This morning my good friend Israel Hogue preached his heart out. He was speaking from the 23rd chapter of Luke, which contains a lot of the details leading up to the crucifixion.
The main point of the message was how much the entire episode reaked of forgiveness. Not only is it a picture of how God forgives me, as Jesus forgave his persecutors (although he was the only man in history who had absolutely no compulsory need to do so as he was completely in the right) it also speaks to the fact that I need to accept that forgiveness as a gift...to be given away!
I watched with tremendous sympathy as he described this awesome responsibility and came to the frustrating conclusion that he had no bow to wrap up his message with. There were no easy answers, no "take aways" he couldn't describe in three P's the path to developing the perfect forgiving spirit. I think it must break a minister's heart a little when he can't give us all the answers, but there are some things in life that can only be learned the hard way.
Another friend of mine is a football coach and every Friday he leaves the Bacon Club (our men's breakfast) early to go train with his team in the weight room. He does seem to enjoy it, but there's a bigger reason than just his own pleasure that he pushes them. He, like all coaches and good athletes, understands that the only real way to develop strength and endurance is through resistance. Whether it be lifting weight, pushing against a sled or running further and faster than they thought themseleves capable, he trains his players to, in the words of the apostle Paul, beat their bodies into shape.
Forgiveness, much like obedience and suffering can really only be learned through the things that we suffer. You need to be sold into slavery like Joseph, be betrayed like David, hunted like Elijah and stoned like Stephen to really get it. Jesus said this, everyone loves their friends, what reward is there in being kind to those who are kind to you?
We only really know forgiveness when there is something to forgive. Not being cut off in traffic, or passed over for promotion, or evne cussed out like I was for defending a stranger's child the other day. These things are not suffering, these are slights. If I think I have developed forgiveness by dealing with these everyday issues I am like a little league pitcher who thinks he can play in the big leagues.
The type of suffering that leads to major league forgiveness is what Jesus spoke of when he said, "Blessed are you when men persecute you and deride you and level all kinds of insulting accusations against you... falsely."
That's when we find out what forgiveness is, when we are in the right and it just doesn't seem to matter. When we would be justified in carrying out justice to the point of vengeance. When the burden to forgive is so huge that we, like our example on the cross, cannot find it in ourselves to forgive without crying out to God, "Forgive them, they don't understand what they're saying. Forgive them, the blinders are so thick that they can't see me. Forgive them, the weight of their own lives has become so heavy that they are lashing out at any available target to alleviate their own guilt and pain and shame."
It is in this moment when we become the willing target for another's rage, when we place ourselves in the gap between this person and God's wrath that we can really understand forgiveness.