How Do We Forgive the Unforgivable? Pt. 1
From racial hatred and ethnic “cleansing” to gross exploitation and rampant sexual abuse, we inhabit a world filled with atrocities and punctuated by unforgivable acts. Consequently, many of us experience unimaginable suffering at the hands of others. At the same time, many of us will also recognize that no healing can take place without forgiveness. But is forgiveness even possible in such circumstances? Where can we find the strength to forgive the unforgiveable? In this 3-part series, we’ll explore this harrowing topic. Episode 1 considers the practical ramifications of Romans 5, where Paul informs us that Christ died for us while we were his “enemies.”
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Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and thank you very much for tuning in today. We're going to begin a three-part series today that I've called, “How Do We Forgive the Unforgivable?” “How Do We Forgive the Unforgivable?” This is a very difficult topic. The topic of forgiveness is loaded enough, but when we're considering forgiveness in light of the terrible wrongs that are often done to us, the ways in which we've suffered, it becomes even more complex. I want you to know that a good deal of fear and trembling went into this podcast. I was praying quite a bit as I thought through the implications here.
This is a tremendous subject, but I'm more and more convinced that the power of forgiveness is so important, so crucial that we simply can't ignore it, and when we think about forgiveness, it really does make sense to think of it as a tremendous power because when we really take into account the tremendous evil that is done to us, that's done to so many people, we see how loaded this really is. But also it's even more complex because when we really consider the subject of forgiveness and when we consider the wrongs that are done to us, if we want to be judicious, if we really want to be honest, and if we want to give way to honest introspection here and I think that's necessary, we have to recognize the evil that we do as well, all the wrongs that we have done as well, the blood that is on our own hands, so to speak.
You see, all of us are implicated here. So this is tremendously loaded and complex territory. But I think it's very, very important, and it's been pressed upon my heart for a long time actually. I want to speak to you not as somebody who's surveying all this territory from some spiritual mountaintop, by no means. I'm going to speak to you as a fellow pilgrim. There's no other way I could speak to you about this. Please understand that as I speak about this, as I…Sometimes on the Vital Signs podcast, I just end up preaching as well. That just happens inevitably. It's very organic. If I'm preaching to you and if it sounds as though I'm preaching to you, please know I'm preaching to myself as well. I think we all have everything to learn here, and I am still very much learning here.
So I hope that that is the spirit in which you receive these talks. If you're not a Christian or if you're asking questions, if you're more skeptical here, I hope that this discussion not only invites you in, but I hope that you actually find some really robust arguments that you can wrestle with that will challenge maybe some of your prevailing categories, because nothing will so shake our human assumptions quite like the call to forgiveness that we see in the gospels, the call to forgive our enemies, the call not only to forgive them, but to love them. This is some of the most challenging material from a human standpoint, and so I hope that all of us can recognize how needed this is. Of course, our cultural moment right now is punctuated by massive hostility, it's punctuated by escalating tensions, and if we look around the world, we see that those tensions are...they really are escalating on a global scale.
If you read the news, you're going to see growing unrest, growing civil unrest, growing political unrest, growing economic unrest in Europe, in the Middle East, in the East, in North America. So as we consider it, as we see these cultural dividing lines hardening in many ways, we can see how practically necessary and how crucially important forgiveness actually is. I want to consider this subject. How do we forgive the unforgivable? Now, because much of what we see in the world from a technical standpoint is unforgivable. We see hatred, murder, prejudice, economic disparity, the marginalized, cast down, the vulnerable, exploited, on and on we could go. We see unforgivable acts all the time, and yet the scandal of Christianity is that we are called to forgive others, and to forgive those.
That doesn't mean we turn a blind eye, that's not a call for political quietism or anything like that. Far be it from that, we're involved and we care and we're invested, we're profoundly invested in this world as Christians, speaking to the Christians now, because we believe that this world was made by the Lord, and most importantly, we believe that every human being is made by God, for God, made in the image of God, therefore, we do care, we are invested. But it also means that we recognize we are called to forgive everyone—that God's grace extends to everyone. God's grace extends to those who have perpetrated some of the most heinous acts. If you look at amazing stories where people have turned from their former ways of life, in human terms, they make no sense. The only words that can come to mind are words like conversion and transformation.
These kinds of instances help to make sense of somebody walking away from a manner of life and becoming a completely different person. But see, all of this is incredibly rich and incredibly complex, so we have to think through this carefully. I do not pretend to be able to tie this all up, I do not pretend to really do more than scratch the surface. Part of what I want to do is get us thinking about forgiveness in holistic terms. If I can do that, if I can get us to think deeply about how we forgive the unforgivable, if I give us a set of pointers, I'll consider this to be a worthwhile effort. So thank you so much for tuning in. We're going to explore this, how do we forgive the unforgivable in three episodes, and really under three broad headings. In the first episode, we're going to talk...we're going to borrow in the language from Paul, in Romans chapter five.
We're going to talk about what it means that human beings are enemies of God, that we start off as enemies of God. That's episode one. Episode two, we'll borrow imagery from a parable of Christ in Matthew 18, and it will talk about all of us as being debtors in the eyes of the Lord. We all have a profound debt in the eyes of the Lord. We'll consider that in episode two. Finally in episode three, we will borrow language from Paul once again. This time from Galatians chapter two, and talk about his marvelous phrase, "Christ in us." When he says, "For it is no longer I who live but Christ in us." What does it mean to live with Christ? What does it mean for Christ's life to animate us? So those are the three headings that we'll be exploring in each of the episodes. I hope that sounds interesting to you, and I hope you'll join me on this series.
But let's talk about what it means to be enemies of God. So let's look at that verse, those verses rather, from Romans chapter five, and it's verses six through 11. Paul says this, "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person, one would dare even to die. But God shows His love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His son, much more, now that we are reconciled shall we be saved by His life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation." These are powerful, rich verses.
I can't possibly do exhaustive justice to them here. Nobody can. But what I want to focus on in this episode is Paul's language when he talks about Christ dying for us. We are described as still being sinners, but we are also described as enemies. Notice he goes to great pains to really put the emphasis on how is strange from God we are. It's not just that we are alienated or isolated. We are actively hostile. Enemies is a very strong word. If you want a picture of this, think about Christ as He's on the cross, and the crowds who are gathered there, those who have crucified Him, they're jeering and they're mocking Him. The people who have flogged Him, who have spat in His face, and He looks on them and He says, "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do."
Do you want a more powerful picture of loving one's enemies? You're not going to find it. Right here at this scene. Interestingly enough, this same pattern of behavior is repeated almost verbatim when we see the first martyr recorded in the book of Acts, Stephen. When Stephen is being stoned, he says something very similar, "Forgive them for they know not what they do," and then we are told he is received into heaven. But amazing pattern of behavior there. How do we do that? How could we ever forgive people who are hurling stones at us, who are actually killing us? How do we do that? That's what we're called to do. We look at Christ, that's the very pattern of behavior that we are given. But before we get into the “how” there, we need to get the right perspective here.
So let's focus on Paul's very strong language here. I'm thinking particularly of the word enemies. Sinners, we've talked about this on the Vital Signs Podcast before. Sinners is very important, theological, and actually most importantly, it's biblical language. We often misunderstand it, of course. We hear sin and a lot of people...I think there are two broad habits of mind that happen when we hear the word sin. We immediately either equate it with sexual sins or with lust or with sexuality in general. There's this assumption that sin just goes hand in hand with sex. That's a crude understanding right there. Then the other crude understanding is that sin is so trivialized and it's still similar that all we can think of it is as denoting some sort of seductive pleasure. In this sense, sin is sometimes equated with really decadent desserts or sweet foods or chocolate.
It's so good, it's sinful. You hear this kind of language. It's acquainted with cheap hedonism, whatever. But both of these profoundly misunderstand the gravity of sin. We often overlook the gravity of it. Sin is so grave, it runs the danger of permanently isolating us from our maker, the Lord and sustainer of our lives, the one who made us, the only one who can truly fulfill us. That's how serious sin is. We hear it often in trivial terms, but we have to do a little bit of extra work sometimes to regain a proper full understanding of sin. But the word enemies doesn't struggle from any of those hangups. We get enemies pretty quickly, don't we? When we think of enemies, think of your own enemies, think about those people who you really hate, think about those people who really, anytime you see their face show up, triggers something inside of you.
The very mention of their name makes you grit your teeth or makes you clench your fist or just tense up in some way. Your enemies. Let's think about true enemies, those who are justifiably your enemies. There are people whose lives we envy, there are people who we really...we see what they have, we want what they have, but then...That's a kind of superficial enemy. But then there are people who truly are your enemies, people who actually have actively tried to harm you, people who have really hurt you, people who have inflicted real wounds, people who have stabbed you in the back, people who have taken from you unfairly, and there are various degrees of this. Some of us have suffered tremendously, some of us have lost...have experienced real, real loss at the hands of these people.
So that's the enemy. Have that enemy in mind. This is what Paul's getting at. You see, when Jesus forgives His "enemies," there on the cross, these are the people who put Him on the cross and who tortured Him. Those are real enemies. That's the kind of enemy you need to have in mind, the person who wants to destroy you and has, maybe to some degree or varying degrees, succeeded. Okay? That's the enemy that you have to have in mind. So the first thing I really need to push...we're going to push on that's going to be very tough, I think, for us is the notion of an “us and them” that often enters in here. Now, Paul calls all of us enemies, while we're still enemies. All of us are enemies of God, so we're all in this category for God.
But when we think about this in our own lives, we think about our own enemies, we naturally, it's the most natural habit in the world, put ourselves in a different category from our enemies. It's the most natural habit in the world. They are after all our enemies and they are there. They're evil, they're the perpetrators, they're the abusers, they're the wrong ones, they're the wrongdoers, and therefore they are in the wrong and we are here standing on innocent ground. This is the most natural movement of the mind that there is, and to make matters more complex, often we're not entirely wrong. Those who have wronged us, those who have hurt us, and many of us have suffered tremendous abuse, if that's you, then you know that those people...You actually have been harmed. They really are your enemy and they are. What they've done is evil and they are evil. They are. They really are.
Nevertheless, the “us and them” is still wrong. If we want the full perspective, that “us and them,” that intrudes, is still wrong. I've always distrusted the language of the problem of evil. I promise you this is related. Bear with me here for a second. I'm a Christian apologist, and so I'm often asked when I'm traveling around and speaking, whether it's at a university setting or in a church, if I'm at an open forum or doing a training seminar or a conference, I'm often asked to address the quote problem of evil. Now, I have a number of reasons for distrusting this language. First of all, to talk about evil as a problem, it seems to imply that evil is some sort of abstract problem that we can go at with our philosophical tools and with our rigorous logic, we can dissect it and we can quickly solve it without remainder.
So first of all, evil is not abstract, it's never abstract. We understand this. Evil is always deeply personal. This, for instance, is also why I distrust when sometimes very accomplished philosophers will say, "Well, we need to make a crucial distinction when we talk about evil." There is the intellectual problem and here we use the tools of logic and analytic philosophy, and then there's the emotional problem, and that's important too. It desperately needs to be addressed, but that's a pastoral problem. I think that this neat division is very artificial. When it comes to creating...If you're writing an academic book, it makes sense to organize your subject and to focus more carefully. But in our own lives, when we look at the way evil plays out, it's never neatly divided. Evil is always, always personal. It's always existential. It cuts to the heart of who we are.
But here's my second reason for distrusting the problem of evil, and here's why when I talk about the problem of evil, I always begin with us as human beings rather than talking about some abstract problem. The philosopher, Peter Kreeft, talks about another philosopher, and that philosopher is Gabriel Marcel, so stay with me here. Peter Kreeft references Gabriel Marcel. Gabriel Marcel was a French thinker, and he's loosely grouped with the existentialists. In some ways, this is an annoying tick of the academic community here in North America. If they don't know where to place a philosopher from Europe, they consider him a continental philosopher, then they just say, "Well, maybe we'll just group him with the existentialists." People group Soren Kierkegaard with the existentialists as well. I don't think that's quite right.
Anyway, let's set all that aside. Gabriel Marcel, one of his most famous contributions to philosophy is the distinction he draws between a problem and a mystery. I've mentioned this on the Vital Signs podcast before, but this is a fine distinction, so let me bring it up here again. So a problem is something with a neat solution. The clearest picture here is mathematical problems that have clean and easy or neat solutions that don't leave any remainder. You've got a problem here? You solve it. Also, if you think about technical problems. Let's say some structural engineers have been called in to fix a leaky dam, and they put their heads together, they work on the problem, and eventually it might be a very tough process, it might take a lot of work and a lot of ingenuity and a lot of careful thinking, but eventually they're able to solve that problem and repair the leak.
That's a problem and it has a technical solution. If your car's check engine light is on, it's not a mystery, it's a problem, and it's a problem for your mechanic or a problem for you if you've got a lot of know-how when it comes to that, and you can solve it. But a mystery is in a different category entirely from a problem. "A mystery," says Gabriel Marcel, "is a problem encroaching on its own data." Got that? Crystal clear? “A mystery is a problem encroaching on its own data.” What on earth does that mean? Well, it means that if we're thinking about evil, the problem of evil, the problem is us. You see, we're encroaching on our own data when it comes to evil. It's not like it's just the problem of evil, it's not this problem out there. As William Lane Craig says, "It's our problem."
We can't have a comprehensive view of something that implicates us. Do you see that? There is no objective view here because we are implicated by evil. Our judgment is necessarily clouded. We cannot gain a perfect bird's eye perspective of evil because we are infected by evil. It has infiltrated our lives and it clouds our judgment. This is the language that Paul uses also in Romans, by the way. He talks about when we're doing evil, what do we do? We suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Evil clouds our judgment. So for that reason, the problem of evil for us is not the problem, it has to be a mystery because we're implicated in it. May I suggest to you, that when we are thinking about evil, we need to bear this in mind, this is crucial perspective. The idea that we can solve evil without remainder, that we have some sort of bird's eye perspective is dangerous. It takes us off the hook. It puts us in a separate category. Do you see that?
You don't inhabit neutral ground here when it comes to evil, and you don't inhabit neutral ground when it comes to your enemies. Your perspective is not pure. My perspective is not pure. This is very tough, but it makes sense of the very complex nature that we find ourselves and it makes sense of our lives. When we think about evil, we all need to think in these terms and I think we all need to recognize that we are both victims and villains, simultaneously. We are all victims and villains. I've mentioned this on the podcast before. This is why I distrust language about brokenness that just proceeds as though we're just broken, and there's nothing more to the story. People often say, "Well, the world is broken and we are broken, and we are broken hearted people and we need to be healed."
We are broken, but of course we have broken others. You've broken others, I've broken others. Look back over your life and think about all the harm, all the damage you have inflicted. Think about all of the standards you hold people to that you can't possibly meet yourself. We are all victims and villains simultaneously. This is the perspective that actually makes sense of our lives. Now, a number of years ago, a magnificent book came out by the theologian Miroslav Volf, and that book is Exclusion and Embrace. Miroslav Volf is from what is now called Croatia, but he was from, then, Yugoslavia, and he was in...The Balkan region here in these...When war broke out in 1991, this war rage from '91 to '95, the Serbs against the Croats, we actually have the term ethnic cleansing was coined during this ferocious war and it was hideous.
I remember, I actually grew up in Europe, and I was born and raised in Vienna, Austria, and in 1991, I remember getting ready for school that morning and all these years later, I can remember this, my mom looking at me and my dad looking at me, both very somber saying, "We need to be praying. A war has started today," and that's what they were talking about. But Miroslav Volf, who is a Croat, saw so much of this firsthand, saw these atrocities and saw unbelievable evil being perpetrated, and yet here's what he says. He says, "From a distance, the world may appear neatly divided into guilty perpetrators and innocent victims. The closer we get, however, the more the line between the guilty and the innocent blurs, and we see an intractable maze of small and large hatreds, dishonesties, manipulations and brutalities, each reinforcing the other."
The closer we get, the harder it is to neatly divide innocent victims and guilty perpetrators. This is really powerful insight, and it also puts me in mind of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's timeless insight. If ever there was a person who could claim to be an innocent victim, it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. We owe to this man, to this great Russian dissident author, so much of our knowledge of the atrocities carried out in the Soviet Union. Because Solzhenitsyn had found himself one of his letters that was critical of communism. He found it intercepted by the secret police, he was sent to a gulag, the Russian gulag concentration camp in Siberia. Now, I've mentioned this on the podcast before, but think about this.
You've got an apparently very clear cut picture of an innocent victim, in the grips of one of our former presidents, literally referred to as an evil empire. Here he is, the innocent victim, and here are all the evil perpetrators surrounding him. The guards, the armed guards with all of their military regalia, with all their symbols of power, and with all their very real weapons, which reinforce that power, and all of the harm they're inflicting on the inmates, and yet, and yet Solzhenitsyn is the one who says, "If only it were so simple, if only we could just separate out all of the evil people from society, contain them and destroy them, and then everything would be fine." But it's not so simple.
He says evil cuts through every human heart and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart. That second part rarely gets quoted, who is willing to destroy a piece of his or her own heart. Now, this is magnificent moral insight right here. He goes on to say that those so-called evil perpetrators, the guards, he says were the roles reversed, he would probably most likely be doing the same thing. Now, Solzhenitsyn was a Christian, and I'm going to say something that runs the risk of sounding controversial here. But ladies and gentlemen, listeners, I don't think that kind of moral insight is possible without the aid of the living God. I don't think we can come to those kinds of moral conclusions without the Holy Spirit and without the conviction of the Holy Spirit in our own heart. Because in and of ourselves, left to our own devices, we are not willing to destroy a piece of our own heart.
Let's think about this a little bit more deeply at the risk of belaboring the point, because we struggle so mightily with this. All of our instincts really push us to oversimplify and say, "No, no. There's good people and there's evil people." Jonathan Haidt and Mark Lukianoff in their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, point out that one of the great untruths of our age is that there's the idea that life is a battle between good people and evil people. They point out all the dangers I keep pointing out here, that if you do that, that neat little separation, not only is it naive, it's very, very dangerous. It takes you off the hook. If we pay attention to history, we'll see that few things are as lethal as an unassailable sense of your own self-righteousness. It's very, very dangerous, because we are so prone to justify and rationalize our wrong doing.
But let's think about evil empire language. This is really interesting language from one of our former president, Ronald Reagan. Think about that. This is how we categorize the Soviet Union. Okay, let's enter deeply into the evil empire. Evil empire makes you think of something that might show up in a fantasy novel. It makes you think of maybe a region dominated by orcs or ringwraiths. Certainly, a place where there's thunder and lightning and there's calamitous sounds and there's evil demonic beings everywhere. But if you go into an evil empire, if going into any evil empire and you get real close, what are you going to find? You're going to find "normal" people just trying to press on with their daily lives. You know who some of those normal people were? Some of those normal people happened to be guards in Russian gulags.
Does this change the fact that they were doing grave evil? No, it doesn't change that fact. They were. What about somebody who's walking down the street, trying to just...after a long day of work, in one of these so-called evil empires, it could be the Soviet Union or it could be Nazi-occupied Germany, it could be the Third Reich. They're walking home after a hard day of work, they're just laboring away in their society, and they see somebody being abused. If it's Nazi-occupied Germany, let's say it's a Jewish man. If we're in the evil empire of the Soviet Union, let's say it's somebody who's come under suspicion by the state and they're being abused and they're being hurt and they're being wronged. Now, do you intervene or do other considerations take root?
What about my family? If I intervene here, I'm automatically going to be under suspicion. In fact, it's almost a guarantee that I'm going to jeopardize not only my own safety, but the safety of those who I love. I have to act responsibly. I don't want to turn a blind eye, but I have to turn a blind eye. It's prudent. Now, let's get away from the evil empire. Let's think about our own little empire here in the United States right now. How many wrong practices do we overlook because it's convenient? We do it. We do it when it comes to finances, we do it in our business, we do it on the street every day. We do it all the time. You see how when you get closer, all of these small interconnected links implicate us and show how pervasive evil truly is.
We are all victims and we are all villains, and we are all doing our part, make no mistake about it, to perpetuate the evil that is going on. I distrust distancing language when it comes to evil. I even distrust language like evil empire because it seems to, this us and them, is hovering behind the curtain and we can't afford to be that naive. Now, I think the language of evil itself is absolutely necessary. We have to call evil what it is, but we have to do so knowing that evil cuts through every human heart. We begin as enemies of God. We begin as enemies of God. Why am I stressing this? The path to forgiving the unforgivable is twofold. Firstly, we must recognize the evil in our own heart, and secondly, we must accept Christ's forgiveness of the evil in our own hearts. We have to recognize the evil in our hearts. If we don't recognize the evil in our own hearts, we won't recognize our need to be forgiven.
Again, if we don't recognize the evil in our own hearts, we are in one of the most dangerous categories that there is. I've already mentioned it. We think we're righteous. Scripture uses extremely strong language for those who think that they are righteous and we'll return to that in the second episode. But suffice it to say, when we look to history, once again, there are few things that are as lethal as an unassailable sense of your own self-righteousness. This is why Jonathan Haidt, who is himself not a Christian at all, recognizes how important it is that we don't think of life is a battle between good people and evil people just that simply. That is so naive. We've got to recognize the evil in our own hearts. We have to do that.
Only that will open up the path to forgiveness. We're never going to be able to forgive others unless we first recognize the evil in our hearts and the fact that we need to be forgiven. If we don't do that, it's impossible. Convinced of our own righteousness, we're imprisoned in a sense of our own righteousness and we cannot forgive others. It won't happen, it cannot happen, and it brings us to a point where we are beyond redemption. We must recognize the evil that is in our own hearts. That's one of the first crucial steps. Then we must accept Christ's forgiveness of this evil.
Then, and only then, can we forgive others. So in the second episode, we're going to talk about what it looks like to accept Christ's forgiveness. What a humbling thing that is, what a powerful thing that is, and how finally it requires us to die, but it also allows us to live once again. So I hope you'll stick with me. Thank you for listening in. You've been listening to Vital Signs. This is a podcast where we explore signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer here at RZIM.
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