Pain of Injury and the Precept to Pardon
of Others, Forgiveness of Self Ė Where Do We Begin?
We begin with the cross. There
is nowhere else to begin. The
cross looms everywhere in scripture.
All theological understanding is rooted in it.
All discipleship flows from it.
Itís what we trust for our salvation.
It transforms our thinking, ridding us of the mindset that
characterizes the world. The
cross is the only place to begin.
To begin anywhere else means that we have begun with calculating:
ďShould I forgive?
How much should I forgive? Under
what circumstances should I forgive?Ē
Now we are calculating.
Calculation in matters that concern us fosters self-interest.
We go to the bank to purchase our RSP for 2010.
The interest rates are 2% for one year, 2.25% for two, and 3% for
three. We estimate how the
interest rate is going to fluctuate in the next few years, and we
calculate which combination of locked-in RSP rate and time period is
best -- best for the bank? Of
course not. Best for us.
Calculation in matters that concern us fosters self-interest.
In the second place calculation is frequently a conscious
cover-up for unconscious rationalization.
At a conscious level I calculate whether I should forgive, how
much I should forgive, whom I should forgive.
But all of this is a smokescreen behind which there is, in my
unconscious, a heart set on vindictiveness, a desire to even a score
which has remained uneven (I think) for umpteen years, a wish to see
someone who has pained me suffer himself.
Unconscious rationalization, like any unconscious proceeding, is
a process which spares us having to admit nastiness about ourselves that
we donít want to admit, spares us having to acknowledge what we prefer
to hide. Calculation is a
conscious matter which cloaks an unconscious development, even as we are
left thinking we are virtuous.
In the third place calculation traffics in the unrealistic.
What I am prepared to forgive in others (feeling virtuous about
it too) will in fact be slight,
while what I expect others to forgive in me will in fact be enormous.
This is unrealistic.
In the fourth place calculation both presupposes shallowness and
promotes shallowness. It
presupposes shallowness in that I plainly think that sin is something I
can calculate or measure like sugar or flour or milk.
Calculation promotes shallowness in that it confirms over and
over the shallowness I began with.
We ought never to begin our understanding of forgiveness with
calculation. We must begin
with the cross; and more than begin with the cross, we must stay with
Nobody uses a twenty-member surgical team to clip a hangnail.
No government sends out a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to
sink a canoe. The air-raid
warning isnít sounded because a childís paper glider has violated
When the twenty-member surgical team is deployed the patientís
condition is critical. When
the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier puts to sea the threat itís
dealing with couldnít be greater.
When the air-raid warning is sounded destruction is imminent.
And when God gives up his own Son humankindís condition is
critical, the threat facing us couldnít be greater, and our
destruction is imminent.
As often as I read scripture I am sobered to read that Godís
forgiveness of you and me necessitated the death of Godís own Son.
I try to fathom what this means.
In trying to fathom it from the Fatherís perspective I ponder
the anguish of our foreparent in faith, Abraham.
Abraham and Isaac. Abraham
collecting the firewood, sharpening the knife, trudging with leaden foot
and leaden heart up the side of
. He and Sarah had waited
years for a child, had had none, had given up expecting any.
Then when everyone ďjust knewĒ that the situation was
hopeless Sarah conceived. Was
any child longed for more intensely or cherished more fervently?
Now they have to give up this child, give him up to death.
I have been spared losing a child.
I do know, however, that when a child dies the parents of that
child separate 70% of the time. Wouldnít
the death of their child bring the parents closer together?
The truth is, so devastating is the death of a child that
calculation concerning it is useless; we canít begin to comprehend
what itís like.
Abraham again. At the
last minute the ram is provided. Abrahamís
relief is inexpressible: his son doesnít have to die. But when the
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ walks his Son to
there is no relief: his Son has to die.
Here the Father bears in his heart the full weight of a
devastation that couldnít be greater.
Next I try to fathom what the cross means from the perspective of
the Son. On the one hand I
donít minimize the physical suffering he endured for our sakes.
On the other hand, countless people have endured much greater
physical pain. (It took
Jesus only six hours to die, remember.)
Itís the dereliction that ices my bowels.
What is it to be forsaken when the sum and substance of your life
is unbroken intimacy with your Father?
As a child I was lost only two or three times.
It wasnít a pleasant experience; in fact it was terrifying.
Nonetheless, even when I was lost (and terrified) I knew that my
problem was simply that I couldnít find my parents; I never suspected
for one minute that they had abandoned me.
A man who is dear to me told me that when his wife left him and
he knew himself bereft, forsaken by the one human being who meant more
to him than all others, he turned on all the taps in the house so that
he wouldnít have to hear her driving out of the garage, driving out. Before our
Lordís Good Friday dereliction I can only fall silent in
As often as I begin with the cross I am stunned at the price God
has paid -- Father and Son together -- for my forgiveness.
In the same instant I am sobered at the depravity in me that
necessitated so great a price. Itís
plain that my depravity is oceans deeper than I thought, my
heart-condition vastly more serious than I guessed.
Itís incontrovertible that when I have trotted out all my
bookish, theological definitions of sin I still havenít grasped --
will never grasp -- what sin means to God.
When I was a teenager I thought our Lord to be wrong when he
prayed for his murderers, ďFather, forgive them, for they donít know
what they are doing.Ē I
thought him to be wrong inasmuch as it seemed to me (at age 17) that
know what they were doing: they were eliminating someone they didnít
had to know what they
were doing simply because they had plotted and schemed and conspired for
months to do it. Furthermore,
our Lordís plea, ďForgive them, Father, they donít know what they
are doingĒ, had to be self-contradictory -- I thought. After
all, if they didnít know what they were doing then they didnít need
to be forgiven; they could simply be overlooked.
Now that Iím old I perceive that our Lord was right.
His assassins didnít know what they were doing, ultimately; didnít
know they were crucifying the Son of God.
They didnít know that their sinnership had impelled them to do it, didnít
know that while they thought they were acting freely they were in
bondage to sin more surely than the heroin sniffer is in bondage to
dope. In my older age I see
that our Lord was right. They canít be excused; they can only be
forgiven, since what they are doing comes out of their own disordered
heart. To be sure, they donít
fully grasp what they are doing, canít
fully grasp it. But the
reason they canít grasp it is that they are blind to their own
depravity. Of course they
are; the worst consequence of our spiritual condition is that we are
blinded to our spiritual condition.
But being blinded to it doesnít lessen our accountability for
it, as the day of judgement will make plain.
But why wait until then? Why
not own the truth of the cross now; namely, that a cure this drastic
presupposes an ailment no less drastic?
A cure whose blessing is richer than we can comprehend
presupposes a condition whose curse is deadlier than we can imagine.
Is everyone convinced that we should begin with the cross?
Then everyone must agree that our understanding of forgiving
ourselves and others unfolds from the cross; the light that the cross
sheds will ever be the illumination by which we see everything else
For instance, itís the consistent testimony of the apostles
that our forgiving our enemies is the measure of our closeness to God.
When this truth first sank home with me I sank to the floor.
Surely I could enjoy intimacy with God while enjoying the fantasy
of my worst enemy going from misery to misery, misfortune to misfortune.
Then in that light which the cross sheds I saw that I couldnít.
How could I claim intimacy with the One who forgives his
assassins and at the same time relish ever-worsening misery for those
who have not yet assassinated me? How
can I say I crave being recreated in the image of the God for whom
forgiving costs him everything while I make sure that my non-forgiving
costs me nothing?
Two hundred and fifty years ago John Wesley wrote in his diary,
ďResentment at an affront is sin, and I have been guilty of this a
thousand times.Ē We
want to say, ďResentment at an imagined
affront would be sin, since it would be wrong to harbour resentment
towards someone when that person had committed no real offence at all;
but of course it would be entirely in order to harbour resentment at a
real affront. After all, who
wouldnít?Ē To argue like
this, however, is only to prove that we have not yet come within a
country mile of the gospel. Resentment
at an imagined affront wouldnít be sin so much as it would be stupidity.
resentment at a real affront, at a real offence, comes naturally to
fallen people we think it isnít sin.
How can we ever be held accountable for something that fits us
like a glove? But remember
the point we lingered over a minute ago: not merely one consequence of
our sinnership but the most serious consequence of it is our blindness
to the fact and nature and scope of our sinnership.
Then what are we to do with our resentment?
Do we hold it to us ever so closely because its smouldering heat
will fuel our self-pity and our self-justification?
Or do we deplore it and drop it at the foot of the cross, knowing
that only the purblind do anything else?
Our Lordís parable of the unforgiving servant leaves us in no
doubt or ambiguity or perplexity at all.
In this parable the king forgives his servant a huge debt; the
servant, newly forgiven a huge debt, turns around and refuses to forgive
a fellow whatever this fellow owes him.
The king is livid that the pardon the servant has received he
doesnít extend in turn. The
king orders the servant shaken up until some sense is shaken into him.
If the servant had refused to forgive his fellow a paltry sum,
the servant would merely have looked silly.
But the amount the servant is owed isnít paltry; 100 denarii is
six monthsí pay. Then the
servant is readily understood, isnít he: the forgiveness required of
him is huge. But the point
of the parable is this: while the 100 denarii which the servant is owed
is no trifling sum, it is nothing compared to the 10,000 talents ($50
million) that the king has already forgiven the servant.
That injury, that offence, that wound which you and I are to
forgive is not a trifle. Were
it a trifle we wouldnít be wounded.
The wound is gaping; if it were anything else we wouldnít be
sweating over forgiving it. We
shall be able to forgive it only as we place it alongside what God has
already forgiven in us. Please
note that we are never asked to generate
forgiveness of others out of our own resources; we are simply asked not
to impede Godís forgiveness from flowing through us and spilling over
onto others. We donít have
to generate water in order for it to irrigate what is parched and render
it fruitful; all we have to do is not
put a crimp in the hose. Either
we donít impede the free flow of Godís forgiveness from him through
us to others, or, like the servant in the parable, we shall have to be
shaken up until some sense has been shaken into us.
(We must never make the mistake of thinking our Lord to be a
ďgentleĒ Jesus ďmeek and mildĒ.
Gentle and mild he is not.)
Before we fall asleep tonight we must be sure we understand what
forgiveness does not
It does not mean that
the offence we are called to forgive is slight.
As weíve already seen, itís grievous.
Were it anything but grievous weíd be talking about overlooking
it instead of forgiving it -- if we were even talking about it at all.
Forgiveness does not mean that the offence is excused.
To forgive is not to excuse.
We excuse what is excusable.
What is not excusable, will never be excusable, is also never
excused. It can only be
forgiven. The day you tell
me you have forgiven me is the day I know that I am without excuse.
To forgive is never a shorthand version of, ďOh, it doesnít
matter.Ē To forgive is to
say it matters unspeakably.
Forgiveness does not mean that we are suckers asking the world to victimize us again.
To forgive is not to invite another assault.
To forgive is not to advertise ourselves as a doormat.
To be sure, there are
people who are doormats, people whose self-image is so poor and whose
ego-strength so diminished that they seem to invite victimization.
Forgiveness, however, isnít the last resort of the wimp who
canít do anything else in any case.
Forgiveness, rather, is a display of ego-strength that couldnít
be stronger. Jesus can
forgive those who slay him just because he has already said, ďNo
one takes my life from me; I may lay it down of my own accord, but I lay it down; no one takes it
Forgiveness does not mean that the person we forgive we regard as a diamond in the
rough, good-at-heart. Forgiveness
means that the person we forgive we regard as depraved in heart.
After all, this is what Godís forgiveness means about you and
Forgiveness does not mean that the person we forgive we must thereafter trust.
Many people whom we forgive we shall never be able to trust.
The only people we should trust are those who show themselves
does mean, however, that the person we canít trust we shall
nonetheless not hate, not abuse, not exploit; we shall not plot revenge
against him or bear him ill-will of any sort.
Remember, all that matters is that we not impede the forgiveness
which God has poured upon us and which he intends to course through us
and overflow us onto others.
Any discussion of forgiveness includes forgiving
ourselves. Often the
person we most urgently need to forgive is ourselves.
And since all forgiveness is difficult to the point of anguish,
then to forgive ourselves may be the most difficult of all.
Suppose we donít forgive ourselves; suppose we say, ďI can
forgive anyone at all except myselfĒ.
Then whatís going on in our own head and heart?
Surely we have puffed up ourselves most arrogantly.
There is terrible arrogance in saying to ourselves, ďIím the
greatest sinner in the world; the champion.
I can forgive others because they are only minor-league sinners
compared to me. When it
comes to depravity Iím the star of the major leagues.Ē
Not only is there a perverse arrogance underlying such an
attitude, there is no little blasphemy as well.
ďThe blood-bought pardon of God, wrought at what cost to him we
canít fathom -- it isnít effective enough for me.
Where Iím concerned, Godís mercy is deficient, defective, and
finally worthless.Ē This
is blasphemy. Our
forgiveness, which cost God we know not what, you and I shouldnít be
labelling a garage-sale piece of junk.
If we say we canít forgive ourselves then we want to flagellate
ourselves in order to atone for our sin.
But donít we believe the gospel?
The heart of the gospel is this: atonement has already been made
for us. We neither dismiss
it nor add to it. We simply
Perhaps this is where we should stop today; at the cross, where
we began. For it is here
that we see that God, for Christís sake, has forgiven us.
And here we see that we therefore must forgive others, and
forgive ourselves as well.