How—and why—God calls you to a forgiveness that overcomes evil, tragedy and anything else thrown your way
Forgiveness lies at the heart of God’s project to set right a world gone wrong. Ours is a gospel of forgiveness: a gospel intended for the healing of the nations. Until forgiveness is embraced as part of the fundamental equation for redressing the ills of our world, we will inevitably find ourselves enacting or endorsing the tired practice of violent retaliation that has caused human history to be written in the genre of “tragedy.”
God’s solution to the perpetuation of violence and vengeance is the startling introduction of forgiveness.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” Jesus said during the Sermon on the Mount. “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
“For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48, NKJV, emphasis added).
Jesus calls us to be a perfect imitation of our Father in heaven, while linking this to how we treat our enemies, how we relate to those who are genuinely evil. If we surrender to the status quo by loving our neighbors and hating our enemies, by praying for our friends and hating our adversaries, by blessing the good guys and hating the bad guys, then we are refusing to bear the image of our Father—we are refusing to live as His sons and daughters.
Returning good for good and evil for evil is the way the world has always operated. And it is why the world remains a violent and angry place. Jesus calls us to become sons and daughters of our Father through a mature imitation of the His love and kindness—which He extends to friend and foe, good and bad alike.
Jesus did not present His ethic of enemy-love in the quiet and safe confines of American suburbia. It will be helpful to keep in mind that He lived in a violent world where His homeland was occupied by foreign troops.
When He was a small child, an armed Jewish revolt against the Roman occupiers broke out in Sepphoris—an important Galilean city just four miles from Nazareth. The Roman general Varus brutally crushed the rebellion and lined the road to Sepphoris with 2,000 crucified Galilean rebels (yes, 2,000). The grisly scenes of brutal execution were part of Rome’s psychological warfare—they were meant to deter future protestors.
It’s impossible to imagine that events like this did not have an enormous impact on the young Jesus. The mass crucifixion undoubtedly shaped Jesus’ concept of words such as cross and enemy.
We speak of “taking up our cross” in a culture where extremely few people have seen a real execution. Jesus spoke of taking up the cross in a world where crucifixions were common—and public. And Jesus spoke of enemy-love in a world where real and potentially violent enemies were as present as the nearest Roman garrison.
The historical context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount makes His words all the more astonishing. Jesus and His hearers knew about real crosses and real enemies.
The Cross Says It All
Only forgiveness has the capacity to rescue human society from the destructive vortex of violence and vengeance and give us a healing alternative. Only forgiveness can create the world of peace of which the prophets dared to dream.
Forgiveness is how God saves the sinner. The practice of forgiveness is how God heals the world. Forgiveness is the miracle cure. Not the cheap forgiveness that turns a blind eye to the reality of evil, but the costly forgiveness of the cross.
We who call ourselves Christians are recipients of the forgiveness that flows from the cross. But just as significantly, we are those called to be practitioners of Christ-like forgiveness.
We don’t just partake of the forgiveness of the cross; we take up the cross. We too engage in the costly practice of radical forgiveness. We too pray in the midst of our pain, “Father, forgive them.” In a broken world framed in revenge, we are to help flood creation with the healing grace of forgiveness.
To be a Christian is to believe that saving forgiveness is found in the cross. But to be a Christian also means to take up the cross in a deliberate imitation of Jesus. Admittedly, Christ’s call for us to take up our cross and follow Him is filled with many implications, but the most obvious understanding of this call is that we are to emulate the way He responded to evil as He hung upon the cross—by forgiving transgressors and refusing to be drawn into the cycle of revenge.
Historic Christianity has always understood that salvation comes from what Jesus did at His cross. But we must also understand that we are called to be ambassadors of that salvation by doing the same thing with our own cross. We too are to forgive the transgressors and refuse to be drawn into the cycle of revenge.
I fully realize this is a Christianity more radical than most bargain for. But perhaps we need to be reminded that the fullness of salvation is not obtained at a bargain; it is obtained by taking up our cross and following Jesus.
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