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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A Glimpse of Cross Vision

I would be very interested to read your comments on this article, Frank Viola’s interview with Greg Boyd:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/gregboydnew/

It’s a lengthy interview, in which Greg discusses some of the ideas in his latest books, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and its shorter version Cross Vision.

The principal argument of Boyd’s work is that when you read the whole Bible – specifically the Old Testament – through the lens of the cross, all kinds of problems we have with the picture of an angry, violent OT God can disappear. In Boyd’s words

On the cross, God stoops to meet us, and to enter into solidarity with us, right where we are at, which is in bondage to sin and to Satan. And he does this to free us and to bring us where he wants us to be, which is united with him in Christ.  The cross is thus the paradigmatic example of God mercifully stooping to accommodate people in their fallen conditioning.

In a similar way, every time we prove ourselves incapable of living up to God’s ideal behaviour, God will Himself “stoop to accommodate” us. This even extends to allowing Himself to be portrayed in the Bible as something other than His “true” self, because culturally His people have been conditioned to believe that this is what a god is “supposed” to look like.

In fact, many passages that exalt Yahweh as a warrior contain phrases from songs that Israel’s neighbors sang to their own warrior deities. The biblical author just switched out the name of the pagan god and replaced it with Yahweh.

After reading the whole interview a few times I’m left with several thoughts. The first is that I want to read Cross Vision, and understand the reasoning – scriptural, cultural and logical – that lies behind Boyd’s claim. Because I very much want this to be true. To finally have a solution to one of the most troubling issues of Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) faith would be beyond exciting.

And that leads me to my next thought, which is that when something seems to be too good to be true, it usually is. This lens of the cross, while on the surface it seems totally Biblical, is surely just too simple. I find myself returning to Isaiah 55.

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,’
declares the Lord.
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.’

Isaiah 55:8-9

And the most troubling thought of all is this: if I can use God’s “stooping to accommodate” as an explanation for the particular “atrocities” mentioned in the book, why can’t I use it to explain anything at all that I don’t like? And how can we tell the difference between the times that God is pleased with an action and the times that he is accommodating us? And how does this then apply outside of scripture, in our daily lives? What can we trust to be God’s genuine will? Do we just follow the 10 commandments and for everything else do our own thing, confident that God will accommodate us?

There are answers to these questions, the simplest one being that if the Holy Spirit dwells within us we can have confidence in what He says to us. But nevertheless I think Greg Boyd’s ideas are just as likely to unsettle as to comfort us, and if I can be sure of one thing, it’s that his books will not end the debate about the “Old Testament God”.

But I’m very much looking forward to reading more.

My Violent God

I heard a radio discussion about people who use the violence in the Old Testament as an excuse for terrible acts of abuse. As we know, it’s also true that the violent acts done by and on behalf of God, and recorded in our Holy Book, are a rich source of material for atheists wishing to ascribe to Christianity a deep-seated immorality and malevolence.

I wanted to make this the subject of a small group meeting, and I wanted to start by playing this ten minute broadcast, but when I started my preparations, I couldn’t find the programme.

What I found instead was a different, and wonderful, podcast from Ancient Faith Radio, in which Father Thomas Hopko, an Orthodox Christian, talked about many aspects of Old Testament violence, and gave it a context and meaning that I had never heard before. As this is one aspect of God’s word that I have struggled to understand for many years, I am very encouraged, and grateful to Fr. Tom for his insights.

You can listen to the entire podcast, which is just under an hour long, or read a transcript, here, but below I have written an abridged version. 99% of the words are Fr. Tom’s, while I have shuffled the order sightly, and provided section titles. If what you read below interests you, then I encourage you to listen to or read the original which has far more depth and detail.

The Violence of Man

We can speak of the kinds of violence that we find in the Bible. First of all, there’s the violence and the murdering that comes simply from sin. Human beings are sinful, and they kill each other. And the very beginning of the Bible is that. Cain kills Abel. That’s how humanity starts. You have Adam and Eve apostatizing, rebelling against God, refusing to love God by keeping his commandments, listening to the devil, being cast out of paradise, and then all the enmity and the strife and the hostility enters the human race, the human beings are given over unto death in enslavement to the earth, and then Cain kills Abel, one kills the other.

Now, in the Old Testament, you also have violence and killing done as a kind of vindication by human beings against evils done to them. Like, for example, in Genesis 34, when Simon and Levi kill Shechem and they kill all the males in the land and they plunder the whole city and they take all the women and the children and everything because Shechem has violated their sister Dinah. You return the evils by evils in order to vindicate your righteousness against the unrighteousness of those who harmed you.

The Violence of God

Then you have another issue in the Old Testament Scriptures to deal with, and we’ll see how the New Testament resolves all this, but God himself does acts of violence.

A Response to Sin

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy the earth.” And then he tells him to make this ark, which is a prefiguration of the holy Church. That’s what the New Testament Scriptures say clearly, in the letter of Peter, that Noah’s ark prefigures baptism and the ark of salvation is the Church.

The point we want to see here is that you have violence, and then what happens is God acts pretty violently. So that’s another thing that you have in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Bible. When people sin against God and do evil, God renders evils to the people. He destroys them. So in the time of Noah, he just drowned everybody.

An Act of Rescue

Then you have that wonderful statement in the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, where the Lord through Moses says to the people, “Listen, have faith, stand firm, be quiet, be still, I will fight for you. I will fight for you, and this very day, you will see the Egyptians perish before your very eyes. I will save you. I will rescue you. I will deliver you.” And in the Old Testament, that meant a violent act of salvation in, literally, killing the enemies. And God is killing the enemies all the time in the Old Testament. That’s what he’s doing day and night, so to speak, and some people are scandalized by it, but the Bible reader, in the light of Jesus Christ, would say, “What was God to do? How else was he going to proceed? He’s dealing with a violent world where people are killing each other all the time, and in the names of their gods they’re killing each other.”

Evidence of His Power

Now, in the Passover exodus story, eight times you have that expression with these plagues that God says, “I am doing this that you may know that I am God, that you may know that I am your God, that the nations and the Egyptians may know that I reign over all creation, and that you may know that I am the only God that there is.” So the violence in the Old Testament and the violence of God himself against his enemies—because those people who are enemies of Israel, they are enemies of him—here we should see that the warfare in the Old Testament is not so much, so to speak, a warfare between peoples. It’s a warfare, actually, between gods. It’s the one true and living God fighting against all the false gods and all those who are evilly inspired into idolatry by those false gods, by the powers of evil, by the demons.

Evidence is Needed

There’s a great Protestant thinker, a theologian named Karl Bart, who said, “Until God can establish his power over the false gods, until he can show that he can kill and make alive, that he can cast down, that he can raise up, and that he is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, then God cannot really show mercy.” Because if he would show mercy without showing his power, people would think that he didn’t have the power, and that’s certainly a teaching of the Old Testament. God has to establish his power, and the way you establish your power is by killing your enemies. Sadly, that’s the truth.

An Act of Cleansing

But the most amazing thing is that God says to his own people in the Old Testament Scripture, “I am against you. I am against you, because you are trusting in horses. You think you can manipulate me. You think that because I told you you are my people that you can do whatever you want and you can be unrighteous and sinful and break that Law and not keep the commandments and not keep the Sabbath or anything else.”

So here you have the violence of God, which is needed, first of all, to preserve his people from their mortal enemies on earth and then at the same time to preserve the righteousness of his people by even showing his wrath and anger against them.

So you find all of this in the Scriptures, all this kind of evil and murder and going-on, and it’s there all the time.

The Power and the Mercy

Now, if that were the last word, then we would really have a scandal on our hands, but for Christianity that is not the last word, as we will see in a second and as we already know, I hope. In Jesus Christ, you do not have that any more. You have a radical reversal of God’s activity, because once he has established his power, then he can send his Son to show mercy and to show what the power of God really is, which is the power of truth, the power of righteousness, the power of love, which is absolutely, fully, completely, and totally revealed in the Cross of Christ and in the crucified Messiah.

Because in the Bible, all of this is done, Orthodox Christians would believe and Bible readers who read the whole Bible would believe, all this violence was done so that God’s fidelity could remain, so that his soteriological plan could be completed, which means his plan for saving the world, for sending Christ, for redeeming, for forgiving.

What people have to realize is we are all God’s enemies in some way. Jews and Gentiles, whoever we are, we are those who are in need of the mercy of God, and the Gospel of God in Jesus is he shows mercy on all.

Violence Against God

Christ sheds his blood on the Cross for everyone that Yahweh killed in the Old Testament. Everyone that was killed in the Old Testament in any way, whether it was Jephthah’s daughter who had to be sacrificed because he made a vow, whether it’s that concubine who was chopped up into twelve parts and sent through Israel, whether it’s the ravishing of the young maidens outside Sodom and Gomorrah and in other places in the Bible, whether it’s Cain killing Abel, whatever it is—all those murders, all that violence—that is all subsumed in the flesh of Christ on the Cross, and he endures it all. And it is God Almighty that is in human flesh that’s enduring it in order to have mercy on all.

Now here I would say this very clearly: if God did not so love the world that he sent his only-begotten Son, that those who believe in him would not perish, and if he did not give the opportunity for everyone to repent, and if the final judgment, when the Lord appears in glory, is not the moment of truth when anyone can finally repent of all their ignorances and their evils, their passions and their crimes, and if God did not die for everyone and shed his blood for everyone without exception, then we would have real problems with the murders of the Old Testament. All that violence would be nothing but scandalous violence. But the scandal for Christians, the scandal of the Cross replaces, so to speak, heals all the violence of men, even the violence of God himself that he had to perpetrate in the Old Testament in order for his plan to be completed for the Messiah to come.

Conclusion – Eternal Violence

Now, will God kill and destroy his enemies, ultimately, in the coming kingdom? Well, the ancient Christian scriptural answer is no. He will have mercy on everybody. But still, people may not accept that mercy, and then God’s love and his truth and his righteousness and his blood will torment them, and they will be tormented forever and ever if they blaspheme the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. The demons and the evil people who love the demons and hate God, they will suffer from the mercy of God forever, and that’s the fire of hell. But God is no longer destroying. God is no longer destroying. People are destroying themselves by opposing the righteousness of God.

So we read about the violence and the murder and the killing and the violence of God and the violence of people and the sinful violence and the unrighteous violence, but then the necessary violence that is necessary for God’s plan to be completed, we read about all this in the Old Testament. We see it fulfilled in the non-violent Christ, who as a Lamb is led to the slaughter and opens not his mouth, who is denied justice, who takes upon himself the sin of the world, and who dies for all those for all those who have died in any way, and he dies even for those whom God himself has killed in the Old Testament, because the final word does not belong to death. The final word does not belong to destruction. The final word belongs to mercy and forgiveness. The final word belongs to resurrection and life. The final word belongs to the peace of God, not the violence of God.

So let’s think about these things, but let’s know for sure that all that violence of old was necessary to produce the Christ, and then the Christ comes and takes the violence upon himself and forgives everyone everything. And that’s the teaching of the Gospel. And the victory of God ultimately is one when his Son dies the most violent, degrading, horrible death on the Cross. So for Christians, we preach Christ crucified, scandal to Jews, folly to Gentiles, but the wisdom and the power, the ultimate wisdom and the ultimate power, of God Almighty himself.

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 14 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.