When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”And they cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23: 33-34 NRSV)
It’s been nearly a year now since I finally learned to surrender my hurt, anger, and hate and return to church. I’ll probably go into detail about some of that another time, but suffice it to say that I went from a seminary candidate to hardcore anti-church and anti religion for what I thought at the time were very good reasons. Then about a year ago I decided to give it another go for at least a week, and attended the local Methodist church that my parents attend. I liked the Pastor, liked what I was hearing from the pulpit, liked the people, and I went back next week, and the next, and the next.
These days I would say my faith is more vital than it ever was, even when I was going to be a pastor. I see God’s work even back then, telling me that I wasn’t ready to be a pastor, because I had not yet really known Jesus, grace, and forgiveness. There was a certain freedom that came when I could finally start forgiving the perceived wrongs in my life, a freedom that allowed me to live more fully and follow Christ more closely.
God knew better than I did, imagine that!
Anyway, over the last year I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my beliefs, and the basic principles in particular. So I’ve decided to write a series of post on these basic beliefs that I will call “Basic Christianity.”
This is the first of those, and I want to talk about forgiveness. But why that topic? A couple of Sundays back we had a drama group come and present a series of plays and short skits during our Sunday worship. It was very enjoyable, and the young people who presented the skits were very skilled, but I had issues with a couple of things in their skits, and the concept of forgiveness was one of them.
For the skit in question, they set the scene in an office break room. Two people, a man and a woman were there, and the man confronted the woman. He felt that some kind of scheming that the young woman had done had cost him a promotion at his job at the same workplace, and eventually his job itself. After some awkward conversation about it, the man told her that he forgave her for these wrongs because he was a Christian and that’s what Christ called him to do.
So far so good. I don’t know that we ought to go around telling people that the reason we forgive them is because God us ordered us to, but I think it was just the person who wrote the play’s way of letting the crowd know that the man was a Christian.
So it was all going swimmingly. He talked about the freedom of forgiveness, much the same as I did a couple of paragraphs back. The woman was moved, admitted that she had schemed against him, and asked him to tell her more about Jesus, which he did.
What a nice story, right? The issue came right at the end. In one of the last lines of the skit, the man who had been fired said: “It’s okay, I’ve got a better job now making more money than I was making here anyway.”
I sat in the pew and sighed heavily.
For me, that line undercut the entire story. Before that line, the story had been about how a man with a legitimate grievance went back to speak to the person that had wronged him, not to confront the person, but to freely forgive them. Now out of a job, that forgiveness cost the man a great deal.
After that line though, the skit was about “winning.” Instead of “I freely forgive you for the wrong you have committed,” it was “It’s easy to forgive you now because I came out ahead in the end.” Ouch. In other words, his forgiveness was not motivated by grace, but by a new feeling of superiority. By not forgiving until he had gotten a new, better job making more money, the act of forgiveness had cost him nothing, cheap forgiveness from a standpoint of cheap grace.
Let’s contrast that man with the image of Christ on the cross. In the verses cited above from Luke, as he hangs there about to die, Jesus forgives the people who executed him and asks the Father for that same forgiveness for them. Then he dies. The ultimate forgiveness came for the ultimate wrong: Murdering an innocent man, not just any innocent man, but the Son of God himself. It cost Jesus dearly, it cost him his life. It cost the Father dearly, it cost him the torture and death of his only son. If you’re a parent, think about that.
On page 45 of his book “The Cost of Discipleship,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about this forgiveness and the grace which made it possible:
Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son. ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God cannot be cheap for us. Above all it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
That kind of makes forgiveness after you’ve come out ahead in the end a little petty and little cheap, doesn’t it? It’s also worth noting that while Christ did know that he would rise from the dead and come out ahead in the end, he didn’t wait until that happened to forgive. He could have walked out of the tomb, appeared in glory to the Jewish leaders and Pilate and said, “Now I forgive you. You see who I am now,” but he didn’t. Sometimes I think if what passes for modern Christianity in America were to rewrite this story, that’s exactly how they would do it. Jesus still forgives everyone, but does so in a splendor of glory in a huge “I told you so” moment.
Forgiveness, like grace, is costly, not cheap. As I have struggled to forgive wrongs that I perceived were done to me, it has been costly. I’ve had to let go of part of the emotion that was driving my life, a desire to prove people wrong. I’ve also had to turn the light of examination on myself and ask how I might have contributed to certain situations and handled them differently. I’ve had to learn to approach some people that I never wanted to see again.
But in the end, it was so worth it. Letting go of that raw hate and anger has showed me that these people never stopped loving me or supporting me, that in fact they still do, maybe even more than they used to. I had to drop that air of grievance that made me feel so superior to finally be free of the bonds that I had put on myself, so in a sense I’ve had to forgive myself as well.
I think forgiveness should be a big deal in our society today. We get so caught up in the wrongs we feel are being done to us as individuals or as a collective. We zoom in and focus on these wrongs like they are the most important things in the world. This singular focus leads to anger, resentment, hate, and often even the desire for revenge, which I think we often confuse with “justice.”
We pour our pent up energy and resentment out in many ways, but often today this is played out in forums like social media where we constantly dwell on how we are truly offended, how we are wronged, and how mad we are about it. I know I’m guilty of this. The problem with that is that in the end it never really does anybody any good. We trick ourselves into thinking we’ll feel better if we can just “vent,” and that venting progresses to anger, absorbing our lives and in some cases, like mine, it even gives us a new identity. I lived my life not as Brandon, decent guy, child of God, who always wanted to help and never hurt, but as a person who had been “wronged” by God and “the church,” and boy did I make sure I talked about it to anybody who would listen.
But this never leads to forgiveness, freedom, or reconciliation, all of which Christ does in fact call us to.
I’m not claiming that I’ve perfected the art of forgiveness for myself or others, far from it in fact. I still have some resentment from the past that I struggle with from time to time, but I know that I am on the right road, following the example set by Christ which can yield freedom for me and for all of us.
So just maybe next time we’re offended or wronged our first thought should be costly forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation instead of trying to come out ahead so we can cheaply forgive from a perceived position of superiority. What do you think, can we really do that in our current climate? I think it’s worth a shot, though it will never be easy.