Father, Forgive Them
March 30, 2007
Here is part of an email from a friend:
Do you have any suggestions for getting rid of bitterness? What do you do when you are dealing with a situation where you cannot go to the person and discuss the issue with them? Of course, we both know that that is the ideal way to handle a situation, but we also both know that sometimes that just isn’t possible. What do you do when you are bitter about something that happened to you years ago, so long ago that the person at issue is no longer a part of your life and may have even forgotten about it? Or worse yet, they may well remember what you are talking about and be at an absolute loss to understand why you are bitter about it.
At the end of the day, I think that some issues just have to wait until we get to heaven to be dealt with, because in certain circumstances, it just isn’t possible to talk to people about things on this side of eternity. Sometimes talking to people only causes more problems than it solves. I have decided to just deal with this as fully as possible between me and the Lord, and then if he wants me to talk to the person, he can provide me the chance to do so. What do you think of that course of action? How would you recommend accomplishing that goal? Any suggestions? I eagerly await your response.
And this is part of my response:
Your email spoke to a common problem that many people have. And I know what is like on a personal level to struggle with bitterness regarding things that happened many years ago. As your note indicates, there is no quick and easy answer. After writing a book on forgiveness several years ago, I came to the conclusion that forgiveness is first and foremost a matter of the heart, which means that it is a process not a one-time event.
It may be that our Father intends that you should struggle with this on some level for a long period of time. I know that flies in the face of the feel-good theology that we both reject. The struggle to forgive can ultimately make us stronger because it humbles us, causes us to realize our need of the Lord, destroys our pride, helps us to see our own sin more clearly, and causes us to rely on our brothers and sisters in the Lord for help.
Give God time to work in your heart. If the opportunity arises to talk to that person, go ahead. If not, lay it at the foot of the cross. And keep letting go of bitterness.
It’s Friday morning, a few minutes before 9 A.M. Killing time. Outside the Damascus Gate is a road and on the other side of the road is a flat area near the spot where the prophet Jeremiah is buried. Up above is a rocky outcropping that, if studied at a certain angle, looks like a skull. You can see eroded into the limestone two sockets for the eyes, a place for the nose and maybe a place for the mouth. Skull Hill, they called it. Golgotha. It was the place where the Romans did their killing. And Friday was the day and nine o’clock was the time. The soldiers were ready to do their dirty work. They were Roman soldiers. This place called Judea was foreign territory to them. They weren’t from Israel. They weren’t followers of the law. They were simply soldiers who had a job to do. And it happened to be that they were on the death squad. They were in charge of crucifixions.
On this particular Friday morning their workload was a little bit light. Only three this week. They didn’t know the names. They never did and it didn’t matter. They were just the executioners. From their point of view, it didn’t pay to stop and think about what they did. That was for someone up the ladder. Guilt or innocence wasn’t their business. They’d go crazy if they started worrying about things like that. They just had a job to do. And to do their job they needed two things. They needed toughness and they needed good technique. If they did a sloppy job, they were certain to hear about it later.
So it’s nine a.m. and up the road comes a group of people. The soldiers know that two of the men being crucified are just average, ordinary criminals—the kind that you find in any big city anywhere in the world. That’s no big deal. But the third man, the one from up north, the preacher from Nazareth, his case is different. They don’t really know who he is. They know it’s important because they sense the buzz in the crowd. There are more people than usual. By the way, that was one of the fringe benefits (if you want to call it that) for being on the crucifixion squad. You never worked alone. There’s something morbidly fascinating about watching someone else die. The people of Jerusalem, at least some of them, loved to come out and watch the crucifixions. Well, maybe they didn’t love it but they couldn’t stay away. Some strange magnetic force drew them back to Skull Hill again and again. But today there were more people than usual, a bigger crowd, noisier, rowdier, milling to and fro, waiting for the action to begin.
Up the road comes a parade of people led by a brawny foreigner carrying a cross. That couldn’t be the one they were going to crucify. It turns out he was a man by the name of Simon—Simon of Cyrene. The crowd swirls around him and behind him is a stooped figure, a man not quite six feet tall. Now walking, now crawling, each step an agony to behold. Half a man, half a creature from the worst nightmare imaginable. He had been beaten within an inch of his life. His back was in shreds. His front was covered with the markings of the whip. His face was disfigured and swollen where they had ripped out his beard by the roots. And on his head a crown of thorns six inches long stuck under the skin. A shell of a man. A man already more dead than alive. When the fellows on the crucifixion detail saw that, they weren’t unhappy because sometimes people got a little feisty when you tried to nail them to a cross. No, they didn’t mind getting a person who was almost dead because it meant their work would be easier.
They laid the cross out on the ground and they laid the body of Jesus on the cross. He moved, he moaned, he didn’t do much. One hand over here, one hand over there. Wrapping rope around this arm and around that arm. Rope around the legs, probably bent and partially resting on a small platform. They drove the spike on the forearm side of the wrist so that when the weight of the cross fell, the spike wouldn’t rip all the way through the hand. A spike in both wrists and then a spike through the legs. With the ropes in place they began to pull the cross up. Jesus’ blood spurts from the raw wounds. Steady now, boys, steady. Don’t drop it. It was a terrible thing to drop a cross before they got it in the hole. They lowered it carefully, and it fell into place with a thud. And there was Jesus, naked and exposed before the world, beaten, bruised and bloody. The soldiers stood back, satisfied. A job well done.
“Get the dice,” someone said. “Let’s roll dice for his clothes.”
What Did Jesus Mean?
What happened that day at Skull Hill was unforgivable. That’s the definition of what unforgivable is. When you crucify the Son of God you have done that which is beyond forgiveness. It is truly unforgivable. And yet Jesus said, in his first words from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). No one standing near the cross expected him to say that. A dying man might scream or curse or utter threats, but you never heard a word of forgiveness when a man was being crucified. Yet that is precisely what Jesus offered to the men who were murdering him. He offered them forgiveness. He prayed that they might be forgiven. He asked his righteous and holy Father in heaven, the Lord of the universe, to forgive his murderers while they were murdering him.
It’s helpful to consider how Jesus responds to his own crucifixion:
* He doesn’t offer a word in his own defense.
* He doesn’t condemn Herod or Pilate or the Jewish leaders.
* He doesn’t proclaim his own innocence.
* He doesn’t turn against God.
* He doesn’t attack his attackers.
* He doesn’t attempt to save himself.
* He doesn’t blame anyone—though many were to blame.
Instead he prays. The last phrase of Isaiah 53:14 explains the significance of this cry from the cross: “For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” No longer can his hands minister to the sick for they are nailed to the tree. No longer can his feet take him on errands of mercy. No longer can he take little children in his arms. No longer can he reach out to touch the lame and cause them to walk again. There is no time left for him to instruct his disciples. Soon he will be dead. As his life ebbs from his beaten and bruised body, as the blood drips to the ground, he does the one thing he can do. He prays.
His prayer is very brief and very specific. He prays for his murderers that God would forgive them “for they do not know what they are doing.” Among the many lessons we may gain from this, none is more important than this: No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. I suppose most of us would agree with that statement in an abstract sense. If we have any concept of grace at all, we understand that grace extends to the worst of sinners. But that concept becomes very difficult when we have to forgive those who have sinned greatly against us.
Exactly what does it mean to forgive the unforgivable? That’s the problem posed by Jesus’ first cry from the cross. It’s hard enough to fully understand what he meant; it’s even harder to know what those words should mean for us. And yet we know, if we know anything about God, that he is a forgiving God. “The LORD , the LORD , the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7a). Consider that word “abounding.” Other translations use the word “abundant” or “rich” to describe the extent of his forgiving love. It has the idea of love that is both deep and broad. His love goes to the depth of our sin and it covers the full extent of our sin.
He forgives because that’s the kind of God he is.
There is another way to say it. He forgives people we wouldn’t forgive if we were God. And he saves people we would immediately send to hell. We know that “his ways are not our ways,” and no place can we see this more clearly than in his willingness to forgive even the worst sinners. That leads me to a question that is not just theological or historical, but a question that many of us wrestle with every day: How do you forgive the unforgivable? How do you forgive someone who has done something to you so terrible that it defies any attempt at human forgiveness?
As I study the remarkable words of Jesus, two things come to mind that will help us understand how to forgive the unforgivable:
There is something we must give up.
There is something we must remember.
1. We Must Give Up Trying to Force People to Understand How Much They Hurt Us.
This may be the greatest barrier to forgiveness. Many people who have been deeply hurt say something like this: “I would be willing to forgive if only I thought they knew how badly they hurt me.” But it is an impossible standard and as long as you hold to it, you will never forgive. And you will have a rock-solid excuse to live in bitterness for years. You can always blame it on “those people.” If only they would come to their senses (but they won’t). If only they would see the light (but they don’t). If only they would understand how many nights you stayed awake because bad memories wouldn’t let you go to sleep. If only they knew about your tears. You would forgive if they knew, if they understood, if they had some concept about what they did.
If you are going to forgive, you must give all that up. Until you do, forgiveness will remain a distant dream, and you will still be chained to the past. You cannot be set free unless you release them from the burden of understanding all that they did to you.
Here is the simple truth: They don’t know what they did to you.
The moment I make that statement, I know some people will immediately offer an objection: “You don’t understand. They knew exactly what they were doing. They knew what they were doing before they were doing it. They knew they were going to hurt me and they went ahead and did it anyway.” When she told that lie she knew what she was doing. When he double-crossed me he knew what he was doing. When he stepped out on me he knew what he was doing. When he broke the marriage vows he knew what he was doing. She knew what she was doing. They knew exactly what they were doing. How can you even bring up that subject? They knew they would hurt me and they did it on purpose. How can you say they didn’t know what they were doing?
Ponder those haunting words: “Father forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.” Underline the word “what” because it is the key to the first saying of Christ from the cross. The key is not the fact that they do not know. The key is what. They do not know what they are doing. They know they are killing a man named Jesus, but they don’t know who he really is. They don’t understand his true identity. They are guilty of killing a man but they are guilty of much worse than they know. They are guilty of killing the Son of God from heaven. When Jesus cried out, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” he was really saying “Father forgive them because they need forgiveness more than they know.” “Father forgive them because they are in desperate need of forgiveness and they don’t even know it.”
Sometimes we refuse to forgive because we want the other person to feel what we felt when they hurt us so badly. It does not work and could never work. If you wait until people truly understand what they did to you, in most cases you will wait forever. Even when they confess and seek forgiveness, you may feel that still they don’t truly understand. But withholding forgiveness will not help them understand. They cannot crawl into your skin and feel as you felt. They can never enter into your pain. Your sorrows are yours alone. But if you make your pain the price of forgiveness, you will never forgive because no one else can ever pay that price.
You do not forgive because they understand what they did.
You do not forgive because they have suffered as much as you suffered.
You do not forgive because they “deserve” forgiveness.
You do not forgive to gain some personal advantage over them.
You forgive in spite of what they’ve done.
You forgive because of God’s grace.
You forgive because that’s Jesus did on the cross.
You forgive because that’s what Jesus did for you.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if we just keep talking, we’ll eventually solve all our problems. But that’s not true. Sometimes talking only makes matters worse, especially when we say, “But I just want you to understand where I’m coming from,” which being translated means, “I want you to see what a fool you’ve been and how wrong you are because when you see that, you’ll see things my way and you’ll admit I was right all along.” Sound familiar? We think things like that all the time. But as long as you insist on always being right, you will never be set free.
If we probe a bit deeper, we discover another truth that flows from these amazing words of Jesus. If the first truth touches how we view others, this one touches how we view ourselves.
2. We Must Remember That God Forgave Us When We Were Unforgivable.
This is where the words of Jesus become very personal. We’re included in his prayer. When he prayed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”, who was included in the word “them”? The soldiers, the mob, the women, the disciples, Pilate, Caiaphas, Annas, Judas, Peter and all the Jewish leaders. But that doesn’t exhaust this statement. You were included in the “them” and so was I. He was praying for you and he was praying for me. “No. No. You don’t understand. I’m not like those people. I’m different. I’m not that bad. I’m not the kind of person who could crucify anyone. I’d never do anything like that.” Oh, yes you are, and yes you would, and yes you have many times, and yes you will again. You’re not as good as you look. If you had been there you would have been holding the nails. If you had been there you would have been clapping and cheering. If you had been there you would have been saying, “Crucify him. Crucify him. Stick it to him again. Another nail. Let him have it.” We’re not that much different. We’re not that much better.
When Charles Wesley wrote the hymn Arise, My Soul, Arise, he included a verse that pictures the blood of Christ crying out to God for our forgiveness:
Five bleeding wounds He bears; received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers; they strongly plead for me:
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die!”
Are we who have been forgiven so much unwilling to forgive those who have hurt us so much?
Forgiven so much …
Forgive so much …
This is the challenge of the first cry from the cross. At this point we discover a hard reality that keeps us from forgiving the people who hurt us. We think we’re better than they are. We think we would never hurt anybody the way they have hurt us. “I’m just not as bad as that. I’d never treat anybody the way they treated me.” We get angry because we think that we would never do to another person what they have done to us. How foolish. How false. How deluded we are when we think that way. It is our false pride that keeps us from the hard step of forgiving the unforgivable.
Would you like to become more like Jesus? I suggest you start where Jesus started—by forgiving the people who have hurt you so deeply. I do not for a moment mean to suggest that this is easy. To forgive us cost Jesus his life. To forgive others will cost us something too. We will certainly have to give up our anger, turn away from our bitterness, and decide by a conscious choice that we will forgive those who have sinned against us. And very often we will have to perform that act of forgiveness over and over again until we learn the grace of continual forgiveness. I am sure that I am speaking to someone who has reserved in the temple of his heart a room that is not open to the Holy Spirit. It is a private place, a citadel locked from the inside, a hidden storehouse of hatred and revenge. It is a dark room filled with pain and anger and you keep it locked because you don’t want anyone else to know the room is there. And maybe you even pretend to yourself that the room doesn’t exist. It is a room that God will not enter without your permission.
It’s very possible that you are nursing hatred and bitterness and a desire to get even with someone who hurt you terribly. And you may say, “But I’m justified in it. They did me wrong.” And you may be entirely right about that. But I ask you, How can God’s Holy Spirit do his work and bestow his blessing in a life filled with anger? If God is ever going to greatly use you, and if your life is ever going to change, that door must be opened by you because it is locked from the inside. I can’t open it for you, and God won’t. He is the perfect gentleman. He waits to be invited inside. No one is more miserable than the person who harbors secret hatred and wishes for revenge. And no one is happier than the person who finally opens the door to the Holy Spirit and says, “Come in and do your work in me.” In the moment when you say that, healing begins on the inside. Instead of hatred there is love; instead of bitterness, kindness. Instead of revenge, forgiveness. If I am describing your life, then God’s word to you is: “Open the hidden door and let my Spirit come in.”
In order to come to grips with the healing power of forgiveness, we need two things: soft hearts and courage. Some of us have been deeply hurt by the things others have done to us. People have attacked us, maligned us, mistreated us, abused us, sexually assaulted us, ridiculed us, belittled us, publicly humiliated us, physically beaten us, and they have done it deliberately, repeatedly, viciously. In response we chose to become hard on the inside to protect ourselves from any further pain. But that hardness has made it difficult for us to hear the gentle call of the Holy Spirit. We need soft hearts to hear his voice. And then we need courage. The timid will never forgive. Only the brave will forgive. Only the strong will have the courage to let go of the past.
All of us know that it is easier to talk about forgiveness than to do it. And if we are honest, we all know how much we suffer when we forget to do what Jesus did on the cross. We need courage to take the giant step of forgiveness. However painful forgiveness may be, it is infinitely better than refusing to forgive. We can find that courage if we will remember that when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them,” he was talking about us.
Father, go now where my words cannot go—deep into the inner recesses of every heart. Show us the truth about ourselves. Forgive us for not forgiving others. We long for the freedom that comes from letting go of our bitterness. Break the chain of remembered hurts that binds us to the past.
Soften our hearts so that we can hear your voice speaking to us. Show us what we must do and then give us the courage to do it.
We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.