What was the most challenging message Jesus spoke?
It wasn’t ‘love you enemies’ though that is close. It is one we agree to every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father. We often agree blindly, like ticking yes on a software licence without reading it, though the prayer is very short and usually not in small print. Matthew 6:12 NLT and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
In case we missed the point, Jesus goes on immediately to say: Matt 6:14 If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Jesus repeated the challenge when Peter asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive. In answer Jesus tells the story of the Unforgiving Servant. He is forgiven a huge debt by his master but shows no mercy to a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller amount (a bit like bailed out banks foreclosing on mortgages.) Matt 18:32 ESV Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
Jesus concluded the parable saying: 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
Did Jesus contradict the Gospel message that grace is free gift?
Does our salvation depend on our ability to forgive others? How can this fit with the Gospel that says God’s forgiveness is a gift, one we can never pay for? It is Christ’s death and resurrection that redeems us, there is nothing we can do to earn it. So how can it come with a hidden price, worse still a price so many broken and hurting people simply cannot pay?
It would mean the only one who would make it are those who had an easy life, who can forgive because they never really suffered that much. Meanwhile the abused and mistreated are excluded because there is more hurt in their lives than it is humanly for them to forgive. That doesn’t sound like Jesus who came to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed Luke 4:18 (WEB). Yet it is this same Jesus who heals the broken hearted who demands we forgive.
The love of God in our hearts.
I think the answer is found in the nature of the Gospel itself. It is not simply the promise of forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. It is the nature of the life Jesus freely gives us.
The gospel isn’t simply having our sins forgiven, it is God pouring his own nature, his love and mercy into our lives. If we then refuse to forgive someone else, we are refusing the new life God is offering us. God’s love and grace is free, but if we want it in our life, it has to have our whole life. We cannot compartmentalise, we cannot shut off areas of our life where God’s love and mercy cannot reach, cannot heal, cannot flow through in mercy and love to others.
The Gospel is God freely welcoming us to be his sons. But to be a son of God is to accept the amazing free gift of God’s own nature transforming our hearts. Sons of God are called to love others as God has loved us, to be merciful and forgiving as God has been merciful to us. The reason Jesus commands us to love our enemies is …so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven Matt 5:45.
This isn’t about earning our salvation or earning sonship, it is about our willingness to accept all that God’s free gift of sonship entails. The demand Christ makes is still there, but the transformation was never something we could do on our own. It is the transforming of God’s love in our hearts that enables us to forgive when we ourselves are powerless to.
There is a difference between “I will not” and “I cannot”.
We can refuse completely to forgive, but if we do, we are refusing God’s mercy a place in our lives. But when the broken hearted and wounded are confronted by Jesus’ call to forgiveness and cry out to him in pain, ‘Lord, I cannot’, when we give the hurt and pain to him, we are allowing Christ to work his healing and grace in our lives, know he will lead us into a love and forgiveness we cannot produce ourselves. And Jesus gently leads us to his cross where he himself bore our pain and suffering. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows Isaiah 53:4.
This has no timetable for this. Healing may be instant or it may take years. Especially if we are hurting from deep betrayal or years of abuse
People who don’t know better may try to rush you or ask why you aren’t over it already. Abusers too demand rapid forgiveness, so they can carry on with their manipulative behaviour unchallenged. But God works in his own time, all that matters is that you have given it to him, and are following him as he leads you though the healing process and learning to forgive.
The demand that we forgive is not meant to enable an abuser to carry on abusing. Sexual abuse needs to be reported to the police. If mistreatment isn’t going to stop, get out of that situation. Jesus came to set prisoners free. While love and forgiveness can bring restoration to broken relationships, Jesus tells us if people who abuse us refuses to listen, refuse to change, we should treat them as an unbelieving Gentile or a tax collector working for pagan Rome, Matt 18:17.
How is this forgiveness?
The Sermon in the Mount isn’t just about forgiving those who are willing to reconcile with us. Jesus was talking about loving and forgiving enemies and persecutors. Restoring relationships, allowing the person back into your life depends on them repenting and changing their behaviour, and you trusting that they really have changed. But you can still forgive them and love them if they don’t. When Jesus said to treat people who don’t repent like tax collectors, we should remember how Jesus treated tax collectors.
Loving our enemies
We have the power of God’s grace and love transforming our hearts, but there is also something very practical in Jesus’ command love for enemies. He doesn’t ask us to feel love or feel forgiveness, but to treat these people with love. If they curse you, answer them with a blessing. Those may not have been the sort of words that come out at the time, but you can still pray blessing for them later. If someone hates you, can you do something good for them? If they abuse you, you can get before God and pray for them.
Matt 5:44 But I say to you,
Love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
We find a longer list in the Sermon on the Plain.
Luke 6:27 “But I say to you who hear,
Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
28 bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.
30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back
31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.…
35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Because while you allow God’s love to flow to them through you, his grace is transforming the hurt and pain your heart too. The acts of love towards enemies Jesus commands us to perform bring the transformation in our hearts.
When we cannot feel love for those who hurt us, when we cannot feel forgiving, cannot feel anything other than hurt and anger, we can still act out God’s love for them, praying for them, praying Gods blessing on their families, blessing them with acts of kindness however small, when we do we are not only being a channel of God’s love to them, we are allowing God’s love and mercy into these areas of hurt and pain in our lives, and slowly the healing takes place in our hearts. And we are living out what it mean to be a child of God
Don’t be discouraged if years later the hurt comes flooding back. Roots of hurt and bitterness go deep and take time to heal. See it as God’s timing to go back to the pain and continue to work his mercy and grace. Just keep responding to the hurt and anger with blessing and prayer, committing them to God’s love and mercy.
And if you cannot, give the ‘cannot’ to God’s hands, give your inability to love and forgive, to let go the hurt, to God’s mercy and love and he will lead you through healing in his time.
The world was horrified when 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by ISIS. Yet Coptic Bishop Angaelos astounded the world by saying “The only way forward is to forgive… I think as Christians that’s our mandate, it’s what we do. I don’t see it as being difficult” I don’t agree that it is easy, but it is our mandate, it is the life Christ calls us to.
There are two mistakes we can make with the challenges Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount. One is to water them down or say they don’t really apply to us today.
The other is to be overwhelmed, condemned knowing we can never measure up. But we were never meant to do it on our own. It is what Christ is calling us to, being his disciples is the journey there with him. We can begin that walk of faith with Jesus with the simple act of obedience and pray for those who abuse you…