Have you ever heard someone say, “Sure, I’ll forgive him — the day he pays me back everything he took!” Forgiveness doesn’t work that way. It is not likely anyone will ever be able to compensate us fully for the wrong they have done us, even if they wish to do so. We will have to forego payback if we are going to forgive.
God Himself does not offer forgiveness on the basis of payback. He accepts the offering of one perfect life as satisfaction for the sins of millions. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6; and see 2 Cor. 5:21 and 1 Pet. 3:18).
When the first recorded Christian martyr, Stephen, was being stoned to death, “…the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul….And Saul was consenting unto his death” (Acts 7:58; 8:1; and see Acts 22:19-20).
This “young man” Saul was implicated in the persecution and murder of many other Christians. Saul was “…breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord…” (Acts 9:1). [The word slaughter in this text is the same one in the Greek NT that describes Barabbas as in prison “for sedition and murder” (Lk. 23:19).]
Let us suppose that ten years after Stephen’s death the Apostle Paul (that same Saul of Tarsus who assisted in Stephen’s stoning) concludes a great presentation of the Gospel of Christ before a large audience. He is meeting and greeting his listeners. A lady steps up to him and stares at him intently.
“Shalom, good lady, peace be upon you. I am Paul, your brother in Christ.”
“Shalom? Shalom?!! Peace? Peace?!! from you? I am Stephen’s wife … Stephen’s widow! You murdered my husband — brother in Christ!”
“Dear lady, dear lady, I have hoped these many years to meet you that I might beg your forgiveness for that awful deed. I did it in ignorance. I thought I was serving God. Please forgive me! Please forgive me!”
“Certainly I will forgive you — brother — just give me back my husband. Give me back my Stephen! — and all will be forgiven.”
But Paul cannot give Stephen back to her. Stephen is dead. If Mrs. Stephen is to forgive Paul, she will have to forego payback. She will have to offer forgiveness from a kind, if broken, heart — as God forgives us “for Christ’s sake.”
And so must we forego payback, if we are to forgive. “…Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. Be ye … imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 4:32). DB
“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
― C.S. Lewis
― C.S. Lewis