It was the first time I noticed how tears can trickle into your ears when you’re lying on your back.
I’d been let down, again, and it hurt. I didn’t know what to do but lie on my bed, stare at the ceiling, and puzzle at the way salty water could roll down my face without my permission. I’d forgiven before. I had no doubt that it was what I had to do. I just felt like there should be some kind of guarantee along with it. Forgive, and you won’t get hurt again. Forgive, and it will be appreciated.
But when I tired of drawing patterns on the ceiling with my eyes, I rolled over, reached for my Bible, and found those verses again.
Love keeps no record of wrongs.
Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.
Bear with one another, and forgive one another if anyone has a grievance against someone.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
I felt very strongly about it, all of a sudden. I knew forgiveness was a choice I’d have to make each and every time someone let me down, even if it was the same person again and again. And I decided there and then that I would try my very best to make that choice every time the situation required it. I knew forgiveness always was the best thing, for me and for the person who hurt me. I knew it was the only way relationships could be restored and maintained. I knew it was the way I would most experience God’s closeness and strength and comfort. It was what God asked of me and I was determined to commit myself to forgiveness, however painful and costly it might become.
But in the midst of that decision, something bothered me. Why wasn’t God so committed to forgiveness?
Forgive as the Lord forgave you, says the Bible. Which, I thought, was all very well when it was me reading it. God had forgiven me. My whole life was based on that very fact. I thanked God for it every morning and every night and usually a few times in between. I relied on it when I screwed up, I sang about it in church, I doodled lyrics and poems about it all over my school books. That was the heart of the gospel: I’d come to God as a sinner, broken and needing forgiveness. He’d welcomed me with open arms, and forgiven me because of Jesus’ death on the cross. And he would forgive me every single time.
But I had to ask. I was forgiven because I’d confessed my sin to God and asked him to forgive me. Yes, while we were still sinners Christ died for us, but to gain that forgiveness myself, I had to repent and ask for it.
And there was no forgiveness for those who died having never repented. That was why we needed to warn everyone.
So why was I asked to forgive totally unconditionally, whether or not the person who hurt me said sorry, or even felt sorry? Why did God require ‘true repentance that shows itself in changed actions’ in order to forgive, but I had to forgive even when there was no sign of changed actions at all? Why was God’s unconditional forgiveness only unconditional for some, and mine had to be absolutely unconditional, for everyone?
My 15 year old self didn’t come up with an answer that night. It was enough for me to know that whatever I might have to forgive in the years to come, God would have forgiven something bigger and harder. He’d never not know. He’d never not understand. But every time I explained the gospel to someone, and told them total forgiveness was on offer from God if they’d only accept it, the question came back. Why was it conditional on their acceptance? Why wouldn’t God forgive as he asked us to?
These days I’m more inclined to think he does. He must. It’s what I meant when I said ‘There’s an instinct in me that says I can’t overestimate the mercy of God.’
But I’m curious to know if anyone else has wrestled with that question, and if you came up with an answer. Does God require us to do something he won’t do himself? And if so… why?