Many years ago when I was in college I decided to invite a woman over to my apartment so that I could try to impress her by cooking dinner for her. In preparation for our date, I thought it would be a good idea to clean up because the sink and the surrounding countertops were literally overflowing with dirty dishes. Since I didn’t think I had time to wash all the dishes and to prepare dinner too, and since I didn’t remember using any of the dishes in the sink myself, I decided that the best thing to do would be to take everything and put it on the floor of my roommate’s bedroom. That way, I could simply close the door on the mess—a mess for which I believed I was not in any way responsible—and spend my time more productively getting ready for dinner.
When my roommate got home later that night, however, he didn’t enjoy discovering dirty dishes on the floor of his room (go figure!). So he decided to take them and dump them out on top of my bed, food and all. Needless to say, that didn’t make me too happy either, and from that point the situation only got worse. While I can look back on what we did now and laugh, at the time it was anything but funny. Both of us were clearly hurt by the actions of the other.
I would like to be able to tell you that my roommate and I eventually apologized to each other and reconciled, but sadly that didn’t happen. Neither of us were Christians, and we didn’t understand the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. We were more interested in holding on to our anger and feeling justified for the ways we had acted than in preserving our relationship. If I remember correctly, I moved out just a short time later, found a new place to live, and the two of us haven’t spoken since. I honestly cannot recall the man’s name to this day and have never had any way of contacting him, but the details of the event that night and the sense of injustice that I felt have remained etched upon my mind.
My guess is that we have all experienced similar circumstances as these and the hurts that inevitably accompany them—unless of course we have been living by ourselves on a remote island somewhere in the Pacific. Those of us who have been in close proximity to other people for any length of time will know this kind of conflict and pain, or something similar, all too well. Whether we like it or not, conflict and pain are a necessary part of every life that is lived in relationship with others.
This means that forgiveness must also be a necessary part of our lives. If it isn’t, none of our relationships will last, because conflict and the hurts that inevitably accompany it will bring every relationship to a screeching halt. Apart from forgiveness, each of us will end up alone, angry, or hurt—and, maybe, all of the above. Forgiveness has incredible power to heal and even to strengthen those who engage in it. And the lack of it can wreak havoc not only upon our relationships but upon us as individuals for years to come. For this reason, I would like to devote some time over the next few months to exploring the topic of forgiveness in more detail. I will start by looking more closely at our need for forgiveness.
Relationships are not optional
God has created us for community. The very first malediction ever pronounced by the Lord occurred in the midst of His work of creation, and it dealt specifically with our need for community. Everything God made in creation was “good” (Gen. 1:3, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25); it was even “very good” (Gen. 1:31). But one thing was “not good,” and that was “that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). God created humankind for relationship, both with Himself, as a first priority, and then with other human creatures second.
What this means is that when we try to live in isolation from one another bad things are bound to happen. Relationships are not a necessary evil that we tolerate only as long as we have to. They are central to what it means for us to be creatures of our God and King.
This is true not only for us as creatures, but it is also true in an even deeper sense for us as Christians. The central reality that we share as Christians is one of being united to Christ. When we come to faith in Jesus Christ, we quite literally believe “into Him” (see, e.g., John 3:16; 6:35; 6:40; 11:25-26); and, as the apostle Paul says, we receive “every spiritual blessing” only in union with Him (Eph. 1:3): we are chosen by God “before the foundation of the world” in Christ (v. 4); we receive grace and adoption as sons in Christ (vv. 5-6); we receive “redemption through his blood” and “the forgiveness of our trespasses” in Christ (v. 7); as sons, we obtain our inheritance in Christ (v. 11); and, until the time that we take possession of that inheritance, we are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” in Christ as our guarantee of receiving it (v. 13).
All of us as Christians are united to Christ and, for that reason, we are also united to everyone who is united to Christ himself or herself. We are all members of the same body, the body of Christ, into which we have believed and to which we are united. That means we have a vested interest in one another and are connected to one another. We cannot say that we don’t need other Christians any more than our fingers can say that they don’t need our hands or our arms or our shoulders. When parts of the body try to live in isolation from the rest of the body, the part itself suffers harm and the whole body does as well (although not as much as the individual member does). Think about an eye that tries to function as an eye all by itself. It cannot. It needs the eye socket, the eye lid, and the eye lashes. It needs the nerve endings and the blood vessels. And it needs the heart and the brain. Eyes cannot function apart from the body, and the same is true for us as Christians. When we try to function apart from our relationships with other people, we are hurting ourselves and forcing the body of Christ to get along without a member of the body.
Our need for forgiveness
The need that we have for community brings with it a need for forgiveness as well. That is because no two people on earth are exactly alike. We all have different personalities, different likes and dislikes, different experiences, and different strengths and weaknesses. We have different education levels, different political preferences, and different ways of seeing the world. But none of these differences would ever have presented a problem if sin hadn’t entered the world. Sin has exacerbated these differences in each of us and has heightened the ways in which we express them and react to them in other people. Sin has ensured that our differences will become potential sources of conflict in our relationships and opportunities to hurt others with our words and actions.
But one particular sin has perhaps had a greater impact on our relationships than any other: namely, pride. CS Lewis has called pride “the great sin,” the root of every other sin, and “the complete anti-God state of mind.” As he points out, pride is essentially competitive. It isn’t satisfied with merely having something; it wants to have more of it than others have. It isn’t content with being rich or beautiful but with being richer than the next person or more beautiful than someone else. Pride is the root of every other sin and “the complete anti-God state of mind” because it is, at its heart, the desire to be God and to determine what is right in our own eyes (see Gen. 3:5). It puts ourselves in God’s rightful place and is, therefore, filled with self-reliance, self-centeredness, and selfish ambition.
Pride is the single biggest problem we face in our relationships. It affects the way we see and react to the differences that exist between us. It drives us to establish ourselves as the standard with which to measure everyone else. In times of conflict, pride seeks to win—and, not just by the skin of our teeth, pride seeks to dominate. Pride can easily destroy our relationships and isolate us from our community—and it has done so time and time again.
Forgiveness is necessary for us precisely because relationships are necessary and because sin—most especially the sin of pride—has made conflict and hurt within those relationships inevitable. Despite this reality, most, if not all, of us find forgiveness to be incredibly challenging. Deep down inside, I don’t really want to forgive my wife, my son, or my co-worker—at least not initially. I want instead to hold on to my anger and pride, knowing that I really was right all along. I want to prop up my feelings of superiority and self-respect and to feel vindicated for acting the way that I did. My guess is that most of us are in the same boat too. Forgiveness is definitely not for the faint at heart. It is taxing work. The more serious the injury, the more frequent the offense, or the more intimate the relationship involved, the more taxing it will be. Why is that? Why is the process of forgiving someone so difficult? That is the topic we will examine in more detail next.