To Forgive Is Divine
But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespass.
Forgiveness is that vital element at the very core of credible discipleship and moral growth. It is non-negotiable, reliably reproduced and impossible to counterfeit.
The poet Edward Markham draws us in sharply with his poem:
He drew a circle that shut me out, heretic, rebel, a thing to flaunt.
But love and I had the wit to win; we drew a circle that took him in.
The quality and quantity of forgiveness that meets the Divine standard is perfectly modeled by God through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As men and women under the direct command of Satan were extinguishing His physical life, the Son of Man’s last breath carried a prayer of forgiveness for those whose hands were even at that moment being stained with innocent blood.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Luke 23:34
There is nothing that my brother or my enemy can perpetrate against me that will place him permanently on the outskirts of the precincts of forgiveness. A story from modern South Africa leaves no room for misunderstanding the magnitude of this often-incomprehensible quality that must also define the disciple’s life. It is a story that I am recounting from a recent radio broadcast. As the system of enforced racial segregation known as apartheid was being dismantled, the government of South Africa under Nelson Mandela adopted this principle as an essential tool for the creation of a just and stable society. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) was established to put this principle into action and took the very unusual step of offering complete forgiveness to anyone who would admit to crimes committed during that dark and bloody era of apartheid.
A woman whose family had been victimized by an abominable crime that seemed unforgivable confronted one former police officer who came forward to admit to his role in two particularly horrific murders. This was a woman who had been robbed of both husband and son by this very man in a most brutal, shameful and despicable manner. In that crowded hearing room, all were transfixed by his recounting of those dastardly acts, many with mounting anger, all with disgust. Finally, his testimony came to an end, and the woman who had lost so much was given an opportunity to speak. She asked to be led to where the man was seated and spoke directly to him. Slowly she began to speak, I want to say three things to you: first I want you to take me to where you killed and burnt my husband’s body so that I can pick up his ashes and give him a decent burial. Secondly, I want you to come once a week to my home so that I can be a mother to you and love you, because your life is missing love. Thirdly, I forgive you. The impact on that undoubtedly undeserving individual was devastating, it was reported that the man fainted. It would not be difficult to conclude that this stunning act of forgiveness exceeds by far the seventy-times seven that is often seen narrowly as an absolute outer limit for the extension of forgiveness! Matthew 18:22
For the disciple of Christ, forgiveness, and the unadulterated willingness to adopt active forgiving as a way of life, remains the litmus test for each and everyone who’ve “left all” to follow Jesus Christ (Luke 18:28). To attempt to live as a disciple of Christ and not incorporate active, uninhibited forgiving is no more possible than leaping off the top of a skyscraper with the express purpose of flying across town. Whether or not a crowd is gathered below to watch, the outcome is predictable; as it is for the erstwhile unforgiving disciple.
Jesus Christ himself took great pains to ensure that an unmistakable understanding gives rise to a tireless incorporation of the principle of forgiveness into the life of the would-be disciple. This unlikely but indisputably genuine evidence of the Divine conquest is one of the cornerstones of a life in God. The message embedded in the parable of the hard-hearted servant (Matthew 18: 23-35) entertains no misunderstanding of this unavoidable truth. A disciple cannot benefit from the limitless grace and mercy of his Lord unless he allows himself to be nothing less than an uncluttered roadway, a conduit for the faithful transfer of such bounties. That he should be so blessed to have been such a beneficiary is not a testament to his faithfulness or his suitability, though those may be present in abundance. Rather, his custodianship is a test of his willingness to be a servant in the vein of his master. Should he be a pond instead of a flowing stream, and attempt to keep all the bounties for himself, chief of which is forgiveness, he loses everything that he hopes to maintain in abundance.
This incredible paradox is forcefully and unmistakably transparent in the sometimes troubling parable of the seemingly astute, but parsimonious farmer, whom the scriptures tag for all time with the telling and uncomplimentary appellation: the rich fool. He, in the logical manner of reasonable men everywhere, and in all times, conceived of a plan to maintain a firm and extended, if not perpetual grasp on things temporal and unearned, and lost out on the most valuable of all our unearned bounties—eternal life. Eternal life, life in Christ, is that which occurs in the absence of sin.
The greatest and what will prove an ultimately fatal impediment to a life of forgiving is the professed disciple’s deliriously contented, but grossly distorted view of himself. This deceptively comforting image is the reflection of that conveniently placed and impeccably polished mirror of self-righteousness. It is a highly flattering, reflective surface whose sheen is maintained by the devil himself. This ‘self-centric’ core ripples outwards as vanity, graceless religiosity, hardheartedness, and the most dangerous of all, complacency. Thus, the apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth speaks with unusual forcefulness of the metamorphosis that occurs when the would-be disciple encounters and commits to a life of obedience via the constant enabling of the Holy Spirit. “Therefore if any man be in Christ he is a new creature.” 2 Corinthians5: 17. Here he is laying the essential groundwork for a life to be lived in unending gratitude, best manifested by a life in which forgiveness is hard-wired into his operating platform.
The practice of active forgiveness is a sublime and mysterious reality. Though disarmingly straightforward it is an uncommonly tough proposition for the disciple of any grade, but particularly hard for the disciple still following a far off (Luke 22:54). Restrained by an unholy, uneasy and fragile alliance of scriptural prohibitions, religious traditions and ethical constructs; his life as he orchestrates it is a volatile equilibrium. Anything, however insignificant it may appear to be, can become an unwitting catalyst that disrupts this hair-trigger homeostasis. A neighbor’s perceived transgression, his name not appropriately credited for services ‘willingly’ rendered in the name of God, can in a fraction of a second shatter this critical balance. The inevitable fallout from such an unrehearsed and unsupervised reaction is highly undesirable and can pose a very grave and definite risk to his per-validated reputation as a stalwart for God.
It was this latter possibility that was proving to be an uncomfortable, and the more he thought about it, an also unacceptable proposition for the well-regarded prophet Jonah. He had been tapped for duties far outside his usual scope of practice, and needless to say, well outside his comfort zone. Thus the call to deliver a message of impending doom couldn’t have come at a worse time for Jonah. Nineveh had reached the zenith of corruption and debauchery, and the astute prophet correctly assessed that his prospects for making an impact were immeasurably slim. He was of course making his assessments through his very experienced, though very inadequate eyes. And it was precisely for those reasons, that the prophet, having taken counsel of his fears, boarded an innocuous looking cargo ship headed away from Nineveh.
It was a calculated action intended to minimize, if not eliminate entirely, the ongoing risk that God would exercise a disturbing penchant for pardoning sinners. God had always been reputed to be capable of forgiving sinners of even their most egregious transgressions. There was also an unearthly willingness and a hair-trigger readiness to deluge said sinners with this warm, restorative forgiveness. It was a reputation that the noteworthy prophet, may not have had reason to personally validate, and perhaps could not speak to with any degree of confidence. However in this particular instance, a conspicuous external validation such as a Divine reprieve for the citizenry of that rambunctious city would have devastating ramifications for Jonah’s own sterling reputation as an A-grade prophet.
Furthermore and equally troubling, should such a situation transpire, it would leave in shambles the prophet’s long-held and highly prized construct on sin and punishment. The seminal reality that God is and has always been in the forgiveness and reconciliation business was as lost on the prominent prophet as it is on many professed disciples transiting the current age. We scrupulously and dutifully conduct the business of religion more often than not, resting on the very shaky and curiously contradictory foundation of a spurious and exclusionary grace.
It really never invades my buffered consciousness that perhaps I may be in the same dire predicament as all those worldly, hardheaded, conscience-dead and clearly irredeemable folk living large in the city of the ‘world’. Nineveh was for Jonah, what the nebulous term ‘the world’ is for many a disciple living in this age. It is synonymous with egregious transgressions and, a place undoubtedly, primed for a divine lightning strike. Entirely unappreciated either, is the salient reality, that in proclaiming the message of divine forgiveness and reprieve, the disciple would in fact be speaking experientially. Inherent in such a message is my irrefutable attestation to the fact that I, once upon a time lived in Nineveh. Most importantly, were it not for a proactive Divine grace of unfathomable depth and infinite reach, Nineveh would undoubtedly still be my preferred residence.
Perhaps this is at the heart of the matter, for I do not see myself in the same light as publicans and sinners at all. It would seem obvious that neither I, nor my like-minded peers, fervent fellow disciples, have ever approached that level of sin and rebellion that defines such a class. Realistically speaking, the odds of such a class earning the Divine imprimatur, and meeting my own high standards are, to say the least, very difficult to estimate. Hence my standing with God can never be as tenuous as theirs, and consequently my need of Divine grace, far less pressing. As it relates to the professed disciple and his peers, the divine injunction: “all have sinned and fallen short of the Divine bar” (Romans 3:23 Paraphrased) seems to have encountered a notable exception to the principle of ‘all’.
This is the deadly opium of self-righteousness that has many a churchgoer in a life-threatening stupor, and is by no means a twenty-first century phenomenon. The brutally blunt prayer of that ancient churchgoer as recorded in the Gospel of Luke hammers home the point with painful directness:
God, I thank you that I am not like other men are; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess. Luke 18:11, 12
It is also light-years distant from the Spirit-bequeathed, redemptive realization of this modern disciple moved to pen these arresting words:
The Christian is a person who is amazed at the fact that he is forgiven. He does not take it for granted. Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Quoted in Real Worship by Warren Wiersbe
It is this divinely imparted amazement (sanctification, no less!) that works tirelessly to complete the erasure of that highly flattering, deceptively utilitarian, unwarranted and ultimately fatal self-concept. It was this false perception that had, up until the Damascus road encounter, defined the life of the man Saul of Tarsus.
This disciple also senses in his own journey some frightening similarities and a cautionary tale. In the absence of this encounter and its life-changing consequence, my discipleship becomes nothing more than a lukewarm attempt at adherence to utilitarian ethical constructs. This would be as redemptive as the possession of a satchel filled with desert survival manuals would be to a parched, disoriented and illiterate traveler stumbling around in the Sahara desert. An enlivened life of reflexive, sustainable forgiveness is an impossible bar to vault without the wellhead changes that Paul states with determined clarity and finality in his second set of letters to the church in the port city of Corinth.
Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are now passed away. Behold all things are become new! 2 Corinthians 5:17.
It is not a work that the beneficiary can initiate, nor execute, but one that is impossible to complete without his decisive, purposeful, unadulterated and aggressive surrender. It is as with any paradox, inexplicable. The stunning outcome of this uninhibited acceptance and incorporation is a brand new, invigorating and life-altering reality that is to die for!
After this manner therefore pray ye:Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil for thine is the kingdom
and the power, and the glory forever. Amen Matthew 6:9-13
But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:15