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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Thy Kingdom Come

I should have shared this link earlier, as the “Thy Kingdom Come” season is nearing its conclusion now, but Archbishop Welby’s thoughts on prayer are always relevant.

Justin Welby: How to pray ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ and mean it

A Reflection On Brexit

I understand the reasons why the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. Some of those reasons I can sympathise with, and others I simply can’t.

But what’s done is done. And what’s important now is that everyone in the country is gracious to one another, whether in victory or defeat. And in the longer term we have to be united in our efforts to support and lift the disenfranchised, the poor and the weak among us. And more than that we must be a light to the world, generous to those beyond our shores who don’t enjoy democracy, those who don’t live in peace, those who don’t experience freedom, those who can’t even turn to a food bank for their daily bread.

Many people argued that the referendum was about control, but no matter who won, God was always going to be in control. Both sides of the referendum campaign focused on fear, many people on both sides made their decisions through fear, and now the outcome is spreading fear in certain parts of the country and the world.

But while I’m saddened by the result, I refuse to fear the future. My faith is not in politicians or economists. My faith is not in the British electorate, whether or not they agree with me. My faith is not in the UK or the EU, but in Christ alone.

Just Pray


And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This, then, is how you should pray:

‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

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 6:5-14 (NIV)

The Power and Purpose of Prayer

The primary purpose of prayer is not to persuade God to act on your – or somebody else’s – behalf. God has things pretty well sussed, His plans are made, and He’s not in the habit of changing His mind (Isaiah 46:10-11, Numbers 23:19).

No, the primary purpose of prayer is to change you – to move you to compassion, to transform your mind, to open your eyes to the direction where He is leading you, to align you with His will.

Consider a line from arguably the most famous prayer in the world, a line that is included in countless other prayers every day.

“Your will be done.” – Matthew 6:9-10

Often phrased as “Lord, have Your way,” this prayer was spoken by Jesus not only in the Sermon on the Mount, but also in Gethsemane as he contemplated his coming crucifixion (Matthew 26:39). And what Christ did next tells you everything about the purpose of prayer – He acted on it.

What do you imagine it means to God when you ask Him that His will should be done? Do you think it might prompt Him, stir Him into action thinking “I’m glad you reminded Me!” Of course not. As your prayer is directed to God, so He reflects it back to you in a perfected form, and if your heart is really open to Him then you receive that reflection, you recognise it as His response, and you understand how He is directing you to act. This is the power of prayer – it actually connects you to God’s will.

If you ask the question “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” then you’re likely to hear several standard answers. Among them are selfish motives, unrepentant sin, unbelief and hypocrisy (James 4:3, Psalm 34:15-16, Proverbs 28:13). At the root of all these issues is pride. Pride blinds us to God’s reflection of our prayer, and we refuse to acknowledge our part in the responsibility for doing His will.

Sometimes our part is very small, but that doesn’t make it insignificant – “For want of a nail…

And sometimes of course the only thing we can actually do is pray. In those circumstances, whether the answer comes through the actions of others or directly by God’s hand, and whether it comes today or years down the line, our prayers still need to change us. We need to learn to trust God, to be thankful to Him in all circumstances, to love unconditionally, and to keep our faith (Romans 8:18-39). As God reflects such prayers back to us, they come wrapped in His peace, and we gain a deeper appreciation of His sovereign power and His infinite mercy.

Reflections on Mercy

I’ve been thinking about mercy. It’s a beautiful thing to consider, and God’s mercy is described throughout the Bible, sometimes translated as love, compassion, or pity. It is usually synonymous with forgiveness. Another beautiful word.

Grace and mercy are two sides of the same coin. Grace is when we receive something good that we don’t deserve. Mercy is when we are released from a bad consequence that we do deserve.

As I was thinking, I recalled that mercy is the theme of a famous Shakespeare speech, so I investigated. The play is “The Merchant of Venice”. The merchant’s name is Antonio and he guarantees a loan agreement that his friend makes with a Jewish moneylender called Shylock. A contract is drawn up stating that if the loan is not repaid on time Shylock will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. After some merchant ships are lost at sea the loan defaults, and Shylock takes Antonio to court to seek justice. Portia, a wealthy heiress who has promised to marry Antonio’s friend, disguises herself as a lawyer and makes this plea to Shylock:

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Some critics have suggested that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock is anti-semitic. There are arguments for and against this view, but I don’t want to get into that debate. Instead I think it’s interesting to compare the ‘Old Testament’ ideas of law and justice as demonstrated by Shylock, with the ‘New Testament’ focus on grace and mercy pleaded by Portia.

You can see several scriptural references in this speech:

“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Matthew 5:7 (NIV)

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

“It is an attribute to God himself.”

Daniel 9:9 (NIV)

The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.

“We do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.”

Matthew 6:12 (NIV)

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

King David referred often to God’s mercy in his psalms, for a typical example let’s look at Psalm 6.

Psalm 6 (NIV)

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

I have a problem with some psalms. I find that often they will be 90% spot on with insight into my own hopes, fears, feelings and prayers, and then David will throw in a couple of lines asking for, or promising, revenge and dire consequences for his enemies. I’m uncomfortable with those lines because they don’t seem to line up with Jesus’ instruction to love your enemies. I’m sure that all of us have harboured some small yearning for revenge – or justice – at times. I just don’t like to see it expressed so bluntly in the Bible – and by a man after God’s own heart.

But when I look at scripture in totality, it seems clear to me that God wants to see forgiveness in our hearts, not vengeance. Mercy is one of those gifts that is not only lavished on us from above, but is expected from us in our relationships.

Micah 6:6-8 (NIV)

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

But should we expect mercy with ‘no strings attached?’ Is that what God promises us? No.

Proverbs 28:13 (NIV)

Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

The one who confesses and renounces their sins will find mercy. A principle also found in first John:

1 John 1:9 (NIV)

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Yet we know, even on a human level, it is possible to forgive someone who hasn’t confessed or repented. We’ve all done it – even non-believers. So is that true forgiveness? Is that real mercy? Or are we deluding ourselves, clothing ourselves in self-righteousness?

Thinking again about The Merchant of Venice, even after Portia pleads for mercy Shylock insists on receiving his justice, and the law cannot deny him. However, Portia then insists that Shylock sticks rigidly to the letter of his contract. He must take flesh, and not blood – if a drop of Christian blood is spilled then all of his goods will be forfeit under the law of Venice. He cannot take any more or less than one pound, or the same penalty will be due. When Shylock finally gives up his claim he is charged with threatening to kill a citizen of Venice and his sentence is death. His life is spared by the Duke, in his mercy.

We can see the parallels in our own lives, as God’s law shows us the depth of our own sin, and justice would demand a death sentence. Yet our lives our spared by the Lord, in His mercy, through the atoning sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.

Titus 3:3-7 (NIV)

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

James 2:8-13 (NIV)

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

So why does He do it? Why does God show us such undeserved mercy? Because He said He would. Because He loves us. Because much of the time we know not what we do. And because He is giving us a reason to show the same mercy to others.

1 Timothy 1:12-16 (NIV)

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.

Amen.

Promises

The promises of man
Are castles made of sand
And the tide will wash them through
Before the day is done

But the promises of God
Are stronger than a rock
And they will endure
Beyond the earth and sun

 

Almighty God, despite Your instruction I still worry too much about what tomorrow may bring. But I want to thank You today. I want to thank You for not promising me tomorrow, but instead promising me eternity, with You, in paradise. I thank You in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.

 

25 August 2010