Richard Bauckham on Forgiveness

Here is another section of an interesting article I read by New Testament Scholar, Richard Bauckham. He touches on a very rich aspect of forgiveness—the pain endured to make it possible. In this short reflection, Bauckham touches on the suffering of God that marked his forgiving grace.

When some brutal murder is in the news, reporters always press the victim’s relatives to say how they feel about the murderers. I always find it an unpleasant spectacle. All too often the reporters seem to be trying to extract expressions of hatred and bitterness. Quite often we hear the grieving relatives say that they could never forgive the people who did that.

Of course, we are not surprised that people in such circumstances should feel like that. We easily understand how, being so badly hurt, they should feel it impossible to forgive. We can share their sense that justice demands retribution, not forgiveness.

But then it is all the more striking that sometimes a person in such a situation says that they feel no bitterness towards the murderers. These forgiving people are no less feeling. We can see that they loved their murdered relatives no less than the others who say they cannot forgive did. They grieve no less. In fact, one gets the impression that they have suffered more, felt the hurt more deeply, let it reach further into their hearts. They have absorbed the pain so deeply that it doesn’t come pouring back out of them as bitterness and hatred. They know there’s been quite enough pain and they don’t want to pass any more on, even to those who deserve it.

Sometimes these people come across as characteristically forgiving people, people whom, if you knew them, you would expect to react like this. But that doesn’t mean that forgiving is painless. Quite the opposite. Forgiveness is only painless when the crime is trivial or hasn’t affected us very much. And to forgive what people do to those we love is more painful and more demanding than to forgive what they do to ourselves.

All this may help us to understand a little what it means for God to forgive us. One of the things Jesus showed us is that it is God’s nature to forgive. God is characteristically forgiving. In a sense, we can expect God to forgive. As people sometimes say, “Of course, God will forgive: that’s his business.” Yes, but this doesn’t mean that forgiveness is painless for God. Quite the opposite.

All the evil we do hurts God. It spoils and damages the world God has made and the people God loves and cherishes. So it hurts God deeply. And God absorbs all that pain so deeply that he forgives.

This is one way of understanding how it is Jesus’ death on the cross that brings God’s forgiveness to us. God in Jesus’ suffering bore all the pain of forgiving us. He didn’t let the hurt bounce back against those who crucified Jesus – all of us. He took it into his heart.

This happened in the very public event of Jesus’ crucifixion, an event which has become one of the best known events of history. That’s because we need to see God’sforgiveness. We need to see it in order to really believe it. And we need to see it so that it can affect us and change us.

I don’t know how murderers react when they see their victims’ relatives on the television news. Maybe sometimes it may make them regret what they’ve done. If so, I’m quite sure that it would not be the unforgiving but the forgiving reactions which would have this effect.

When we see God’s forgiveness of our evil – when we view the cross in this way – that changes us. God doesn’t wait till we’ve changed our ways and become better people before forgiving us. Rather it is God’s forgiveness that brings us to repentance and new life.

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