Monday, December 8, 2008


So, I finished reading Tim Keller's The Reason for God, which I last blogged about here.  There is much to praise about the book, and I especially enjoy the last three chapters of the book.  Keller has a very good explanation of why Jesus had to die, and his chapter on "The (True) Story of the Cross" is almost a sermon on what it truly means to forgive.

Forgiveness means absorbing the debt of the sin yourself.  Everyone who forgives great evil goes through a death into resurrection, and experiences nails, blood, sweat, and tears.

There really is something about being wronged that makes a person physically ill.  I mean, you can literally feel the hurt flowing through your body.  That's what you have to absorb in order to truly forgive someone.  And yet, in parables that appear in passages such as Matthew 18:23-35, we read that the sins we have to forgive others are petty and worthless compared to the sins God must forgive us for.  Forgiveness, then, really is a requirement that Jesus makes of us (see Matthew 5:14-15).  I suppose it's true what Christians say: the more you realize God has forgiven you, the more you realize how right it is to forgive others.

I know there are many who object to this idea, and I've had some objections, myself.  I mean, does everyone in the world really owe God that much?  What about people who are just plain awesome--always giving to the poor, doing great things for the community, and generally being nice, wonderful people?

I think it helps to look at things in terms of the grand narrative that Christianity presents.  In the beginning, God created us with power over the perfect world that He had created.  Our rebellion consisted not in breaking this or that petty commandment, but really in destroying this perfect created order.  The message of the Old Testament is that the human race, corporately, in cooperation with one another (a cooperation that disintegrated precisely because of our sin) destroyed the perfect order God gave us.

I don't think we owe God more than we can ever pay simply because God the lawyer can cite points A, B, and C where we have failed to live up to His standard.  I think we owe Him more than we can ever pay because we, the creatures He designed to be leaders over a perfect world, used our power to achieve our own greedy ends.  We, the vice-regents, set ourselves up as kings.  Even the most kind, nice, and moral people among us have taken part in this rebellion, in which the One True King of all creation has been rejected by His people.  So it's not really a question of how "nice" we are.  It's simply a question of who we serve.

God is clearly not the tyrant in this image.  Although rebellion is the thing He condemns us for, it is not because He can't stand to be out of control.  Clearly, God has been happy to let us make our own decisions, i.e. our own mess of things for thousands of years.  Yet God has always been there in the midst of our faulty, divided kingdom.  He is uncompromising and unyielding in His methods.  His method has always been love, even when it means the kingdoms have literally destroyed themselves by their own evil.

In a way, God's love is oppressive.  His forgiveness is offensive, as forgiveness so often is.  You know--someone forgives you, and you begin to resent them for being the kind of person who can forgive you for what you did.  You begin to say in your heart, "Oh, I bet they think they're better than I am."  It really is hard to be forgiven, to realize that yes, you actually did damage to someone else that had to be absorbed, not merely forgotten.

But in thinking about all of this, I have begun to realize that God forgives not simply because it is good for us, but surely because it is good for Him.  As Hebrews 12:2 rather mysteriously says about Jesus, he "for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame...."  It is a nice sentimental (and true) thing to say that God didn't have to forgive us, but He did for our sake.  Yet it is also true, and powerfully so, that God forgave us for His sake.

That means there is something fundamentally good about forgiving.  We don't simply owe that much to God that we must forgive everyone.  It is also good for us.  In a truly Christian worldview, to forgive is to show or perhaps gain strength.  Just as you can imagine a warrior becoming stronger by defeating more and more enemies, so does a person become stronger by defeating evil right where it strikes the hardest--in the heart.  Forgiveness is indeed a powerful weapon.

That is why to me, Christ's death on the cross really was an incredible victory, not just for us but for him.  It is something we should emulate (indeed, he commands us to--see Luke 14:27).  Of course without the resurrection, the victory of the cross would be no victory at all.  Still, the crucifixion stands in my mind as Christ's true weapon against evil.  In fact, I will venture so far as to say it is still a weapon being used against evil today, whereby God still absorbs the evil that is being committed against Him even now.

All of this helps me to realize the value of forgiveness in my own life.  I look back on all of those times I let things get to me, instead of absorbing them, and I realize I missed a chance to become stronger.  I missed out on something desirable not only for others, but even for myself.  Just think how empowered someone must feel when they actually don't feel the need to retaliate against someone who does them wrong.

You will have to forgive me, dear reader, whoever you are, for going on and on with this.  I just think it's so wonderful when these truths come together, not just sentimentally, but logically.  God is a God we can actually think about, and He makes sense.  Hallelujah.

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