There is nothing so nice as an encouraging verse. However, thinking deeply and carefully about those encouraging verses can be equally challenging! For example, consider the Scripture that invites us to forgive…
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.Ephesians 4:32
This verse, and many others like it, use very encouraging language to describe our relationships with one another. These words, like kind, tender-hearted, and forgive, describe feelings of closeness and friendship. What they don’t describe is how challenging these concepts will be for us. Other words, like hurt, anger, and betrayal, so often overshadow the encouraging words that we are truly shocked by their effects. We are shocked by how long hurts take to fade. We are shocked by the depth of betrayal we feel. We are shocked by the intensity of our anger. Suddenly a verse that seems so encouraging to us becomes a verse that almost mocks us in our frustration or pain.
We wonder… how can it be fair to be forgiving and tender-hearted when someone has wronged me like this! If you have asked that question, you are certainly not alone. However (and please don’t hear judgment or condemnation of how you feel – just deep thinking), when we are deeply hurt I don’t think that we are thinking clearly about our desire for fairness. We may feel that we want fairness in that moment, but we really don’t. And no, I don’t mean that we are always wanting something harsher that fairness, like vengeance. No, I mean that we may believe we want fairness in how we are hurt; but we don’t want fairness equally. We don’t hope for justice when we have wronged someone. Which means, in the moment we are hurting we may believe we long for fairness; but such longing is coming out of our pain and not out of who we are in the core of our being.
Why do I say that? I say that because we consistently long for mercy (which, by definition, isn’t fair) if we are the ones who hurt someone else. We long for forgiveness. We long for restoration. We plead for it. In fact, we are sometimes even impatient for it when a friend delays in giving it to us. Why do we live in such contradiction? Why do we want justice when we are hurt and mercy when we have hurt others? Two words: pain and life. These are imperatives for us. We avoid pain when we can, and seek life whenever we can. Both when we have been hurt and when we have hurt others, we feel the tug of war between these two imperatives. Too often when we are hurt we are tempted to minimize the call of life in our hearts. We want to protect ourselves from more pain. This is where God’s teaching about forgiveness challenges us. He calls us to value life over protection. This is who He is.
Jesus tells us several times in the gospels that the way we forgive others is the way that God will forgive us (see the Lord’s prayer and His parable of the unmerciful servant). I don’t know about you, but that scares me a bit! In our verse today, Paul encourages us to forgive just like God has forgiven us. These aren’t separate truths. They are the same truth said from the flip side. Paul takes what Jesus says in the gospels and flips it over as our challenge. How would I put these two parallel encouragements together?
We, as Christians, must always let how much we have been forgiven by God influence how much we will forgive those who have hurt us. Anything less is a horrible forgetfulness of God’s gracious work in us.
This isn’t easy. Re-read what Jesus experienced on the cross and then tell me if it was easy for Him. He was stripped, whipped, beaten, mocked, and crucified. He even cried out over His feelings of abandonment while hanging on the cross. No, His path to forgive us was not easy, but it was the path of life for us. Living in forgiveness today is an extension of that path lived out in us. First, it is the path of life because as we live this way we are living out the revealed character of our God. If Jesus has so changed us that we can do this, it assures our hearts that we are truly His. Second, it is the path of life because in our relationships things like bitterness and grudge holding are the path of death.
So, when I am hurt or feel betrayed, I keep choosing forgiveness. It is not simple or easy. Yet, it is the path of life. It is the path Jesus has walked before us. I want to walk with Him in this path. If it is the path of life, why would I want to walk in any other?