Timothy Sanford wrote about forgiveness in his book “I Have To Be Perfect” (And Other Parsonage Heresies). It’s a book for Pastors’ Kids and Missionary Kids (PKs and MKs) that I blogged through a couple years ago. In the book, Sanford teaches that when you forgive someone, you have to “absorb the damages.”
I didn’t exactly know what he meant by “absorb the damages.” For me it was a completely novel way of looking at forgiveness. I had always thought forgiveness meant releasing my anger and desire for justice. I never thought about having to absorb the damages.
According to this definition, forgiveness means paying. You take on the punishment. You walk through the suffering. You pay the price that no one else is willing to pay. It is not just releasing a person from their debt. It involves accepting your own suffering. And this has certainly been my experience. Willingly or unwillingly, there have been times in my life that I have paid the price that no one else would pay.
Sanford’s explanation of forgiveness also helps me to understand the Cross on a deeper level. It’s easy to understand the mercy of a God who releases us from punishment. It’s much harder to comprehend why that same God had to suffer because of His choice to forgive. After all, He’s God. Why couldn’t He release us without suffering?
I have in fact heard people voice this very complaint, claiming that a violent, bloody cross was unnecessary for salvation. That if we, as humans, can “just decide” to forgive someone, then why wouldn’t the God of the universe be able to just decide to forgive us, too? He’s GOD. Can’t He just declare our debt null and void? Give us heaven free and clear?
I must confess, this postmodern recasting of God sounds really nice. It’s pleasant to the ears and inoffensive to the mind. But as I’ve processed through the ideas of mercy and forgiveness, the words of Timothy Sanford keep returning to me. They illuminate for me what the forgiveness of Jesus really means.
It is most certainly true that God wanted to forgive, so He decided to forgive. But in order to forgive, someone was going to have to pay the price. And in this case, the Person who paid the price was God Himself.
The “I can just decide to forgive” narrative works better with people we actually care about. When we are in relationship with someone, it is much easier to pay the price, to release the debt, and to forgive. The process is more akin to overlooking than releasing. So we delude ourselves into thinking that forgiveness means “just deciding” to forgive, apart from anyone’s suffering.
But I don’t want to worship a god made in my own image, a god whose ideas of justice and forgiveness are modeled after my own.
Forgiveness, whether it is God’s or ours, always means absorbing the damages. When we humans “just decide” to forgive someone here on earth, it is never a simple act of the will the way I’ve heard some describe it. There is always suffering involved. We suffer at the hands of another and choose not to repay evil for evil. Forgiveness means accepting that suffering. There is always a cost to forgiveness.
And that is the role of Jesus in our lives. The truth is, the cross is offensive. It is violent. It is God himself paying the price of our wrongdoing. Taking on the pain of our sin — a pain so massive we have a hard time comprehending it. Such a hard time comprehending it, in fact, that we are sometimes tempted to wave it all away.
But forgiveness is never free. The cost can’t be waved away. The forgiver always pays. Forgiving means acknowledging that there was pain and suffering and that nothing the perpetrator will ever do could ever make it right. The Forgiver Himself has to make it right.
Linking up with Velvet Ashes.