While reading The Reason for God for a class assignment, I was struck by the way that Tim Keller spoke about forgiveness. His writing has really given me a better grasp on something that I have wrestled with for some time now, and so I just wanted to share some of what he says. The context of these quotes is him writing a chapter on the cross of Jesus Christ and why it was necessary for Jesus to die in order to forgive us our sins.
“Forgiveness means refusing to make them pay for what they did. However, to refrain from lashing out at someone when you want to do so with all your being is agony. It is a form of suffering. You not only suffer the original loss of happiness, reputation, and opportunity, but now you forgo the consolation of inflicting the same on them. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death.
Yes, but it is a death that leads to resurrection instead of the lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism… no one “just” forgives, if the evil is serious… Everyone who forgives great evil goes through a death into a resurrection, and experiences nails, blood, sweat, and tears… Everyone who forgives someone bears the other’s sins…
Forgiveness is always a form of costly suffering.”
I think the way that Keller paints forgiveness is revealing and shows how it is grounded in looking to Jesus and the cross. During Home Group last night, a few of us were talking about bitterness and unforgiveness and the issue that came up was how it is hard to forgive someone because you don’t want to deny the wrong they have done. It seems sometimes that forgiving someone would be to erase their accountability for the evil they have done in their sin. But when we see forgiveness in light of what Keller says, we recognize that forgiving someone is not disregarding the wrong committed against you – it is not letting them off the hook for their sin, it is actually bearing their sin for them in a way. Keller says that forgiveness is a way of “sharing in the sufferings of Christ.” The proof that you were wronged is in the pain, agony, and suffering you go through in order to forgive someone.
That’s something I’ve learned from experience. Forgiving someone who has really hurt you is not easy. It’s actually harder than not forgiving them. It hurts worse. It hurts terribly. I always thought forgiveness came easily and was not difficult if you were a Christian. But that’s not true. I found that out when I was deeply hurt by fellow believers. I found out that, as Keller says, it’s a form of suffering. That’s because you’re paying their debt – you’re bearing their sin, you’re experiencing the suffering in their place. Someone has to pay for the wrong done, and you are opting to pay instead of forcing them to pay. If you’re honest, you can’t just say, “no problem” and let it go. You change places with the person and experience what they deserve, in a way. It’s dying to yourself, but also dying for someone else.
But as Keller points out, it’s a death that leads to resurrection. If you let bitterness remain in your heart towards someone, then that is a daily death that you live out. As it has been put – bitterness is a cup of poison that you drink daily yourself hoping it will hurt the other person. Bitterness leads to a death with no hope of life afterwards. But forgiveness leads only to a temporary death, a death that leads to life and resurrection. Keller says, “Only when you have lost the need to see the other person hurt will you have any chance of actually bringing about change, reconciliation, and healing. You have to submit to the costly suffering and death of forgiveness if there is going to be any resurrection.”
For me, this has been a wonderful realization that has opened my eyes to see the beauty of what it means for Jesus to forgive me. Seeing the fullness of his forgiveness in the cross has given me new eyes to see forgiveness in my life, and to strive to die the same death in my own life. I now see it as a practical way that I can “share in his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if somehow I might obtain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11).