The Nature of Forgiveness

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Forgiveness is perhaps one of the most controversial of Christian duties. Easy to talk about but difficult to practice. 

Christians in Malaysia are angry over the way they are being treated. In the past few years, bibles have been seized, our religious vocabulary restricted, church buildings firebombed and the entire community villified and made the scapegoat for part of the nation’s ills. 

At a time like this, we struggle with Jesus’ teaching in his Sermon on the Mount. Surely, he was asking the impossible of us when he said:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)

Jesus asked us to adopt a response under persecution that suggests weakness and encourages the persecutor:

“Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also … If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:39,41)

With some interpretive wizardry, perhaps we can make these verses say the opposite. But the logic of interpreting these words to mean an aggressive or retaliatory response breaks down when we look at Jesus’ own conduct when he himself was persecuted.

Jesus did not resist when he was arrested. Peter tried to prevent Jesus arrest by drawing a sword and injuring one of the arresting party. Jesus miraculously healed the injured man and rebuked Peter as follows:

“Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54)

During his trial before the Roman governor, Jesus made no defence but declared that he will not resist the Roman legal process he was subjected to. He said:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36)

As he hung on the cross, Jesus prayed for his persecutors: those who conspired against him, who brought false charges against him and who perverted the law in order to slay him. Read what Jesus said:

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)

Like every Christian, I was infuriated by JAIS’ raid on the Bible Society, the way my colleague and I were manhandled and hauled off to the police station and our sacred books unceremoniously bundled into vans used to transport khalwat offenders and transvestites. Two days after the event, I obtained my society’s mandate to take whatever legal action necessary. In the days that followed, as I reflected on Jesus Christ and on his teachings and example, it became clear that the greatest hurdle was not the systematic infringement of the Christian community’s  legal and constitutional right to freedom of religion. Our greatest enemy was ourselves and the demon threatening to possess us was the natural human urge to satisfy that bloodlust for vengeance. The defeat facing us not legal or political but spiritual. When we show a distorted and perverted picture of Jesus Christ and His Church to the nation, we would have lost everything.

The Spirit of God provides to God’s people in sufficient measure love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). 

The events of the past few days (viz. JAIS’ refusal to follow directives of the Attorney-General and the Menteri Besar to return the bibles) have caused many to question whether forgiving JAIS was premature or undeserved.

Christian forgiveness is unconditional. On the cross, Jesus Christ forgave his persecutors even though they were unrepentant and offered no apology. Jesus also knew the future. The night before, he warned his disciples that those who seek his death will also persecute his disciples in the future. Yet, he forgave these men knowing that their future actions will be undeserving of the kindness he showed them.

Christians forgive because it is the right and Christian thing to do. We also forgive because God through Jesus Christ forgave us of our sins and bestowed on us the privilege of being in God’s family.

“When you were dead in your sins … God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins … he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14)

As God has forgiven us, so we forgive those who sinned against us. We pray for them hoping that their wrongs will not blind them to the truth and preventing them from receiving God’s forgiveness and blessing of eternal life.

My last post suggested that JAIS be relieved of their appointment as enforcers of the 1988 Selangor anti-propagation law. This does not conflict with forgiveness. One can be forgiven of wrongdoing. But if possible the offender should not be placed in a position to continue doing wrong. For example, even a child molester can be forgiven but he should not be entrusted with the care of children.

Lastly, forgiving goes hand in hand with trusting God. Again, Jesus is the example:

“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps … When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21,23)

Our trust in God was vindicated a few days ago when the AG announced his finding that BSM had broken no law, that the case be closed and the bibles be returned. JAIS is unable to accept the AG’s decision. Christians must be patient and continue to trust God that the solution that God wants to give to us will come about eventually.

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