To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.
This C.S. Lewis quote is beautiful and true, but so very difficult to put into practice, isn’t it? Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity, and Jesus Himself provides the best example for us. As we enter into Holy Week, it’s appropriate to take some time to look at the words of Jesus from the cross, so I’ve updated some blog posts I wrote a number of years ago when we did the seven words from the cross for our Lenten series. Fittingly, Jesus’ first words from the cross are ones of forgiveness.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Most people love reconciliation stories. Think about the beautiful accounts of forgiveness in the Bible. Joseph forgiving his brothers for selling him into slavery, God forgiving David after he had committed adultery and murder, Matthew the hated tax collector who became a disciple and went on to write a Gospel account, the thief on the cross who repented in his final hours and was granted eternity with the Lord, Jesus forgiving Peter after he had denied his Lord three times, the dreaded persecutor Saul becoming the staunch apostle Paul…
The accounts of forgiveness in the Bible go on and on, because, after all, Jesus came into the world to save sinners, as 1 Timothy 1:15 asserts. With the obvious exception of Jesus, the Bible is full of nothing but sinners, so it makes sense that we see God’s saving work of forgiveness throughout Scripture. We look at the examples above, marvel at God’s mercy, and look past the faults of the Bible characters ourselves to see their God-given redeemed status. We don’t remember Matthew as a tax collector who cheated his fellow Israelites. We remember his thorough account of Jesus’ life written under divine inspiration. We don’t remember Saul the persecutor and blasphemer. Rather, we remember Paul the missionary and apostle who wrote nearly one-third of the New Testament. We thank God for the changes He brought about in their lives as a result of His mercy. But what about us? Are we as willing to forgive those we know personally? I’m not so sure we are.
I’ll forgive him, but I won’t forget… Ah, such a familiar refrain. I’ve heard it (and said it myself) many times. And there’s the paradox. You see, we really can’t forget. That’s part of being human. Our minds are complex creations, and unlike a computer, we can’t just “delete” something from the hard drive forever. We “brand” people who have sinned in the past, like that couple in church who had a baby out of wedlock, or that family whose daughter was on drugs in high school. We truly can’t help but remember a wrong, and that’s even more true if that wrong hurt you personally. I have one notable example of this in my own life, and there’s simply no way I could ever forget the hurt that was caused to our family. It was very personal and altered the course of our lives. One can’t just “delete” that memory, especially if one is still living with the fallout. So what are we to do? I would submit to you that human forgiveness is more poignant if indeed one does remember the wrong.
There’s a beautiful story of Corrie ten Boom, who suffered through a Nazi concentration camp where her parents and sister died. Later in life she spoke publicly of forgiveness through Christ. After one such speech, a guard from her concentration camp approached her and asked for forgiveness. She knew his face. She remembered suffering under his cruelty and humiliation. She struggled internally before she was able, through God’s grace, to stretch out her hand in forgiveness. Had he been some nameless guard from another camp, the story would not be so powerful. But since she had been affected personally by this man’s sins, her forgiveness of him was all the more remarkable. This kind of forgiveness is only possible by God’s grace, my friends. You can’t “feel” it on your own.
Now let’s look at Jesus on the cross. Even as the Romans nailed him up there, even as His fellow Jews mocked Him, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Now that’s forgiveness. He hadn’t “come out the other side,” so to speak. This wasn’t someone looking back years later to realize that a grievance actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. No, He was suffering physically and mentally, humiliated publicly, and without any sign of contrition on the part of His enemies. Yet He prayed for them. But it wasn’t just for them; you were God’s enemy as well. Jesus prayed not only for the Romans and the Jews; He prayed for you on that cross. Romans 5:10 says, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” You see, God didn’t forgive you because you were worthy of it. He reached out in grace while you were still His enemy, dead in your sins. God is our ultimate example of forgiveness. He saved you from eternal death. This is no small thing, friends. Your sin, my sin, nailed Jesus to that cross. We were there on Good Friday jeering at Him as well. Yet He forgave. He died for those sins and rose victorious three days later. His resurrection was the guarantee that God had accepted His sacrifice and credited that to our account.
No, we can’t truly forget wrongs that have been done to us. Our own frailty in that regard shows all the more the saving power of God. When we, in our weakness, are able to forgive our fellow man, God’s power is shown. This Holy Week, spend some extra time of reflection and prayer asking God’s help to forgive those in your own life who need to be forgiven. They may not deserve it, but neither do you deserve God’s forgiveness. Mercy is God not giving you the punishment you deserve. Grace is God giving you gifts you don’t deserve. In Christ, you have both. You are covered by His divine mercy and grace, both now and forever.