“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
– Alexander Pope
The week before I got married, my Dad and I had a stand-up fight. A proper all-guns-blazing fight that saw him throw me across a table, cutting my back open. It started because I told him to shut up. I told him to shut up because I hadn’t forgiven him for years of not being allowed to share my opinion without being told to shut up myself. Essentially, Dad had never said sorry, and I’d never said ‘I forgive you’.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe about how the world came into being, you know about forgiveness. Any relationship in the world – friendship, marriage, business – simply cannot persist if one party will not forgive the other. Think of all the people you’ve cared for who you no longer talk to because you fell out. Why don’t you talk anymore? Not simply because you fell out, but because at least one of you said, ‘enough is enough’. If one party is determined to pursue peace and reconciliation, but the other party refuses to answer the phone, there can be no relationship.
We apprehend how important forgiveness is for our well-being, and we understand how deadly, how destructive unforgiveness is.
There’s a Greek term called Logos Spermatikos. It basically means ‘the seeded word’ – the idea that God hard-wired His Gospel into the very fabric of the universe. John 1:1 tells us: ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.’
There is no other worldview that talks about forgiveness in such strong terms as Christianity; nowhere else do we see such a close correlation between what we intuitively understand about forgiveness and what the major worldviews say about it. If your worldview is atheism, then you might believe that forgiveness is just a handy survival mechanism, and that you can forgive someone if it makes life easier for you, but that you’re under no duress to do so. (And if you’re going to follow atheism to its logical conclusion of nihilism, then it just doesn’t matter whether you forgive someone or not).
But that isn’t what you intuitively understand about forgiveness. If you think about it properly, you know that, at times, you need forgiveness. We have all said or done things that we just cannot live with until a time when the person we have wronged accepts our apology. It’s much deeper than just a mechanism for keeping the species together: this need to say sorry and to be forgiven is wired into the universe. But it’s not an instinct in the same way that sex or eating is an instinct. You only have to read any newspaper on any given day to understand how, as a species, we very easily overrule what we apprehend about forgiveness.
However, when Jesus goes to the cross, don’t we get it? Jesus dies and Logos Spermatikos comes into play, because that deep need, that longing for forgiveness that we all experience at different times finally takes its proper form. Jesus dies for us, for our sin, to forgive us for the stuff we haven’t yet said sorry for. Don’t we intuitively understand that we need that?
If you were teaching a TEFL class to Bulgarians and you wanted to devise some work sheets, you would make sure that all the words were in both Bulgarian and English, so that the students knew what they were looking at. You would construct that particular learning universe in such a way that the students recognised what was needed. I think that’s the same with the cross. God seeded the universe with an understanding of a need for forgiveness. And when Jesus dies and says, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,’ that seeded Word finally flowers.
After I’d patched up my bleeding back and we’d cleared away the broken glass from the table, Dad and I were both able to reflect on how we’d treated each other. We understood that we both needed to say sorry, and we both needed to forgive. It wasn’t instinct. It was something that we both understood, but had failed to recognise.