I read an article recently, “Why ‘Forgiveness Is a Gift You Give Yourself’ Is a Dangerous Myth”, which I largely agree with. It prompted me to want to clarify some of my ideas about forgiveness, as I realized I don’t have a single post to point to which lays these ideas out.
If you think about it, when we are faced with the need to forgive someone, we are placed in the same conundrum as God when He deals with sinning people. We are asked to somehow suspend justice on their behalf without transgressing the dictates of justice. The notion is that since we were harmed, we hold the reins of justice in our hands, and we are therefore in control of the consequences. We probably think that we do hold the reins of justice when we are the injured party, because in this instance we are innocent. We assume that the harmed innocent person by default has the authority to decide whether or not to execute justice upon the guilty person who harmed him.
However, does our decision to suspend justice for them really work? Isn’t that in effect just letting them get away with it? Do we really hold the reins of justice? Doesn’t that in a way put us in the place of God? I am skeptical. Why would I think that if I stop pursuing retribution for the harm someone did to me, that it satisfies justice?
“Wait a minute!” you are saying. “Jesus Himself commanded us to forgive. It must be possible.”
14 For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
15 But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.
Matthew 6:14-15 (NASB)
Of course it is possible to forgive — in the Kingdom of God. We think we can achieve this goal of suspending justice without transgressing justice simply by a thought or a word. We think that because He commands it, it is simple. Nothing could be more difficult! In a way we think we can make ourselves the savior who atones through bearing the harm. We think we can take the hit and still love and this solves things. There is perhaps some truth in this! However, God Himself looks at this problem of suspending justice without transgressing justice, and He sees it as far more weighty. God does not think that it can be solved with a word or a whim. He does not think that by merely suspending the ultimate consequences that justice has been satisfied. He is right, of course, and this is why our human forgiveness is often so tepid and irresolute. Most human notions of forgiveness are unholy, because they marginalize the suffering of someone while blessing the practice of evil. This is unholy because it transgresses God’s ultimate love and compassion.
So, what are we to do? We are surrounded with people who sin against us, and against whom we have sinned. We are swimming in an ocean of injustice small and great. As W. H. Auden has said,
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
If you do not feel the immense weight of the impossibility of forgiveness, you are not going to rejoice in the gospel. There is no such thing as forgiveness without the gospel of Christ and Him crucified, because the gospel is God’s miraculous solution to this central human problem. The gospel says that God holds the reins of justice, and that His throne is at once a throne of justice and a throne of mercy. The cross of Christ has achieved this great miracle.
Suppose Fred is sentenced to go to prison, and Barney offers to go to prison in his stead. The problem is, Barney is already in prison — he can’t go to prison for Fred! He has to serve his own sentence. In the same way, none of us are really innocent. We approach the relationships in which we are harmed from sin, we react in sin, we “forgive” from sin, and we pretend we have the authority to forgive when we really don’t. Forgiveness doesn’t flow from us because we don’t control justice. What we can do is release the control of justice to God. We can count the blood of Jesus as sufficient for the believer who sins against us, and we can count the patience of God as appropriate towards the nonbeliever. We can rest assured that justice will be upheld far more exactly and perfectly by God than we could ever hope to achieve on our own. As a fellow sinner, I can commune with the believer who sins against me by partaking of the same cup, knowing that in Christ perfect justice has been achieved and upheld.
The key to forgiveness is to enter together through the torn veil into the holy place of God, and kneel before the throne of justice and grace at the feet of the One standing as if slain. Forgiveness is the first order of business in loving one another, and love is only possible through the miracle of Christ crucified and resurrected. That is why our forgiveness is tied to the Father’s forgiveness of us, because it is only in Christ that we enter the society of the forgiven.
10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
1 John 4:10-12 (ESV)