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the cost of forgiveness


Tim Keller likens our typical Christian approach to forgiveness as a type of “therapeutically- motivated culture” of forgiveness. We forgive in order to feel better – to attain inner peace – and so to also ensure forgiveness from God. Without embracing the reality of what forgiveness costs, we tend to take action for personal relief, healing, and mental rest. However, how often do we count the actual cost of forgiveness? Truly? We feel that cost deep, deep down, but we struggle to articulate the negative feelings because it doesn’t always sound Christlike and selfless. It can sound very self-preserving and, perhaps, angry.

Our Christian faith sets us apart from other religions in that we are called to forgive, and to extend love and grace, even in the face of hostility. However, we often fall short in our approach to true forgiveness. We tend to stay on the superficial level of releasing our wounds from others in order to feel better. But that is not the full picture of forgiveness. That is only a part of the process of forgiveness.

In his breakdown of the story of the wicked servant found in the book of Matthew, Tim Keller writes this in his book “Forgive”:

The request by the servant for “patience” – makrothumeo, a Greek word that literally means ‘to be slow to boil or melt’ – hints at the cost of forgiveness. The older English translation for makrothumeo was ‘long-suffering’. Patience is the ability to bear suffering rather than give in to it. To forgive someone’s debt to you is to absorb the debt yourself. If a friend borrows your car, totals it through reckless driving, and hasn’t any ability to remunerate you financially, you may say, “I forgive you,” but the price of the wrong does not evaporate into the air. You either find the money to buy a new car or you go without one. Either way, forgiveness means the cost of the wrong moves from the perpetrator to you, and you bear it.

Forgiveness, then, is a form of voluntary suffering. In forgiving, rather than retaliation, you make a choice to bear the cost.

True forgiveness is bearing the cost.

Jesus’ example to us of bearing the cost is the price he paid on the cross. Forgiveness is identifying with Christ’s sacrifice. We, thankfully, will never know the pain and suffering he experienced as he took on the sin of the world and paid the debt (our debt) of sin and evil. There is no earthly experience, not even the worst we can imagine, that can compare to the experience of Christ’s death on the cross. It was more than the physical act of suffering. It was the separation from God and the weight of sin. It is more than any of us could ever bear, and he voluntarily suffered on our behalf.

Christ is our example.

I find it fascinating that Christ, as he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest, requested that God would “take this cup” from him.

“Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Mark 14:36

In his human form, he sought some relief from the price to pay. He cried out to God, “everything is possible for you (God, find another way to do this), please take it away.” But then he committed his will to God and stated, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

What this says to me is that when we feel that pang of hurt, grief, and hesitation to forgive the one who has wronged us, we are not feeling bad or non-Christian-like feelings. We are feeling very real and normal feelings. Who truly relishes in voluntary suffering?

And yet…in spite of the cost, Christ submitted himself to the will of God. Quite bluntly, if we want to follow after Christ- to identify with him in every way- then we, too, must surrender. We must choose to suffer and bear the cost.

This, I believe, is why forgiveness – true forgiveness – is so hard. I recognize this process is often missing in our Christian worldview. We seek, as even the world does, for inner healing and the personal satisfaction that comes from “letting go”, but there comes a point when this kind of forgiveness just isn’t enough or isn’t working for us anymore. We are seeing the ramifications of this approach in our world today. It is not enough to simply say “forgive and let go.” I believe this is due to the fact that that cost must be counted. We must allow ourselves permission to identify and accept what forgiveness is costing us.

But if we stop here we are still cutting the process of forgiveness short. There is more. We must look upward. We must look to Jesus.

It is when we do this that we also recognize forgiveness cannot take place without the supernatural grace extended to us through Jesus Christ. We cannot bear the cost without that. We are too human and too selfish. True forgiveness requires both the recognition of the cost and the dependence upon Christ’s supernatural empowerment to then bear the cost.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Romans 8:14-17

When we choose this voluntary suffering, we are sharing in Christ’s sufferings. Much of the work is internal as we choose to release our pain and our hurt into the hands of Jesus. And oftentimes this internal work is never known. Not very often do we see the kind of justice that we would prefer. We do this act of forgiving without fanfare and without a cheering squad. But we are not alone; Christ is with us, and he is holding us.

This is not to say that justice should be neglected. But the pursuit of justice without true forgiveness often becomes retaliation, and that should never be our motive.  We need clear discernment between the two.

To conclude my thoughts on the cost of forgiveness, I just want to add one thing. When we truly grasp the depth of Christ’s love for us when he chose to suffer on the cross for the redemption and forgiveness of mankind, it is difficult to stand in our justification of withholding forgiveness from others. I am not excusing the acts done against any person or persons, but I can only speak personally; when I encounter this transformative power of grace, love and forgiveness from God, there is nothing left in me but incredible awe and fear. Not terror or anxiety, but amazement at God’s goodness to me. And, from that goodness, I find my heart more inclined to forgive. It is a process, for sure, but a process that draws us closer to the heart of God, and deeper in identifying with his suffering. This is precious to me.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am deeply grateful for the price that Christ paid for the forgiveness of my sins. Where I fail, he brings redemption. Where I fall short, he fills in the gaps. And I am thankful for the example he set for me.

While the price of forgiveness almost seems too high at times, he showed us how to do it. And he promises his grace to see us through.

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