Forgiving the Unforgivable

March 7, 2004

The man called me on the phone and said, “Pastor Ray, could I come see you?” Then he told me his story. “My wife left me for another man and when she got tired of him, she decided to come back to me. Everything seemed fine for a few weeks then she left me again for the same man and stayed with him for a while. Then she came back a second time and I thought everything was fine. Then she left me again and she’s been with him for a while. She just called me up and said, ’I want to come back.’ Pastor, I’m not sure I want her back. I can trust somebody once or even twice but I’m not sure I can trust somebody the third time.”

How do you forgive the unforgivable? If you want an answer, consider Jesus. What happened to Jesus on the cross was unforgivable. 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.” This was the unforgivable sin. Yet Jesus said, “Father forgive them.” That leads me to a question which is not just theological or historical, but a question that many of us wrestle with everyday: 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? From the first cry of our Lord from the cross, we discover two answers to that question.

1. It is possible to forgive the unforgivable by remembering that the people who are hurting you do not really know what they are doing.

Who was Jesus talking about when he said, “For they know not what they are doing?” Who is the “they” in that phrase? Think of the people involved in the crucifixion of our Lord? Perhaps it refers to the Roman soldiers. What about Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor? Did Pilate know what he was doing? What about the high priest Caiaphas? What about Judas? Didn’t Judas know what he was doing? The answer in each case is the same. Each person involved knew a little bit of the story but none of them really had the big picture. To make it clearer, we can certainly say that the Jewish leaders thought they understood Jesus, but they didn’t.

Does that mean that these men (and their followers) are not guilty? Not at all. Each person involved in the death of Jesus is morally culpable. There is plenty of guilt to go round. Judas was guilty. Pilate was guilty. Caiaphas was guilty. Annas was guilty. The Roman soldiers were guilty and so were the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and the scribes who conspired to put him to death. And what about the mob? Yes, they were guilty. And what about the spectators who came to cheer and laugh and to mock? Yes, they were guilty, too.

But still we can’t escape 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 what they are doing but they do not know what it really means. They know what they are doing but they don’t know who the man on the cross really is. 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.”

The same is true with the people who hurt you. They need forgiveness more than they know. It’s true, they knew what they were doing when they made that telephone call or when they wrote that letter, when they said that thing that tore into your heart, when they left and walked out. They knew exactly what they were doing but they didn’t know the enormity of it. The people who have hurt you need your forgiveness more than they need anything else in the world. They need it more than they know. And they will probably never change until they get it. And some of them won’t change even after they get it. But still, you have to forgive them. Forgiveness is what they need and you are the only one who can give it to them.

2. It is possible to forgive the unforgivable by remembering that Jesus 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 “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. At this point we discover a hard reality that keeps us from forgiving the people who hurt us. At the root it is this: 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.

It’s not as if we are all good and the people who hurt us are all bad. It’s not as if we are all pure and they’re all evil. It’s not as if we’ve got all of life wired together and they’re just a bunch of fools. It’s not as if we’re totally in the right and they’re totally in the wrong. That’s not the way the world really works. It’s not as if we know all the answers. We’re not as good as we think we are and we’re not as righteous as we think we are.

Eventually the searing truth hits home even though we would rather avoid it. We get mad just like they do. We lose our temper just like they do. We write stinging letters just like they do. We say stupid things at Christmastime just like they do. We slap our friends just like they do. We hurt our children just like they do. We crucify our enemies just like they do. We break our promises just like they do.

It would keep us from being so angry if we could see ourselves the way we really are. If we would admit that we really don’t know it all. If we would admit that we really don’t have it all together. If we would admit we’re not as good as we think we are. We’re not as together as we pretend to be. If we’d ever admit the truth we’d find it easier to forgive the people who have hurt us in an unforgivable way.

I think it is enormously significant that the first word from the cross is a word of forgiveness. These words teach us that Jesus came to establish a religion of forgiveness. He is at heart a man of forgiveness. He came into this world to establish a church that would be an oasis of forgiveness. And to bring to the world a race of forgiving men and women.

Forgiven … Forgiven … Forgiven

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.

Every year in January we talk about turning over a new leaf. For many people that means taking all the leaves from last year and raking them over into this year. We brought them all with us. We didn’t turn anything over; we just carried our burdens and our hurts from one year to the next–haunting memories, injured feelings, and thoughts about the past that we can’t get out of our minds. Some people live for years under a terrible burden of remembered pain from the past. At some point we need to let go.

Here’s a simple exercise that may help. Take a sheet of paper and write the words of Jesus at the top: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” On the left side of the paper, write down the things and the people and the memories from the past that have hurt you so badly. Make it brief and simple. No one ever needs to see this card. When you are finished, add one word in large letters to the right of each hurt from the past: Forgiven … Forgiven … Forgiven.

And when you’re finished, take that paper and rip it up. Don’t keep it. Rip it into a dozen pieces and then flush the pieces down the toilet. Forgiven … Forgiven … Forgiven … Forgiven … Forgiven … Forgiven. Let go of those awful memories once and for all.

This isn’t a magical exercise that can suddenly take away your pain, but it is a practical way of coming to grips with the first words from the cross. Do you want to be set free? Would you like to come closer to Jesus Christ than you’ve ever come before? Then start where Jesus began on the cross—by becoming a great forgiver.

All of us know that it is easier to talk about forgiveness than it is 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 will helped to do it when we remember that Jesus forgave us when we were unforgivable.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?