“As the Lord Forgave You” | Reflections on God’s Justice and Our Call to forgive

“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?

Person holding a red pen.
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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.

Wooden cross.
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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.