In the natural world, the world in which we are all born and raised, the human world that apportions rewards and punishments according to its own human sensibilities, forgiveness is a fairly minor player. The virtues of fairness and justice, for example, outweigh it by a large margin. Tit for tat is perhaps the most important moral rule we adhere to, and the rule we think it is fundamentally right to adhere to. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
And in the world in which most of us spend our days, that is the sensible rule to live by. It provides a gratifying moral foundation for the systems of governance we applaud. That’s why everyone feels morally satisfied when the bad guy gets his comeuppance. That’s why retaliation, whether personal or national, feels not only good but right, provided we believe ourselves to have been wronged.
But in the life of Christ, the landmarks have shifted from where they are in the natural life. The rules have changed. What applies here does not apply there, and vice versa. That’s why we need a guide. And the very first thing our guide teaches us about the new life is this: forgiveness is the foundation for everything else.
In the materials that comprise the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers an extended discourse on the landmarks of the new life, on its rules and regulations, on what works and doesn’t work there. And over and over again, he makes his point by contrasting the natural life, the human life of the world, to the new life.
At one point, having told us how hatred and vengefulness – various forms of unforgiveness – are the rule in the natural world, he pauses, and then tells his followers: But you, if you have a problem with someone, get it straightened out, and then come to God for whatever God can do for you.
The point Jesus is making is that forgiveness comes first. It’s like the key to your car: unless you use it, the car, no matter how wonderful it is otherwise, is worthless to you.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes for us the fruits of the spirit, and he offers as examples, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Those are certainly wonderful qualities and great spiritual gifts, among the gifts we can confidently expect to cherish and develop in ever greater measure as we grow and mature in the life of Christ.
But the tragedy and frustration for many Christians, I believe, is that they pursue those gifts without realizing that there is something that comes before them, something that they all rest on.
That something is the deliberate, gritty activity of forgiveness. Without that initial acquiescence to the divine authority of suffering love, the soul remains so hardened that the other gifts can’t even take root; with it, they can, and will, and will begin to yield kingdom harvest, thirty-fold, sixty, and a hundred-fold, which is the life of Christ.