I've been thinking more about the topic of forgiveness. My last post mentioned how shocked I was that my opinions, and my experiences, of forgiveness were so different than many of the members in my bible class at church.
Eventually I realized that their opinions were exactly what my own would have been a few years ago. And that the way we feel about forgiving each other is inexorably tied to how we think God forgives. Jesus said that the two greatest commands were:
1) Love God with all you've got
2) Love your neighbor as yourself.
He said everything hangs on these. And they're melded together. Whatever I think about God will inevitably shape how I treat my fellow man. If I think the God of the Old Testament is waiting to send fire on the sinners, I might forcefully protest at a solider's funeral or a gay wedding and get the warning out. I become a smaller, flawed extension of the God I perceive. That's what many Christians mean when they quote things like Ephesians 3 and say that God is "at work within us".
So I considered that if I think God will send the vast majority of people to eternal torment, how will that impact the way I forgive other people here on earth? Can I truly "give it up to God" and offer pure, total forgiveness to people if I think that the creator of the universe is going to punish? Or am I merely waiting on them to "get theirs" when judgment day comes?
I can't answer for anyone else. I don't know where my bible class participants sit on this issue. But for me, when I thought God would punish in eternity, I could never really 100% forgive people here on earth. Couldn't do it.
Then I thought about some biblical examples of forgiveness, from Jesus himself. This isn't an exhaustive list, but it got me thinking:
#1 -- The Adulteress
In John chapter 8 Jesus is teaching in the temple courts when the religious leaders bring a woman to him. They claim the woman is caught in adultery, and according to Mosaic law she must be killed by stoning. Jesus responded at first with silence and started to write in the dirt, but eventually he uttered the famous "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Everybody left, ashamed. Later he looked up and the woman was still standing there, surely shocked that she was still alive. The scene ends with this exchange:
Jesus: "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
Woman: "No one, sir."
Jesus: "Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin."
#2 -- The Murderers
In Luke 23 we see the death of Jesus. Correction -- the murder of Jesus. He was in his early 30s and was apparently healthy until being severely beaten and hung on a cross to suffocate. And here was the Messiah, the son of God, the blameless one, being brutally killed for no justifiable reason. Surely if there was an unforgiveable sin, this would be it. The God of thunder would come charging in. Retribution would be swift and brutal. Justice would be served. So what did Jesus say?
"Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."
#3 -- The Doubters
So Jesus was killed. And in the events leading up to his death, his disciples, his closest friends, disappeared from the picture. Most we just don't hear about during and immediately after the crucifixion, except that John was near the cross while Jesus died. And that Peter was elsewhere in the city, denying that he even knew Jesus.
In John 20 we get a glimpse of the disciples three days after Jesus was buried, and they're noted to be locked in a house, fearing for their lives. Not exactly a stirring tribute.
Jesus appears to them multiple times and the final time he asks them to meet him on a mountain in Galilee. Matthew 28 notes that even now, when they saw him, they doubted.
These men had every possible advantage of belief. They'd been with Jesus 24/7 for three years. They'd seen him face-to-face and heard his direct teachings. They'd seen him alive again after being killed. Yet still they doubted.
And if there was any sense of repentance necessary here, any requirement to make things right, Matthew 28 doesn't have a record of it. Jesus just asked his friends to get to work.
One thing strikes me as a common theme across these stories -- none of the screwed up people actually asked for forgiveness. They just received it. Yes, Jesus told the woman to leave her life of sin, but after he said he didn't condemn her. Forgiveness came first, then a new life could begin.
My former picture was that I had to repent and follow the steps to salvation, in order to receive forgiveness. That was how I saw God interacting with me. So in turn, when it was my time to forgive someone who had hurt me, they had to ask for it first. My forgiveness was conditional, naturally, because I thought God's was too. How could I hold myself to a higher standard than what I thought God would provide?
I admit that this might be merely my own personal weakness. Others may be able to forgive others ceaselessly in this life, even if they think God will condemn them in the next. But for me, I had to remember those greatest commands, and that above all I am to love my neighbor as myself. To forgive them without ceasing. And if my treatment of people depends on my picture of God, I chose to picture God providing forgiveness without ceasing. They my own forgiveness flowed to others naturally.
I may be wrong about all this. Other bible verses can surely be cited to conflict with the three stories noted above. But my perspective has helped me better fulfill the greatest commands, and I think that is a good thing.
Bottom line: When the most heinous act in history was being accomplished, even though the murderers showed no sign of remorse, Jesus said to God, "forgive them." I believe God said, "Done."
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