… and then there’s CHRISTIAN forgiveness…

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. Vengeful Katara

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.

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5 thoughts on “… and then there’s CHRISTIAN forgiveness…

  1. Interesting concept. Can you list your supporting scripture. Specifically the taking on of the sin.

    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.

  2. Okay, I’ve kind of re-written most of what I wrote and lost last night. Here it is:

    Sure! I’d be glad to!

    But first, let me point out that this truth goes waaaaaaay beyond something that is just found in the wording of a few proof texts. We see it all over the Scriptures when we realize what they are all about.
    Christians know that we are identified with Christ’s life, death and resurrection. We take hold of this truth by faith and enact it ceremonially in baptism. But there is much more to it than that. We are called to KNOW our Lord in His suffering and resurrection (Philippians 3:10). We are invited to join Him in His death and to experience being raised to new life with Him.
    And both of these are at work in us every day (II Corinthians 4:10). As a pastor friend of mine in Idaho often says, “Jesus did not just die on a cross to take your place. He went to the cross so you could join Him there.”
    To put it another way, we come to know Him when we walk the path He has walked. One of the major ways we come to know Him, then, is to become people of His mercy, reconciliation and peace—and to do so at great personal cost to ourselves.
    I have said many times that sin is like lightning. It is powerfully destructive and causes horrible pain. But it cannot just evaporate into the air; it has to go somewhere. Justice, it seems, requires that sin fall on the sinner who committed it. But in Christ, it has fallen on the One who least deserves to be hit by it. He has served as the ground, the lightning rod.
    So the Christian who forgives his offender is extending the ground of the cross, himself becoming one small lightning rod through whom Christ forgives. It scorches and burns. But in the pain, we come to KNOW Him who is the true and great Forgiver of us all.

    Does that help?
    If you still want some Scripture to look at, I would suggest these:
    Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13 (note the phrase “just as”)
    Luke 6:35-36
    Luke 23:34 and Acts 7:60

  3. Hey KC,

    What sparked in my mind while I was reading this is that [without faith, we cannot do anything that pleases God (Heb 11, Rom 8) ]. I’m wondering what that has to say to the topic? Perhaps having to do with our motives – our hearts. It appears that an unregenerate person can do “good” things to those around them[if you, being evil can give good gifts to your children (Matt 7, Luke 11)]. But what then is different about “Christian” forgiveness?

    And that makes me consider what you’ve outlined in your post.

    If by saying, “I forgive you”, the speaker is saying, “I will consider your actions as void – as if you had not done them. Let’s move on.” Then perhaps that is good in the Matt 7 sense. But have you ever had someone say to you, “there’s nothing to forgive”, as a way of telling you that they forgive you? (Though in really small matters, I suppose that can be allowed.)

    The point is, there _is_ something to forgive. And not only that, but there is a debt to be paid – and who’s going to pay it? Forgiveness then does cost something. And if one is to identify themselves with Christ they need to, “pick up their cross”. But the person without faith can’t do that. The best that can be done is to imagine it didn’t happen or resolve it by merging it into the background so it’s indiscernible.

    I love your lightning analogy, because we do not need to(can’t) take on the electricity ourselves, but we can reach over to the true grounding rod. We can’t really go to ground by ourselves.

    • Thanks, Jeff!
      I appreciate you dropping by astheneia!
      And your interaction is much appreciated too!
      Of course, it’s a bit ironic to use my lightning analogy following a post which features Avatar as a seedbed of helpful ideas. Uncle Iroh seems to be able to make lightning do the very thing I said it couldn’t–that is, abandon its natural pursuit of a ground and dissipate into thin air. Oh, well… 🙂

      Years ago, when the bitterness of what had happened at Heritage was still pretty fresh for me, I saw myself as needing to extend forgiveness to those who had hurt me. But I saw it as being something that I could only extend toward them, because it was up to them to reach out and receive it. I figured that a constant, decided readiness to forgive WAS forgiveness when an offender was not confessing his wrongs and asking forgiveness.
      I even preached this once during that time. I was guest preaching at Eastgate on Matthew 18. The scenario therein pictures someone who is unwilling to forgive someone who is begging for forgiveness. That was not at all the case in my situation. It seemed to me that I was facing just the opposite. I wanted to forgive people who refused to acknowledge that they had sinned against me.
      I read Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13 and centered on the phrase “just as.” But I figured that to forgive others just as God has forgiven me in Christ meant that I would extend the offer of forgiveness to them but that it would be contingent upon their repentance. The moment they turned to confess and ask forgiveness, I would be there with open arms to forgive and embrace them.
      I was very wrong.
      The true meaning of “just as” is the one I’ve written about in this post. To forgive “just as God IN CHRIST also has forgiven” me is to take on the sin of my offender. It means becoming one more little steel rod attached to the cross, a conduit through which the Great Forgiver forgives sinners.
      It really has little to do with whether or not my offender ever asks for my forgiveness. The Lord tells His disciples to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). How’s that for a “just as” to follow?
      And right before He says this, He fills it with meaning:
      “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be called sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to UNGRATEFUL and evil men” (v.35).
      I know who he means by “ungrateful and evil men.” I see one of the worst in the mirror every day.

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