If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
–The Apostle John; 1John 1:9
How can a loving, holy, and just God say to both the murderer and to me, “It very good that you exist”? Doesn’t it seem that God has put Himself in a bind when He created free-willed humans who turned against Him? On the one hand, God loves us so much that He wishes none of us would be out of relationship with Him (2Peter 3:9). On the other hand, God is just and He cannot affirm our wrong behavior, it cannot go unpunished (Romans 1:18-19). This is not just a bind, but a double bind (see Miroslav Volf’s book, Free of Charge).
God loves us and doesn’t want that we should get what we deserve; God cannot let our offenses go unpunished. How does God get Himself out of this double bind? He forgives.
Perhaps by understanding God’s forgiveness of me I can better understand how to love myself and those around me (Matthew 22:39).
Anytime I act contrary to God’s ways, I commit an offense against Him. Lying, cheating, greed, anger, wishing I were someone else, lust…whether in thought or deed in these, and more, I offend God. For His part, God first names the offense, calling it what it is. Sin. Then, He offers us the gift of not holding my sin against me (Isaiah 43:25). He must do both, for failing to name the sin merely excuses it and failing to not hold it against me leaves me forever guilty.
Then there is my part. To receive God’s forgiveness, I have to accept both the accusation and the gift. To refuse to admit my wrongdoing is to say I did nothing wrong and do not need forgiveness. As evidence that I am genuinely sorry, I perform “deeds appropriate to repentance” (Apostle Paul’s words, Acts 26:19-20); that is, I try not to do it again (to see how serious my effort should be, see Hebrews 12:4).
Some 500 years ago, Martin Luther said this:
There are two kinds of sin: one is confessed, and this no one should leave unforgiven; the other kind is defended, and this no one can forgive, for it refuses either to be counted as sin or to accept forgiveness.
Only when both parties fulfill their part can forgiveness in its fulness occur leading to the point of it all: restoration of relationship.
And yet forgiveness may not cancel the consequences of my actions. Forgiveness does not undo the offending deed; often there has been “damage done” to persons or property for which the offender must be accountable.
Forgiveness between humans is much the same. If offended, I must name the offense and not excuse it by sweeping it under the rug. And, I must offer the gift of bearing the burden of not demanding revenge; rather, I offer the gift of release from guilt. If I am the offender, I must admit to the wrongdoing and accept the gift of release from guilt (of course, only God can release me from my ultimate gift; that is why true forgiveness must involve three people: the offender and the two offended, God and the human). I must also attempt to perform the deeds appropriate to repentance, which may be working to rebuild trust, paying for broken things, jail time…
In the case of the murderer of Jessica Ridgeway, we must name the offense for what it is, a horrifically evil deed. We must not hurry past that in a rush to forgive. And we must also carry the burden of not seeking revenge, instead offering the murderer the gift of release from guilt, thought the punishment may be life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
I must forgive others because God has done it for me, and this is what it really means to love the sinner and hate the sin. It is something I am quite well practiced at when it comes to myself and my own behavior. God first says to me, “It is very good that you exist” and offers me forgiveness. I say to myself, “It is very good that I exist” in spite of my behavior, accepting God’s love of me. And because God first loves me and I love myself, I must also love my neighbor in the same way (Matthew 22:39), saying, “It is very good that you exist.”