“Forgiveness is always a form of costly suffering.” – Tim Keller
Yesterday’s post regarding forgiveness on the anniversary of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks drew a good deal of really interesting conversation over on my Facebook page. One of the themes that sort of bubbled to the surface was that of exactly how vulnerable we should make ourselves in pursuit of Jesus’ command to forgive and love our enemies.
A key text to helping us understand, I think, comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who writes to the Israelites in exile in Babylon:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
–Jer. 29:4-9 NIV (emphasis mine)
Did you catch that? Seek the peace and prosperity of your enemies. Pray for it.
You can almost hear the response. “Um, excuse me? We’re supposed to WHAT?”
Forgiveness is more than just saying “I’m over it.” It’s not just saying, “Okay, I’m not pissed at you anymore. Just keep away from me and everything will be fine.” It’s not just acknowledging that an account has been paid or set aside.
Real forgiveness means actively seeking the best for the one you’re forgiving.
You may ask—legitimately, I believe—how we are supposed to seek the best for people who want to kill us. Maybe we can put it behind us, but we can’t possibly seek their prosperity. Because it seems, on the surface anyhow, that their prosperity has to necessarily come at our demise.
I think what God is telling Israel is this: “I’ll tell you what. Quit worrying about getting revenge on your enemies. In fact, just chill out. Settle down, live your lives, take care of business. Things will go well for you—in fact, they’ll go better—if you would learn to love these people instead of hating them. When things go well for them, they’ll go well for you. I promise. I’ll take care of it.”
I think the reason forgiveness is such a big deal to God is that it’s really the ultimate display of love and trust. It’s one thing to say, “Okay, we’re over the hurt. We’re ready to move on.” But it’s something else to say, “I know you hurt me, but I love you. I want what’s best for you. I will actively seek to improve your life.”
Anything short of that kind of forgiveness, of that kind of love, essentially says to God, “I’m still in control of this. I don’t trust you to take care of it. I got hurt, and somebody has to pay, and I have to be sure they do, because if I don’t, there’s no justice in it for me.”
The problem is, that kind of thinking makes a mockery of the cross. Jesus didn’t die a brutal death to show us we were to forgive people up to a certain point. He showed us we have to be willing to go all the way to the extremes if necessary. That the road to redemption and restoration has to go through what Tim Keller calls “a form of costly suffering.”
For me, that’s where any notion of “just war” or “redemptive violence” falls apart. If God wanted us to fight back, the Passion of Jesus would have looked much different. His instructions to Israel in Babylon would have been more like, “lay low, bide your time, wait for the right moment, then strike.” But instead he tells us to pray for our enemies. To seek their prosperity.
I realize that goes against everything we’ve ever believed about justice. But Jesus died to make the point that God’s justice is always about mercy. And he rose again to prove it.
Look at what else God instructs Jeremiah to tell Israel in that passage. It’s kind of hiding in there, sneaking around, easy to miss. Speaking in regard to false prophets and “diviners,” he says:
“Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have” (emphasis mine).
In addition to telling his people to love their enemies, he’s telling them not only not to seek revenge, but not to listen to those who call for revenge. In essence, he’s saying, “Don’t listen to the liars and talking heads that prey on your pain and stir up your emotions. They’re in it for themselves. Not for me.” Sound familiar?
The path to true forgiveness is the path to true peace. But it has to go through suffering. It has to go through humbling ourselves, even to the point of lifting up our enemies.
Because that’s where God steps in. That’s where he takes our troubles, our worries and our fears, and turns them into something beautiful. That’s the environment in which his kingdom not only comes to life for us, but flourishes.
But we have to let him do it. Anything short is giving in to what Paul called the “principalities and powers” of this world, the systems and structures that restrain the advancement of God’s kingdom through selfishness, pride, power and greed.
So may we seek forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness. Let us seek the peace and prosperity of our enemies. So we can experience real peace and real prosperity for ourselves.