“Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:13)
I took a moment this morning to consider this verse. I thought about what it meant to forgive. I thought about the people I had had difficulty forgiving. Exhibit A. my speech teacher in college, whom we will refer to as Dr. X. I went out of my way that semester, a semester that I began with an emergency surgery and three day stay in the hospital, I went above and beyond in her class, and I received an “A/B” on all of my speeches. A/B? I had never received such a mark in my life. What did it even mean?
I requested clarification from her and she replied that she “hadn’t decided yet”. Keep in mind this was on assignments I had turned in over the course of weeks and weeks of classes. She hadn’t decided whether my assignments were worthy of an A or a B marking after that long? Why? And how could I improve without a clear understanding of where I stood grade wise?
In the end, she never gave me a proper answer, despite my repeated queries, and eventually gave me a B in the class.
The injustice of it all made me furious for years, and I had to take some time every time I thought about forgiveness to forgive her. She was just doing her best to grade her students fairly, I told myself… trying to quench my anger, Only to realize I didn’t believe that. I believed she was biased, I believe she graded me unfairly because she didn’t like the views I had expressed in speeches and didn’t like the fact that I missed three of her classes and still did well. I had plenty of evidence supporting those claims, and I stand by them. I don’t have to abandon them in order to forgive her. Our culture often seems to define forgiveness as finding a reason that someone’s behavior might be excusable, and then excusing it on that basis. But is that really forgiveness? Is that the pardon that Paul is referring to when he talks about forgiving others as Christ forgave us?
When Jesus died on the cross for our sins, he didn’t die for a bunch of things we did without knowing any better. We have the law. We knew what was right and wrong and we did The wrong thing over and over again anyway, and he forgave that.
I must conclude, then, that merely excusing behavior as somehow acceptable when it was not is not what is meant when we are told to forgive others. God, even in his magnificent grace, does not abandon justice in his response to wrongdoing. He does not explain away our deceit or adultery or covetousness as “understandable in our situation”. No. He is the righteous judge, who demands a price to be payed for all evil.
For the believer, this price is paid in full by the blood of Christ. We are declared innocent not because we are, but because Christ took on the sentence we deserved. This means that any evil committed against me by a fellow Christian has not gone unanswered. Like my own sin, their’s has been paid for by Jesus. A sobering thought. Can I really remain unforgiving when I realize that the same blood shed for my own evil was shed also for their’s? Equally sobering is acknowledging God’s answer to the non-believer’s sin, that is, hell.
God’s response to evil is wholly sufficient, whether through the cross or through his eternal judgement. Thus, I need not fear recognizing my neighbor’s offense as truly wrong. As angry as I may be, reflecting on God’s provisions for perfect justice must lead me to forgiveness and even tenderness, not because what they did was okay, but because what they did has been, or will be, rightly dealt with. I cannot, and need not, add anything to God’s justice through my own retribution. Furthermore, if the offender was a non-believer, I should, at least at some level, be moved to compassion knowing that this person is facing eternal damnation. This is someone who, like me, needs the Gospel and if I, a Gospel believer, respond to them with hate and vitriol, I venture to say that they will be no more likely to turn to the one I claim as savior.
Forgiving a professor for an unjust grade may be a small thing, and indeed it is, but God’s answer is the same for little injustices as for immeasurably grievous ones. The Lord does not ask us to excuse evil. He commands us to forgive, knowing that he will handle every evil great and small with righteous judgement. I think that is a much more satisfying model of mercy than anything our culture could offer.
I know we weren’t the only 2020 couple that got our wedding plans totally derailed by Covid restrictions. Fortunately, our August date fell at a time when we were allowed to have 20 some people in person at the ceremony. We had to let go of our hotel wedding with over a hundred guests, including all of my family and friends from America. I wouldn’t be able to wear my grandmother and mother’s wedding dress, as I had hoped. My mom wouldn’t be there to help me get ready. My brothers would not be groomsmen. My best friends from the States wouldn’t be standing with me. My Dad wouldn’t be walking me down the aisle, and the toasts and dancing I had imagined for our reception wouldn’t happen either.
But praise God we could still get married! I ordered my 27 euro white dress on Amazon. I set to making wedding vests for our flower girl and ring bearer, that is, Prim and my nephew puppy. Several of my sweet friends from church helped me put together decorations and set up the church hall for ceremony and reception. My dear friend’s mother-in-law gathered beautiful arrangements of wild flowers and greenery for the tables and window sills. Our family gifted us the money for our reception meal, and friends offered us white table cloths and silverware to dress up the dinner.
Here again was the good and the hard. I didn’t forget everyone and everything I was missing that day. My heart ached for the presence of my loved ones far away, and for the traditions we wouldn’t get to take part in because of the lockdowns. All of that is true, and yet also true was the anticipation I felt as I waited, dressed and ready in my friend’s car, with my flowers and Grandmother’s Bible clutched in my arms. Prim was excited too, sweet in her burlap vest covered in pink hyacinths and pearls. I was breathless as my maid of honor helped me into the church and hovered with me at the door of the sanctuary. My stomach lurched at hearing the harp begin to play. It was almost time!
“Are you nervous?” my friend asked in a whisper.
“I’m so excited!” I whispered back, feeling like I might actually choke with the thrill of it all.
It took seconds for my friend and I to walk down the aisle, and then I was beside him, and all there was was joy. His hand found mine, and I held on. We smiled and laughed and sang our way through the ceremony, and walked out into the August sunshine, officially husband and wife.
God seems to have made the human heart with the capacity to enjoy blessing and endure trial at the same time, to live through hard things, and know that they can still be good, or at least, that good still exists because the God of goodness remains. I don’t understand how our wedding day could be as blessed and sweet as it was with all the hard that was attached to it, but by God’s grace it was, and I smile every time I think of the day I became my husband’s bride.
God makes the same commitment to his church as my love and I made to one another on that August afternoon.
“I take thee”, Jesus says to his bride, “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”, though our Lord, in his sovereign kindness need not finish, “until death do us part”. Instead, he can truly say, “And death shall never part us.” because of what Christ did at Calvary.
As my friend pointed out, the Gospel is our greatest example of the good and the simultaneous hard. Jesus, though blameless, lived a life of difficulty, “A man of sorrows acquainted with grief”. Though innocent, he died the death of the worst criminal, and suffered the wrath of his father. And yet, he rose again on the third day, and it is because of all of these things that the Christian can be declared righteous before God. The “Good News” of the Gospel is wrapped up in the most difficult experience a human has ever endured. While there may be times where blessing and trial come in tandem, as it did on our wedding day, it is ultimately this good news that gives us hope even when it seems blessing is altogether absent, so that even then we can say, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
When a loved one of mine got married, they shared with me a lot about the struggles they were experiencing in the transition. Most of them were normal growing pains that I had either gone through myself in my own transition to marriage, or heard others mention concerning their own, but some struggles were challenges unique to them and their situation. Many of them were difficult, even exceptionally so, but a month after their wedding day my friend said something that has stuck with me ever since.
“Our marriage is really hard,” she said, “but bad and hard are not the same thing. Our marriage is hard, but it is also good, and that’s okay.”
Her statement pretty much sums up how I feel about 2020. It was hard. Like many others, I experienced far greater loneliness and isolation than ever before in my life. During our first three months of pandemic lockdown, I finally understood what King David meant when he said, “darkness is my closest friend”. Weeping became a regular part of my daily ritual. All of the melodies I found singing or playing instruments seemed to be sad ones. It was all I could do to eat the same things, walk the same routes, and write, as I was finishing a master’s degree at the time. Anything else felt far too monumental even to attempt.
Even so, oh, the Lord was so kind to me all that time. He drew me to prayer, brought me to much-needed truth in his word, and after several weeks, even brought my heart to rejoicing in the very midst of the trial. It’s not that the sadness went away, but the Lord, ever so gently, opened my eyes to the fact that it was my own selfish anger and bitterness about my situation that had driven me to the greatest depths of my despair. That April evening, he called me to repentance during a phone conversation with my, at the time, fiancé. I nearly felt betrayed by the words coming out of my mouth when the Lord finally caused me to submit to the sovereign plan he had decreed for that period in my life.
The relief that flooded me immediately after was utterly unexpected. All the weeks before I had been fighting for all I was worth, stubbornly insisting that life MUST be different than it was, believing that I could somehow change my circumstances by pure will power, but I couldn’t. As I failed day in and day out to alter the things that felt SO UNFAIR, I grew more and more despondent. It wasn’t until that moment of submission that anything changed. I felt like I was giving in. I felt like I was losing some battle I had been determined to win, but the peace that washed over me those seconds after I spoke was not the feeling of a defeated warrior. It was the feeling of a rebellious child who had finally come back to her loving father in obedience. Those weeks were hard, some of the hardest I have ever experienced, but in some ways, they were good, if for no other reason than the one who carried me through them was the good shepherd himself.
Those weeks were characterized by several other traumas that I will not detail here, but I am grateful to say they did not last much longer past spring. After a change in housing, I spent a truly blissful summer in the Irish countryside, graced daily by food, family, work, and constant music. There was not one, but two pianos in the house where I stayed those six wonderful weeks. It was there that I began to heal from the physical and mental traumas of the springtime, and, I’m happy to say, started prepping in earnest for my upcoming wedding.
This has been a refrain for me in so many prayers over the last few months, and I think will continue to be.
As before, it is so profound to listen to all these songs in the same sitting, and relive some of theexperiences they are attached to. Some of it is painful to relive, some joyous, some simply peaceful. It’s amazing how music can evoke so much, even just in the listening. I look forward to doing it again in the Spring!
One thing our culture hates about God is that he is uncompromising.He demands certain behaviors of us, and condemns others, and there are consequences if we do not respond.We see that here.The master of the house invites several people to come in and be a part of his banquet, but each refuses, citing some excuse.Thus, the master says that none of those who were invited and denied his invitation will taste anything of the feast he has prepared.So uncompromising? Yes.
But he is also a God who compels.
“16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests.
17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.
18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.”
19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”
22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’” (Luke 14:16-24)
Though some refused him, he sends out someone to compel others to attend the feast.Someone, like Jesus himself.Yes, God has standards, the highest ones imaginable, but God knows that we are broken, and in his great love for us he does not abandon us to our brokenness.We are poor.We have nothing to offer the God of the universe, and yet he does not simply leave us to suffer in our poverty.We are blind, but we are not condemned to darkness.We are lame, but we are not resigned to a life of immobility.Jesus moves us through his sacrifice, which demonstrated his love for us and atoned for our sin.He compels us through the Holy Spirit, who moves in our hearts that we might be able to hear and respond to the master’s call.
“If today you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts.”If we feel convicted over our sin, we should not be angry that the righteous creator God has called us out.Instead, we should recognize that such conviction is a mercy.It’s a call to come in and enjoy the feast of grace that God has prepared for all who are willing to partake.