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You are forgiven

Unique aspects of Christian forgiveness

© Andrew Knock  (1994, 1999)

This essay was written for a Christian audience, and develops a Christian focus.  If you're from another tradition or position, I hope you will find it explores Christian faith in an interesting way.

    The bulk of the essay was originally given in 1994 as a lecture to Groupnet, the ecumenical churches Adult Education network in Scotland.


1   Dealing with the past

Forgiveness is the most important part of Christ’s ministry, today as well as during his public human life. Yet it is probably the aspect of Christian life which is most taken for granted. Many church members treat it as an optional extra: a good thing to do when one can manage. What is the gift of God’s forgiveness, given to all yet so frequently ignored?

Forgiveness releases people for the future, by dealing with the past: the events, deeds, actions, rewards, achievements, failures, crimes, thoughts and feelings which every person carries around with them. People tend to judge one another, and themselves, by what they have done in the past. At the human level, my sense of who I am is coloured by, and dominated by, what I have done in the past and what other people have done to me.

How does God’s forgiveness affect this past?  (I am writing about forgiveness in Christ, but I want to affirm that forgiveness can be received and used in other religions and secularly as well, whether or not its divine source is known.  My understanding would be, however, that the element of substitution in Christian forgiveness makes it ‘stronger’ or more radical than other forms.  I may be wrong.)

Let me make a few main points about Christian forgiveness first, and then explore them more fully:

  • Not forgetting  This forgiveness is not about forgetting the past, which is not possible effectively. If we try to forget, all we tend to do is bury the past, or live in denial and bury our heads in the sand.
  • Not just co-operation  This forgiveness is not the human activity of compromise and negotiation, or a decision to work together from now on, rather than fight.  If people do not know God, co-operation is a worthy desire in itself, but it should not be confused with the more radical forgiveness God gives.
  • "It wasn’t you, blame me."  This forgiveness deals with blame.   It is about God taking ‘ownership’ of past actions and saying, in effect, ‘They are not part of who you are any longer; from now on, count them to me’.
  • The closeness of God   This forgiveness is the awareness that God comes so close to us, touching and guiding people’s lives, that all human achievements and failings have no lasting value, and are unimportant when placed alongside the kind of life God shares freely with us.


2  Admitting I have unforgiveness

Forgiveness is a gift, not something we can win. So from our end, we have to start by receiving the gift, not seeking it. And to receive God’s forgiveness, we will have to acknowledge that there is an important starting point. Forgiveness does not come into our lives in order to solve everything by magic, improving my job, family, health, etc. It comes to remove unforgiveness.

Unforgiveness is what we have when past actions, behaviour, successes, etc. dominate our view of someone (including our view of ourselves) so much that we feel stuck with them. They are ‘just’ who we judge them to be on the basis of the past. I am ‘just’ the person who always makes this kind of mess, always feels inferior. Using personality judgements, whether psychological or managerial, to make a permanent judgement about people is a reflection of this. 

The wrongdoer will suffer from unforgiveness just as much as the wronged person. Unforgiveness is often expressed by constantly talking about or thinking about someone (and that person may be yourself), criticising, judging, agonising, self-defending, self-justifying. For many of us "I am what I have done and what I have failed to do." The school reports that have come to have such a huge (and not usually very Christ-like) influence on how we behave and react to one another, are being written and re-written inside our heads all the time. "Needs to try harder. Can do better." I have said in other contexts, many of us are living our inner lives as if we are still at school, still coping with the playground and the teacher.


3  Can I change people?

Most of us will have tried to change and improve other people, even if just changing ourselves. We try, at the human level, to work at relationships, to improve things by our own efforts. "How can I make things better?!" is a familiar heartfelt cry.

It’s good to want people to change. But if we don’t move on to understand that only the gifts of God – and above all forgiveness – can change people, then our frustration at not being able to change people (and this is particularly true of wanting to change ourselves) will turn sour and bitter, and harden into unforgiveness. They’ll never change. I’ll never change.

The first step in receiving God’s forgiveness is to admit we have unforgiveness in us. Acknowledge to him that you are stuck with yourself, and stuck with other people, and even stuck with God. You have done something wrong to someone else; or they have wronged you; and this colours and even dominates your awareness of them. You can’t let it go. You keep thinking about what you, or they have done. Most often, you keep talking about it to other people, rather than speaking directly to the other person involved.


4  A story of two monks

The early Christian monks, the ‘Desert Fathers’, include in their sayings the story of two monks who were on a journey.

They came to a river, and could see that, on the other bank, a beautiful woman was standing, wanting to cross. The brothers were not supposed to look at a woman, let alone touch one; but one of the brothers, seeing she was in difficulty, waded across, carried her back to the bank he had come from, and then waded back across and continued on his journey.

Meanwhile his colleague, in great alarm, had made a wide detour to cross further downstream, in order not to have to look at the woman.  As the two monks continued on their way, the one who had avoided the woman went on and on talking about her, and saying ‘How could you possibly even go near her, let alone speak to her and touch her . . and you carried her!’. 

After several hours of this constant talk, the first brother turned to his colleague and said, ‘My brother, I picked up that woman in need, and put her down again many hours ago. But you are still carrying her, and do not seem willing to let her go.’


5  Repentance

In the teaching of Jesus, the starting point for recognising there is unforgiveness in me is called repentance.  Repentance is not basically about saying sorry. It is not basically about going to someone, even to God, and trying to negotiate – to make amends, apologise, make your peace, or whatever.  Certainly Jesus told people to be reconciled with their brothers and sisters, for example, (Matthew 5.24). He had in mind, though, a lot more than human actions of peace-making.

Such apologies, making peace, etc. may happen, or they may not, in the process of forgiving; each situation will be different. But they are not rules to rely on about ‘How to forgive’, and it is quite mistaken to have an attitude that, unless such-and-such an action has been performed, there has not been ‘a valid repentance’ (as medieval lawyers might have put it). The trouble with relying on these actions is that by themselves they are merely moral or political attempts to right a wrong. They are human, and only human: they show how we try to make ourselves right before God and before our fellow human beings.

Repentance happens when we admit to God that by ourselves we cannot get rid of the unforgiveness in us. Let me emphasise here that trying to forget it is not possible, though we may try to bury it. Recent antagonisms in former Yugoslavia were buried by the many decades of Communist control, but such tribal and ethnic divisions were in no way forgotten, and resurfaced with the horrifying force of Bosnia and more recently Kosovo.  

We realise, in the phrase from 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul describes what love is, that human beings have been ‘keeping a record of wrongs’ (v.5).  We judge people by what they have done.


6  A change in focus

Repentance is not just admitting these things to ourselves, but admitting them quite explicitly to God.  It is a change of focus. My eyes were on myself, either in misery for my sins, or pride because of my success, or fear that people might see though me. Repentance is a change of direction in where we are looking, in where our main hope and interest lies.  The most frequent Greek word for it in the Bible – metanoia – means a turning away from or shunning.

So as I admit my unforgiveness, my list of wrongs, to him I realise that these judgements are not true. God, and love, ‘keep no score of wrongs’, and what God is matters far more than what a success-dominated or a control-dominated society says about me or about other people.  Repentance is what happens when we start to turn to God, to want his view of things, his way of behaving, his attitudes and values, more than the world’s.  When repentance begins, we realise that there is only one reality, which is God’s way of living, not society’s, not the church’s.  It is a shunning of human values and standards, to God’s own, as revealed in Jesus, and given to us by his Spirit today.

This is why, in the New Testament, another Greek word – epistrepho – is also used for repentance and often linked with metanoia.  It means taking a positive step towards (God).  At Acts 26.20, for example, both words, metanoia and epistrepho, are used:  Paul said, ‘I preached that they should repent of their sins and turn to God.’


7  More than a human power

When people are still living at the level of trying by their own good efforts to make situations and people better, they tend to end up turning forgiveness, which is for God to give, into a duty, an attitude people should work at.  While there is no awareness of God, forgiveness is worthwhile, but usually an expediency, a compromise used to provide for the common good. 

There seems to me to be something unique and ‘on a different level’ available to Christians through Christ, and it is this different level I now want to explore.   (This is not to say that many Christians actually live out this unique gift.   In so many churches, sadly, political expediency is the main motivator.)

Let me acknowledge straight away that Jesus certainly emphasised that we must forgive other people, if we are to receive God’s forgiveness ourselves:

"If you forgive people their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But, if you do not forgive people their sins, neither will your Father forgive your sins." (Matthew 6.14, 18.35, Mark 11.26).

But he did not mean something ‘moral’ or ‘political’, a human power to change the situation.  He meant: Use or reveal God’s forgiveness.  Why did Jesus consider this issue so important?   There are three levels to this:

  • First of all, God’s forgiveness is the basis of our having a relationship with God.
  • Second, it is the practice of forgiveness of Christians toward each other which shows the reality of the love of Christ to the world.
  • In the third place, an unforgiving spirit is one of the most deadly enemies of emotional health that can plague a human soul. It also often destructive of physical health.

Forgiveness is always "as the Lord forgave you".  It is an expression of gratitude and freedom.  As Paul wrote:

"Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you."  (Colossians 3:12-13)

God’s forgiveness is ‘retroactive’: it deals with the past, not with the future.   It is not a cause of what will happen in the future, or what is happening now (although it is certainly a release for dealing with the future well.    It changes what has happened.

In the New Testament, this is sometimes conveyed by a strong emphasis on Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.  This great, awesome sacrifice has happened.  There is no need, and much wrong, in trying to atone today for your sins, or someone else’s. Christ has done this for you:  "When these sins are forgiven, there will be no more sin offering." (Hebrews 10.17-18).     The Letter to the Hebrews makes particular emphasis that we should not be making any further ‘sacrifices’ to atone for our sins.  There is nothing we can do about them now, because Christ’s sacrifice was ‘once-for-all’ (Hebrews 10.12).

As we can probably now begin to see, this is a huge challenge to our ‘moral’ way of handling things. It means, for example,. that if you remain feeling guilty for something you have done in the past, this is a sign that you still think you might be able to do something about it, to ‘atone’ for your sin by yourself.  Guilt is our way of still feeling responsible, still feeling ‘Could have done better; therefore can do better next time’.  You think you are the moral agent, the person in charge.

Yet Christians claim that Christ has atoned for all our sins.  This means, paradoxically, that even feeling guilty is itself a sin!  Well, probably this will at first get us spiralling into a vicious circle of frustration: we want to shout to God, with Peter, ‘Then who can be saved?’ (Mark 10.26-7).  Jesus answered Peter, ‘With man, it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’  God saves us.   ‘We’ do not save us.


8  Then what does forgiveness change?

Let me say again, then, that forgiveness is directed to our unforgiveness, our clinging on to past deeds and events and our human attempts to change people and ourselves.    This unforgiveness is extraordinarily widespread – it is the spiritual virus to end all spiritual viruses!   We all have this; it’s a dominant power in human life, so much so that – rather frighteningly – it’s often the least repentant of church people who are the most judgmental, yet in superficiality will say "Oh, I have no problem with forgiveness."

What is the word of forgiveness, which comes to transform our harshness, bitterness, stuckness, tension and burdens?  The word comes from Jesus himself.  He in effect says to us:

"I have taken your place.  What you did, will now be counted to me, as something I did.  Let the deed go.  It is not something which will colour your judgement of yourself, or of another person.  If you have a desire to blame someone, then blame me ... though as you receive faith, you will probably see that compared to everything else I am doing, these past deeds are too trivial to cling on to. 

"My child, why are you so interested in these small things, rather than with what I am doing, anew, in people’s lives?  Whatever you have done, whatever your enemy has done ... these are trivial, yet you have let them become mountains.  Well, when you are faced with such a mountain, say to it in faith, ‘Go into the sea’, and it will disappear (Mark 11.23).  Come and celebrate with me, you who were lost and are now found (Luke 15.32)."

There is a simple, lovely illustration of this in the New Testament, in the short letter to Philemon.  Paul had befriended a runaway slave, Onesimus, and is now sending him back to his Christian master, Philemon.  Onesimus became a Christian in prison with Paul. So Paul wrote to Philemon:  Do not hold his wrongs against him; treat him as a new brother in God’s family.  And he says,

‘Welcome him as you would welcome me.  If he has done any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me’ (v.17-18).

Astoundingly, Paul gives Philemon a blank cheque, and says, "Whatever retribution you want from Onesimus, take it out on me instead."

Although Paul doesn’t say elsewhere what happened, in the writings of St Ignatius there is a letter to the Bishop of Ephesus.   It is addressed to a man called ‘Onesimus.’  Some scholars suggest that this is the same Onesimus in the letter written by Paul to Philemon.  It may well be that the same Onesimus that was once a runaway slave and a thief became the Bishop of Ephesus, a leader in the first century Church, thanks in no small measure to Paul’s act of forgiveness.


Christ ‘represents’ us

Sometimes what Christ has done in such a radical sacrifice is softened and made less startling.  So it may be said that Jesus has taken away the ‘punishment’ for my sin, or the ‘bad feelings’ I have.  These benefits are certainly part of what Christ has done; yet the New Testament message is even more startling:

‘God made him, who had no sin, to be sin for us.’ (2 Corinthians 5.21)

‘Christ redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for us.’ (Galatians 3.13)

‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.’ (1 Peter 2.24).

There is a jargon word used about this, which – even though it’s jargon and rather buried in history – may help some of us.  As earlier centuries tried to express the Good News, Jesus ‘substituted’ for us, in the sense that he takes all the blame and punishment we would deserve; but more importantly he does so by representing us, by wearing all our sins as his clothing.  

Jesus is willing to be blamed for everything we have done.   To be treated as the worst criminal, the outsider, the proud, foolish professional, the coward.   ‘Whatever you have done, from now on they can say I did it, not you.’    The past deeds are not forgotten, because they cannot be; rather, the person who committed them has changed.   Christ has taken my place.

Many of us have heard of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest imprisoned by the Nazis in Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941.  In July of that year a prisoner apparently escaped (though he was later found drowned in a latrine), and the camp authorities announced that ten men would die as a reprisal – starved to death underground.   The ten were randomly chosen. 

One of them, Franciszeck Gajowniczek, cried out in despair for his wife and children.   Out of vast compassion, Kolbe offered to take his place, and was killed instead.   Apparently the cells resounded with hymns and prayers for days.  This is stunning.  And what Jesus has done is far, far more than even this.  A passage from one of Spurgeon’s sermons may convey this:

"All our transgressions are swept away at once, carried off as by a flood, and so completely removed from us that no guilty trace of them remains.  They are all gone! 

O ye believers, think of this, for the all is no little thing:  sins against a holy God, sins against his loving Son, sins against gospel as well as against law, sins against man as well as against God, sins of the body as well as sins of the mind, sins as numerous as the sands on the sea shore, and as great as the sea itself: all, all are removed from us as far as the east is from the west.  All this evil was rolled into one great mass, and laid upon Jesus, and having borne it all he has made an end of it for ever. 

When the Lord forgave us he forgave us the whole debt.  He did not take the bill and say, "I strike out this item and that," but the pen went through it all;—PAID."  (C H Spurgeon, Sermon 1448 at Newington)


10  Can he commit my sin?

I do understand how much we want to fight shy of accepting the whole of this!  It can’t be that Jesus committed my sins, can it? I did them; no one else did.    Well, let’s approach this in stages.

It may help to say, first, that God’s forgiveness in Christ means it is as if Jesus committed all our sins.  All the blame, all the complaint and gossip, all the mistrust and fear – these are turned on Jesus, not on us.  This is ‘substitution’.  Yet be very aware that in the horrible world of blame, it’s as bad to be treated ‘as if’ one were the blaspheming criminal as to have been the criminal.  And blame is the cheapening, debasing currency of contemporary Western society.  It is how tabloid newspapers phrase their stories and then parade themselves as seeming to be doing something worthwhile, in order to sell more copies.  It is the stuff of TV soap operas.

All the lists of sins, the records and memories of judgement, all the condemnations of myself, or of other people, all the ‘You did that wrong; you’re a failure; you’re a sinner, you’re an unreliable, untrustworthy person’ … to this Jesus says, ‘From now on, they will be attributed to me, not you.  You are not who you have been.  You may walk free.  I will represent your sins to any accuser.’


11   ‘Forgive’ = ‘give-for’

It is important to stress again that forgiveness is not a cause of human action.    It is God saying, of what each one of us has done, ‘Count it to me. I did it.’  There is no suggestion here that God causes anyone to sin! Christian forgiveness is not the cause, it is the response – the substitution of one person for another.

The English word ‘forgive’ conveys this well: in forgiving us, God ‘gives-for’.  God does the giving-for us which we cannot do.  When we are stuck in judgements and relationships with other people and with ourselves, God becomes me, to let me do what I, by my old self, cannot do.

This leads us on to the most startling aspect of forgiveness.  Not only does Jesus take our past misdeeds off our shoulders, and carry them as his own; he also lives in and through us by his Spirit today, doing our good deeds for us.  Not only does Christ give-for us in giving his face to the smiters, blamers and bullies, in place of our own faces; but he also gives God’s own goodness through us to others, when in our stuckness we cannot. Initially many of us may not realise that St Paul was a much greater sinner than most of us!  He had actively persecuted the first Christians.  Yet he could write that the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus came to him as a call so powerfully that he, the ‘least of men’ could do such wonderful things to establish the church and the spread of the Gospel.  Then he adds:

‘Not I, but the grace of God with me.’ (1 Corinthians 15.10). Elsewhere, it is ‘Not I, but Christ in me’ (Galatians 2.20), or (more typically) ‘Not we, but the Spirit praying through us’ (Romans 8.26).


12  ‘Remain in me’

I want to explore this aspect of substitution, of a change of author and change of blame, a little more.  As I said, it seems to me to be distinctive in Christian forgiveness, over and above the way forgiveness appears in secular life and other religious traditions. 

For most people, the foundation of their life is ‘me’.  Let me get myself in order, and from an improved me, better things will flow out into the world around.  But the foundation of Jesus’ life is his ability to live in and from other people, an ability we are called to receive and share in. 

A large proportion of the occurrences in the New Testament of the Greek word meno – to wait or to remain – are in John’s Gospel and First Letter.  The branches of the vine, Jesus said, must remain in him (John 15.6).  John the Baptist said he saw the Spirit come down and remain in Jesus (John 1.32).  Anyone who waits in love, waits in God, and God waits in him (1 John 4.16).  It is the Father, remaining in Jesus, who does this work (John 14.10).  There are many other examples.

For John the Evangelist, as for Paul, the great mystery of Jesus Christ is a life which can be lived in other people as well.  Through God’s revelation in Jesus, people can begin to live in one another and in him.  Because of who we are in Christ, all things become possible; but there is no way into this power and freedom except by becoming new people, no longer clinging on to old selves, possessions and identity but leaving self behind.  In Call to Discipleship, Juan Carlos Ortiz tells how he first discovered this:

When I was a Sunday school kid, I once heard the teacher say that we were ‘in’ Christ. I understood that. The next Sunday, however, he taught that Christ was ‘in us.’ I objected. "Teacher, you are wrong. Last Sunday you said we were in Christ. Now you say he is in us. How can that be? If he is in us, we cannot be in him at the same time. One must be in the other; it cannot be both things at the same time."

I didn’t understand because I was so far removed from the kind of love that transforms an entire group of people into one: Trinity love, one in the other. Now it is easy to understand. If I am in my brother’s heart and he in mine, then we are one. (p 134)

The positive side of God’s forgiveness, then, is God doing it for us, in us and through us.  Jesus said, ‘Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect!’ (Matthew 5.48).  How is this even thinkable, unless God does it through us?  God living his life in us and through us – this is what being forgiven looks like.


13  Born into a new family

The expression ‘second birth’ is not used often in the New Testament, yet it has a very powerful attraction for many Christians.   That is, I would suggest, because it conveys the release implicit in this exchange of person, and release from the ‘old self’.  To be born again means to become part of God’s family, trusted to live out the kind of life he has given us anew.

As Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son conveys so wonderfully, God, the Father, gives readily (both) his children all that he has and all that he is, his Spirit, our inheritance.  What he is waiting for from us is that we stop working for our salvation, and let God live our life for us. He lives-for you, and gives-for you (= forgives).  (See my article about the parable, Hard work and belonging.)

It is the sign of a forgiven person that he or she gives all the credit to God; and charges all the blame to his account also!   The attitude of the forgiven person is: "I am judged, not by my actions, but by my seeking God, in my life and in other people’s."

Jesus said, "Do not worry about all these other things.  The pagans run after them; seek first the Kingdom of God." (Matthew 6.32-34).  Place yourself under his authority.  A forgiven person is not free to do whatever he or she likes; but free to seek God in every situation, however awful, rather than becoming overburdened with the situation, its problems and needs.

People who have received God’s forgiveness do not talk much about what someone has done, or failed to do; they identify what needs doing, then talk most about what God is doing.


14  Chosen by God

So a forgiven people will be free to look for God, even in the face of their enemies.    They will seek the Kingdom of God not merely in the comfort of a time of prayer and recreation, but in the assaults of the vandals on a church building, the murmur of a gossip in the corner.

It is in this sense that I think the great Calvinist thinker Karl Barth was expressing a wonderful insight in calling the doctrine of election or predestination the 'whole gospel' of Jesus Christ.  It may surprise readers that I say this!  Barth effectively re-invented this controversial doctrine.  He did not mean by this some kind of hidden division before creation into the chosen and the damned.   He meant the readiness of God’s people to put down the burdens of their past history, hard-won identity, guilts and triumphs, and be who they are in Christ.   It is, he means, people who look for Christ all the time who show by their behaviour that God has chosen them ... that faith is not a believer's endeavour or achievement, but itself a gift from God which the believer does not need to defend, but is able to give thanks for.  

It is a spiritual version of Wittgenstein's legendary and crystallising remark about the limits of logical justification of what we are and do (and therefore also our control of them):

If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned.   Then I am inclined to say, "This is simply what I do."  (Philosophical Investigations §217)

Those who look sideways and compare themselves with other people, either craving status and reward, or belittling the faith of others: these folk are too much in control of their own choices to be chosen.   It may not be too late for them to repent – we have to wait and see.

Barth was not a lone thinker in this. C S Lewis said:  "Your real self will be found, not when you are looking for it, but when you are looking for him."

One parable which Michael Green tells is among the finest illustrations of this:

‘All that the Father gives me will come to me’, Jesus says in John 6.37.   You could not have divine election more clearly spelled out than that.    But the verse continues, ‘and him who comes to me I will not cast out’.  That speaks very directly of the human choice we have – to come or not to come. 

I sometimes think of salvation as a walled garden.  There is a little door into the garden, and emblazoned on the outside of that door it reads, ‘Him who comes to me I will not cast out’.  I enter.  I marvel at the beauty and fruitfulness of this garden – so unsuspected by me hitherto, so hidden behind its high walls.  And now that I am inside, I begin to revel in its delights and responsibilities. 

And then I glance back at that door by which I entered. I see, written on the inside of the door, ‘All that the Father gives me will come to me’.  And I recognise that way behind my choice of him, was his choice of me.  (From ‘Evangelism through the local church’)


15  Forgiving myself, too

Humanly, we tend to judge people (including ourselves) by what they have done.  We need to feel we have achieved things by ourselves.  In his beautiful booklet ‘Kingdom Mercy’, John Wimber tells how he reacted to a friend of his:

"I had a friend who seemed to be able to make all kinds of mistakes and mis-steps, and then to simply forgive himself, shake it off, and move on.  He drove me crazy!   It just didn’t seem fair to me that he should let himself off the hook so easily.  Shouldn’t he at least feel crummy for a while first?   It was few years later before I came to realise that my friend had been operating in a healthy way.  I found myself in a situation where I had quite literally ‘blown it in a big way’.  I had done something wrong, something that had caused a lot of pain and heartache for myself and others.  And there was nothing I could do about it.   I couldn’t retrieve it, retract it, or rehabilitate it.  I was miserable.   I knew that God forgave me, and I knew that the people I had hurt forgave me, too.   It was I who wouldn’t forgive me.   I finally had to come to grips with the fact that if I was going to move ahead in life, I was just going to have to extend the same mercy to myself that I knew God extended to me."


16  Is it too easy?

The voice inside us which says, ‘But it’s not real unless you have to work hard’, this voice will then say, ‘That’s too easy!  It’s irresponsible to just forgive yourself, and move on.  You have to feel crummy first (and if you don’t, I’m going to make you)’.

Well, there is unquestionably a ‘letting-go’ in being forgiven.  We can put down all the burdens, and walk on freely.  But when God forgives you, the real work has only just started!  Now you are forgiven, you are looking for God all the time.  You’re walking through life, expecting him to come into situations.    The work is to be constantly ready for him, to sense his timing, the moment when he opens a new doorway for you or for other people.

It’s neither harder, nor easier, than trying to do the atoning by yourself.    It’s really a different kind of work.  I do feel that the phrase in Scripture which conveys this best is ‘a new birth’ – which may or may not be a dramatic personal experience, but always means letting go of human controls.   Being born is something we cannot choose to do.  And being born of God’s family means accepting his lead and guidance.  His reign, his rule, his guiding authority, are upon us and lead us – and matter more to us than anything else.


17  Letting forgiveness in

I want to end by asking how the way forgiveness changes and deals with the past can be a path and activity we can choose to apply to others.  Beyond receiving God’s forgiveness, how can I do it – how can I forgive others? 

When we forgive another person, it will not often be by trying to take responsibility for their wrong deed ourselves, even though – as we have seen – great saints like Paul are willing to take the blame for another person.  We are not usually big enough to be the redeemer; but Christ certainly is.  So we will forgive when we treat them as though God has done it, not them.  And that is a shocking enough change of perspective.   Forgiveness is not about forgetting a deed which was committed.   It is about changing who did the deed. ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23.34)   This is why the New Testament sometimes calls forgiveness ‘setting someone free’ (Ephesians 1.7, Colossians 1.14).  Jesus revealed very powerfully that I can only forgive another person by being forgiven myself.  This is not just a ‘one-off’ forgiveness.  It is a way of life.  It is a manner of relating to people.  Repentance is the attitude: ‘Yes, I need forgiveness.’

As Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer, we may ask forgiveness from God and him alone.  The Jewish insight that forgiveness comes from God was not abrogated by Jesus.  If we reflect on it for a moment, there is something quite superficial about asking another human being to forgive you,  unless it is in the context of asking for God’s forgiveness and asking the other person to minister that forgiveness to you.  (We usually use the words "Please forgive me" in the sense of "I'm sorry."  Paul even used them sarcastically {2 Corinthians 12.11-13})  We should ask a human being to forgive us when we can also expect that person to have the power to forgive us – and  to be honest many of us, in ourselves, don't have the power to make forgiveness happen.  However, it is usually quite appropriate to apologise and confess a wrong, to offer to repair the damage or ask how you can, and even to express a desire for restoration. 

Our right to ask God for forgiveness is established because we are already forgiving others.   I would follow Joachim Jeremias (The Prayers of Jesus) here in saying Luke’s more original version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11.4) is best translated, ‘As we, here and now, are already forgiving’. God alone can forgive; yet God’s own power is being exercised in our lives today.  Look at us! We, in him, are starting to forgive!  The Kingdom of God, his way of living, is happening today!


18  Practical steps

Is there someone you can’t forgive?  It may be a family relative from the past – often a parent – or a colleague who cheated on you or left you getting all the blame, or someone who has damaged all you have been working for.

For the unforgiveness we all have, Elaine Brown describes ‘3 steps to forgiveness’: (an article in the magazine ‘Healing and Wholeness’)

  • Talk to God about your unforgiveness.
  • Pray daily for God to bless the person who wronged you.
  • Ask God to show you an opportunity to be kind to the person.

She sees rightly that God, and only God, forgives.  Yet the Good News is that we can be like God: not by saying in a pious and pompous tone ‘I forgive you’, but by wanting them to be filled with God, by believing in them as much as he does.  Even our enemies!  We can have the same passion for being one family that God himself has.


19   ‘Family’ forgiveness

In practice, forgiving another person means seeing that to belong to God’s family is more important than what any individual does.  Forgiveness is a community life-style, the give and take of putting burdens down together, and starting again each time. Sadly, it is the Christians who cling on to their individuality (particularly those who seek promotion) who find it hardest to forgive.

In God’s family, villains belong together; the Prodigal Son and his older brother.    So when you forgive another person, convey the attitude to him or her that you both share the same ‘family space’ with God, in which he can change your enemy; and also you.  (See Hard work and belonging.)  This family space or sense of being in community also means being confident that I am not the only person in the world who can forgive my enemy!   Someone else may do this better than me!   So don’t cling onto worries about what you ought to do.  Trust other people too.

Perhaps the best illustration of the community aspect of forgiveness is this: if you have wronged someone, you must forgive them.  This may come as a surprise.    Surely, if I have wronged someone, I must ask or hope for forgiveness from them?   No! (Though ask for forgiveness from God).  Realise again that forgiveness is a not a remedy, commodity, ‘good-feeling package’, or cure-all!   It is not something to be ‘obtained’ by us; it is a change in attitude or heart within us.

The person you wronged is a sinner too.  Perhaps that was part of your reason for wronging them, however ill-considered that may be.  Forgive him or her, seek God’s hand in their life rather than worrying obsessively about the deeds which you – or he – have committed.  Forgiveness comes from God, not from other people.  And only God can change you; other people can’t. Rather than pinning all your hopes and needs on another person, do the one thing you can do – forgive!   Seek God’s face and activity in their lives.


20  Is there no room for stern words?

Is there no place for criticism, then, in the church?  Yes there is, but not the familiar, whispers-in-the corner or behind-closed-doors kind of criticism.    Forgiveness is not about forgetting, but about releasing from the past and for the future. 

Let’s be clear that Jesus certainly treated the Pharisees very harshly.    And Paul told the proud Corinthian Christians off in no uncertain terms.   They did this precisely because forgiveness is about helping another person to let God be responsible for their lives.  If you ignore, forget or overlook the wrongs, then how can you begin to help them see that, for these very wrongs, God has said, ‘I did these things, not you’?

Too often, church members lack the faith to do this.  They assume the posture of embarrassed silence about someone who is ‘known to have done something’ wrong, and by doing so fail to bring any forgiveness into the situation.  Being helped to know and name what we did wrong, in the atmosphere of a process of forgiveness, is a vital part of being released from it.

Often, to exercise forgiveness will mean specifically identifying a wrong to someone, and then telling them that they are forgiven!  ‘I see what you have done, and so can you. Now be free, for Christ has accepted the responsibility for it. It does not have to stay stuck to your name any longer.’  God has taken their place.  If they cannot accept this word, repentance has not yet come to them.  Don’t worry about their deeds; but next time you are with them, seek God’s action in their lives, and tell them again. If it is a relative, say a mother, who has died, then look at the way you speak about them in prayer.

Here then is the Good News of forgiveness: Not you, but the grace of God with you. You are set free from all your sin, by allowing Christ’s Spirit to live in you. He will lead you to seek God’s face in the lives of others, even those who hate you.  n

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