We all love to pull out the following verse from Matthew when someone doesn’t seem to forgive us and present it to them as if it was written ‘special’ for them. “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?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’.” – Matthew 18:21-22 (NIV)
The reality is that when the shoe is on the other foot we often find It harder to accept that verse as written for ourselves. If truth be told I need to seek forgiveness much more often than I extend it. So, if I expect grace extended to me, I better extend grace to others, easily and willingly.
Still, I can’t think of a more difficult command given in scripture. It goes against our nature. Every pore of our body screams, “No, I won’t do it – I can’t do it!” And then Jesus says, “If you do not forgive, I will not forgive.” We know what is right to do. We even want to do what is right. But we feel paralyzed.
I read a story of Yoko Ono requesting that the anniversary of John Lennon’s death be made into an international day of forgiveness. What a wonderful thought, just imagine (do you like what I did there?). The thing is that Yoko added a disclaimer in the same conversation. She stated that though she wished for an international day, she herself couldn’t be led to absolve the murderer of John.
She herself couldn’t forgive. When it comes to us Christians however, forgiving others is not an option even if we feel we can’t. How can we forgive when faced with that dilemma – how can we forgive when we can’t?
First of all, Jesus gives us a great example of what our hearts should be like in the whole area of forgiveness found in John 13:3-17…
After washing the feet of his disciples, he drops a bombshell on the group, announcing that one of them is going to betray him. Our images of the last supper have largely been shaped by renaissance masters such as DaVinci who portray Jesus sitting at the centre of a long table with six disciples on either side, much like a team photo. But DaVinci got it wrong.
The last supper would have been eaten according to their custom’s and their cultural norms. The practice would have been in the fashion of a Greco-Roman triclinium which meant that the Jesus’ guys would have been reclining on their left hips and elbows, freeing up their right hands to eat from the settings on the floor or on slightly raised tables instead of sitting upright on chairs.
Place settings in this fashion would be shared by three people, where one diner could lean back to place his head on the chest of the person to his left, or if someone was to the right, lean forward into his neighbour’s back if he wanted to share a private word. It was certainly a much more intimate way of breaking bread than what we’re used to.
With that picture in mind imagine that at one point in the meal John leans back into Jesus’ chest to ask him a question. Knowing that Jesus was the host, this would place John in the “best man” position immediately in front of Jesus.
Meanwhile, Mark tells us that Judas shared the third spot in that place setting when he records, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me.” – Mark 14:20
Given that the spot immediately in front of Jesus was taken up by John, the only spot left was immediately to Jesus’ back, the spot reserved for the guest of honour. And that was where Judas was breaking bread that night. Imagine that! Judas was Jesus’ guest of honour at the last supper. This seating arrangement was equivalent as saying… “I trust you my friend… you’ve got my back.”
Jesus knew who would betray him and yet he continued to extend grace to Judas, even washing his feet and giving him the honoured place at his table. Sadly, Judas was given the chance to repent all the way to the end but didn’t accept it, ultimately refusing Jesus’ amazing grace while leaving the party to carry out his plan of betrayal. When he did this act, he condemned himself.
Here’s my point. Should we not live in the same way as Jesus did with Judas, with those who may have wronged us? Should we not continue to extend grace and forgiveness and love no matter their response to us even if they reject us?
Rebecca Pippert relates the powerful story of the late Corrie ten Boom. This Dutch woman and her family were sent to Auschwitz for hiding Jews in their home during the Second World War. Corrie was a Christian woman and had been invited to speak at a conference in Portland Oregon. This is what she said,
“My name is Corrie ten Boom and I am a murderer.” There was total silence. “You see, when I was in prison camp I saw the same guard day in and day out. He was the one who mocked and sneered at us when we were stripped naked and taken into the showers. He spat on us in contempt, and I hated him. I hated him with every fiber of my being. And Jesus says when you hate someone you are guilty of murder.”
“When we were freed, I left Germany vowing never to return,” Corrie ten Boom continued. “But I was invited back there to speak. I didn’t want to go but I felt the Lord nudging me to. Very reluctantly I went. My first talk was on forgiveness. Suddenly, as I was speaking, I saw to my horror that same prison guard sitting in the audience. There was no way that he would have recognized me. But I could never forget his face, never. It was clear to me from the radiant look on his face while I spoke, that he had been converted since I saw him last. After I finished speaking he came up and said with a beaming smile, ‘Ah, dear sister Corrie, isn’t it wonderful how God forgives?” And he extended his hand for me to shake.
“All I felt as I looked at him was hate. I said to the Lord silently, “There is nothing in me that could ever love that man. I hate him for what he did to me and to my family. But you tell us that we are to love our enemies. That’s impossible for me, but nothing is impossible for you. So, if you expect me to love this man it’s going to have to come from you, because all I feel is hate.”
She went on to say that at that moment she felt nudged to do only one thing: “Put out your hand, Corrie,” the Lord seemed to say. Then she said, “It took all of the years that I had quietly obeyed God in obscurity to do the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I put out my hand.”
Then, she said, something remarkable happened. “It was only after my simple act of obedience that I felt something almost like warm oil was being poured over me. And with it came the unmistakable message: ‘Well done, Corrie. That’s how my children behave.’ And the hate in my heart was absorbed and gone. And so, one murderer embraced another murderer, but in the love of Christ.” [Hope Has It’s Reasons p. 189, 190]
There is something deep within fallen human nature that thirsts for revenge and urges retaliation in kind. We just can’t seem to forgive – naturally. Someone seeks forgiveness and I think… “Yeah, but don’t do it again”. In fact, we naturally want to inflict the same type of injury on the one who injured us – an eye for an eye seems only fair. But we must give up on the idea that we are the judge, jury and executioner and instead leave the judging to God.
I’ll admit to you that I have struggled to forgive someone who technically is on the same cosmic level with me and yet have expected God, who is light years above us in the same scale, to forgive me. But for the Christian, forgiving others is not an option. If I can’t forgive I guess the question is whether I am truly trusting in God’s transforming power – in my life and others’. At the end of the day I need to forgive a human being who is like me with all the faults and weaknesses that come with being a human if I in turn expect God, coming from all his perfection and holiness, to forgive me.
That being the case, just how can I forgive someone when I can’t? Corrie got it right. What is impossible for us is completely possible for God, which is why forgiveness can only come about through the transformational power of God in our lives. We all need to rely on the Holy Spirit to forgive through us. That’s a God job and only God can do God jobs well.