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)