Forgiving The Jesus Way
God sees people as they are. We see people as we perceive them. Conceived into sin, we are all born partially-sighted.
Consequently, all sin is subjectivity objectified. We try to dictate terms and outcomes in God’s wide world from the narrow stand-point of our finitude. We judge and cast stones at others by the dim light of our own inflamed passions, clouded minds and pejorative hearts. We see things not as they really are or should be, but by how we want them to be, after our own fatal designs.
When our common mother Eve first held court with the great deceiver and listened to his hard-sell lie that ‘we shall be like God’, she saw the forbidden fruit with new eyes - what she previously thought was untouchable became both alluring and desirable (Genesis 3:3 & 6). The devil’s game since the fall of man has not changed – to distort God’s truth by ever darkening shades of deception. And we play his game.
Today, we live in a world that prefers tolerance to truth, immediate gratification to delayed reward, unbridled scepticism to trusting faith, revenge to forgiveness. These are days of feel-good morals with use-by dates, of make-it-up virtual personas, of throw-away relationships that have outlived their convenience. Love, like truth, is re-defined to fit our twisted hearts and ways.
Against the backdrop of our sad history, the lone figure of the risen Jesus stands in opposition. His ways are a challenge to the lie of Eden: that God’s truth and designs are bad for us. He came to fulfill, not adjust or belie, God’s ideal for us (Matthew 5:17, 18).
Jesus famously reduced the 613 laws of Moses to 2, on which He said all other instruction and prophecy hung. To love God with all we are, and to love others as much as we care for ourselves; are the greatest summary of the Christian ideal (Matthew 22:37-39).
The power of transformation
But Christianity would not be good news if God expects us to live up to His rules by our own efforts. Contrary to the serpent’s lies, man can never become like God. But God becoming man is another story. Actually it is THE story, not just a plausible one but ultimately necessary. Christ Jesus the God-man opens up a new and living way by which God’s love redeems and renews us to be forgiven and likewise forgive – to live out an alternative way of life that defies the world we live in.
By His unique work of redemption and the new birth, Jesus returns us to fellowship with God and authorises us to become His co-transformers in our world. Because of who we are in Christ, we can live again according to God’s plan and design. Our being in Him enables our doing for Him. His reality must therefore re-define our worldview and practice. We can see this clearly in Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.
Choosing not to remember
Forgiveness in our modern parlance is, like so many noble virtues, a deeply misunderstood and distorted concept. For many today, seeking forgiveness is no more than expressing regret or mumbling an apology. It is only extended to those we deem deserving. We only expect to offer it in return for sufficient expressions of guilt and contrition. We think of forgiveness as a feeling, and we seldom feel it. Hollywood prefers to dramatise the sweet taste of revenge. It’s more fun returning to someone what he deserves than showing mercy which always costs us something. C.S. Lewis said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” And when we do forgive, we certainly never forget. We may bury the hatchet, but we mark the grave too.
Jesus on the other hand spoke with great force on the need for us to offer no-holds barred forgiveness to others if we are to expect God to forgive us (Matthew 6:14-15). He taught extensively on the need to give to others what we ourselves have received freely from God (Matthew 10:8 and Luke 6:37, 38). Forgiveness in Scripture involves not just the removal of our sins (Psalm 103:12) but an act of divine ‘forgetfulness’ when our sins are no longer remembered (Jeremiah 31:34).
Jesus commanded likewise that we so forgive others. Forgiveness is both a promise and determination not to hold and remember someone’s sin against him or her. It is an active decision, not a passive response. There are entailments that follow– see for example Mark 11:25, Matthew 5:23-24 and Luke 17:3-4. Forgiveness is certainly never an easy thing – it demands offering love in the face of hate and hurt.
In January of 1999, an Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were brutally burned alive in the Indian state of Orissa by a mob of Hindu fanatics who falsely believed they had come to forcibly convert Indians to the Christian faith. On cable television soon afterwards, Graham’s widow Gladys announced to the world her forgiveness of her husband and sons’ killers. I remember being deeply moved by her words of forgiveness, as she quoted the command of Christ to forgive others. To forgive as Gladys did seems an almost super-human effort. Only by casting ourselves to God for grace and strength can we be enabled to do this and all God’s commands.
"Forgiveness is certainly never an easy thing – it demands offering love in the face of hate and hurt."
But why and how can we offer such forgiveness to those who constantly re-offend or, like the mob that killed Graham, demonstrate no remorse?
The dynamics of kingdom forgiveness
In Matthew 18:21, Peter asked the perfectly logical question of how many times one should forgive a repeat offender, suggesting the number seven. He was being generous since the general tradition of Rabbinic teaching at the time said no more than three times.
In reply, Jesus expanded the number to ‘seventy seven times.’ A Jewish listener of His day could have immediately made the connection with the only other occurrence of that number in the Old Testament Scriptures. In Genesis 4:24, Lamech, a descendent of Cain reflecting the same murderous bent of his fore-father, speaks about avenging not the seven times that God said Cain would be if he were killed (Genesis 4::15), but seven-seven times! The number ‘seven’ biblically often symbolises completeness so Lamech wanted to be avenged completely. Jesus on the other hand, reversed the equation. As much as vengeance was to be sought by the hateful, so forgiveness must be offered by the follower of Christ.
To further drive home the point, Jesus told a parable that pitches God’s immeasurable mercy against our calculating, stingy, vengeful demands on to those who sin against us. In modern terms, the ten thousand talents that the first servant owes his master and for which he is forgiven, amount to many millions of dollars. It is a symbol of our many sins forgiven by God through the blood of Christ. On the other hand, the money owed by the second servant to the first, for which he is refused forgiveness, is a mere hundred denarii, a day’s wage equivalent to about 50 dollars. The absurdity of the comparisons drive home the sheer contrast between the enormity of God’s power, love and forgiveness contrasted with our puny hard-hearted self-centred attempts at dictating life according to our whim and fancy.
In the light of what God has done for us, can we legitimately have any grounds for not forgiving another? We have indeed no good reason under heaven to withhold forgiveness, no matter how often a sin in repeated or how little the offender cares for our hurt. But the parable offers a further challenge - the sharp end of Jesus’ teaching here is the threat that God will withhold forgiveness from us if we do the same to those about us. In God’s eyes, love in bi-directional – it must touch both God and fellow-men to be active. Like two points on a circuit, God’s power and life is interrupted in us if at either point - with God or with others - we break fellowship. So, love, the supreme ethic in Christianity, is expressed first in worshipful love to God, and concurrently in expressed loving care of our neighbours. Violate love by withholding forgiveness and we risk becoming an outcast of the Kingdom of God.
Forgiveness then involves a realization of our overwhelming debt to God. In the light of that, we take and make a decision to be merciful and forgiving of another’s small debt to us. We need to consciously choose not to hold the memory of their sin again them. This is never easy, particular if their sin recurs or has done great damage. The memory may live on for a time, and each time, it comes to mind, we need to turn to prayer, asking God to hold us true to our forgiveness. Corrie Ten Boom spoke of forgiveness as “the letting go of a bell rope”. Once a large bell is rung, the momentum generated by our tugging on the ropes keeps it ringing for a while. When we forgive and stop pulling on the bell rope, we may not immediately forget the hurt caused. However, since we’re actively not pulling on the memory of another’s sin, eventually the ringing will decrease in intensity till it finally stops. Thus we can, by God’s grace, forgive and forget.
His light, our life
Here then, as with all points of divine truth-telling, the words of Jesus tell us like we are, and point unequivocally to God’s higher way. Christ is our Sun and by Him we clearly see the short-sightedness and narrow-mindedness of our ways in sin. By gazing into His face, we gain a new vision of life as God intended. The apostle Paul wrote, ‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Children are sometimes afraid of the dark. But the greater tragedy, as Plato observed, is when grown men are afraid of the light. But that which exposes and shows us up will ultimately also heal us and make us whole. Because He lives, we also can truly live.
Manik Corea is a Singaporean who is the Global Executive of NAMS, a church-planting missionary society. He with his wife Maple and son Josiah are based in Bangkok, Thailand.