Category Archives: Forgiveness

How Do I Handle it When Someone Won’t Forgive Me?

Recently a friend, whom I will call Samuel, asked me to address a dilemma he faces. He is now a Christian, but formerly he lived a life in which he offended and hurt many people. In relating to those whom he hurt in the past, he finds that they want him to express remorse, but when he does, they don’t trust him to be sincere and want him to demonstrate remorse in unspecified ways. Samuel finds this situation very painful and is tempted to withdraw and keep silent. I think Samuel’s dilemma may not be unique, so I wanted to share the gist of what I said to him:

“Sadly, this is a common human response, Sam, and from a Christian viewpoint, its mere humanity is what is wrong with it. When people are wronged they naturally want revenge, and when they ask you to prove your remorse, they are saying that their desire for revenge has not been satisfied. They want to see you suffer. Desire for revenge is the root of bitterness from which springs all sorts of violence. Jesus tells us that we are obligated to forgive whoever asks us for forgiveness even if they sin and come back 70 times 7 times (Matthew 18:21-22)! He did not add a qualification that allows us to ask them to “prove” they are sorry. Nor did Jesus allow us to say “No” for any reason. In forgiving, we are not so much trusting the petitioner’s sincerity as we are trusting Jesus. We cannot know the hearts of other people—nor our own!—but we know the heart of Jesus! Petitioners can never do enough to prove that they are sorry to people who do not understand that they need forgiveness as much as the petitioners do. If we know that we have been forgiven a great debt, we will not hesitate to forgive others. Your point from Romans 5:8—that Christ died for us while we were sinners and enemies—was spot on target! God said “Yes” to us before we had even asked!!! I am amazed and completely humbled by his grace. All this reminds me of Jesus’ story of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). We all ought to pray, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” and have nothing to say to God or others about our goodness.

“But you asked about your dilemma and not the offended party’s dilemma. I simply thought considering the obligation we have to forgive others when they ask for mercy would help us think clearer about the petitioner’s dilemma. If we are required to forgive those who ask us without knowing for sure that they are sincere, aren’t we—the offending party—also required to ask for forgiveness even when we cannot know that someone will extend it? Even if we are sure that they will not forgive? After we’ve faced our sin in God’s presence and have accepted his forgiveness, if possible, we should express remorse and ask forgiveness from those we’ve hurt. If someone doesn’t trust our remorse or grant our request for forgiveness, even though it is hurtful to us, in the spirit of Jesus we should in our hearts forgive them for not forgiving us. For they are in the wrong and need God’s grace and help. We should pray for them to come to know their forgiveness in Christ! And as we pray for our self-made enemy, God may grant us healing from the hurt of rejection. Indeed, I believe he will. It may be your remorse and requested forgiveness that finally confronts them—the supposedly innocent party—with their sin of not believing in the forgiveness of sins. Your costly remorse and their reaction could be means of their awakening and redemption.”

Forgiveness Is Not Enough

Forgiveness is not enough. If sin is as destructive as the New Testament claims, if it’s a condition of the will as well as a quality of the act, if it attempts the absurd, destroys the self, and produces death (see the posts of January 06, 16, and 23), divine forgiveness is only the beginning of salvation. In forgiving sin, God deals with the insulting aspects of sin not by becoming angry and taking revenge but by renewing his standing offer of reconciliation and fellowship. God, so to speak, absorbs, ignores, and neutralizes the insult to his dignity. But what about the damage sin does to others and ourselves? Sinful acts cause damage that sometimes continues long after the act. A person who steals your possessions or injures your body or harms your child sets in motion a cascade of ill effects in the world that may cause damage far beyond the their original intention or control. Such sinful acts affect others at every level, physical, social, psychological, and spiritual.

Suppose for example that someone lies about you so effectively that you lose your job, are abandoned by your closest friends, and your marriage is on the brink of divorce. You determine that you will not allow your enemy’s hatred to evoke hatred in your heart and provoke you to take revenge. Suppose further that your enemy comes to realize his sin, repents, confesses his wrong to you, asks for forgiveness, and seeks reconciliation. You respond by assuring your former enemy that you will not seek revenge and harbor no hatred. Does repentance and forgiveness heal the damage sin has caused? No, not fully. Even the best efforts of the repentant person to replace property and mend relationships cannot restore things to their original state. Repentance and forgiveness cannot replace a lost limb or bring the dead back to life or restore trust to a betrayed heart. It cannot undo past suffering or erase traumatic memories. Our willingness to forgive does not cause us (or others) to forget. We don’t have complete control over our psychological nature any more than we have complete control over our physical nature. Damage to the psyche can be as lasting as damage to the body. We cannot change the past or stop the cascade of cause and effect flowing from past sin.

Human repentance and forgiveness is not enough. Nor is divine forgiveness enough; it is only the beginning of salvation. In last week’s essay on divine forgiveness I asserted this:

“the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us.”

In the same way, I do not think it is correct to think of the work of Jesus Christ as making it possible for God to heal the world of the destructive effects of sin. Jesus Christ is the enactment of this divine healing. God always has been the creator, the giver of life, the healer of our diseases, and the Lord who “works all things for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). God has determined from all eternity that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Jesus enacted divine forgiveness by willingly enduring the fullness of sin’s insult and injury, without retaliation. What could be worse than annihilating humanity and blaspheming God? Healing impossible and forgiveness unthinkable! From a human point of view, the result of the sin done to Jesus was totally irreversible, completely hopeless. No human regret, repentance, or attempted restoration could change the deed that was done. In the suffering of the cross we see divine forgiveness happening before our eyes and, in the resurrection of Jesus, we see sin’s damage healed and turned to God’s service and glory.

Jesus’ resurrection was not merely the healing of his private wounds and the restoration of his personal life. The New Testament gospel understands Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of a new humanity, the first fruits of the resurrection of all the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20), and the liberation of creation from its “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). In Ephesians, chapter one, Paul speaks of the mystery of God’s eternal plan “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (1:10). The history of Jesus Christ from his birth to his suffering, death, and resurrection sums up the history of all creation from beginning to end. God’s hidden work in creation, providence, forgiveness and redemption becomes visible and concentrated in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we can see how all the damage, destruction, and death caused by sin, from the beginning to the end of time, will be and has been healed. Christianity reads history backwards, from the future revealed in the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ to the act of creation and the course of providence. Every divine act in creation and providence finds itself fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus Christ is, was, and always will be the life-giving, forgiving, and healing God with us and for us.

Next week: we’ve seen how God forgives insult sin directs at God and heals the damage cause by sin, but how can we be saved from the condition of sin, which the New Testament describes as corruption, sickness, slavery, powerlessness, blindness, and death?

 

What is Divine Forgiveness?

In the previous post I asked you to consider the question, “What is so bad about sin that we should want to be saved from it?” And the answer that forced itself upon us was that the nature of sin is “absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.” Only when we understand sin’s destructive effects on us does the gospel of Jesus Christ become good news to us. The gospel tells us that Jesus Christ came to rescue us from these ills, restore our health, and lead us to a destiny glorious beyond our imagining. What must Jesus do in order to save us?

Forgiveness

For most believers, the first idea that comes to mind in answer to this question is forgiveness. We need forgiveness for our sins, and Jesus secures divine forgiveness for us. So let’s think about forgiveness. Forgiveness makes sense only in a personal context. Sin causes damage to us and to others. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the interesting question of whether we need forgiveness from ourselves for the damage we cause to ourselves and focus on the damage we cause to other people.) Some damage we cause to other people is reparable and some is not. If you steal my cash, you could correct that harm by repaying the money. However, if you take my life or cause permanent bodily harm, you cannot repair the damage and restore the body to its original condition. But whether the physical damage is reparable or irreparable, great or small, there is another kind of damage that accompanies all sins against other people: insult or offense. Sin against others treats them as having less than human dignity. You put the disturbing thought into their minds that they are unworthy–unworthy of life, possessions, or respect. Of all the possessions a person has, a sense of their own worth is the most precious. If I do not feel that I am worthy of love and respect, I will be afraid of everyone in every situation. I will trust no one. Life becomes a burden.

The instinctive reaction to insult is anger, hatred, and desire for revenge. In revenge, people assert their dignity by attempting to balance harm with harm and insult with insult. Revenge releases anger and provides a momentary sense of relief. It is an effort to restore our damaged sense of worth, to assert and reestablish our dignity. Of course, revenge doesn’t really work to restore confidence in our dignity, because our desire for revenge shows that we never had confidence in our worth! If we had such confidence, the original insult would not have caused us to hate and desire revenge so intensely in the first place.

Now we are prepared to understand the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is refusal to take revenge for insults against us. Where do we find the power to forgive, and why should we forgive those who insult us? Forgiveness is withholding revenge, but this forbearance arises from a deeper source. The forgiving person has the spiritual power to neutralize, absorb, or be immune to insult. The insult does not shake their confidence in their own worth. Hence it does not cause fear, evoke hatred, and provoke violence. But the forgiving person is not only unshakably confident of their own value, they are also unclouded in their perception of their enemy’s dignity. Even while being insulted, they are compassionately aware of their enemy’s lack of clarity about her or his own worth. When you forgive your enemy, unlike when you take revenge on your enemy, you are witnessing to your enemy’s worth as well as your own in a dramatic way. If your enemies can receive your forgiveness, they may also come to perceive their true dignity. Only forgiveness can “balance” the books on the worth of individuals. Only forgiveness can convert an enemy.

Divine Forgiveness

Divine forgiveness follows the same logic as outlined above. When God forgives, God refrains from taking revenge. Divine forgiveness deals with the personal offense and insult sin directs at God. We cannot damage God physically as we can God’s creatures. But when we damage, insult, and withhold love from human beings, we also disbelieve, disobey, and mistrust God. We refuse his love and reject his guidance. We insult God’s dignity indirectly. (Blasphemy is direct insult of God.) God deserves our faith, obedience, and love, but when we sin against his beloved creatures, we display our ingratitude and disrespect. But God does not take revenge. God absorbs and neutralizes the insult, not returning violence for violence. God does not allow our refusal to love him to cause him to stop loving us. Our insults cannot place in God doubt of his divine dignity or lessen his love. Instead, God demonstrates his unchallenged dignity and eternal love by forgiving us. God affirms our worth by maintaining his eternal love for us unchanged

Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ action of forgiving his enemies is the expression in time of God’s eternal love and forgiveness. Let’s get clear on this: the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us. Jesus is “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev 13:8).

In Jesus Christ, God absorbs and negates human offense and insult. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s sheer, gracious, unexpected, and incomprehensible forgiveness of insult to his divine dignity! In the humanity of Jesus Christ, God became able to suffer and die for us. Jesus’ human love for his Father in time corresponds to his divine love for the Father in eternity and his human suffering and death for us in time corresponds to God’s love and forgiveness for us in eternity. In the suffering and dying of Jesus Christ, divine forgiveness becomes effective for the conversion and salvation of humanity. In Jesus, God’s refusal to take revenge (forgiveness) becomes the negative side of a positive act of rescue from the power of sin and death.

Next Time: Forgiveness is not enough. We need healing, purification, transformation and glorification.

 

No Love, No Justice! On the Difference Between God’s Justice and Ours

Before I launch into the topic of divine love and justice, I need to clarify something about my essay of November 17, 2015. Several people took issue with it as somewhat overwrought. Okay, perhaps the title of that essay (“God’s Merciless Love, Or Why God Does Not Love Us As (Isolated) Individuals”) was a bit over the top. Of course God knows and loves individuals, every one of them! But how do you really love an individual person in the right way? That is an important question. First, you love them for what they really are, and we really are connected and interrelated with nature and other people. These relationships constitute our unique identity. We would not and could not exist without them. Hence in loving individuals God loves them along with everything that makes them who they are. Second, to love individuals means to will for them and give them what is truly good. Since God loves all people and everyone is interconnected with nature and the whole human family, what is truly good for one individual cannot be separated from what is truly good for all. I think if we keep these thoughts in mind and let them sink into our hearts, we will become less self-centered in our understanding of what is good for us.

How do we know that God’s loves us?

How do we know that God is love, that God loves you and me, that God loves the world? How do we know that God is good, that God wills the highest good for you and me and the whole world? This belief is not self-evident.  As I said in the previous essay on God’s love, there have been many views of the divine that make no place for divine love. But for Christians, Jesus Christ is the revelation and proof that God loves us. Allow me to quote a few of the many New Testament statements asserting this:

 7Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7-11).

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:5-8).

20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

How does what Jesus did show that the eternal God loves us? Ordinarily we show our love by what we do, and the depth of that love is demonstrated by how much we are willing to give up for the one we say we love. John says God’s love is demonstrated by giving his Son for us. In Romans 5:8, Paul says that God “demonstrates his love” in that “Christ died for us.” And in Galatians 2:20, it is Christ who loves and gave himself for us. Clearly, Paul, John and the other NT writers see in Christ’s act of love God’s own act of love. Christ is the self-giving of God for us.

God’s act of love in Jesus is so central to the being of God that, according to John, “God is love.”  The radical act of God’s love demonstrated in the self-sacrifice of Christ could have come only from the depths of God’s heart; God holds nothing back. He gives all. Jesus Christ reveals the motive for everything God does. The love of God is rooted so deep in God’s character that it permeates and conditions God’s whole being and every act. God’s being is an act of love through and through. Hence God is love.

Divine Justice?

Where then is God’s justice? If in love God gives himself to us without regard to merit or demerit, is God unjust in his overflowing love? In the classical definition, human justice is established where “each gets what is due him.” Of course, in different societies the rules that determine “what is due” differ, so social goods will be distributed differently in different societies. And even within societies disputes arise about exactly what is due to individuals and why. In every case, however, what is just is determined by the individual’s merit or demerit as measured by the law. But God loved us and Christ died for us “while were sinners” and “ungodly.” How is that an act of justice?

Just as we should not apply the human concept of love directly to God, we should not apply the human concept of justice to God without proper modification. As I said above, human justice distributes goods according to merit and demerit as measured by a set of rules or law. Just laws embody the principle of justice that says, “each according to his due.” Just acts follow those rules. A just person lives by those rules with all sincerity. Clearly the question of justice is the question of the fitting relationship between two things: between a law and the principle of proper merit or between a rule and a behavior that expresses that rule. One serves as the standard for the other.

Divine justice also involves the relationship between a standard of measure and behaviors. But in God’s case, the standard of measure must be God’s own being, life, and character, for there can be no law above God. Hence God acts justly by acting consistently with his being, life, and character. God’s justice is his faithfulness to himself. In Jesus Christ, God demonstrated that his love penetrates to the depth of his being, life and character. Hence God acts justly precisely by loving us while we were sinners! In loving us despite our sin, even “while were enemies” God is being completely faithful to himself.

God does not give us “what is due” us! A creature can never rightly assert a claim on God; everything we have, even our existence itself, is a gift from God. But what if we are “due” punishment? An act “deserves” its consequences, that is, given the natural course of things certain consequences follow on every act and are implicit in it. In our acts of sin we assert our wills against God’s will. That is the essence of sin. But God wills only to love us, to be our God, our helper, and our good. In sin we wish to be our own god, helper, and good. But apart from God we cannot live or enjoy any good. Hence death is implicit in sin. In the words of Paul, “the wages [natural consequences] of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

The human call for justice (or “social justice” as it is now called) is often a thoughtless a cry for “what we are due.” Thankfully, God does not give us “what is due” us! And precisely by not giving us what is due to us God proves himself perfectly just. In giving himself for us in Jesus Christ, God is completely faithful to himself. God gives himself what is due to himself. And contrary to “what is due” to us, we receive mercy, forgiveness, grace, and love. Instead of death we get life and a new beginning. What justice! What love! What joy! What gospel!

 

Divine Forgiveness—Is it Possible? Is it Just? Forgiveness And The Christian Life (#3)

We receive power to forgive those who injure and insult us from our confidence that God will restore our dignity, dry our tears and heal our wounds. And by exercising this power, we invite God to work through us to begin the work of restoring, comforting and healing the world even in this life. But what gives us confidence that God can and will forgive and make all things right?

There are two distinct issues in this question: how do we know God will make all things right? And how can God do this without neglecting justice? The first issue is a bit easier to address. In the Old Testament, God’s people were given means by which to restore themselves to God’s favor after they sinned. Through sacrifice, repentance and prayer, the people were able to find forgiveness and renewed confidence in God’s favor. The assumption underlying these means of grace and forgiveness is that God is willing and able to forgive, though not condone, sin. God’s forgiveness serves his ultimate purpose of creating a faithful people. God is willing to forgive in view of a future where sin is overcome completely.

In the New Testament, God’s willingness to forgive takes surprising and dramatic form. God sends his eternal Son to live as a human being should live and die as a sinner. In the tradition of Old Testament sacrifice, Jesus Christ bore the sin of the world in his death. Jesus takes the injury and insult of sin into himself and overcomes it. And God raised him from the dead. The gospel is the good news that God has unambiguously demonstrated his willingness to forgive and his desire to free us from the power of sin and death. As the Apostles Creed emphasizes, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” God’s revelation in the life and work of Jesus Christ is blessed assurance that God will make all things right.

The second issue is concerns how God can forgive without condoning sin and injustice. And this is not an easy thing to understand. With reference to the injustice human beings do to each other, perhaps we can gain some insight. Unlike us, God possesses the power and the know how to work things out in his providence in history and in the future resurrection of the dead so that injustice is overturned and made to serve the good. Paul says this clearly, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:18-37). Injury and insult will be eclipsed by glory. And we will be more than conquerors, that is, the victory will be so triumphant that it makes the enemy look insignificant and battle effortless. Hence God can forgive injustice in the present in view of his plan to overcome it in the future. [And, in case you are wondering about it, Paul tells us that plan is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1:10)]

But what about the insult and injury that injustice directs toward God? How can God forgive that? Where else could we turn for an answer to this question other than to Jesus Christ! How did Jesus deal with the insult and injury toward himself? He endured it and neutralized it. Since Jesus reveals the heart of God toward sinners we must conclude that God forgives sin by enduring it, suffering it and overcoming it through love. Jesus’ sacrifice is the historical event of God’s eternal love toward sinners. Jesus revealed and made effective in human life God’s eternal willingness to endure the hostility of sinners in view of his future plans for their salvation.

And when we forgive our enemies we also participate in a historical event of God’s eternal love toward sinners in hope for their ultimate repentance and salvation.

The Power of Forgiveness: Forgiveness And The Christian Life (#2)

Last week we discovered that forgiveness is the act of renouncing revenge for insult or injury suffered. In forgiving those who hurt us we rely on God to do what we cannot, that is, to overcome injustice, restore our dignity and heal all wounds. Forgiveness is an act of faith.

In today’s post I want to consider the positive side of forgiveness. In forgiving, we refuse to take revenge. We don’t act. But in not acting in a destructive way, we do an act of love. The first step in loving your enemy is not returning injury for injury and insult for insult. The loving dimension in forgiveness is the space it gives for repentance. In forgiving wrongs we demonstrate the possibility of freedom from the cycle of “eye for an eye” justice. Forgiving our enemies expresses confidence in God’s power to change enemy. It is an act of loving faith, a faith that believes in the power of God’s love to do for others what it has done for us. In forgiving, we suffer by endure insult and injury for the enemy’s sake. And in suffering for our enemy we become instruments through which the suffering love of Jesus touches the enemy. This activity of suffering love brings us to the joyful side of forgiveness.

Think about the unhappiness we bring on ourselves when we keep a record of every insult and injury done to us! There is no limit and no end to the wrongs we encounter even in one day. The unforgiving, like emotional bloodhounds, can detect insult in the slightest gesture and threat of injury the least movement. The list of negative emotions associated with our sensitivity to injustice is long: fear, anger, hatred, envy, resentment, bitterness, sadness, nostalgia, regret, despair, guilt. Fear anticipates injury, and anger defends against insult. Anger becomes hatred when it is nourished with memories of ancient wrongs. Envy sees injustice in others getting what we would like to have, and resentment turns to bitterness when we feel we’ve been passed over for honors we deserve. Nostalgia unhappily remembers long passed happiness, and sadness settles in when hope of better days fades into expectation of endless disappointment. And these feelings are compounded by the dim awareness that we are responsible for our unhappiness.

But what a difference forgiveness makes! Faith in God’s power at work for us and his love toward us frees us from the power of insult and injury. In place of fear, anger, hatred, envy, resentment, bitterness, sadness, nostalgia, regret, despair and guilt, we find love, joy, peace and hope. The causes of negative emotions have been exposed as impotent. Insults are empty nothings, lies with no basis in reality. Nothing and no one can diminish our worth and dignity because it is grounded in the unchangeable love of God for us. And injury cannot touch our true lives, which are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 2:3). Hence we can forgive all wrongs. Our experience of insult and injury, instead of occasioning unhappy emotions, becomes an occasion to experience the love of Christ acting through us, healing, saving and repairing the world.

Next week we address the question, “How can God forgive?” We can love because God love us, and we can forgive because God can forgive…but what empowers God forgive?

To be continued…