More than just sorry
Forgiveness under the umbrella of God’s love
Each morning during my devotional time, I join with millions of other Christians around the world and recite the Lord’s Prayer. It’s been a meaningful practice for me, as I join with brothers and sisters in Christ, seeking to align our lives in the way Jesus commanded.
Lately, however, I’ve found one line particularly difficult. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us” (Matthew 6:12, CEB, emphasis added).
Jesus doesn’t pull any punches. There’s a direct correlation between the way God forgives our sins and the way we forgive other people (see also Matthew 18:35). So, how does God forgive? If I can understand the way God forgives, I’ll know how to live and follow after Christ.
The nature of God
To answer this question, we need to back up and ask: Who is God? And what’s our relationship to him?
1 John 4:8 provides us with a succinct statement about the nature of God: “God is love.” By extension, this means his justice, mercy, holiness, etc., aren’t who God is – they are merely aspects of his love.
God doesn’t have to keep a cosmic balance on forgiveness and judgment, because God is love. Rather, judgment flows out of the One who loves and desires the best for us. Theologian Karl Barth writes that God must say a divine “no” to the evil of this world but, at the same time, the “wrath of God cannot be his last word, the true revelation of him!”
In one of his sermons, Barth used the analogy of a doctor who performs an operation that may be uncomfortable or disagreeable, yet essential if there’s going to be recovery. We would never want a doctor who believes our cancer is a wonderful part of who we are. However, we also don’t want a doctor who can only see the cancer, and doesn’t care for us.
Barth says that while God’s position toward humanity is an unconditional and unquestionable “yes,” God is also the doctor whose yes is not a blind affirmation of everything we do. Contained within God’s yes, there’s also a “loathsome no.”
To use another analogy: God is love, but it isn’t the blind puppy love of a young couple for whom the other can do no wrong. It’s the deep and mature love of a parent who wants his or her child to grow up healthy and wise.
God’s love spills over onto creation
However, love by its nature requires another. It’s impossible to love without an object of affection. God is love because God is Trinity. Theologian Stanley Grenz calls the Trinity a “community of love.” God is love, and that love finds its source and fullness within the three persons of God.
God’s love doesn’t remain caught within the person of the Trinity, but spills over into his creation of the world and pursuit of all those formed in his image. Humanity was created out of the overflow of Trinitarian love. We’re now invited to share this love with God and each other.
The effects of sin
At its core, sin is the rejection of God’s invitation to partake in his love. Sin isn’t about breaking rules; it’s about severing a relationship.
Because the source of God’s love is found within the Trinity, our actions (or inactions) don’t change God’s feelings toward us. Because love comes from within God – rather than from us – God is able to reconcile us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:10).
Through Jesus, God reaches across the bridge and offers us forgiveness. By his love, we can re-enter the relationship we were created for. Regardless of whether we accept it or not, the offer stands.
Forgiveness, then, is a creative action that names and condemns a wrongdoing, while creating a path for reconciliation.
The very nature of forgiveness makes any other judgment redundant. Forgiveness is judgment. Forgiveness names a wrong, but also opens a door for relationship to be restored. The forgiver takes on the cost of the wrongdoing and says, “I will take this, and ask that you come back to me.”
Accepting or rejecting God’s forgiveness
God offers forgiveness to all. However, not everyone is willing to accept the offer, or the inherent judgment contained within the gift.
Miroslav Volf, in Free of Charge, highlights this same point: “We receive the gift by trusting that God has indeed forgiven us, and by accepting both the accusation contained in forgiveness and the release from guilt and punishment. We believe and confess the wrong we’ve done. Without faith and repentance, we are not forgiven – God having done the forgiving notwithstanding. God has given, but we haven’t received. Forgiveness is then stuck in the middle between the God who forgives and the humans who don’t receive.”
In our rejection of God’s forgiveness, we declare ourselves righteous and in no need of saving. “By failing to confess,” states Volf, “I declare that I am in no need of forgiveness. To me, in that case, forgiveness isn’t a gift; it’s an insult, a declaration that I’ve done the wrong I claim not to have done.”
Forgiveness doesn’t let us off the hook. Rather, it demands that we look honestly at who we are and how we’ve severed our relationship with God. It calls us to accept the accusation of wrongdoing. At the same time, we find ourselves within the embrace of God’s love. Ultimately, forgiveness leads to transformation, for no one can enter the embrace of God and remain unchanged.
In our human relationships, we quickly discover that the strict carrying out of legal punishments is a poor method for renewing relationships.
Imagine two people struggling in their marriage. Perhaps one spouse has acted inappropriately with someone else. If the injured spouse demands payment before he or she enters into the process of healing, further pain is the only outcome. Both sides will hold grudges and make impossible demands: “You owe me this! You owe me that!”
Forgiveness is a much healthier starting point. The spouse who offers forgiveness takes the hurt upon him or herself, and says, “For the sake of our relationship, I will put this aside and we will move forward.”
But the offender doesn’t get off easy. There’s very real judgment in the offer of forgiveness. Indeed, the phrase “I am sorry” may be the hardest in the English language – it’s painful to have our guilt and brokenness revealed. When forgiveness is finally accepted, light shines into the darkness of our lives.
Imagine your neighbour breaks down your fence. You could demand that your neighbour repay the damage. But what if he or she doesn’t have the means to pay for a new fence? You could hold a grudge and enter small claims court to have a judge exact what you’re owed.
The other option is to forgive your neighbour. It means declaring what the neighbour did was wrong, while assuming the cost of rebuilding the fence. It also means holding your relationship with your neighbour at higher value than the fence. It’s about creating a new path for reconciliation.
God’s forgiveness is a powerful force that names evil and invites us to enter into right relationship with him – and our brothers and sisters. God’s work on the cross calls us to transformation through restored relationship.
Our ability to forgive others depends on our own experience of knowing ourselves as forgiven and beloved children of God. Only then will we be able to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt us.