"Forgiveness: It Just Ain't Fair"
by Philip Yancey
Once my wife and I were having a rather animated discussion and she turned to me and said, "You know, I think it is pretty impressive that I forgave you for some of the dastardly things you have done."
I know what you probably want me to talk about. You probably want me to tell you about those dastardly things that I've done, but I am not going to do that tonight. We are not talking about sins; we are talking about forgiveness.
As I thought about my wife's comment, I realized that she had come up in the middle of a heated exchange with a rather profound theological insight. Sometimes when you say a word like forgiveness, we think it is nice and sweet. It is like spraying perfume, but forgiveness isn't like that. It's hard; it's tough. It is one of the hardest things we ever have to do. As I thought about it, I realized that even when you forgive someone it is easy to still hurt, to still feel the sting. In a real sense, forgiveness just ain't fair.
Sigmund Freud said, "One must forgive one's enemies but not before they have been hanged." That's natural. That's fair. That's how many of us feel. It is kind of a law of nature. It is what works on the National Football League playing field. It is what works in nature. You don't have cats turning around and saying to dogs who are chasing them up a tree, "I forgive you." You don't have dolphins saying to the shark, "We forgive you for eating our playmates." It is a dog-eat-dog world out there, not a dog-forgive-dog world.
If that is the world of nature and if that is kind of instinctive to us, why is it that our faith and our Bible and God ask us to make forgiveness at the core of what we believe? I've thought about this.
Many of us pray every day, as I did this morning in church, The Lord's Prayer, "forgive us as we forgive others." It's at the core of our religion and yet it is not fair. It hurts. It is not easy to do. Why would God want us to do something that is so unlike what our instinct is, that is so unfair. I came up with three reasons that I want to share with you today.
The first reason is that forgiveness is the only way to break the cycle. You are right. It is not fair. If you want a fair religion, I would suggest that you become a Hindu because the Hindus have a very clear way of taking care of everything. It is called incarnation. If you have done many things wrong, the Hindu scholars tell us, it may take as many 6,800,000 incarnations for those things to all work themselves out. You have to realize the punishment in this life is for something you did in a former life.
I have noticed that sometimes marriage is a little bit like Hinduism in that respect. A husband says to a wife, "Why didn't you remind me that it was my mother's birthday?"
The wife says, "Wait a minute. It is your mother. Why am I supposed to remind you?"
The husband says, "Yes, but you are in charge of the calendar."
They go back and forth, back and forth, tit for tat about 6,800,00 times until finally somebody says, "Stop. This can't go on. We have got to break the cycle. I am sorry. Forgive me. I know it's not fair; I know I may be wrong. Forgive me. I'm sorry."
If we don't do that, you get a situation like we are seeing right now on a national scale in Yugoslavia. If you read the words that are coming out of Yugoslavia, one group says, "We don't like the way you treated us in World War II."
That group says, "We don't like the way you treated us in the eighteenth century."
The other group says, "We don't like the way you treated us in the fourteenth century."
It goes on and on and on and on until somebody says, "Stop. I am going to break the cycle." Forgiveness is the way to break that cycle.
I saw a tremendous example of forgiveness in operation a little over a year ago when I went to Russia, which was at that time still the Soviet Union. I was privileged to be with a group of Christians and we went and visited the headquarters of the KGB. The interpreter for that group was a Christian evangelist. He is Russian by birth but his family had to leave when he was seven years old. They were chased out of the country. His uncle was killed. He had relatives who were put in a concentration camp.
Here was an older man who had his radio programs blocked for years, jammed by KGB jamming devices, who had his visas turned down for years. He couldn't visit Russia. Now he was translating for the number two man in the KGB, who was a ramrod straight army colonel.
The KGB colonel went ahead and said, "Before there can be perestroika in our country, there has to be a stage of repentance. We have done many things wrong and we must repent for them."
The interpreter, Alex Leonovich, who is a huge bear of a man, turned to him, broke his interpretation and said, "Colonel, Jesus told us how to respond when someone repents. In the name of Christ, in the name of my family, in the name of my uncle, I forgive you for what your organization did to me."
Then we saw the amazing scene of this big bear of a man, a Russian evangelist, reaching over to a ramrod straight KGB colonel and embracing him in a huge, Russian bear hug. We could see whispers going on. We didn't know what they said until later Alex told us. The KGB colonel said, "Alex, only two times in my life have I cried. Once was when my mother died and once was tonight."
That was the power of forgiveness, a way to break the chain that can go on and on and on. It's not fair, but it breaks that chain.
There is a second reason why I believe God asks us to forgive and that is it breaks the stranglehold in you and in me, not just the stranglehold on the relationship, but the stranglehold in us.
I have seen that acted out on stage, as many people have, in the most popular musical in recent times. It is a musical based on a novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserable. In that musical, there is a wonderful story of a convict who was a hardened, mean man and had been in jail for ten years, doing hard labor in chains.
He was finally set free, but he had a convict card. He couldn't get a job; he couldn't even stay in a hotel room. He went to a bishop's house. The bishop let him stay over night. In the middle of the night when everyone went to sleep, the convict got up, stole a silver candle stick and crept out of the bishop's house and took off through the woods.
He was caught. He was caught by the French policemen. They came in the middle of the night, woke up the bishop and said, "We've got him, this lying, conniving thief. We've got him. This time we are going to put him away for life."
The bishop turned to this man cowering in chains and said, "That's no thief. That's my guest, Jean Valjean, but I gave him two candlesticks, not one. He forgot one." He reached in a drawer and gave him another silver candlestick. The police had to let him go. That experience of forgiveness for something he had done wrong, that unfair act of forgiveness seeped down inside of Jean Valjean. He kept those candlesticks for the rest of his life as mementoes of what the bishop had done.
I saw another scene of forgiveness acted out on the international stage when East Germany first started coming back together with West Germany. There was a period of time before they joined when they were not a Communist state, but they elected their parliament. Do you know what their first act as parliament was? I'll read it to you. The very first act that East Germany passed was this:
"We, the first freely elected parliamentarians of the German Democratic Republic, on behalf of the citizens of this land, admit responsibility for the humiliation, expulsion and murder of Jewish men, women and children. We feel sorrow and shame and acknowledge this burden of German history. We ask all the Jews of the world to forgive us."
That was their first act as a nation. For fifty years their leaders had been telling them, "You didn't do that. Those were your West German brothers. We weren't Nazis." We didn't do this evil, but down deep the guilt was still there. It was still a stranglehold on them. When they finally became a country freely elected, the first thing they wanted to do was to break that stranglehold, turn it back over.
There is a third reason that I think God asks us to forgive and that is because God first forgave us. It is one thing to get into a tit-for-tat war with a wife, husband, a nation. It is another thing to get into one with God because we are going to lose every time. No one of us deserves forgiveness from God.
When Jesus came to earth, He came and left a wonderful example of forgiveness. What I learned from that example was that forgiveness probably wasn't very easy for God. It was hard for Him. When Jesus was in the garden, he prayed "Lord, if there is any other way..." There was no other way but the hard way.
At the cross some of His last words were, "Father, forgive them for they don't know what they do." The Roman soldiers, the mobs yelling, people all down through the chain of history including you and me, "Forgive them for they don't know what they do." I think in some ways the cross is God's way of saying, "It is pretty impressive that I forgive you for some of the dastardly things that you have done."
I was reading the Book of Romans not long along ago and I will leave you with this verse from Romans 12:19. Paul is giving a number of commands and instructions on living and at the end he says, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's anger, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says God. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
In the final analysis, forgiveness is an act of faith. It is the belief that God can take care of the fairness problems. It is not fair just to pretend that something doesn't happen. It did happen. It still hurts. It still stings. Forgiveness is not fair, but forgiveness is a way of taking that burden from us and giving it to God who is fair. "I will avenge," says the Lord. You forgive. It breaks the cycle of relationships. It breaks the stranglehold on you and on me and it is what God did for us in his Son Jesus on the cross.