I recently wrote about how our wounds provide a model for how we relate to God and understand Him, the hurts we receive from others. That post was inspired by Tim Keller who said, “The way we distribute mercy says a lot about how we relate to God.” Because God forgives us as we forgive others (Luke 11:4), our forgiveness is tied into how we see God, understand Him and relate to Him.
The two keys are 1) how we understand God’s love and 2) how we understand our own sinfulness. Both of these perspectives are measured best by the cross, by the example of God shedding all of His power and privilege to become human, and being found in human form, submitting Himself to His own plan by sacrificing Himself on the cross for our sake. (Phil. 2) We can understand our own sinfulness in relation to the cost of redemption – the life of God’s son (God in the flesh); and we can measure God’s love by the same standard.
God loved us to much that He gave His life for us. By the same token, the extreme cost of the life of Jesus is the measure of the depth of our sin. We have been forgiven much!
Our understanding of the greatness of God’s love for us, and the great depth of our sin, helps us in understanding why we need to forgive others. If God loved us so much, we are free to love – and compelled to love – others by the same measure. In more mundane terms, if our sin was so great that Christ had to die for us to redeem us, we can certainly forgive the lesser sins others have committed against us.
In fact, to bring this home, we can only be forgiven to the extent (by the measure which) we forgive others. Our forgiveness and our forgiveness toward others is inextricably linked. Perhaps, this is because Jesus and the Father (and the Spirit) are one, and Jesus calls us to be one with them (Him). (John 17:21) We can’t be one with God if we harbor unforgiveness toward others!
In some sense, then, forgiveness is formulaic. Jesus has stated for us a kind of “law of forgiveness”. Not much different, really, then a law of physics, He is telling us, “This is how it works.”
How do we, then, go from intellectual ascent and academic understanding to real life? I like the way NT Wright puts it when he says that the bit (part) of us that opens the door to forgive others opens the door to forgiveness for ourselves.
(NT Wright made this comment on a recent podcast of Ask NT Wright Anything, hosted by Justin Brierley, a show I recommend.)
Anyone who has wrestled with forgiving someone who has really hurt them knows that forgiveness is anything but academic. Its’s hard! It doesn’t come easy! It isn’t our human inclination to forgive others.
That’s why I like the way NT Wright puts it: the part of us that opens the door to forgive others opens the door to forgiveness. Experientially, we can understand this.
We might “hear” a small “voice” that accompanies a brief mental picture of that person: a brief glimpse of his/her humanity; a briefly empathetic thought. It isn’t a loud voice. It’s easily over-matched by other “voices” in our heads that want to focus on the hurt, magnify it and feed the fires of unforgiveness. (Frankly, this is fairly true of most forms of sin – the “voice” or urge to tend toward sin is often the louder voice.)
NT Wright doesn’t say that the part of us that forgives opens the door to forgiveness; he says its the part of us that opens the door to forgive…. Because the human tendency is to harden ourselves and tend away from forgiveness, it isn’t like flipping a switch. Though forgiveness might often, ultimately, be reached in a moment, like flipping a switch, it’s usually a process to get there. It starts with opening the door.
It might even have to start with a willingness to be willing. You might not actually be willing, but the decision to be willing to be willing may be the door you have to open first.
NT Wright is saying that we need to listen for and feed the “voice” that is suggesting forgiveness. That still small voice is easily overwhelmed. We might not ever even hear it unless we know to look for it.
God, through His Holy Spirit, is ever present, whispering in a still small voice to us, waiting for us to listen and respond. Listening and responding is the first step in opening up – being willing to be willing.
Opening up the door to forgive, in turn, opens the door to forgiveness. I think it’s important to hold onto both ends of the proposition that forgiving leads to forgiveness. Just as Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him, we need to endure the cross of hurt from others with our eyes fixed on the joy of forgiveness that is offered by God to us. In fact, without the promise of forgiveness from our Father, we might not ever be able to forgive.
We love because God first loved us. (1 Jn. 4:19)
Our forgiveness is dependent on our forgivingness (willingness to forgive), but our ability to forgive may also depend on the forgiveness that is offered to us. Forgiveness and forgiving others are inextricably linked. We have to hold onto both ends at the same time to experience forgiveness and to be able to forgive.