If you had to choose a single word to express what the Christian faith is all about, you would be hard-pressed to find a better one than ‘forgiveness.’ Some might argue that ‘love’ is the essence of our faith, and there is a lot to be said for that choice too. But first we want to talk about forgiveness.
Forgiveness is often badly misunderstood. No one has probably ever explained this better than the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis did in a famous 1942 sermon titled The Weight of Glory:
“When it comes to a question of our forgiving other people, it is partly the same and partly different [as asking for God to forgive us]. It is the same because, here also, forgiving does not mean excusing. Many people seem to think it does. They think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or no bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive. They keep on replying, ‘But I tell you the man broke a most solemn promise.’ Exactly: that is precisely what you have to forgive. (This doesn’t mean that you must necessarily believe his next promise. It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart—every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.) The difference between this situation and the one in which you are asking God’s forgiveness is this. In our own case we accept excuses too easily; in other people’s we do not accept them easily enough.” (C.S. Lewis, published in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses)
Did you catch what Lewis said? Forgiveness isn’t pretending the wrong wasn’t real and hurtful. Forgiveness is doing for another exactly what God does for us when He chooses, because of the redeeming sacrifice of His beloved Son, to look past the grievous ways we have offended Him and instead cherish us AS IF we hadn’t done wrong. But wait! When my brother lets me down or betrays my trust, that really HURTS me. I can understand that God is irritated when I break His rules, but how could I possibly inflict harm on Him. Well, think about this: you were designed to be the pinnacle of God’s creation – His beloved child lovingly made in His own image and reflecting His own perfect will. So how do you think it feels when we constantly choose to trample on this beauty and obey our own tawdry impulses? When we turn our back on Him while we pursue self-centered gratification? When my brother offends me, it’s the unacceptable behavior of one unruly child against another equally unruly child. When I choose my own willful ways over God’s, it’s the child spurning the parent who sacrificed all for him. Do you think that doesn’t HURT? But God chooses to forgive us, not because we deserve it, but because we NEED it.
Which brings us back to love. Like forgiveness, love is often misunderstood. In our culture, love is usually discussed as affection (“Oh, I’m so in looove with him!”), but Jesus’ command to “love your enemy” (Matthew 5:44) means something very different! (Seriously: in what sense is someone your enemy if you’ve got affectionate feelings about them?) No, the kind of love that Jesus is talking about isn’t a feeling, but a decision. Unlike a feeling of love, which is pleasant and easy, Jesus-style love is often personally painful (it’s what took Him to the cross). It’s the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the good of another who doesn’t deserve it (John 15:13).
So, do you see the intimate connection between love and forgiveness? They are inseparable. Without love, forgiveness is impossible. And without forgiveness, claims of love are bogus. The supreme expression of God’s love for me is the incredible price He paid to repair my brokenness. And forgiveness of my brother’s brokenness is what He requires of me if I claim to be His disciple. Forgiveness is the practice of undeserved love.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. … If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:7-8,20-21)