We’ve seen what forgiveness is in the purely worldly way of thinking. Our next order of business is to see what it is in heaven’s way of thinking. And thankfully, we have the instruction of the one who came down from heaven.
In this God-created world, everything that exists and happens gets at least part of its meaning from its relationship to God. That is nowhere more evident than in the harm we do to others.
Jesus makes it abundantly clear that harm done to another is equally harm done to God. In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, the whole point of the monumental parable of the sheep and the goats turns on the revelation that actions done to one another are done as well to God. When I harm you, I also harm God. In the terminology of forgiveness, I incur two debts, one to you, and the other to God, and in so doing, I create two possibilities for forgiveness, you may forgive me, and God may forgive me.
During His ministry, Jesus forgave many people for their sins. Those sins are not typically specified, but presumably many of them involved the infliction of harm on others.
But now remember what we’ve already said about forgiveness. It is the assumption of a burden, like my neighbor assuming the cost of car repair, or someone swallowing resentment and carrying on as if no harm had been done. That worldly element is something that no one except the person harmed can assume, that worldly harm is something no one except that person can forgive, not even God.
And yet Jesus forgave people. What then was He forgiving? What burden was He assuming?
When asked in that way, the answer is clear, isn’t it? Acting as the incarnate God, Jesus was assuming the debt owed to God resulting from our mistreatment of others.
In the worldly way of thinking, if I harm someone and that person truly forgives me, that’s the end of the matter. And if there were no God, that would indeed be the end of the matter. But the reality of God means, among many other things, that the harm I do to others has a counterpart harm done to God.
That’s a difficult thought to accept, but one analogy might be found even in the strictly worldly realm. When I harm someone’s child, that child’s parent often suffers as well. It is usually a qualitatively different sort of suffering from that inflicted on the child, but it is nonetheless real, sometimes even greater than the child’s own.
It would be the height of presumption to think we know the full reality of what God’s relationship to each of us is. But Jesus does give us warrant to say that, in some profoundly important way, we are all God’s children.