How God Sees Forgiveness (And How You Should See It Too)

The one who excuses his neighbor will be excused by God, while the one who accuses his neighbor will find himself accused by God.

William Blake, “Christ Nailed to the Cross,” ca. 1800
William Blake, “Christ Nailed to the Cross,” ca. 1800 (photo: Public Domain)

If the Scriptures are correct in identifying the number seven as the symbol of perfection, then it is only fitting that the Seven Last Words spoken by Jesus on the Cross be similarly charged.

Why would the dying Jesus, moreover, whose humanity remains perfectly wedded to the Eternal Word, not wish to invest his final words with an ultimacy far beyond the usual discourse of ordinary men? Beginning with the very First Word, in fact, which is a profound and heartfelt plea that, as regards all those who had a hand in crucifying him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). 

This surely sets the bar exceedingly high. Indeed, as a model for the rest of us to follow, the standard appears impossibly sublime. How many of us are prepared to forgive, not just those who may have affronted our dignity — which very often gives our humility a most welcome workout — but actually injured our very person?

I mean, suppose they sought to kill us? Or to degrade and humiliate us, and thus leave us helpless and victimized? Are we really expected then to forgive them? And, let’s face it, for the lamest of all possible reasons, too. That they really didn’t know what they were doing!

How absurd can that be? Isn’t our enemy almost always the guy who knows exactly what he’s doing? Why else would he be so determined on doing it? The damage he inflicts, after all, is hardly an inadvertent act. It’s not as though he’d quite randomly chosen us, like the poor woman in the Shirley Jackson story (The Lottery), for whom everything goes shockingly, horribly wrong when she discovers that she’s been selected for stoning.

So, what does Christ have in mind in making this seemingly preposterous appeal to the Father? The answer is that he wants to provide the widest possible cover for every imaginable human sin, including especially the sin in which we are all implicated, that of conspiring to kill him. No one is innocent of that crime, which is the most fearful of all offenses — that of laying hands on God himself, intending to annihilate the Lord of the Universe.

Thus, in speaking that First Word, he is giving us an example of how we should forgive one another. Not just remitting the wrong done to us, even as it becomes excruciatingly difficult to do when the pain inflicted will not go away; but to do so on the grounds that, had they only known, they would surely not have done it. Here is something truly astonishing, a gesture of the most heroic generosity, that actually imputes to the other an area of mitigation so large that it allows one to imagine the other as, well, very nearly innocent. “I forgive this awful man (you say) for whatever hideousness he caused because, well, he really didn’t know what he was doing.”

This is simply not possible to pull off in the absence of grace. Unless one were to fall down on one’s knees, entreating God for something not in our power to produce, it cannot happen. Only an outpouring of grace, a total participation in the “tender mercy” of which the prophet Zechariah speaks in his great blessing song at his son’s circumcision, will enable us to rise to that level.

In order to forgive like Christ, one must grow into the stature of Christ. As foretold, for instance, in the great prophecy concerning John the Baptist, who “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79). 

We all need forgiving. We all long for peace. None of us, however, is capable of surviving a life lived in proximity with anyone, not even the most saintly of our relatives, without needing to ask for (or to give) forgiveness. Any relationship that thinks it can sustain itself for even five minutes without begging God for his mercy is rooted in a lie.

Excuse yourself before God, the saying goes, and he will certainly accuse you. But accuse yourself before God and he will, as likely as not, excuse you. It is the same equation when applied to one another. The one who excuses his neighbor will be excused by God, while the one who accuses his neighbor will find himself accused by God.

And for those who live this way, who long to travel along the way of forgiveness, there is always an added bonus awaiting them. Because, even now, in forgiving the other, I am really freeing myself as well. No longer am I bound by the hatred beneath which I had for so long been ground. The dust or powder of resentment which, like a hidden poison we allowed to fester in our hearts, is gone, swept clean away by the grace of forgiveness. It is no longer there, you see, which leaves the air clear and fresh, full of the promised glory to come.