The spiritual life is one of paradox. We see the use of paradox in the bible in verses like Matthew 10:39
“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The Bible is full of these expressions. By using paradox what’s said in the Bible transcends our intellect and sinks into our souls. We understand the deeper truths they convey because paradox disarms our critical thinking processes forcing us to think in a fresh new way. Phrases like the one above in Matthew force us to ask questions like, “In what way do I need to lose my life for the sake of Jesus?” Spiritual paradoxes are powerful ways to get people to think more richly about God’s truth.
Studying forgiveness leads us into a world of spiritual paradoxes. The Scriptures are full of references to the reciprocal nature inherent in the forgiving life. Let me provide you with examples so we can look more closely at this interesting spiritual revelation:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)
These passages imply God will forgive us only to the degree we forgive others. If you’re like me, the idea God only forgives me as I forgive others is uncomfortable and makes me think a great deal about the nature of God. In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” causing us to wonder, “Is that all God will do, is forgive me as I forgive?” Because forgiveness is not something that comes easily to me I begin to wonder about the forgiveness I have from God! Is God only as forgiving as I am? I’m a broken struggling human being and God only forgives me in the manner this broken soul can forgive others? On the surface that sounds very troubling.
To wrap our minds around this we need to think about the nature of God. Most theologians argue God is all knowing, all loving, and all powerful. This is why only God can be perfectly just and merciful at the same time. If we’re saying this all loving God only forgives us in the same way limited forgiving people can than there’s an inconsistency in our understanding of the nature of God. Yet scripture is teaching us something about the reciprocal nature of forgiveness we can’t ignore.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta addressed the 1982 graduates at Thomas Aquinas University with the following words:
“And this, the joy of the presence of Jesus, you must be able to give wherever you go. But you cannot give what you don’t have. That’s why you need a pure heart, a pure heart that you will receive as a fruit of your prayer, as a fruit of your oneness with Christ. And a pure heart can see God. And if you see God immediately — immediately — you begin to love one another. That’s all Jesus came on this earth to give us, that good news: “Love as I have loved you; love one another as I have loved you.”
In this spiritually packed address Mother Teresa unfolds a beautiful mystery about the spiritual life we need to ponder given our present topic. Just as an all loving God extends an overabundance of love for us to experience he also extends an overabundance of forgiveness. However, just as being loved means accepting that love from God so does being forgiven require us to accept that forgiveness from God. How do we accept the forgiveness and love of God? By accepting Jesus the incarnational expression of God’s love and forgiveness. Then, as we receive this love and forgiveness we extend it to others. Mother Teresa states it very plainly, “You cannot give what you don’t have.” When God says he only forgives us as much as we forgive others he’s reminding us any limitations we experience in forgiving exists because we haven’t accepted the abundance of forgiveness he offers. To be a forgiving soul I need to understand how completely God has forgiven me. This is why it’s important to reflect on our failures. We don’t reflect on failures to become spiritual masochists, rather we do so to understand the great love and mercy God extends to us by meeting us in our broken fallen state. When we see how far we are from God we appreciate how far he stretches himself to be with us. We are deeply loved and deeply forgiven. Receiving that gift allows us to forgive ourselves. We must forgive ourselves as a result of the great love and forgiveness God pours into us so we can love and forgive others.
God is not limiting his forgiveness because we limit ours. God is teaching us the manner in which we forgive others is a direct reflection of the manner in which we receive his forgiveness. When we ask God to “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others” we’re not asking for our reward. We’re asking God to help us understand the more forgiving we are toward others is a direct reflection of our acceptance of his forgiveness. You cannot give what you do not have; powerful words in relation to love and forgiveness. When we have Jesus Christ in our lives and really understand the depth and breadth of that relationship, we can forgive and love abundantly. Reflecting on our struggle with forgiveness and love helps us recognize the difficulty we have in receiving love and forgiveness from God. We cannot limit the abundant grace of God, we must pour ourselves out to fill ourselves with his love and forgiveness.