Theology Matters

Faith Virtue Knowledge


Forgiveness: Strength in weakness

I forgive you, but its not ok

There is a huge difference between saying “I forgive you” and saying “that’s ok” when somebody apologises. With many smaller offenses, the difference may seem inconsequential, but as we ascend the levels of offense (if you will), the difference becomes clearer and more important. For example, if you accidentally step on my toe and say “I’m sorry,” I may well say in return “that’s ok” or “it doesn’t matter.” We’ll call that ‘level 1.’ If you accidentally run me over with your car however, its not ok. That requires forgiveness. We’ll call this ‘level 2.’ If you intentionally run me over with your car, but later regret it and apologise, (‘level 3’) I may wrestle with my decision to forgive you. But if you intentionally run me over with your car, and never regret it, (‘level 4’) I’m probably going to struggle, and for a long time.[i] It is because of these higher levels of offense, that true forgiveness, the Christian way, has been denounced as powerless, permissive, and passive. It isn’t.

The high cost of forgiveness

I still remember the day my Mum read me the story of the crucifixion for the first time. I don’t mean the sanitised ‘kiddie picture bible’ version “…but they didn’t like Jesus. So they put him on a cross. Then God made him come alive again…”—just the real words of Scripture. A lump began to form in my throat and when it got to this part I could take it no more and began to silently sob: “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again.” (Mt 27:28–31)

The detail is horribly graphic; the stripping and mocking intended to cause maximal humiliation. These men (along with the dehumanizing regime that saw them as expendable weapons of war rather than men) were incredibly spiteful, and utterly merciless. Jesus had already endured an unimaginable flogging, which many did not survive. Now they beat him around the head again and again with a rod (think baseball bat) for who knows how long; each blow driving the spikes from the ‘crown’ ever deeper. All this before the actual crucifixion. They were just getting warmed up. But it was not the graphic detail which brought me to tears. It was the sheer injustice of it. Jesus did not deserve this. And yet, he endured it for me.

Is 53:5–7 tells us that “…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

He endured it for us, for my healing and for your healing from the contagion of sin. And even in the agony of his final moments, he begged for the forgiveness of the perpetrators of this crime “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” How truly it is said that he is our advocate before the Father, for this prayer was prayed not just for the soldiers who nailed him to the cross, but for you and for me and for every sinner for whom he died.

Jesus endured it willingly

But he did not endure it passively. On the contrary, propelled inexorably by a love that I cannot imagine, he endured it willingly.

Back in the garden, Jesus made this crystal clear. Seeing Jesus arrested was more than Peter could take. In what can only be described as a fit of characteristic rashness, he drew his sword, slashing wildly in panic (that’s the only conclusion I can draw) and ended up cutting off somebody’s ear. For this, he was met with a rebuke. Jesus declared that if he had chosen, the Father would have put at his disposal ‘twelve legions of angels’ to prevent his arrest and execution (Matt 26:51–54). Make no mistake. Jesus endured the cross willingly. This is what sets the suffering of Christ apart from all other human suffering.[ii] He chose it. And he chose it for our sake. His suffering is not passive; his submission not weak.

And that is why repentance must accompany faith. For when God declares our sins forgiven; when we in faith, appropriate his dying prayer for us, we realise the tremendous weight of our own sin—it was our hands that drove the nails in, though it was not the nails, but rather his love for us that actually kept him on the cross. Our sins have been forgiven at a great cost.

Strong faith-filled forgiveness

I say all that to say this. True forgiveness is not weak. Nor is it passive. When we extend God’s forgiveness of us, that Jesus earned on the cross, to others, as indeed we must; when we say “I forgive you,” it is an act of strong faith. Its not just saying “its ok, it doesn’t matter, its not that big a deal.” Nor is it saying “Well my feelings are not important, so its ok that you walk all over me.” Its not ok. Its never ok. No, saying “I forgive you” is far from passive. It is an active declaration of faith. When we say “I forgive you” we simultaneously declare two things. First, we acknowledge the seriousness of the offense—it was serious enough to send Jesus to the cross. Second, we declare in faith that we believe that Jesus paid the penalty for the offense committed against us. And that his payment is enough. We therefore voluntarily relinquish the right for revenge. It isn’t weak. It isn’t passive. It takes guts. It takes faith. And its powerful and liberating. And as Christians, who have freely received God’s grace, we have no choice but to freely give it to others.

[i] Obviously there are higher ‘levels’ and to think that this progression is strictly linear risks over-simplification, but work with me here.

[ii] I might also add that this puts to bed the ridiculous and frankly blasphemous notion of the suffering of Christ as ‘cosmic child abuse’ put about by those who seem to want to undermine the power of the Cross. But more about this, perhaps, in another post.

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The Good News of God’s wrath

A humorous, yet oddly insightful parenting fail: The wrath of a child

I well remember a day a couple of years ago when our family was grocery shopping in the local supermarket. Two of my sons, seeing a novelty trolley—a two seater car in the front with a steering wheel on each side, a shopping trolley in the back—went over and stood by it, begging me to take it. My other son, realising that there was not enough room for three, very graciously allowed the other two to sit in the car, while he himself sat up in the trolley. After a while in the store, the groceries began to crowd him out and I suggested that he could push, and while he was still a little disappointed that he wasn’t actually in the car at the front he agreed that this would be ok. He’s always been the reasonable sort. It turned out that this arrangement was greatly enjoyed by all, much more so than when I’d been pushing. This was because the son who was pushing, never quite in control of the trolley, which was both heavy and awkwardly long, kept on bumping into things. There were giggles all round. I was nervous and stayed close, enjoying their fun, but trying to make sure nothing got damaged. My hovering proved to be warranted. When we got to the checkout line, I had to suddenly intervene because the one who was pushing, misjudging the momentum of the trolley, or else still unaware of how far forward the front of it actually was, was clearly going to bump into the lady in front of us pretty hard. I grabbed the handle and stopped the trolley just in time, but in the process I accidentally pinched his arm, hurting him pretty badly. He was furious with me. The shock of pain was compounded by the injustice that he felt. Not only had I hurt him—he assumed intentionally—but I had intervened without reason, shattering his cherished perception of autonomy. In his mind he had been in perfect control of the situation. Despite my rapid apology, he impulsively did a perfectly natural thing. He lashed out and hit me. “Why did you hurt me?!” he yelled through his tears. And now I was in one of those classic awkward supermarket moments that every parent dreads. On the one hand, a child hitting a parent is just not on. Had we been home that would probably have been worth a smack and a “Don’t you dare young man!” But there were a couple of complicating factors. First, I felt sorry for his pain. Second, a number of people had heard his question, which seemed perfectly reasonable, because not a soul had witnessed the incident itself. Unsure what to do, I turned to him and said “Did that make you feel better?” “Yes!” he said savagely. “Go on then,” I offered, “do it again.” And so he did. Again and again, until his frustration had subsided somewhat.

The Wrath of God

The above incident made me reflect on my parenting of course, but it also made me think about the wrath of God. Let me explain. When we are hurt; when we are sinned against, it is natural that we should feel the desire for justice, even revenge. I didn’t say it was right. But it is natural. It is this instinct which underlies the basic principle ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ (Ex 21:23, 24). If two fight, and one loses an eye as a result, he has lost something that he can never regain. He has been robbed of sight in one eye and he can never get it back. And really, the only properly ‘just’ way to deal with this is to deprive the other man of an eye also. You don’t have to be a Christian to get this—only human. In the same way, its only human to want war criminals who have caused terrible suffering to others, to be ‘brought to justice’, that is, to be made to suffer themselves. On a human level we get this. But what we less often realise is that every sin against another is also a sin against God. Every act of rebellion, defiance, disobedience; every act of violence, deceit, malice robs God of the perfect world that he created. That is the thought, I believe, that underlies the discussion of the wrath of God in Romans 1. Here we learn that God’s wrath is being revealed against godlessness, wickedness and suppression of the truth (Rom 1:18). God’s purpose was that the majesty of the Creator would be perfectly seen in his creation, and that His own character and image would be perfectly displayed in humanity. That is why idolatry and sexual immorality, the two sins that are foremost in Romans 1 are linked. The first degrades the majesty of the Creator by worshipping instead created things. The second defaces God’s Image, with which he has indelibly stamped mankind, by the misuse of the body in the pursuit of selfish pleasure at the expense of selfless love. All that to say, God is justly, and rightly angry with sin.

The Love of God

And yet, both the supermarket illustration above, and the notion of God’s anger at his perfect world being destroyed run the risk of portraying God as a petulant child, lashing out because his will has been crossed. And that’s because there is a crucial piece of the puzzle still missing. Here it is. God is Love. He is motivated by Love. He yearns for our good. The perfect world that he created, was created that way so that it could be enjoyed to the utmost. By us. And the reason that God made people in his own image and likeness was so that they might love one another and thus be a blessing to each other. So God is angry at sin not just because it destroys His perfect world, but because that inherent in that destruction is always real pain for real people, people whom he loves dearly. And the fact that we can’t always see the direct connection between our sin and others’ pain—“why shouldn’t I? Its not hurting anyone is it?”—doesn’t mean that God is petty at times, counting those seemingly ‘spiritual’ sins like idolatry as equivalent to the ones like murder, where the human victim is more readily identifiable. It just means that God is omniscient and we’re not.

To put it simply, God’s wrath is not in tension with God’s love. God’s wrath is the consequence of God’s love. And unless we can see that, we will never understand that this God, who is necessarily angry at human sin, is actually for us rather than against us.