others who do the same.

How many times has the church, the body of Christ, fractured into new sects and denominations? Occasionally this might be due to a difference of style, but more often it is about substance, about doctrine. When the splits number in the thousands, and still brothers and sisters sitting side by side in services can’t agree on one hundred per cent of Biblical interpretation, how can any one of us honestly believe they are the one who has finally understood God’s message clearly. Even Paul acknowledged the limits of our mortal understanding:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

There is a beautiful phrase, apparently not coined by St Augustine, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” If only we could all live by it, and in particular by the third clause, because in truth we can find it hard even to agree on what is essential. Our social, cultural and political biases will determine what matters most to us, and hence we define our essentials, and then comes judgement towards those whose definitions vary.

We need to return to the psalms. We need to ask our Lord to teach us His ways and His will. And we need to keep asking, always ready to repent when we learn that our previous understanding was incomplete or just plain wrong.

And we need to be charitable towards those with whom we disagree. Be respectful and kind. There’s no place for arrogance or presumption in the family of God. We are all still learning.

Welcome to My Christian Journey

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for quite a while now, and today I decided it was time to stop procrastinating.

What’s the purpose of these writings? Very simply I want to share my journey with you. I hope that in doing so I can encourage you, and maybe even inspire you to see the wonderful things God is doing in your life, as I share what He is doing in mine. I’ll tell you about what I’m doing and what I’m thinking, and it is my sincere desire that God’s glory will shine through my words, because at the end of the day, this is all about Him, not me.

You know, it’s easy to let a phrase like that trip off my fingers as I type. It’s not so easy to live every day like I really believe it’s true. So another real hope of mine is that I can be honest with you and tell you when I’m struggling, and then let you see how God can bring me (and you) through those hard times.

I plan to start slowly and reveal more of myself as we travel together. I used to love writing – mostly songs – and I like to think that I’m good with words, but this is a new venture, and I wait to see whether I have the discipline to write regularly, and the courage to write openly.

To start, I can tell you that at the time of writing I’ve lived on this earth just over forty-two years, but I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour on 7 December 2008, so that really makes me a little under three and a half years old. A child of that age has learnt a huge amount in a very short time and is full of wonder and excitement about what they’ve seen and heard. But the child still has even more to learn, and is impatient to grow up, and will sometimes try to get their own way at any cost because even though they’ve been taught right and wrong, they still don’t always see how it applies to them. They will hurt themselves because they want to explore dark and dangerous places, not keeping to the safe and stimulating environments their parents have made available to them.

Yes, I still feel very much a child of God in that sense. And if I think about it, part of me wonders if it would be better to stay that way. As so often, scripture can pull me in different directions.

In Matthew 18, verses 2 and 3, we read:

Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

But then I think about that most beautiful chapter 13 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and near the end he writes:

11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

Are “now” and “then” both stages of our earthly lives, or do they refer to this life and the next? I believe the latter is true, but I am still inspired to seek greater knowledge of, and intimacy with Christ right now. The innocent play of youth is a delightful memory, but it is made so much sweeter when looked at through the eyes of maturity, the eyes of understanding.

There is so much I want to understand about God. I know that by His very nature I won’t learn it all in this lifetime, but equally I know that the deeper my understanding grows, the more fulfilling my life will be, and the more able I will become to live the life He wants for me, to be His ambassador, and a reflection of His glory.