I recently read Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson, shortly after watching the film adaptation (both are excellent, by the way; I highly recommend reading and watching). Mercy and justice are tricky things for us humans to balance. We don’t have perfect perspective on every situation. We don’t know all the relevant facts. We want justice but we often mishandle it badly. And for some reason, it’s often hard to show mercy or to convince others it’s a good idea.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matt. 5:7, all quotes from WEB translation)
We all need mercy, particularly from God. We also all need to give mercy, otherwise we won’t receive any. It’s the same principle as forgiveness. As Jesus says just a little later in the same sermon where He gives us the Beatitudes,
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14-15)
The relation between the character trait and how God rewards it is very direct in this particular Beatitude. You give mercy, you get mercy. And it’s not just about passively letting mercy happen or giving it only when absolutely necessary. The Greek word eleemon (G1655) is “active compassion and benevolence involving thought and action.” It is an expression of the love inside you, and it’s closely related to other words like elos (G1656, applied grace, pity, compassion) and eleemosune (G1654, actions of mercy) (Zodhiates’ dictionary). Here’s the only other place this specific form of the word for “mercy” is used in scripture:
Therefore he was obligated in all things to be made like his brothers, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:17)
We’re to have the same kind of mercy that Jesus has as a result of His life here on earth as a human being. He learned what it’s like to be human and that gave Him an even deeper compassion for us than God had before (which was already bountiful).
Last week’s post was about how much God wants to forgive us. This week’s is about how much we need to forgive each other. There are plenty of Bible verses about this topic and so, like most Christians, I knew how important forgiveness is before writing this post. But something Paul said in one of his letters made me want to take a closer look at the subject.
The reasons Paul gives for forgiving someone in the Corinthian church provide us with a compelling reason for forgiving others. I’d never thought about forgiveness being a key part of spiritual warfare before, but I do now. Whether or not we choose to forgive is one of the things that determines whether Satan gets an advantage over us, or we get an advantage over him by drawing closer to God.
Don’t Give an Advantage to Satan
For background, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he told them they needed to put a man out of their church who was actively engaging in sexual sin (1 Cor. 5). Now, in the second letter, Paul has heard that this man repented and Paul tells the church to forgive him and accept him back.
This punishment which was inflicted by the many is sufficient for such a one; so that on the contrary you should rather forgive him and comfort him, lest by any means such a one should be swallowed up with his excessive sorrow. Therefore I beg you to confirm your love toward him. … Now I also forgive whomever you forgive anything. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, that no advantage may be gained over us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes. (2 Cor. 2:6-8, 10-11, all quotes from WEB translation)
Choosing to withhold forgiveness– even when someone has sinned so egregiously they were put out of the church; even when you’ve heard about their repentance from someone else instead of seeing it for yourself — would give an advantage to Satan. The Greek word pleonekteo (G4122) carries the idea of taking advantage of or defrauding someone. The word for “covetousness” comes from this word (The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: New Testament, by Spiros Zodhiates Th.D.).
Talk of Satan (which means “adversary”) gaining an advantage over us also brings to mind the idea that we’re in a spiritual battle. If you don’t forgive, you’re giving the adversary a foothold in your life. And that ought to be a terrifying thought. However, it is something we can prevent because, as Paul says, we’re not ignorant of his schemes.
Armor Up With God’s Help
We are part of a spiritual battle. The adversary (ha Satan in Hebrew) is fighting against God’s family, and we’re part of that family. Every human being has the potential to become part of God’s family and those of us in covenant with God are already adopted as His children.
Beloved, now we are children of God. It is not yet revealed what we will be; but we know that when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is. Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)
God’s adversary hates what God loves. Satan accuses us before our God day and night (Rev. 12:10; Job is also an example). He tries to use his wiles against us, and he’s behind the “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” that we wrestle against (Eph. 6:10-13). The last thing we should want to do is give Satan an advantage over us in this fight. Rather, we want to stay close to God, put on His armor, stand, and resist the devil.
Avoid Things That Separate You From God
The reason that unforgiveness is so very dangerous (I think) is connected to the wedge it drives between us and God. We’re more vulnerable to the adversary’s attacks when we are not sticking close to the source of our armor and strength. There are certain things that separate us from God, and we need forgiveness and reconciliation to heal the breach of relationship that sin causes. But we don’t get forgiveness if we’re not willing to give it.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt. 6:14-15)
Jesus’s parable in Matthew 18:21-35 puts this in even more chilling language. In this parable, forgiveness that has already been given by a master to an indebted servant is withdrawn because that servant refuses to forgive someone who owes him a much smaller debt. Jesus caps this parable off by saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.” That’s quite a sobering statement.
God is merciful and good. He knows forgiveness can be so hard that sometimes it feels like fighting a battle. He doesn’t abandon us just because we’re struggling. But He does expect us to make an effort to deliberately, consistently forgive other people. Carrying bitterness, grudges, anger, and judgmental attitudes around will not help our Christian walk and can, in fact, hinder it.
Consider Jesus’s Example
Therefore let’s also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Heb. 12:1-2)
Whenever it becomes difficult to lay aside the weight of unforgiveness, look to Jesus. The book of Hebrews tells us to “consider him who has endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, that you don’t grow weary, fainting in your souls” Heb. 12:3). When we consider the example He set us, we see Him forgiving even in the worst of circumstances.
When they came to the place that is called “The Skull”, they crucified him there with the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:33-34)
If Jesus could forgive the people who tortured and killed him while He was hanging on the cross, surely we can forgive whatever it is that people have done to us. Especially because God has given us warnings and instructions through His Bible and help through His holy spirit. We know the dangers of unforgiveness and we have what we need to follow Christ’s example. Let’s resolve to forgive, and to keep forgiving as often as need be, following the example of Christ and resisting the adversary’s influence so “that no advantage may be gained over us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.”
How do you think of God’s forgiveness? So you see it as a finite resource; something that He gives you once but if you mess-up too badly that’s it? Do you see it as something He gives continually so that no matter what you do He’ll cover it up for you?
We tend to error in one of those two directions when we think of forgiveness. We might see our sins as too big for God to forgive, or ourselves as worth to little for Him to bother. Or we might think that since He forgives and loves us, He’ll keep ignoring our sins no matter how bad they might be even if we don’t bother to repent again. Neither one is true.
What if we instead saw forgiveness as an incredible gift that’s freely given and always available, yet is also a gift with certain conditions attached?
Most of us don’t like the idea of conditional gifts, especially if we’re coming from a Western cultural mindset. We might even resent the idea that something freely given might come with an expectation that we’ll respond in a certain way. However, the Bible does speak of things we must do if we want to be forgiven. Let’s take a look at them.
Repent and Commit
The first thing to do if you want forgiveness is ask. We receive forgiveness after we repent of our past sins and come to Jesus. Forgiveness is not initiated by us — it is an act of rich grace available because of the death of Jesus (Eph. 1:3-7; Col. 1:14; 2:13). There is a participation aspect, though.
John the baptist came “preaching the baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Peter reaffirms this process in Acts 2:38, saying we must “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.” God doesn’t impose forgiveness on people who don’t want it. He gives it to those who turn to Him and ask. Read more →
How many times can God forgive you? I think sometimes we might feel there’s a limit, or that God gets tired of “dealing with” us. We might even think that someday He could just give up on us if we can’t get ourselves straightened out fast enough. But what does the Bible say?
It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Yahweh is my portion, says my soul; therefore will I hope in him. (Lam. 3:22-24, WEB)
This doesn’t mean God winks at sin or thinks it’s not a big deal. “The compensation due sin is death,” and without His mercies we would be finished (Rom. 6:23, LEB). But the mercies don’t run out. Each morning we have a chance to walk with Him, repenting of past wrongs, letting Him work in our lives to make us like Him, and trusting in his loving kindness, compassion, and faithfulness to lead us into a hopeful future.
When Jesus died, He hung on the cross between two criminals. In Greek, the word is kakourgos, a compound of evil+doer. This refers to someone who’s employment is practicing wrong things. While we might not have personally broken laws that would make us criminals in our societies, we have more in common with at least one of these two men than you might think.
Every human being has “sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23, KJV). Because “sin is the transgression of the law,” this also makes us all law breakers (1 John 3:4, KJV). Like these criminals, we have practiced things that were not right. And when we recognize that fact, we also realize that “the compensation due sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23, LEB). Like the criminals, we’re facing death and Jesus is there. But how do we respond to Him?
Pride v. Humility
One of the criminals who was hanged insulted him, saying, “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39, WEB)
One criminal resented what was going on and attacked his fellow sufferer. Matthew Henry describes him as “hardened to the last.” Even his own agony “did not humble his proud spirit nor teach to give good language.”
In contrast, the other criminal was “softened at the last.” He acknowledges the justice of their punishment as “the due reward for our deeds” (Luke 32:41, WEB). He’s much more humble, willing to accept the consequences of his actions and admit their wrongness. This basic attitude difference sets the stage for other differences between these two men.Read more →
Who responded to Jesus best when He walked on this earth? It wasn’t the religious leaders or the pious folk or the wealthy and powerful. It was the ordinary people, the sinners and the outcasts of society. But why is that? The Christian message carries good news for all people. What made some receive it joyfully and others want to kill Jesus?
How Big Is Your Debt?
There’s a story in Luke 7 that might shed some light on this. One of the Pharisees, a man named Simon, invited Jesus over for dinner. A woman known in her city as “a sinner” followed them and started crying on Jesus’ feet. She washed His feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with oil.
The Pharisee’s mind instantly went to a place of judgement. If Jesus were a prophet, he thought, then He would know what sort of woman this was and stop her from touching Him. Jesus wasn’t too impressed with that line of thought, so He told this story:
There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?” Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most.” And he said unto him, “Thou hast rightly judged.” (Luke 7:41-43, KJV)
Jesus went on to list the ways this woman demonstrated her love for him (which, incidentally, highlighted Simon’s deficiencies in hospitality). He finished His conversation with Simon by saying, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:47, KJV).
One reason the sinners responded so well to Jesus is that they knew they needed what He offered. The people who viewed themselves as righteous thought they were good enough already and found His call to repentance offensive. Read more →