"The God of Jesus Christ is the only god that man has ever heard of, who loves sinners."
- Brennan Manning
When we consider forgiveness and the Christian life, we begin and end with the broader story of who the Christian God is, and what he has done for us in and through Jesus Christ. Christianity is not simply a way of being religious, or a program of self-improvement. The content of the Christian Faith is the story that God tells about the world and his purposes for it, and the practices of the Faith are grounded in what God has done to heal and redeem the world through Jesus.
This Story offers an unflinchingly realistic view of human nature, and the way we live our lives. We are a much loved people, made in the image and likeness of God. Even as we bear the dignity of God in our own bodies, this likeness is broken and marred by rebellion. Not only do we choose flight from God and willfully engage in greed, envy, lust and hatred, but we are born with this proclivity, a bent-ness toward seeking our own way. The shorthand word for this is "sin," a theological suitcase that gathers up the evil we commit as well as our love for evil.
This is why the "good news" is so good: the God of Jesus Christ knows, loves, and forgives all manner of sinners. We who would murder our neighbors, steal from our loved ones, and who refuse to hear the name of God, are deeply, tenderly loved by that very God. Saint Paul explained in his letter to the Roman church,
"...while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5.6-8, ESV)
This is the invitation to a new kind of life: we wounded, broken rebels have been invited home to share a life with God as his own daughters and sons. Jesus Christ the God-Man bore the cost of our hatred, rebellion, and separation from God in his own body. When we ask what forgiveness looks like, and what it means, we look up to see our God crucified on a hill outside the city walls, bleeding and naked, forsaken by his friends and despised by his enemies. To forgive us, God bore the cost of humiliation, suffering and death.
Upon this account, we can make some observations about forgiveness.
Forgiveness is costly. Often and even daily, we are called upon to forgive and release small slights. Someone may overlook us, or insult us by poorly chosen and thoughtless words. Other times we are called upon to forgive deliberate insults, backbiting, and even physical violence. However, nursing a grudge can keep me safe. Nursing a grudge keeps me vigilant, ever watchful to be certain that the offending party can never take advantage of me again. Forgiveness is costly, because in offering it I would refuse to make "never being hurt like that again" the most important value of my life. If I were to make that refusal, I would trade in my defensiveness for trust in the saving and healing God. This is not a trust that believes, "God won't let this happen again," but rather, "I am obeying, because I believe God that there are worse things than letting this happen again." The Christian account of human life maintains that it is better to be wronged than to wrong another, and that it is better to suffer than to become hateful and defensive. This account insists that it is ultimately better for the individual human life to suffer like and with Christ rather than to fight against the enemy.
Next: Forgiveness precedes repentance.