God’s forgiving generosity is extravagant beyond our wildest imaginations, rendering our sense of justice and desert completely null and void. In its teeth, we are powerless. But this aspect of forgiveness is essentially a problem for people who are outside the Christian faith. Since they haven’t tasted God’s forgiving generosity, they cannot comprehend how it works. The second problem with forgiveness, however, is how it troubles those who are inside the faith.
You see, when we become Christ’s followers—when we eat at His feast, drink from His well—we are expected to be free with God’s forgiveness as well. Once inside God’s Kingdom economics, we ourselves are expected to operate in accordance with its principles. Becoming part of the Bride of Christ, we are commanded to behave like the bride. Thus, John’s evangelistic declaration in Revelation 22:17 becomes a command for us: “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’; let him who hears say ‘Come’.” You have received, now offer. You have received freely, now offer freely. You have been forgiven, now forgive.
Forgiveness is clearly one of those things in life that sound great right up till when you have to do it. We all want—and need—forgiveness. We’re happy enough to receive it from God. But we suddenly get cheap when God asks us to forgive other people. Again, God’s word doesn’t leave us on our own, so let’s look together at Matthew 18:21-35.
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talentswas brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
Taken purely at face value, we can see that God seems pretty serious about this forgiveness business, doesn’t He?
Now the stark and uncomfortable reality is, of course, that forgiveness is unjust. Forgiveness isn’t fair. In forgiveness, we don’t get what we deserve.
What we must remember in forgiveness is that greater even than the personal injustice of forgiveness, forgiveness in Christian economics is particularly unjust because someone else did get what we deserved, and that person was Jesus. He took our punishment on himself. What we deserved for our sin fell upon him. He paid the price, and we got the gift. And God says to us, “Because I’ve been so generous to you, don’t you dare get cheap on me.”
God’s forgiveness is broad enough to include every sin imaginable. There is no sin that you can name that God won’t forgive. Lust. Theft. Murder. Adultery. Rape. Hatred. Envy. Pride. Gluttony. Lying. Deception. Laziness. Abuse. Slander. I could spend the next hour listing sins, but I don’t need to, because you’ve got a list in your own heart you can access any time. The point, however, is to hammer into your souls, as gently but unrelentingly as possible, the fact that God forgives things that we don’t want to forgive. God forgives all of these and more. Then He commands you to forgive them as well.
“Do you mean I have to forgive people who hurt children?” Yes.
“Do you mean I have to forgive murderers and rapists?” Yes.
“Do you mean I have to forgive the people who bully me at school?” Yes.
“Do you mean I have to forgive my spouse?” Yes.
“Do you mean I have to forgive my parents?” Yes.
“Do you mean I have to forgive the boy who took advantage of me?” Yes.
“Do you mean I have to forgive the person that said those terrible things about me behind my back?” Yes.
By all accounts, God’s forgiveness lays some serious burdens on the hearts of believers. You are commanded to forgive others because God has forgiven you. And in this process, as we forgive others, we, like Christ, eat the injustice and accept the person. We say, like God, that “This person is more valuable to me than what he/she has done.” We echo John’s declaration in our personal lives and say, “Come all who are thirsty and drink from the free water of life.”
I think that when Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, that we ought to “Turn the other cheek” he’s not spouting a nice phrase or pleasant sentiment, but a real practice in our lives: we absorb in our bodies the shame of other people’s sins. We forgive the debt. We let it go. We eat the discomfort.
Is forgiveness easy? By no means. Forgiveness is a truly difficult business. And inasmuch as God’s extravagant generosity boggles and frustrates the world, it lays an extraordinary high calling on us. In no way to I propose to you that forgiveness is easy. It’s not. It may take a lifetime to forgive some people. It takes longer when we’ve been deeply hurt. But as long as you are willing, I think God honors our intention.
C.S. Lewis is hailed as a hero of the Christian faith, but rarely do we think of him as a man who was deeply hurt. And yet when he was a boy he had been placed in a boarding school under an abusive headmaster. That man, right after Lewis was finally taken out of the school, was declared insane and committed to an asylum. Many years later, not long before Lewis died, he wrote the following:
“Do you know, only a few weeks ago I realised suddenly that I at last had forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood. I’d been trying to do it for years; and like you, each time I thought I’d done it, I found, after a week or so it all had to be attempted over again. But this time I feel sure it is the real thing. And (like learning to swim or to ride a bicycle) the moment it does happen it seems to easy and you wonder why on earth you didn’t do it years ago. So the parable of the unjust judge comes true, and what has been vainly asked for years can suddenly be granted. I also get a quite new feeling about ‘If you forgive you will be forgiven’. I don’t believe it is, as it sounds, a bargain. The forgiving and being forgiven are really the very same thing. But one is safe as long as one keeps on trying.” (Letters to an American Lady, 6 July 1963)
As followers of Jesus it falls to us to share the gospel, to offer this free gift of forgiveness to everyone. We do not judge or discriminate. We neither charge people for the bad things they’ve done, nor credit them for the good things we think they’ve done. We offer forgiveness—scandalous, free, glorious, grace-filled forgiveness—to everyone.
How do we do this? We learn to love our enemies. Once again God has been good enough to give us instruction in His own economics. Look with me at Matthew 5:43-47:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
As with Jesus’ other words in the Sermon on the Mount, this isn’t merely another platitude. This is a clear instruction. We know how to forgive the people we love, Jesus says; now take that forgiveness and apply it to your enemies. And the way we move from the idea of our enemies to the love of our enemies through prayer; we learn to love our enemies by praying for them. And ultimately this is the love that empowers all our evangelism, because the harsh but sincere truth of the matter is that if we can’t forgive the people we know have hurt us, then the forgiveness we offer to people we don’t know will be pretty thin stuff.