Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)
A truck driver is sitting in a restaurant, eating his food and minding his own business. Just then the door bursts open. In swagger several nasty looking members of a motorcycle gang. They walk over to the trucker and bark, “We want that table.” The trucker glances up at them and quietly says, “I’m not finished yet.” The leader of the bikers leans over, grabs the trucker’s cup of coffee, and slowly pours it over the plate of food. “You’re finished now,” he snarls. The trucker gets up silently and walks out the door. The bikers laugh. One of them sneers, “He’s not much of a man, is he?” A nearby waitress looks out the window and says, “He’s not much of a driver, either. He just drove his truck right over a whole bunch of motorcycles!”
I saw this happen on a movie screen when I was a teenager. I laughed at the waitress’s remark, and I felt like cheering as that eighteen-wheeler rumbled over those motorcycles. The grinding, crashing, crunching of those bullies’ bikes being turned into scrap metal was music to my ears.
Here’s another story. It’s not funny, and it’s not from the movies. It’s a true story. It happened in the early 1900’s during the Turkish–led genocide which destroyed so many of the people of Armenia. A Turkish officer raided and looted an Armenian home. He killed the aged parents. He gave the daughters to his troops. He kept the oldest daughter for himself.
Eventually this woman managed to escape. She trained to become a nurse. Some time later she found herself working in a ward of Turkish officers. One night, by the light of a lantern, she saw the face of that evil officer. The man was terrible sick. He would soon die without exceptional nursing. How did the nurse respond? She did all she could to help him. She worked and worked to restore him to health. Eventually he began to recover.
One day, the doctor and nurse stood by the officer’s bed. The doctor remarked, “Without this woman’s devotion to you, you would be dead.” He looked at her and said, “We have met before, haven’t we?” “Yes,” she said, “we have met before.” There was silence. Then he asked, “Why didn’t you kill me?” She replied, “I am a follower of him who said, ‘Love your enemies.'”
What a difference between the nurse from Armenia and the trucker from the movies! The trucker reacted to one ruined meal by destroying a whole bunch of expensive motorcycles. The nurse responded to murder, captivity, and rape by working night and day to save her enemy from death.
Let’s be honest here. Forgiveness may be admirable, even heroic, but revenge is delicious. The nurse’s story has a holy ending, but the trucker’s story has a happy ending. We love it when an ordinary guy crunches the motorcycles of some jerks who pick on him. Payback! Justice is served!
Or is it? Is justice served when several thousand dollars worth of motorcycles are destroyed because of one ruined meal? Not exactly. It’s not justice. It’s overkill. And isn’t that what usually happens when we try to pay people back for the wrongs they do us? We try to hurt them worse than they hurt us, and they in turn try to hurt us even worse than we hurt them.
Just look at children fighting. “You started it!” “No, you started it!” “I’ll get you back!” “Then I’ll get you back even worse!” And children aren’t the only ones who do that. Grownups do the same thing. Nasty words lead to nastier words. You feel you have a perfect right to be nasty–they deserve it. So you get revenge if you can, and if you can’t, you nurture resentment. This same mentality takes over when nations and ethnic groups hurt each other. Revenge is a vicious cycle. You blow up ten of us, we’ll blow up twenty of you. You blow up twenty of us, we’ll massacre a hundred of you. You massacre a hundred of us, we’ll wipe out a million of you.
In the movies, the hero’s revenge can provide a nice, neat, happy ending. But in real life, revenge isn’t the end. It’s the beginning, the beginning of more nastiness. It sets off a worse cycle of revenge and resentment. All too often, it spirals out of control. What supposedly began as a desire for justice ends up producing worse and worse injustices.
But just suppose we could keep it a matter of justice. Suppose we could pay back exactly what the offense deserved and no more. Then what? Would we really want that to be the standard for all our relationships? Would we really want tit–for–tat payback in everything? Think about it. What if God dealt with us that way? What if he decided to give us exactly what we deserve? What if he decided to crunch and ruin everybody who sinned against him? What if Jesus had used his divine powers to come down from the cross and smash his enemies and punish every last sinner on earth? Where would that leave you and me? It would leave us in hell.
Instant payback for every wrong looks appealing in the movies, but in real life it is disastrous. Justice without mercy is fatal in our relationship to God and in our relationships to other people. We end up destroying each other and ourselves. In the hands of sinful people, justice without mercy doesn’t stay justice for long. It becomes hurting for the sake of hurting.
Isn’t there enough hurt in the world already? Where does it stop? I’ll tell you where it stops: it stops at the cross of Jesus. At the cross good meets evil and remains good. At the cross love meets hate and keeps on loving. At the cross God deals with the sins we’ve committed, and he shows us how to deal with the sins others commit against us. It was through this cross that an Armenian nurse received forgiveness and life eternal, and it was through this cross that she extended forgiveness and new life to her enemy.
This woman knew the words of Jesus, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). And Jesus didn’t just say that. He did it. He practiced what he preached. When crooked leaders sentenced him to die and brutal soldiers nailed his hands and feet to a cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus forgave, and he showed his followers how to forgive.
On the cross Jesus unleashed the power of God’s forgiveness. Through the crucified and risen Jesus, God forgives people who sin against him and draws them into the embrace of his love. And through Jesus God also enables sinners to forgive each other and to embrace one other in love.
How can this forgiveness take effect in your life?
You need to begin by realizing that the supreme power in the universe is the power of love. Or, to put it another way, you need to realize that God is God, and that God is love.
Sometimes we’re tempted to think that the most basic truth about the world is that it’s a war of all against all. We figure that’s the way it is, that’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it always will be. It’s dog-eat-dog.
If you happen to have big, sharp teeth, then make sure you bite so hard that nobody dares to mess with you. If your teeth aren’t so big or sharp, you might as well face the fact that you’re going to get chewed up.
If you’re strong, your motto for dealing with you enemies is, “Don’t get mad; get even.” If you’re weak, your motto is, “I can’t hurt you, but I can still hate you and hope something bad happens to you.” In such a world, love is hopelessly unrealistic, and forgiveness is downright stupid.
But what if evil and violence aren’t the ultimate realities? What if goodness came before evil and will outlast evil? What if love is more powerful than hate? What if the supreme reality of the universe is a fellowship of love? That would change the whole picture, wouldn’t it? And believe it or not, a fellowship of love is indeed the supreme reality of the universe.
The supreme reality of the universe is God, and who is God? God is a loving fellowship of three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These divine persons are so united in their love for one another that they are not three gods but one God. That’s the ultimate truth about ultimate reality: God is and always was and always will be the loving union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is God, and God is love, for God is Trinity. Before sin and hate ever appeared, God the Trinity was love. After sin and hate are long gone, God the Trinity will still be love.
It’s a terrible mistake, then, to see hatred or cruelty as the ultimate reality. You may think there’s nothing wrong with trampling on others–you’re just doing whatever it takes to make it in a world where only the fittest survive. You may think that when others hurt you, you have to fight fire with fire and repay evil for evil. You may be so obsessed with how you’ve been wronged that your enemy seems like the ultimate reality, the main focus of your life. But when you think this way, you are out of touch with reality. You are forgetting that God is God.
Once you reckon with the reality of God, repentance and reconciliation begin to make a lot more sense than revenge or resentment. When you realize that God’s trinitarian fellowship of love is the supreme reality and the supreme standard for all relationships, you may start to sense your need to repent for your terrible failure to love God and your fellow human beings. When you realize that God is love, you can dare to believe that God will reconcile you to himself in spite of your sins. When you realize that God is love, you can share his love with others by forgiving them and loving them and repaying good for evil.
The story of the universe is not the survival of the fittest. The story of the universe is the supremacy of love. Why? Because God is the author of the story, and God is love. The universe didn’t begin with a senseless explosion of matter and energy. It began with the splendid overflow of the mutual love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the work of creation. God’s love created a good universe from nothing, and God’s love continues to create what is good from what is nothing–or worse than nothing.
In our rebellion against God, we corrupted ourselves and the rest of his creation, but even so, God remains God. He won’t let evil have the last word. Somehow, God’s love finds a way to overcome our hate. Somehow, the overflow of his goodness washes away our badness. He delights to show himself as the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, rich in love.
That’s good news for people who desperately need to be forgiven. Sometimes, though, it sounds like bad news, especially when we find out who else God forgives. We may be delighted to discover that God forgives us, but what if he decides to forgive the wrong people? What if he forgives our enemies?
Take the story of Jonah, for instance. God told the prophet Jonah to go and preach to the city of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, one the most vicious and violent empires in history. Nineveh had done some horrible things to God’s people. So, when God told Jonah to go preach in Nineveh, the prophet refused. Instead, he headed in the opposite direction. You might think he feared what the Ninevites would do to him, and maybe he did. But that wasn’t his biggest fear, as we’re going to see. Jonah’s biggest fear wasn’t that the people of Nineveh would kill him, but that through his preaching God would save Nineveh. And that was one thing Jonah didn’t want to happen.
So Jonah ran from God. He boarded a ship, hoping to sail as far away as he could get. He didn’t get far. God sent a terrible storm. The ship was about to sink. Jonah told his shipmates that he was to blame. He finally convinced them to throw him overboard. But Jonah didn’t drown. God sent a great fish to swallow Jonah. He could have destroyed the disobedient prophet, but instead he had mercy and saved him. What a wonderful God! Jonah found himself praising the Lord right there in the belly of the fish. He was so glad to have a God of grace save him from the depths of destruction. He promised to obey God, and he ended his prayer by exclaiming, “Salvation is of the Lord.”
Before long, though, Jonah changed his tune.
The Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. This time Jonah obeyed God. He went to Nineveh and said, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” And what did the people of Nineveh do? They believed God. From the lowest slave to the king himself, they humbled themselves and repented and pleaded for God’s mercy. When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
That’s exactly what Jonah had been afraid of all along. He exploded: “I knew it, I knew it! This is why I ran away in the first place. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity–and it makes me so mad I could die!”
A little earlier, Jonah had praised God’s mercy. But that was when he was the one receiving it. Now, when God started forgiving the wrong people, when he forgave Jonah’s enemies and gave them a fresh start just like he’d given Jonah, Jonah’s delight turned to dismay. He was furious. He was so angry he wanted to die. Better to be dead than live in a world run by a God who forgave scum like that.
But the Lord replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”
Jonah was too busy sulking to reply. He went out and set up a little shelter east of the city. He was going to wait and see what would happen. He was hoping God might yet destroy the city. Meanwhile, though, the weather was hot. God provided a vine that sprang up and gave Jonah shade and relieve his discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the vine. That night, though, God sent a worm that chewed the vine, and it withered. Then God sent a scorching hot day. Poor Jonah got a hot head–in more ways than one. His forehead got so hot that he felt faint, and his temper got so hot that he said once again that he’d rather be dead.
God asked Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” Jonah said. “I am angry enough to die.”
Then the Lord made his point. He told Jonah, “Here you are, all upset about a vine, even though you didn’t do a thing to make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. If you’re that concerned about a plant you didn’t create, shouldn’t I be concerned about people I did create? Shouldn’t I be concerned about a city that has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many cattle?” That’s where the book of Jonah stops, with God’s question still dangling, ending with the awkward phrase: “and also many cattle.” Even the cattle matter to God! The Lord loves cattle more than Jonah loves people!
But what does any of this have to do with the cross of Jesus Christ? We’ve seen that God is love in that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit eternally love one another, and we’ve seen that God is love also in relation to the world he made, even after we fell into sin. The Lord is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love,” as Jonah found out. What more is there to say except that God forgives people and lets them get away with their sin and loves them anyway?
Well, if that’s all there was to it, then Jonah would have a point. Sure, God’s love is wonderful if you happen to be the one benefiting from it. But is that the whole story? Is it just love, love, and more love? Is it just mercy and forgiveness? What about justice? We might not want a world with all justice and no mercy, but do we really want a world that is all mercy and no justice? Do we want a God who acts as though evil doesn’t matter?
That’s where the cross of Christ comes in. The cross proves that evil does matter, and it proves that God is just. God doesn’t let sin go unpunished forever. Jonah’s sin didn’t go unpunished. Nineveh’s sin didn’t go unpunished. Your sin doesn’t go unpunished. My sin doesn’t go unpunished. We don’t have to bear the punishment ourselves, but that doesn’t mean the sin goes unpunished. God punishes sin, all right. He punishes it and bears the punishment himself, in the person of his Son Jesus. That’s why he can forgive sin and still remain a God of justice. On the cross Jesus absorbs our sin into himself and endures God’s wrath against it.
That’s why Jesus could pray, “Father, forgive them.” He wasn’t just praying for sinners to be forgiven. He was paying for sinners to be forgiven. What does this mean for you? It means that if you admit your sin and trust that Jesus died for you, you can receive God’s gift of forgiveness right now.
Don’t think forgiveness is easy or cheap. It’s free for you, but think of what it cost God. God the Father loves his Son and Jesus loves his Father so much you can’t begin to imagine it. And yet the Father sacrificed his infinitely beloved Son, and the Son endured the dreadful wrath of his infinitely beloved Father, in order to unleash the power of forgiveness. So, then, let’s not think that forgiveness is easy or trivial.
At the same time, though, let’s not think that forgiveness is impossible. Even if you’re the worst of sinners, you’re not a lost cause. The crucifixion of Jesus was an infinite sacrifice of love from the very heart of the holy Trinity, and it’s more than enough to cover the sins of the whole world. No matter how much damage you’ve done, it can’t match the value of Jesus’ death.
The infinite price Jesus paid for you also spills over into your relationship to others. No matter how horribly someone has hurt you, no matter what their sin has cost you, it can’t possibly cost you as much as your sin cost God at the cross. When Jesus teaches you to forgive, he’s only asking you to do on a small scale what he’s done on a much larger scale. If your Lord could forgive your sin by absorbing it in suffering love, then you can follow his lead. You can absorb your enemies’ hurts and forgive them. You can love them freely and pray, “Father, forgive them.”
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.