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.