Luke 23:34a (ISV)
34 Jesus kept saying, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may forgive as we’ve been forgiven for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“I’m not going to forgive him – he knew exactly what he was doing! Because of what he’s done, he doesn’t deserve my forgiveness. And anyway, even if I’m ever willing to forgive him, he has to admit what he did first and say ‘sorry’!”
Have you ever said something like this before? Have you ever made your forgiveness conditional on someone saying ‘sorry’ before you could forgive them?
Now, I’m not saying what anyone has ever done to you wasn’t wrong. The fact you may be struggling to forgive them may indicate what they did was indeed wrong.
But as a result of their crimes against you, how are you responding?
Are you holding a grudge against them? Are you keeping away from them, which means you’re limiting which neighbours God sends you that you’re willing to love and serve? Are you breaking the 8th commandment as you share their actions to others around you so they also think badly about them? Are you attempting to get back at them by your own threats and insults? Are you hoping to punish them somehow by not forgiving them?
Now, you may feel justified in doing all those things because you believe you’re the victim. Unfortunately, victims can quickly and unknowingly turn into vigilantes and perpetrators and you might become blind to your own sins that you do in response to your pain.
You see, when you’re the victim, you might justify your own harsh words and actions as deserving, but the harsh words and actions may still be sinful. You might justify your broadcasting of their crimes against you so that others might take up your cause for vindication, but your sharing of their actions might cause others to think badly of them. You might want to see justice done, and your form of justice doesn’t include forgiveness.
Understandably, none of us like getting hurt and we wish we could get rid of all the bullies out of our lives. We want to be safe from those who abuse us, hurt us, or manipulate us. We also want someone to make up for all the times people failed to love and support us. In other words, if only we could get rid of all of those who sin against us!
However, this creates a problem for our witness of Jesus’ Christ in the church.
The problem isn’t that we have sinners in church. The fact we have sinners in church should never surprise us!
After all the Bible tells us all people are cursed by the sickness of sin, so of course we’re going to disagree with each other. We’re going to have different tastes which clash with our own. We’re going to attempt to manipulate each other to get our own way. We’re going to let each other down, deceive each other, and break our promises. We’re going to steal and lie and covet and cross sexual boundaries which shouldn’t be crossed.
It also shouldn’t surprise us we have sinners in our families. Children will want to get their own way through their tantrums and door slams. Parents will go too far in their responses to their children because they’re frustrated or missing out on what they want to do. Husbands and wives are going focus more on what they can get out of their relationships instead of what they can put into it.
But the problem is that our witness to Jesus Christ is damaged when we don’t forgive as we’ve been forgiven. We don’t bring glory to Christ when we refuse to forgive those who sin against us.
Think about it this way:
In a world tainted by the inherited disease of sin with all its devastating results, the church and our Christian families are supposed to be havens, or even sanctuaries, where we may be loved and nurtured and supported, and most of all, forgiven!
Since we’re people who have been forgiven by the undeserving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who teaches us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven, our churches and families should be places where we can go to receive the forgiveness of Jesus Christ!
If we can’t receive forgiveness from those who go to church, then where else on earth are sinners to go to receive mercy or forgiveness or peace?
If the Christian church (and its individual members), consistently practice unforgiveness, where is anyone supposed to receive the mercy of Christ, who prayed from the cross: “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”?
But in defence of your unforgiveness, you might say they know exactly what they’re doing! You might reckon they know exactly how much they’ve hurt you and what they were trying to achieve through their actions! So why on earth should you forgive them?
Well, since we’re to forgive as Christ forgives us, let’s consider what was going on for Jesus on the cross when he prayed for his Father to forgive…
- He had been betrayed by one of his inner circle of friends – with a kiss.
- He had seen one of his most outspoken and strongest followers deny even knowing him – three times.
- He had experienced the self-righteous anger and hatred of religious people who were only trying please God by faithfully living according to God’s word – even though their faithfulness should have led them to acknowledge and believe who he truly was according to that same word.
- He had been sentenced to die by those ‘faithful’ religious people through a farcical trial which was never interested in investigating the truth or applying natural justice to the accused.
- He had seen an earthly authority wilt and give in to the power of popular opinion – after all, those who scream loudest, even if they’re in the minority, often seem to win.
- He had been expected to perform miracles for an unbeliever as if he was a performing monkey.
- He had been stripped of his dignity when his clothes were taken away from him so people could ogle at his agony and humiliation.
- He heard the constant mocking and insults of those around him, including one of those being crucified with him.
You could argue that the people who did all these things seemed to know what they were doing, and they felt justified in doing them. Yet Jesus responds, before any of them ever repented of their actions, by praying: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing!”
It’s a prayer we struggle to understand because we often believe those who hurt us know exactly what they’re doing, but do they really? Do we always know what we’re doing, and why?
I mean, have you ever asked a child why they did what they did, and heard them respond ‘I don’t know!’
Have you ever asked a person why they hurt you, and they said something like: ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I didn’t mean it’ or ‘I didn’t know you felt that way!’?
We simply don’t always know what, or why, we do what we do, and neither do those who hurt us. We’re often blind to our own sin and the effects of our sin on those around us…and so are they!
St Paul explains this common heritage of ‘not truly knowing’ in his letter to the Romans when he says:
I don’t understand what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I want to do, but instead do what I hate. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but I cannot carry it out. For I don’t do the good I want to do, but instead do the evil that I don’t want to do. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am no longer the one who is doing it, but it is the sin that is living in me. (Romans 7:15, 18-20)
But, even if you reckon you do understand what you do, do you understand why? You see, the ‘why’ is the ‘sin behind the sin’. Your words and actions are the ‘what’, but your secret fears and desires of your hearts which led you to do or say those things are the ‘why.’
You do what you do because sin lives in your hearts (which aren’t as full of love and compassion and joy and peace as you often think). Those who sin against you, whom you don’t want to forgive, also do what they do because sin lives in them.
And the good news is, Jesus came to suffer and die for the forgiveness of your sin, and my sin, and their sin.
Jesus knows you don’t truly understand what you do or even why you do it. Jesus knows you’re blind to your own sins. Jesus also knows those who sin against you don’t even know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. Jesus knows they’re blind to their sin (which is why you’ll probably never hear them say ‘sorry’ to you). Yet yours (or even their) knowledge (or lack of knowledge) about what we do isn’t the reason Jesus forgives.
Jesus forgives you because he loves you. He doesn’t love you because of what you do (or don’t do), or because you know (or don’t know) what you’re doing, but because it’s his choice to love you anyway, and there’s nothing you can do about it! He forgives you whether you know what you’re doing or not, and it’s his choice to do so. There’s also nothing you can do about the fact Jesus desires to forgive those who hurt you.
So, when Jesus prayed from the cross for his Father to forgive, he was praying this prayer for all those who betrayed him, denied him, abandoned him, abused him, lied about him, falsely accused him, wimped out on him, hit him, spit on him, nailed him to the cross, mocked him, laughed at him, and did nothing to help him.
His prayer from the cross means he forgives you too – even before you ever admitted, or said sorry for, what you’ve done, and even before you understood what (or why) you’ve been doing those things.
This means, all those times you betrayed, denied, abandoned, abused, yelled at, lied to, wimped out on, hit, spit, or laughed at those he loves, including those you don’t want to forgive, well, he offers his forgives to you for all those things.
So, while his forgiveness may be good news for you, you may also consider he also prayed for his Father to forgive all those who’ve betrayed, denied, abandoned, abused, yelled at, lied to, wimped out on, hit, spit, or laughed at you.
Now, of course it’s hard for you to forgive them. Forgiveness is always costly, but it’s a natural by-product of faith in Jesus. Your forgiveness came at the cost of Jesus holy life and innocent blood to pay for what you’ve done. You’re freely forgiven for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death.
So, how might the words Jesus prayed on the cross bring you comfort and peace knowing you’re forgiven by Christ?
How might the peace and freedom you’ve experienced because you know and trust you’ve been fully forgiven by God himself, help you to forgive those who have hurt you for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death?
How might this Christian church, or our own families, grow in faith and love as we all learn to pray along with Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.’?
Therefore, as forgiven and forgiving people, may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in the forgiveness of Christ Jesus. Amen.