Summary: Real Sin has real consequences. Only God can deal with them and he does that via the Cross
This is a series based on and heavily dependent on Timothy Keller’s Best Seller "The Reason For God" for which I’m deeply grateful. It uses much of his argument though with various additions by myself or the other preachers of the series.
1 Cor 1 tells us that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles and you’d have to say this is still the case. People like Richard Dawkins and John Spong want to know what was the point of Jesus dying on the cross. Why couldn’t God just forgive us? If I’m truly sorry for my mistakes why can’t God just accept me? Why did he have to insist that someone pays for what I’ve done. It’s like God’s holding on to a grudge against us.
Richard Dawkins thinks the whole story of the cross is obscene. He says it makes God out to be one of those vengeful gods of primitive times who needed to be appeased by human sacrifice. He, along with others, suggests that the story of the cross is a case of “Divine Child-abuse”.
But is that the case? Or was the Cross really necessary?
Real forgiveness involves costly suffering
The first thing we need to think about is the cost of forgiveness. Is it possible to simply say you’re forgiven and leave it at that? Let me suggest that real forgiveness costs. If someone runs into my car I could forgive them. I could tell them to forget about the damage they’ve done, but would that solve the problem? Well, no, it wouldn’t. My car needs to be repaired and we all know how much that’s going to cost! Either he or I have to absorb the cost. It won’t just magically go away. So I can only forgive the person if I’m prepared to bear the cost of the repairs.
And what about the sorts of injuries that people cause that are hard to quantify: emotional and psychological injuries that cause loss of happiness, or reputation, or confidence, or trust in others. Someone saying “I’m really sorry” doesn’t take away the pain, does it? It doesn’t heal the scars or repair the damage to our confidence or our trust. If we’re to forgive those sorts of hurts we have to be prepared to deal with the injuries ourselves. We have to be prepared ourselves to bear the debt that person owes us for the damage they’ve caused.
So how do you deal with this sort of loss? How does the other person repay the ‘debt’ they owe you?
One way people deal with it is to seek revenge. I heard someone the other day talking about his 18 year old son being murdered. And he said all he wanted to do afterwards was to get hold of the murderers and make them suffer. But would that have solved the problem? Well, not really. It might have made him feel a bit better for a while, but in the end it would have left him as another perpetrator of evil. When someone hurts us we could go around telling everyone how terrible that person is, damaging their reputation and that might make us feel better for a while. But it wouldn’t solve the problem.
You see, the problem with vengeance as a way of collecting on the debt is that in yourself you become harder and more bitter. You may become hostile towards anyone who’s like the perpetrator - men, women, other races, teachers, police officers. And from the other person’s point of view, they or their friends and family may then feel justified in seeking vengeance against you. And so the process begins to snowball, to spiral out of control. So instead of the evil being removed it escalates and spreads, including into you and your own character.
The alternative is that you choose to forgive, to absorb the pain and suffering into your own being. You choose to forgo the opportunity of repaying evil for evil and instead take the suffering on yourself. The irony is though, that this acceptance of pain leads in the end to life; to the end of bitterness and blame. When we find we can forgive someone of the pain they’ve caused us, we take away from them the victory they’ve had over us and replace it with our own freedom of choice. This isn’t a process without cost but it is a rewarding one in the end.
I was thinking about this as I was driving home from the city down Canterbury Rd the other day. It was peak hour traffic with bumper to bumper traffic in one lane. Two contrasting incidents happened. One was a driver who decided to jump the queue by driving down the inside lane then pushing in when he came to a parked car - the sort of thing that gets you really mad. I found myself hoping that he’d speed through the traffic lights coming up where there’s a camera installed and get his just desserts. Did that help me? No. I was no closer to home. All it did was to raise my stress levels as I stewed on the injustice of what he’s done. But the other incident was the opposite. I was coming up to an intersection where cars come out from the left into Canterbury Rd then mostly turn right straight away. I had right of way but I decided to slow down and let the 3 or 4 cars get through. And do you know what happened? I immediately felt good about giving up my right to be first and I drove on relaxed and happy. Those are just tiny examples but you get the picture, I hope. Revenge costs more than we’re going to get repaid by it whereas forgiveness brings its own rewards.