Forgiving the Unforgivable
January 6, 1991
The man called me on the phone and said, “Pastor Ray, could I come see you?” He told me this 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 and 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? A woman sat in my office and said, “I think I’m going to kill myself.” I said, “Why?” She said, “I don’t have any reason to live anymore.” She told me the story of how all of her friends had deserted her. How she couldn’t get a job. How she didn’t have any money. How everything that she valued in the world was gone. She told me about her children—how they had deserted her, how they couldn’t care less what happened to her. She told me, “Pastor, when I told my son that I was thinking about killing myself, he said, ’Mom, why don’t you just go ahead and do it and get out of our hair.’”
How do you forgive the unforgivable? The man looked at me and he said, “Pastor you wouldn’t believe what I have been through.” Then he told me a story that I found hard to believe. It involved a brutal divorce after many years of marriage, a financial collapse, the loss of his job, the end of his career, lies told about him behind his back that have basically ruined his reputation. People he trusted who stabbed him in the back. He looked at me and said, “Pastor, do you want to know the worst of it? The people who have done this to me are Christians.”
How do you forgive the unforgivable? Sometimes I wish that I could invite the whole congregation to come into my office and sit for one week. Just to sit in the corner and listen to the people who come through my office. Listen to all the phone calls. Read the letters I get. An unending series of heartbreaking problems. Divorce. Broken homes. Broken marriages. Broken promises. Children estranged from their parents. Parents estranged from their children. Longtime friends who don’t speak to each other anymore. People who’ve lost their jobs because someone cheated them. People who’ve lost their fortunes because someone did them wrong. Families that don’t even speak at Christmastime because they hate each other so much.
How do you forgive in a situation like that? How do you forgive when by definition what has happened to you is unforgivable?
It’s Friday morning, 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. They were from another part of the world. They weren’t from Palestine. 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 work load 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 inno-cence 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 of lowlife scum that fills 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 see 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 this day 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 you’ve ever had. 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 the 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 the cross. No, they didn’t mind getting a person who was almost dead because it meant that their work would be easy.
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 now spurts blood 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 dropped it and it fell 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.
Someone said, “Get the dice. Let’s roll dice for his clothes.”
Brothers and sisters, what they did that day 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 word 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 back to the original question, a question which has great relevance for us today, a question which is not just theological or historical, but a question which a lot of us are wrestling with right now: 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 this story, especially as I study the remarkable words of Jesus, two things come to mind that will help us understand how to forgive the unforgivable.
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.
If ever a statement seems to be obviously wrong, this is it. Someone says, “Pastor, 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. “Pastor, what do you mean?”
Consider Jesus. Who was he talking about when he said, “For they know not what they are doing?” Who is the “they” he is talking about? You say, “The Roman soldiers.” Did the Roman soldiers know what they were doing or not? Well, yes they knew they were crucifying a man. Did they know who he was? No, they didn’t really know who he was. If anybody really didn’t know what they were doing it was the Roman soldiers. It was just a job to them, just the next grisly item on the Friday agenda. To them, crucifixion was what their com-mander ordered them to do. “Next please. Next please. Hand me the nails. Crucify the guy and get him out of here.” That was just a job to them. Surely they didn’t really know what they were doing.
Who else is the “they?” Well, you say, “It’s Pilate’s fault.” Did Pilate know what he was doing? Well, what did Pilate know? Pilate knew that Jesus was called the King of the Jews. That’s what Pilate knew. And what he knew scared him to death, and he tried to wash his hands of it. He knew enough to scare him to death. He didn’t know the whole story.
What about Caiaphas? Caiaphas knew that Jesus was called the Son of God, the Messiah. What did Caiaphas do? He said, “I want nothing to do with this. Crucify him and get him out of here.” Annas? The same way. Well, you say, “What about Judas? Didn’t Judas know what he was doing? He was with Jesus for three and a half years.” No, if anything is clear from the New Testament, Judas was totally confused about who Jesus was. He knew that Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah but when you really got down to it, Judas thought Jesus was going to roll into Jerusalem, take over the place and set himself up as King. Judas was baffled because Jesus didn’t fit his preconceptions about what the Messiah was going to do. That’s one of the reasons he betrayed him—because he was confused and disillusioned and disappointed at the end.
You say, “Pastor, are you telling me these men are not guilty?” No, I’m not saying that. 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.
But Jesus said, “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 they’re really doing it to. They know what they are doing but they don’t know what the ramifica-tions are. That is to say, 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.
“They Need Forgiveness More Than They Know”
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. They didn’t know how bad and how terrible it was. They only knew on the surface. They didn’t know down deep and they can never know down deep how badly they hurt you. 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.
That’s the deeper meaning of this first word from the cross. You can forgive the unforgivable if you remember that the people who have hurt you so deeply don’t at the deepest level know what they have really done to you. Forgiveness is what they need and you are the only one who can give it to them.
How can we forgive the unforgivable? First, by remembering that the people who hurt us don’t really know what they’re doing.
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. You know who else was in it? You were. I was. He was praying for you and he was praying for me. “Pastor, No. No. You don’t understand. I’m not like those people. I’m different. Pastor, I’m not that bad. I’m not the kind of man 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.
Do you know what 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. Oh, how foolish. Oh, 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.
Not So Good, Not So Nice
Don’t you understand? It’s not as if we are all good and they’re 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. It’s not as if we’re as good as we think we are. As cool as we think we are. As right-eous as we think we are. As justifiable as we think we are.
Do you want to know what the truth is? 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 friends just like they do. We break our promises just like they do.
When you really get down to it, we’re just like them. No, we are them and they are us and if we don’t see that, we’ve missed the real point of Jesus’ first cry from the cross. If we think we’re so much better than the people who have hurt us so deeply, we are self-deceived. If only we could see that when we really get down to it we’re all in the same boat together. We’re all truly sinners in one way or another. We all fail in many ways. They fail in one way and we fail in another.
An Oasis of Forgiveness
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.
The secret of forgiveness is to understand that between you and the person who hurt you there’s really no difference at all. None whatsoever.
It is possible to forgive the unforgivable but you’ve got to realize before you do it, that Jesus forgave you when you were unforgivable. When he prayed that prayer, he wasn’t just praying for them back there, he was praying for all of us twenty centuries later.
I think it is enormously significant that the first word from the cross is a word of forgiveness. We are being told by that 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.
This is an appropriate message for the first Sunday of a new year because a lot of us didn’t turn over a new leaf on January 1. We just got all the leaves from last year and raked them over into this year. We brought them all with us. We didn’t turn anything over. Some of us brought a lot of baggage from 1990 into 1991—hurt memories, injured feelings, thoughts about the past that we can’t get out of our minds, memories of people who have done us wrong. We’re only six days into the new year and yet some of you this morning are already under a terrible burden of remembered hurts from the past. Don’t you think it’s time to get rid of those things?
I’ve got something I want you to do this afternoon. I want you to do it when you go home. When you get home, find a three by five card and write on the top the words of Jesus: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”. Then on the left side of the card, 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 little three by five card 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.
Do you want this new year to be the best one ever for you? Do you want it to be the year in which you come closer to Jesus Christ than you’ve ever come before? Then begin this year where Jesus began on the cross—by becoming a great forgiver.
Father, all of us know that it is easier to talk about forgiveness than it is to do it. And yet we all know how much we suffer when we forget to do what Jesus did on the cross. Grant us the courage to step the giant step of forgiveness. Teach us that however painful forgiveness may be, it is infinitely better than refusing to forgive. We ask these things in the name of Jesus, who forgave us when we were unforgivable. Amen.