This Christmas, I was blessed once again to have a conversation with a very sweet young person who espouses the worldview of naturalism (a.k.a. atheism).
At one point, the Nickelodeon cartoon called “Avatar: The Last Air Bender” came up. My young friend has not as yet seen the show, though she generally has an appetite for sci-fi and fantasy. I was explaining how I see some Christian values portrayed in the show, despite the sometimes rather overt effort of the producers to advance some form or other of Buddhism.
As a great example of Christian truth making its way onto the stage of the show, I referenced my favorite episode. It is the one called “The Southern Raiders.” In it, Katara, one of the main characters, learns that she will have the opportunity for revenge against the man who killed her mother when she was a little girl. Zuko, another character who understands the bitterness of having been wronged so badly, is prepared to help her. Aang, the title character also knows what it is to have people he loves savagely taken from him. But he tries to talk the two of them out of their revenge plot.
When he calls Katara to embrace forgiveness, Zuko says, “That’s the same as doing nothing.”
“No it’s not,” replies Aang somberly, “Doing nothing is easy. Forgiveness is hard.”
Though this does not by any means amount to a biblical or Christian sermon on forgiveness, it sheds a bit of light on the thing that makes Christian forgiveness different from all the other forgiveness the world knows.
My naturalist friend believes in forgiveness as a principle for a number of reasons. It frees the offended person from the torture of bitterness. It is crucial for the interrelationship of people and people groups which is so necessary for the healthy progress of the human race. And so forth.
But what she and others of my non-Christian friends cannot understand is that forgiveness provides the Christian with the opportunity to grow in the personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what the distinction between Christian forgiveness and other forgivenesses means at the ultimate and personal level. But this was the more communicable aspect of the distinction which I was able to share with my friend: All of the non-Christian notions of forgiveness boil down to a “letting go” of the offense. But Christian forgiveness is more than a letting go; it is a taking on.
When the Christian forgives an offender, he does not merely say, “You do not have to pay for your sin against me.” He says, “Someone must pay. But I will not make you be the one who does it. Instead, it’ll be me. I will pay for your sin against me.” And in taking on the sin of his offender, the Christian joins his Lord on the cross—his Lord, the One who ultimately took all of this sin upon Himself. In fact, what the Christian comes to find is that the Crucified Lord is actually the One who is forgiving the offender through him.
The Air Bender episode does not really come very close to teaching this truth, but I appreciate the honesty with which it acknowledges that “forgiveness is hard.” And I appreciate the opportunity it thereby affords to make the point I have been making in this post, the point which I also was able to make to my friend.
For the Christian, knowing Christ in His death and resurrection is the central thing in all the universe. And the death we experience when He extends His forgiveness through us becomes one of the most powerful ways we can ever know Him.