Painful Forgiveness

I have been very blessed in my life to be able to sit at the feet of some great teachers of the faith. These are men who played a part of shaping me into the pastor and teacher and man I am today.  These mentors did not even seem to know how important they were, they were just carrying out their vocation. They were passionate and honest and had a way of getting more out of me than I even knew was there. They are all quite different and came from different backgrounds and engaged in different disciplines of expertise. But just this last week I realized there was something they all did that was common. It was a peculiar thing. All of them, when they spoke passionately about forgiveness, about the incredible life-giving gift of the Gospel, they would get choked-up. Their voice would quiver, and you could usually see tears welling up in their eyes. These men I revered tended to find themselves holding back tears when they spoke of God’s forgiveness breaking forth into the life of poor miserable sinners.

At first, I thought this peculiar trait was just a product of getting older. Perhaps a man is a little less guarded of showing his emotions as he ages. But I am learning what I was seeing is the result of people who have been through the trenches with forgiveness. They believe in it. They long for it not only for themselves but for all those they encounter, their own children, their students, their friends, and neighbors. See, they have spent decades teaching and preaching the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ. They have joyfully proclaimed the forgives of sins repeatedly, but that work takes its toll. Sometimes forgiveness is met with doubt, disdain for the Word of God. Sometimes people flat out refuse forgiveness. They know they do not deserve it and will not listen to it. They want one more opportunity to try and fix things on their own. Or they simply want to just be left alone in their sin. Other times, we simply do not want to forgive.

Forgiveness can be painful. It has a habit of tearing down our own idols, our own structures we have relied on to make our way through this world. What we want, what we expect is justice and fairness. We want those who have hurt us to receive some punishment for that wounding. We want people to reap what they sow. At the very least, we want those who receive forgiveness to really deserve it. They ought to show their desire for it, show their repentance in some real measurable way. Then and only then will we forgive. We tend to treat forgiveness as a dangerous substance which ought to be strictly controlled. Sometimes it is desired but not given. Other times it is offered but rejected. Yet, the forgiveness of God is the only way any of us will enter eternal life.

Have you ever wondered if perhaps God went a little too far when He promised forgiveness through His Son? I mean, He says there is no other name under Heaven by which you can be saved. He promises whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. We are famously reminded, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Do you ever think if He had known what sort of people would be seeking His forgiveness that He might have given it a second thought? Perhaps He would have added a few caveats.

My good friend Ross recently shared a story that happened to him early in his ministry. He was called to a hospital room where a young mother, one of his members, was holding her infant child in her arms. The child was dying, and Ross was there to baptize the baby and pray with this trembling mother. The reason the child was dying is because it had been shaken and thrown down by its father. Though he no doubt felt inadequate, he did his best to try and comfort her in that grief. As terrible as that was the next day was even worse. He had to go see the father of the child, who was also a member. He was in jail for what he had done. When he saw Ross, he did the one thing he did not want him to do. He confessed his sin. He trembled in repentance. The gravity of the situation crashed down upon him and he threw himself on the hope that God might be merciful. Ross clinched his teeth and hesitated. He did not want to do this, to speak God’s forgiveness here. But he did. He said he hardly even looked at him, just read the words in the book thinking the whole time how badly he wanted to get out of there.

Jonah was like that. We all know the story to some degree. He was called by God to preach to the pagan sinners of Nineveh. But he did not go. He fled the opposite direction setting sail to Tarshis. He does not do this because he does not want to travel to Nineveh, or he has other plans. He runs because he knows God is merciful. He knows the LORD will relent of the disaster Nineveh deserves if they repent, and he does not want them to receive forgiveness. So, he runs. But God is persuasive in getting him back, a massive storm and a ride inside a big fish has a way of changing one’s mind on things. So, after he is vomited up on dry land Jonah decides it is time to head to Nineveh. There he preaches the Word of God. He speaks the most lackluster sermon you could give. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4) That is the totality of the sermon. It is like he just wants to get it over with, do his job, and move on.

And what happens? The last thing Jonah wants them to do, they repent. And in their repentance, no matter how weak or imperfect it happened to be, God forgives. He relents of the disaster He had said He would do to them. God is true to His word. He is faithful to His promises. He does not allow you to go searching into yourself, to your own reason or strength to try and find the reason for forgiveness. He knows people will run from it, wanting to prove themselves on their own terms. Others will want to withhold it, desiring justice in the eyes of the law to prevail. Everyone is trying their best to stand over God’s forgiveness, to control it and limit it and specify how and when it will go forth.

Yet, God continues to send preachers into the world, those who would go and become fishers of men, catching them up the Good News of Jesus Christ. He sends those who might not even want to speak that word. When they do, they will speak it with great hesitation and doubt. He will send those who would rather run away from the whole mess. Sometimes they will look like me, a pastor preaching to a congregation. At other times it will look like a grandmother speaking soft words to her granddaughter. It might be an old friend or your wife or your child. The Word of God continues to go forth and to bring forgiveness through death and resurrection, from sinners lips to sinners ears.

Our problem is we were lulled into the idea that forgiveness was painless, easy, an almost routine thing we do not need to worry too much about. But the truth is it flows from the cross and tears at the fabric of our lives. It is painful at times and troubling and confusing, which is what my old mentors had learned throughout their days. This Word of God, this gift of forgiveness is faced with the greatest of opposition. So, when it gets through, when it sinks into an individual’s ears, when the Spirit of God works upon their hearts to hold firm to that Word proclaimed to them and they believe they are saved, not by what they have done but because of the sacrifice of Christ alone, that is worthy of our tears. Forgiveness is an awesome and glorious thing to celebrate here on earth as we are told even the angels in Heaven celebrate.

God continues to arrange a meeting between His people and His Word. He does so even now. As I am here to proclaim to you that in the name of Christ, I forgive you all your sins. And weather you tear up or not, this Word is for you. The promise is real and sure.