How Do We Forgive the Unforgivable? Pt. 3
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. This final episode explores how we can practically forgive the unforgivable in our day-to-day lives.
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Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in today. This is the final installment in a three part series: “How do we forgive the unforgivable?” And in this final episode, I want to talk about what it means for us to be animated by the life of Christ. And I'm borrowing Paul's language from Galatians 2:20. The first two episodes are pretty important for understanding really where I'm landing here in this final episode. So I would recommend listening to them. But in this episode I want to talk about what happens when we accept the fact that not only are there other people out there who need to be forgiven, that really commit unforgivable acts. We need to recognize that we need to be forgiven, that it's not just evil people out there, that we are evil and that we need to be forgiven.
So when we accept Christ's forgiveness, when we recognize this crucial fact and again listen to those first two episodes to gain the full treatment of those two very complex themes there. When we accept that forgiveness, we enter into a new kind of life, an eternal kind of life, the scriptural language is newness of life. Does this mean that Christ comes into our lives and erases our identity and simply takes over and we're just a puppet or a prop in his plan? Not at all. And actually I think that's a fear that a lot of people have when they look at Christianity and I think one word you could use for it is, “assimilation.” People before they were Christians, now all of a sudden they're assimilated into this belief system and now they don't really have their own, I mean all or their own aspirations, wishes and hopes. They're all out the window and now they're basically just puppets.
I've actually heard this expressed to me in various ways and certainly there is some justification to that, in the eyes of the world, often when we become Christians, if you see a radical story where somebody has really walked away from a former way of life. I think about my dad. My dad was formerly a criminal and when he became a Christian, everybody who knew him, all of his friends really did think he was crazy because he walked away from a lot. A lot of money, in earthly terms, a lot of power, a lot of wealth. He walked away from all of that, and began living a life that really entailed huge sacrifice, huge cost. At one point he ended up going to prison for distributing Bibles behind the iron curtain. So this was really, this in the eyes of the world, I think you could look at that and you could, I think with some justification say, “Gosh, this guy's been assimilated and now his personality is gone, it's ejected.”
Who is he? What happened? Where is that old guy I used to hang out with? In a very real sense, the old guy has gone. He really is, but may I suggest to you, that old guy was part of the problem and whatever old person we're dealing with here, you need to recognize, if Christianity is true, you have to change. For those outside the church, if Christianity is true, you absolutely have to change. And who you are is fundamentally tied up with who Christ is. Think about Paul's words in Colossians 3, he says, and he's writing to believers here, but he says, “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. And so who you are, if Christianity is true, Christ after all made you, he knows you better than you know yourself.”
He knows who you are and the only real way, the only true way to discover who you are, is to follow Him. So that's the strange state of affairs here.
But let's look real quickly at Galatians 2:20. Let's look at what Paul says here because this is a fascinating insight that he's got. And it's a challenging one to us and actually let's start at verse 15, he says, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners. Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. So we also believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law. Because by works of the law, no one will be justified. But if in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not. For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law, I died to the loss so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me and the life I now live in the flesh. I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
Again, I have to always add this qualification, there's so much depth there. I can't possibly do full justice to it here, but what I want to consider is what Paul says regarding our own sense of righteousness, which again brings us back to parallels with many of our discussions in the two last episodes. I want to talk about his consideration of our view of righteousness and what it means for us to be crucified with Christ, so that he now lives in us. Paul's words there initially sound a little bit harsh when he talks about Greek sinners. Did that possibly ruffle your feathers a little bit? It does me as a 21st century reader here, remember that in verse 15 we ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.
Now, whoa. At first that sounds pretty discriminatory, that sounds spiritually elitist. What's Paul saying here? Now, by the way, let's recall for the sake of context that Paul, by the way, uniquely, one of the great, amazing ironies of his ministry is that he starts off as a Pharisee who's zealous for the law, is fiercely persecuting the church. If you go to the chapter in Acts where Stephen is stoned, there's a fascinating detail that Luke includes in there. It says, the people who were stoning Stephen, who's the first recorded martyr there, were throwing their cloaks and some of their, yeah, their cloaks at the feet of Saul of Tarsus. That's Paul. And he approved of what was happening. So he's standing there looking on, seeing this great man being stoned to death and he's nodding in vigorous agreement, this is the Paul who we're talking about. And then he's met, he has that miraculous encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus where Jesus asks him in a vision, Saul, why are you persecuting me? And then he is called to be a witness to the Gentiles.
So this zealous Jewish man who is a Pharisee, trained under a Gamaliel, one of the greatest exponents of the law, one of the great scholars. This guy is now going to be the guy who is preaching to the Gentiles. This is going to be the guy who proclaims the resurrection at the Areopagus in Athens. This is who, this Saul of Tarsus will become Paul the apostle. So it's amazing. So he's the one, he's the one writing these words. So don't take them immediately at face value. He's talking about our conceptions of righteousness, we ourselves are Jews by birth. He's talking to his audience here and not Gentile sinners. Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. You see, we talked a lot about how Christ shows very conclusively when he's talking to the Pharisees that our own sense of righteousness is very lethal. It cloaks our own wickedness, it hides from us our own culpability, it hides from us the fact that we have to be saved.
So Paul is talking about this notion that we've got this righteousness that is going to justify us before God. It doesn't work. It doesn't happen. And then he goes on to say, I have been crucified with Christ and so it's no longer I who live, but Christ in me. And by the way, Paul will go on to say as well that in Christ there's neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free man. He basically collapses all of these societal boundaries that are boundaries of value for many of us. And it goes hand-in-hand with the biblical notion that every human being is made in the image of God. But he's saying, when you are crucified, he says, when I have been crucified with Christ, so I have died, I have died and is no longer I who live but Christ in me. So let's talk about the implications of that. If you're going to be crucified with Christ, you have to remember why was Christ crucified? He was crucified for your sin. You need to be forgiven.
When you accept that forgiveness, when you take up your cross and follow Jesus and it is no longer you who live but Him in you, does that mean that you're completely, you're just defaced and you're gone now, your identity evaporates? I think this is important to stress, that's not the case at all. So in recent years we've been thinking a lot about identity as a culture, we've been thinking about philosophically and psychologically. And many of our deepest points of cultural division actually turn on the notion of identity and how you express your identity and your rights in expressing that identity. Whether that is your ethnic sense of identity, whether that's your sexual orientation, whether that's your nationality, you name it, to name all of these different features, that's to name deep dividing lines as well. Recently, there was an article that showed up in the journal N+1, and in that article it's argued that we need to move past this notion of identity and we need to really push it forward, we need to move the needle forward.
And really, what we need to be talking about is not identity, we need to be talking about desire. The only factor that should come into play when it comes to our identity is desire, that's the only factor we need to contend with. It's just our wants and our wishes and the unfettered freedom to pursue those desires that ought to be really the determining factor when it comes to how we express ourselves. Not so much identity, but desire. And so, think about that, you can be whatever you want to be. This is often a sentiment that's expressed, but this is a pretty radical understanding of that. This is a pretty historically novel way of looking at it. You have no stable identity. In fact, this article is saying, “Don't worry about it, your guiding principle is your desire.” But here I think we've come to an interesting point of tension and this tension you can feel throughout our culture and you can especially see it outside the church. I really do think that and I'll explain more why I think that's the case.
Our desires are so fickle and so unreliable and so chaotic, really. When you look at your own sense of what you want and what you want for yourself, it changes constantly. When you're in your teenage years, you see some of the more dramatic manifestations of that, but it changes all the time and many of us don't even know what we're supposed to want, who we're supposed to want to be. It's interesting at the risk of bringing in a fairly politically explosive topic, but it's interesting to think, for instance, about gender dysphoria. Now, there are very complicated psychological factors that come into play here and there are very, yeah, there're huge complexities surrounding this issue. But on the face of it, one interesting feature that we can isolate, is that it is so hard for us to make up our minds. But now what we're making up our minds about involves the very core of how we see ourselves.
So making up your mind used to be something more along the lines of, you make up your minds, let's say about what kind of a job you want. In the past, you wouldn't even make up your mind about that, that was decided for you by the kind of family you were born into. But in later years you make up, you get more and more choices, you make up your mind about what you want to do, you make up your mind about the places you want to go, you make up your mind about once you want to eat. We get more and more, a proliferation of choices gradually as we get more and more modern and contemporary. But now making up your mind carries tremendous existential weight. Now making up your mind involves who you actually are at the very core of how you see yourself. Making up your mind, it amounts to a kind of self-creation, but there's a reason why so many of us find ourselves caught in a bind where we think, I don't know what I want to be. I'm still figuring it out.
We have all sorts of, we're trying to come up with language now to capture this ambiguity, to capture this indecisiveness. We're terrified of commitment, we've got seemingly endless proliferation of options, but we have no idea what to choose. So when we think about our identities these days, I think more and more we do seem to be moving away from the thought of any kind of a stable center of the self and we think more and more in terms of desire, it's almost a default. But when we take an honest look at that, we can see how chaotic it is and we can see how arbitrary it is. I think this is what bothers so many of us so deeply. When I speak to so many young people, particularly at university campuses, this is the sense I get that it's, yes, I could be whatever I want, but why does it matter?
There's a necessary arbitrary feature here because yes, I could be whatever I want. Yes, I can transition possibly here. I could even undergo some radical surgery. I could wear different clothes. I could listen to different music. I could adopt different symbols to pursue a different identity. But in the end, if I'm motivated by nothing more than just my impulses, just spontaneous voluntarist desires that just seem to crop up out of nowhere, there's a colossal emptiness there. There's a kind of chaotic emptiness there, that really is neolistic. It doesn't mean anything. My colleague, Jo Vitale, often points out that we human beings, we don't just want meaningful lives, we don't just desire meaning, we actually have to have it. We have to have meaning. We need meaning, it's not an expendable feature of life.
You have to have meaning in the same way that you have to have beauty. You need coherence in your life. Well, if we move the needle forward, so to speak, and I think that, by the way, moving that needle forward follows the cultural logic right now, that views you as your own master. If you move that needle forward and say, “It's just desire, it's just nothing more than desire.” That almost, the only picture I can think of, is when the people in the movie Fight Club, based on a book, of course, when they all gather in the car, and they start driving down the road and they just drive down the wrong side of the street, or they take their hands off the wheel and just let it go wherever they want. That's a picture of following your own desire, I think. It's tantamount to being in a vehicle, taking your hands off the wheel and just pumping the gas.
It's a terrifying picture, but that's what we often have and I think if we're honest, if we're letting our desires do the guiding, it's a very fickle, it's a very chaotic, it's a very frightening, it's a very unstable place to go and there's no real meaning to it. It doesn't mean anything, there's such a hollowness to it because it's so obviously just rings false. Everything about the world we live in and the stability of our society and our relationships screams for structure and coherence. It's screams for a true self, but if we're going to discover our true selves, we have to go back to the source of our true selves. And if Christianity is true, you're not the source of your true self, you aren't. There's only one necessary being in the world, that is God. He is the one who can say, “I am that I am.” That's who He is, He is the necessary being, needs nothing, you are not, you're totally dependent and you are made and created. And if you were made and created, if you have a maker, you need your maker to tell you who you are.
If you have a maker, you need your maker to tell you who you are. So, so often the despair that comes from when ourselves, when we actually look at the core and we think it's all just chaos, it's all flux, there's no real rhyme or reason to it. So often that despair can lead, if we follow it to its proper conclusion, it should lead us to the place where we say, I don't know who I am. The one who made me needs to tell me who I am and this is what Paul is getting at when he talks about Christ living in you and you no longer living as yourself. When Christ is in you, you truly become who you were made to be. Dallas Willard put this really well. He said, "What you're trying to do is not always necessarily precisely what Jesus does."
If you study His life in the gospels, you have to remember this man Jesus, the specific historical figure, He is the son of God, so He is fully God, fully man. This specific man you're looking at, all the deeds of His life are not necessarily going to correspond to yours completely. He's a carpenter, not all of us are carpenters. When it comes to carpentry, I'm pretty lost. I can't fix anything. So what does it mean to truly imitate Christ? Dallas Willard points out very wisely, live your life the way Christ would were He you? That means your specific personality, your quirks, who you are is not accidental, it's not a byproduct of random unguided forces. You are who you are. For a reason and the Lord has made you and He wants to work through you, but that will require self-sacrifice, that will require dying to self. Because if you try to live only for yourself alone, you can't live for others, you can't live for Christ. You're actually designed to live for others and for Christ. If you try to fulfill only your own needs, you'll end in isolation and loneliness.
My colleague, Sam Allberry puts this very well. He says, "Christianity, following Christ demands self-sacrifice of all of us." If your faith is costing you nothing, if there's no sacrifice in your faith, you need to examine your heart. But you see, you become who you're truly made to be and the Lord works through you and one of the amazing powers He confers upon you and He gives to you by the power of His Holy Spirit is the power to forgive those who wrong you. Because you understand first and foremost that you need to be forgiven, you have been forgiven everything by Christ and therefore you have no right to be anybody else's ultimate judge. That's God's job. You can forgive everybody no matter what they've done, no matter how heinous, and I'm aware of how startling the implications are here, but that's what we are called to. Remember Christ's words to those who are violating Him.
The only person in all of human history who truly was innocent, then those who are wicked, those who are truly evil had crucified Him, were hurting Him. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. He gives you the power to say that to those who have wronged you, He really does. Stephen then, when we see his martyrdom in the book of Acts says the same thing when he's being stoned to death. And it's on the lips of so many Christian men and women who lay down their lives for Christ's sake, we are called to forgive those who wrong us, this is how we forgive the unforgivable. The only way to do that, is we first have to recognize the evil in our own heart, who we are, that we need to be forgiven. Then we need to accept Christ's forgiveness and when He lives in us, when He animates our lives, and that is your life, your specific life, your specific skin, your specific body. When that happens, you with your life, your specific skin, your specific body and your specific set of talents and powers, you can forgive others.
And remember, this is a picture of you as you are truly made to be, it is not you without compromise because you without compromise, if you're just following your own whims and fancies and you only want to live for yourself, you cannot live with others. By the way, this is why we're so lonely, relational breakdown, all of this divorce rates, the fact that we can't seem to sustain friendships, it's not social media, it's not all of these different forces. These are just symptoms of a much deeper problem and the deeper problem is we all think we can be whatever we want to be and we should just really follow our own whims, our own inclinations, live for ourselves, put ourselves first, do what we want and because of that, we shut out others. If we want to have a world where we're living with others in relationship, where we love others, where we're not lonely, where we're giving, the only way to do that is to give.
And the ultimate way that you give is to be crucified with Christ and to allow Him to live in you, so that it is no longer you who live but Christ in you. That's the only way you can forgive the unforgivable, that's the only way you can rest in the assurance that the living God is also the impartial judge and justice is in His hands and mercy is in His hands and because of His mercy you are free to forgive others and to love selflessly. So this has been a fairly challenging series, it's been theologically weighty, it's been personal, and I am sure that it's been a kind of, some of you have probably felt conflicted as you've listened. So I want to heartily thank you for sticking with me this whole time and for listening and I want to once again say these are the words of a fellow Pilgrim. A fellow human being who recognizes deeply his need to be forgiven, who sees that every day and by no means are these the words of somebody who's looking down from the mountain tops on you.
I hope it hasn't come across that way. If it has, please accept my profound apologies. But you've been listening to Vital Signs, a podcast, exploring 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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