The sun beat down from a cloudless sky, but we were high in the mountains and so the summer weather wasn’t too hot. Besides, we were sitting in the courtyard of the village Mosque, shaded by trees and cooled by the requisite fountain. I plus three others of the team I led were honored guests at a wedding, many hours away from any large city and many centuries removed from modern life. The women were off somewhere doing what women do at a time like this. We would briefly see them later at the marriage formalities (held out of doors, of course, not inside the Mosque), then, segregated again, the women would eat and dance together in one location while the men ate and danced with other men in another.
For now, though, we men were killing time until the ceremony was to begin, when suddenly the quiet was broken by roughhousing among the younger men and boys. One youth unwisely had grabbed a 10 year old and acted as if he were going to dunk him headfirst in the fountain. He didn’t actually go through with it, but it was enough; the indignant boy wanted revenge. At first the older youth found this highly amusing; since his arms were twice as long as the child’s he could easily keep him at bay. The younger one’s rage simply increased. The village elders briefly discussed this grave breach of protocol and decided to resolve it by giving the child a switchblade. The older youth was now caught in a dilemma: the boy was literally trying to kill him, but if he defended himself against an opponent half his age he risked shaming himself – or worse, making himself an object of retribution from the child’s family. We four westerner men weren’t sure what to do, but the village elders had done what they deemed appropriate within their culture. As soon as the boy had drawn blood they assured him he’d done well and ordered the knife be returned. Still angry, but reassured that he’d avenged himself on the older youth, the boy relented; a kind of détente settled and the rest of the day went on as planned. I was living in a culture where honor and revenge were virtues and forgiveness and mercy were vices.
This worldview is foreign to us, but it was not to the first century world, the world of the New Testament. It was in a similar world that Christ spoke of forgiveness. It was so important to him that it was the first thing he said while dying:
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” – Luke 23.34
Now this is just silly, at least at one level. The Romans knew exactly what they were doing. Crucifixion was a routine form of execution in the Empire, so much so that specialized teams of soldiers were set aside for this function. Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Literacy, writes that during the first century alone between 50 thousand to 100 thousand Jews were crucified by Rome.
Perhaps Christ said this because they didn’t realize they were killing no mere man but God incarnate; perhaps he meant they really had no idea what they were doing to themselves spiritually by torturing and killing fellow human beings, created in the image of God. The larger question, though, is what does this mean for us? If in this extremity and horror Christ was willing to forgive, shouldn’t we, too, be willing to forgive, no matter what?
Evidently the answer is not all that obvious. When I became a Christian in the 1980s there was a famous Christian radio talk show host who said he forgave only those who apologized to him, or those who, as in Christ’s case on the cross, were ignorant of their wrongdoing. He insisted Christians need not – indeed, should not – forgive anyone who didn’t first repent. After all, he argued, God does not forgive us until and unless we repent, so if we are to be like God it would be unbiblical to us to do otherwise. From what I’ve heard, some contemporary theologians seem to believe the same thing. And just last month I listened to several Christian men argue this very point.
But Christ’s words on the cross were by no means his only ones on this topic. Some years earlier he’d said
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.” – Mark 11.25-26
“’Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors ….’ If you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” – Matthew 6.12-15
Not much ambiguity there. The difficulty, it seems to me, is confusing forgiveness with reconciliation. They are completely different things. You can forgive someone who’s wounded you, stolen from you, worked to destroy everyone and everything you know and love. That does not mean you resume relationship with them. Restoration of relationship can happen, and it does require forgiveness on your part, but it also requires repentance on their part. Trust, once lost, must be re-earned.
To forgive without condition is not “cheap grace.” Indeed, that grace was bought by the sacrificial death of Christ; it is by no means cheap. To reconcile without repentance, however, cheapens what Christ has done for us and encourages sinners to continue sinning. Love your enemies? Yes. Act as if they were not your enemies? Madness. Remember, in the teaching about conflict resolution found in Matthew chapter 18, Christ did not say to reconcile with a fellow Christian who sins and refuses to repent, did he? He said, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, love him but do not trust him; pray for him but shun him. Reconciliation without condition is unjust.
What, then, is forgiveness? It necessitates that you have been hurt, but not that you allow them to hurt you again. It does not mean your pain will go away, or that you won’t struggle with anger or grief. It does not mean you will like them anymore; you might never be friends with them again. Forgiveness is an acknowledgement that a grave offense was committed, but you choose not to punish them for the wrongdoing. That is not to say they won’t be punished by God or by government – in fact, being punished may be the means by which they are brought to repentance – but you choose not to be their tormenter or their judge; you choose not to get your pound of flesh. Forgive, because Christ commands it; forgive, because Christ demonstrated it. And take to heart the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote,
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12.19