Forgive: The Impossible Command
The God we worship is a God of the impossible.
God has a knack for doing what is impossible, creating the universe out of nothing, creating humans in the likeness of God with souls that can laugh in joy and cry in compassion, turning water into wine, overcoming death with resurrection, setting the Holy Spirit in the receptacle of our frail and fallible souls. Mark 9:23 declares, “All things are possible with God.” Luke 1:37 asserts, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Job 42:2 announces, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” And Jeremiah 32:17 affirms, “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You.”
God does what is impossible, and God calls us to do what is impossible.
For example, Colossians 3:13 presents us with this impossible command: “If anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
The concept of forgiveness sounds good until we are deeply wounded by the injustice of another. Shortly after World War II, C.S. Lewis remarked, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.”
On September 1, 2004, ongoing tensions between two Russian ethnic groups, the Ossetians and Ingush, erupted in intense violence. A group of Ingush and Chechen gunmen seized a school in Beslan, Russia, taking 1,100 hostages. By the end of the 52-hour siege, 334 people had been killed—most of them children. Tanik Kuizev’s 12-year-old daughter was among the hostages. Though she made it out safely, her cousin did not. When interviewed about the tragedy, Tanik Kuizev responded, “They say, ‘forgive, forgive.’ How do you forgive something like this? How do you explain this? Forgive? No way!”
Corrie ten Boom’s parents sheltered Jewish persons during the Nazi occupation of Holland. When apprehended, Corrie and several members of her family were locked up in concentration camps. Some family members died during incarceration, but Corrie made it out alive. Following the war, Corrie traveled around the world sharing a message of forgiveness…until one Sunday at a church service in Munich, Germany. Lewis Smedes relates what happened that day: “After the sermon, greeting people, she saw a man come toward her, hand outstretched: ‘Ja, Fraulein, it is so wonderful that Jesus forgives us all our sins, just as you say.’ She remembered his face; it was the leering, lecherous, mocking face of an SS guard of the shower stall. Her hand froze at her side. She could not forgive. She thought she had forgiven all. But she could not forgive when she met a guard standing in the solid flesh in front of her.”
Sometimes the command to forgive becomes impossible for us. It is impossible for us to give to others what we do not have within ourselves to give.
But while Jesus hung upon the cross, with guards below Him gambling for His clothes, with a crowd of people mocking Him, and with His disciples deserting Him, Jesus declared, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus was able to give what is impossible for us to give because grace, mercy, and compassion live uncompromisingly in Him.
The only way we could possibly keep the command to forgive is if the grace and mercy and compassion of God would live in us. That’s why in the verse preceding the command to forgive one another, Paul describes us as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Colossians 3:12), and he tells us to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). We cannot give what is not in us to give, but when Christ fills us with Himself we can now give from that with which He fills us.
That is, in fact, what Corrie ten Boom did when she found herself unable to forgive her lecherous shower guard. Lewis Smedes continues, “Ashamed, horrified at herself, she prayed: ‘Lord, forgive me, I cannot forgive.’ And as she prayed she felt forgiven, accepted in spite of her shabby performance as a famous forgiver. Her hand was suddenly unfrozen. The ice of hate melted. Her hand went out. She forgave as she felt forgiven.”
Let’s be clear though: Forgiveness is not overlooking a wrong. It is not pretending that a wrong was right or okay or even acceptable. Forgiveness is not necessarily abandoning the prayer for or the quest for justice to be done. Forgiveness is letting go of the grudge I hold against another. Forgiveness is the conscious decision to stop holding to my heart the burning coal of hate that is tearing apart my insides. Forgiveness is recognizing that it is not within my authority to condemn a person. Forgiveness is giving the person over to the justice and/or grace of God.
Forgiveness is the best thing we can do, but it is something we can only do with the help of the One who does the impossible.