New cars come with options. When I bought my car, it didn’t have a lot of perks. Those I could add if I chose. In most cases, I decided to go with the basics because the options cost extra.
Today I heard another sermon on forgiveness, and it drove home a point I have learned and re-learned: forgiving others is not optional. It’s a product of having been forgiven. It’s not a means to forgiveness and it’s not an accessory that can be dispensed with at will. It’s part of the basic package.
This is one of the areas that flies in the face of all other religions and anything the secular culture believes. As a matter of fact, it flies in the face of us Christians, too. It is not natural to forgive — but being forgiven makes it possible.
Once you’ve experienced the weight of guilt inexplicably removed through no effort of your own, two things happen. One is a sense of relief and gratitude. The second is a sense of kinship. You see someone else in the throes of justified condemnation, you see yourself and you understand, that was you once upon a time.
Interesting that the Apostle Paul, from time to time, reminded the people he wrote to of just this fact. Take his letter to the Colossians, for example, in which he wrote
Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you once walked when you were living in them. (3:5-7 – emphasis mine)
It’s good that Scripture reminds us to look at what we were — exactly what people without Christ are. We were the prodigal, squandering our inheritance, we were the eldest brother, too jealous and judgmental to go inside and welcome his brother home.
But those two brothers illustrate the difference between being forgiven and not. The prodigal was a mess and knew it. He came to his father with nothing but the hope that he could serve because he had no way of making amends. When his father ran to him, hugged him (before he’d had a bath), restored him to his place as son, and set in motion a celebration, he knew he didn’t deserve any of it.
The brother coming in from the field, however, thought he deserved better than he got. He should have a celebration thrown for him, he reasoned, because he’d earned it. What’s more, he wasn’t about to join in a celebration for a wayward brother.
One son, contrite and humble, the other son, bitter and condemning. Which one had experienced the father’s forgiveness?
Jesus’s story doesn’t say that the prodigal son forgave his brother for not coming to his celebration, or anything like that. But it does tell us that the stay-at-home brother had an angry heart toward his brother and toward his father.
So who did he hurt by holding onto his anger? His brother? His father? They, I suspect, had a great time at the welcome-home feast. Only the bitter brother was left out.
So it is with us. Those who have experienced forgiveness aren’t in a position to shake our finger in anyone else’s face, reciting all their misbehaviors. Our eyes are downcast, or closed in worship, or fixed on the face of Jesus.
Those who have not experienced forgiveness feed their anger and jealousy, and end up missing out on the joy and rejoicing they could be a part of.
It’s a nasty thing, unforgivingness. It eats away at joy, contentment, gratitude. Certain names, we don’t want to hear; certain pictures, we tear up and throw away; certain places we no longer visit; certain days, we dread.
Can a forgiven person act that way? Only until the Holy Spirit comes along and says, And you once walked in those same sins when you were living in them. At that point, we realize forgiveness isn’t an option.