“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”—Luke 23:34
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”—Romans 5:8
Believe it or not, a discussion about grammar led me to rethink forgiveness.
I was listening to a sermon by Jon Tyson when he mentioned Jesus’ words at his crucifixion: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Tyson noted that the tense of Jesus’ speaking—imperfect—opened the possibility that these words could have been something Jesus repeated over and over during his own execution.
I had previously thought of Jesus making this pronouncement from the cross—using it as a moment of teaching to those onlookers who had witnessed this gruesome act. Now I was confronted with a new thought—what if Jesus breathed these words in prayer repeatedly, even as the nails were being driven through his body? What if Jesus declared these things over those who killed him, even as they were in the midst of the act?
What would such language declare about the nature of my God?
Several years back, I found out Russell (not his real name) was talking about my leadership, and he was doing it to anyone who would listen.
Churches are interesting organisms, often built on ginger trust. Church members tend to trust their pastor—even if the relationship is fairly new—because the church’s health depends upon those in the congregation allowing the pastor to teach and lead with at least a modicum of latitude. Any sense that a pastor cannot be trusted is serious because it means the church may be headed towards dysfunction.
Russell was doing his best to drive my relationship with my church to ultra-dysfunction.
Surprisingly, or perhaps un-surprisingly if you’re familiar with the way churches operate, he had never mentioned any of these things to me, despite the fact we saw one another multiple times a week. Several church members had dutifully informed me of what he was saying. It wasn’t kind, to put it mildly. So I did what any spiritually mature pastor would do: I whined and complained to my wife.
To be honest, I was furious. In fact, even now, years later, I can sense my blood pressure rising simply thinking about some of the things he said about me. They were lies. Then again, Satan is the Father of Lies. He wants to divide the church. But I digress.
My point is simple: I eventually got around to forgiving Russell, but not until I had essentially hit back at him with as many hurtful words as I could muster. I had to vent, complain, yell, and weep. Then I could begin the reconciliation process. Yet Jesus prayed for forgiveness while the spikes were entering his wrists.
My problem? I tend to think God forgives like I do.
When I betray the Lord, I tend to intuitively think I need to wait before seeking forgiveness. And if it’s a really big betrayal? Well in that case, I need to wait quite a while before I’m ready to approach the throne of grace with any confidence.
But that’s not our God.
Abortion has been in the news quite a bit lately. I’ve counseled countless women who believe that their seeking the termination of a pregnancy puts them beyond the beautiful grace of Jesus. But he was forgiving them even as they pulled up to the clinic.
I’ve counseling countless couples who have experienced marital infidelity. They believe that God could not forgive them until time has passed. But he was forgiving them even as they met their lovers.
I’ve sat with criminals, addicts, embezzlers, liars, abusers, and even a couple of murderers. How long must they wait for forgiveness? No time at all. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Over. And over. And over. And over. Even while you were sinning, he was forgiving.
Paul writes, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
While you were sinning, Jesus was dying for that sin. "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." When we understand the depth of God’s love and forgiveness, we’ll stop living from shame and start embracing grace. We’ll allow ourselves to receive the grace God has freely extended—the grace given even while we were sinning sinners. Perhaps we’ll even be able to extend it to those around us. And, if we’re truly blessed, we’ll extend it even as they hurt us.