Forgiveness Is for Giving, so Forgive

Jesus waits for us to come to him—to forgive, to bless, to make whole, to make us saints

Some years ago, I was brought from death to life, from a world of mere survival to a world dependent not on my strivings, but on the God who loved me and gave himself for me and filled me with a purpose for existence beyond all I had ever known or imagined.

Two months later, it was Christmas—my first true Christmas, given my Jewish heritage interspersed with years of agnosticism. All of a sudden I noticed for the first time lyrics of Christmas songs that surely I had listened to and even sung but had never really heard for thirty-two years of my life.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” I think I was in the middle of a shopping mall when the words of that familiar tune penetrated my heart. The Lord is come? He came? The words always said that? Do others know what this song is saying?

I looked around me. Thousands of shoppers continued on their way as if nothing was happening. Listen! I wanted so badly to shout. Listen to the words! The song is announcing the news of God-made-man—for us! Doesn’t anybody hear? 

Time has lessened the blessed shock of those first days, but the deep joy and conviction of the truth of God in Christ that so gripped my heart has only deepened through the years, now even more so in the fullness of his Catholic Church. Still, there’s one line from a familiar Christmas hymn that I can barely sing without tears welling:

Hark, the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn king.
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled. 

I still haven’t gotten use to it. God and sinners reconciled. What more of heaven could earth contain? What further proof do we need of a God who demonstrated his love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, he sent his Son to die for us?

But alas, so many do not believe. That’s not such a mystery to me—the mystery is that I do believe. And all because of grace—unmerited, infinite, matchless grace, freely given to a soul who longed for meaning and purpose and truth but who never imagined these things could be known. The title of the old Protestant hymn says it well: “He Was There All the Time.”

And he is here. He waits yet to give life, and to give it abundantly, to every one who will come to him. He waits for us to come. He waits to forgive, to bless, to make whole, to make us saints.

Everyone?

Yes, everyone. Murderers, thieves, adulterers, ordinary and extraordinary sinners . . . all of them . . . all of us . . . everyone.

He wants us to forgive even a mass murderer who leaves behind a trail of devastated victims who will never live a day without feeling the effects of their loss?

Yes.

Why?

The answer is wrapped in the words of the beloved disciple, John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

Why? How could God forgive those who put his Son to death?

I don’t know. I don’t know why he forgave me. My sins were included in the bunch that drove the nails through his hands and feet. Even the centurion at the foot of the cross cried out, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54). Could there be forgiveness for him who put the Son of God to death? The centurion had heard Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Forgive them, yes. But him? The one who drove the nails into Christ’s body? Could forgiveness be his too?

Yes.

Are you sure?

Yes.

How do you know?

To an unbelieving crowd, Jesus said, “Him who comes to me [and he meant anyone] I will not cast out” (John 6:37).

And he forgave whoever would come to him—just like that?

Yes, if the person turned from his sins and believed that Jesus was indeed God’s Son.

I can’t forgive like that.

Are you a Christian?

Yes. I’m Catholic.

Then you must forgive such a person.

Oh, but you don’t know what I’ve suffered.

No, I don’t. I don’t know also the extent to which Christ suffered—none of us does. None of us will ever experience the depth of his suffering. But we must experience the depth of his forgiveness—for ourselves first, and then for those who have sinned against us.

How? In heaven’s name, how?

There’s only one way. The apostle Paul said it: Forgive “as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). And how did he forgive us? He took our sins upon himself, died the death of a spotless Lamb—for us—and he absorbed the loss.

What do you mean?

Forgiveness is for giving. If you sin against me, in order to forgive you, I need to absorb the hurt, of whatever kind, that has been committed against me, and release you from the guilt of your actions. What does that do? It sets you free. It also sets me free from the constant pain of bitterness, of wanting revenge, of unhappiness that I inflict upon myself because of your sin.

Forgiveness frees all that. It doesn’t get rid of the pain, or the loss, or the devastation I might need to live with, even daily, for the rest of my life. It doesn’t change the fact that my life may have been forever altered—as was Christ’s life altered, forever, by our sins—but it frees me from hate, from helplessness, from bitterness, from despair.

But what do you do with the pain? The scars? Your forever-altered life?

I give them to God, who knows all things and who is able to heal, in his way (the way of our salvation) and in his time, and to work all things together for good. And I—now, as a Catholic—have the inexpressible gift of offering to God and joining with his sacrifice the sufferings that once would have destroyed me.

It’s too hard.

Yes, I know—too hard alone. But possible in Christ. All things are possible with God, are they not?

Yes, but to be willing to forgive those who you would rather see destroyed . . . ?

It’s the only road to freedom—your freedom.

While still a Protestant, I worked as a chaplain in a women’s jail. One day, an elderly prison sergeant asked if he could join me at my dinner table.

“You the new chaplain in town?” he asked.

“Yes.”

He wasted no time. “You chaplains take the scum of the earth and tell them to open that book of yours to page twelve. All they need to do is believe what’s on page twelve and they’re going to heaven.”

He spoke with disgust. He had seen many rough things in his seventy years. How could we chaplains be so utterly ignorant and blind to the despicable state of these inmates? I listened in silence the entire half-hour we ate.

On our walk back to the compound, I said to him, “By the way, have you ever read page twelve?”

Looking at me as though I was from Mars, he said, in good sergeant form, “No I haven’t!”

“Do you know what page twelve says?”

“No!”

“Page twelve,” I said, “says that there is a Savior who came for sinners.”

“What about us?” he responded with lightning speed. “What about us good guys?”

“I’m sorry,” said I to him, “he didn’t come for you. Jesus said, ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Matt. 9:13).

Suddenly, the old sergeant smiled. That smile told me he understood.

I’m glad Jesus came for sinners, because he came for me.

May God bless you all this Christmas and draw you closer to one another and to himself as we celebrate the birth of the one who came that we might live.

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