“Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34
Forgiveness feels like a double-edged sword sometimes, doesn’t it? I am so aware of my own need for forgiveness from Jesus and from others, yet when the time comes to offer it, I am more than a little inclined to want to hold on just a little bit to that grudge, for one reason or another. I don’t know about you, but I start to squirm a little when I read verses like Colossians 3:13b that says, “Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.” And then there is Ephesians 4:32 that tells us, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ.” Jesus Himself, when teaching the Sermon on the Mount, said, “For if you forgive people their wrongdoing, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing” (Matthew 6:14-15). This, friend, is a high calling. We are incapable of forgiving people on our own. Jesus’ disciples must have wrestled with this one as well because Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother when he had been wronged, thinking seven times seemed like a generous number. Jesus, though, probably rocked his world when He told Peter that it should be seventy times seven. Christ feels strongly about the concept of forgiveness. And so should we. Sometimes, being human is just so difficult. I desperately need forgiveness from Jesus, but by the same token, I feel justified when I cling to my own lack of forgiveness towards others. I long ago learned that one of my hang-ups with forgiveness was that I felt like by granting forgiveness, I was in essence saying that I was okay with whatever the offense was. Thankfully, Jesus has shown me a better way. He has taught me that by offering forgiveness, I am not letting someone else off the hook. No, by forgiving, I am releasing that person from any hold they have over me. And I am also trusting Jesus to deal with the offender rather than making myself the judge and jury. Forgiveness sets the offended one free. God’s Word does tell us that vengeance belongs to God (see Romans 12:19). Yet I still so frequently need this constant reminder. Learning to forgive easily and readily is a lifelong process, and at times, I get it right while other times, I fail the test. Again.
I like to prepare my heart for Easter by focusing on the passages of Scriptures that cover the days of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Earlier this week, I again read the account of Jesus on the cross from the gospel according to Luke. The story is so familiar to me that I have had to make it a practice to guard against that when reading Scriptures that I know so well. I let the words Jesus prayed as He hung on the cross fall on me afresh when He said to God, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” Even as I read it, deep down in my heart, I questioned–but didn’t they know what they were doing? They knowingly demanded Pilate release the criminal and hang the innocent Jesus on the cross. How could Jesus be so gracious and so loving in the midst of such horrific injustice and agony? Jesus knew their hearts, and He saw the hardness there. He also recognized their need for a Savior even when they didn’t. They didn’t acknowledge the Messiah among them, and they certainly could not understand that He willingly allowed them to hammer the nails into His wrists and ankles. He submitted to the will of Father in allowing Himself to be the sacrificial Lamb and have the sins of all humanity–past, present, and future–to be placed upon Him as He hung on the cross. Had that been you or I, we would have been compelled to declare our innocence and the injustice of it all. We, who are full of sin and in desperate need of forgiveness, would have pleaded for God’s wrath upon them, rather than His forgiveness. But not Jesus. Consider this: we are told to forgive others just as Christ has forgiven us. Yet the only perfect person who has ever trod the soil of this planet, who did not require forgiveness from anyone, asked His father to forgive those who wronged Him. Not only did they wrong Him, they crucified Him. Though you and I were not there at Calvary on that dark day of humanity, it was no less our sins, no less our shouts demanding His crucifixion than those present. We, too, are guilty of crying out for them to condemn Him to death–because of our sins. Jesus, both fully God and fully human, 100% perfect and without sin, who never wronged another a day in His life, forgives us and cried out for the forgiveness of those who stood before Him as He died.
How much more, then, should we be willing to forgive others when we ourselves have been forgiven so much? Even in my own mind, I hear that little word that packs a punch, “but…” We want an escape clause for the obedience Jesus requires of us when we are told to forgive. In our minds, we can add so many reasons or excuses not to forgive. God doesn’t say forgive except in situations like this or like that. God doesn’t tell us to merely forgive when others didn’t mean to hurt or wound us. God tells us to forgive others as He has forgiven us. Period. I have both willfully and unintentionally sinned against God and others. God has forgiven me for both, and His response remains the same: forgive just as I have forgiven you. It is a matter of the heart. Sometimes we feel like our lack of willingness to forgive is a protective barrier around our hearts, but we learn an added reason to forgive found in 2 Corinthians 2:10-11: “If you forgive anyone, I do too. For what I have forgiven–if I have forgiven anything–it is for you in the presence of Christ. I have done this so that we may not be taken advantage of by Satan. For we are not ignorant of his schemes.” (Emphasis added is mine). Satan capitalizes on our lack of forgiveness. It offers him a foothold into our worlds, and he will manipulate and use it to his advantage to further the kingdom of darkness in this world. And let’s be honest, our world doesn’t need any extra darkness in it. Rather, let’s be aware of his schemes and how he interferes in our relationships with each other ultimately attempting to create a wedge in our relationships with Christ and render us useless for God’s kingdom work. Not today, Satan!
Maybe we should begin offering others the benefit of the doubt and forgive them for both perceived slights and intentional wounds. Let’s examine our hearts and ask Jesus to show us where we are withholding forgiveness from someone. Or perhaps we know exactly who we are called to forgive. Let’s walk in the freedom of His forgiveness. When we do, we are free to love others and give them the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, people intentionally wound us and those are more challenging to forgive, but by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, we can choose to forgive even the most unforgivable. We may have to daily ask God for the grace to forgive that person again for the same injury, but God is faithful. He will empower us to forgive. And we can trust that all of our sins are forgiven, and we can inhale the fragrant aroma of the presence and friendship of Jesus. Skies appear a bit bluer and the sun brighter when we walk in the light of Jesus’ forgiveness, thus freely offering to others what we have so generously received.
A prayer for forgiveness: Jesus, we come to You right now, again praising You for Your sacrifice on Calvary’s cross. We know that we don’t deserve Your forgiveness and that it is a gift of Your grace to us. As we have freely received this gift, let us also freely offer forgiveness others. Whether we have been intentionally wronged or if it’s a perceived slight, we ask You to empower us by Your Spirit with the grace and ability to forgive. Jesus, help us to know that You always are our shield and refuge, and this offers us the ability to love freely and be vulnerable because we are forever safe in You. Give us heightened awareness into the areas of our lives where a lack of forgiveness has invited the enemy of our souls into our worlds. Grant us the courage to forgive. When we don’t want to forgive, we ask you for a willing heart, Lord. Thank You, Jesus. We love You so much. Amen