Many have heard of “The Nazi Hunter,” Simon Wiesenthal. He’s famous for tracking down Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust and bringing them to justice. Fewer know of Wiesenthal’s wrestling with the conundrum of justice versus…
The beginnings of his inner struggle are documented in his 1969 book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. The author tells of when he was a Polish-Jewish concentration camp prisoner, assigned as an orderly, disposing of medical and human waste at a German field hospital.
Unexpectedly, a young SS soldier, near death from his wounds, summons Wiesenthal to his bedside. He proceeds to confess all his trespasses, including aiding in the murder of 300 Jewish women and children who had been herded into a house, set ablaze, and gunned down when they tried to escape the hellish flames.
This German soldier seeks forgiveness from a Jew.
His final words to the prisoner are, “I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.” Mentally dazed from malnutrition, cruel treatment, and the surreal nature of this confession, Wiesenthal is dumbfounded as to what to say or do. In the end, he says nothing, leaves the room, and spends the rest of his life wondering what he should have done.
First asking his prison mates, then professional colleagues, and finally thinkers around the globe from every walk of life, Simon Wiesenthal spent decades in a relentless quest to understand forgiveness. The result is The Sunflower. There he documents the many responses to the questions that tormented him…
Should he have forgiven the dying soldier?
What could he have even said that would absolve the man’s guilt?
Does a Nazi murderer, though sorrowful, even deserve forgiveness?
Can you forgive a crime that was not against yourself, but against others?
What about justice--wouldn’t forgiveness undermine justice?
But couldn’t he at least have tried to help a desperate man die in peace?
Contemplating Wiesenthal’s moral dilemma, I was struck that the matter of forgiveness is either very simple or it quickly becomes highly complex. The simple side of forgiveness comes from the root meaning of the word…
Forgive: to cancel a debt.
At its root, forgiveness really is that simple. When I release another from their debt to me, whether material or emotional, I walk free and full of life—every time. But, if I pause to consider the injustice of the matter, I grow troubled and unsure if forgiveness is the way to go.
Thanks to God and his great grace, the answer to my conflict is settled in Christ…
Justice is his to execute. Forgiveness is mine to extend.
A friend used to put it this way: “I take them off my hook and put them on God’s.”
If forgiveness is not that simple, then it quickly becomes astoundingly complex. The complex side of forgiveness comes from trying to figure out the how, the why, the when, the where, the how far, the how much, the how often…
Meanwhile, there is no question as to how important the act of forgiveness is to Jesus of Nazareth. Central to his simple, yet profound, teaching on how to pray, he declares…
Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. (Matthew 6:12 NKJV)
These words are more than just a line in The Lord’s Prayer. They express the doctrine’s core value, for in concluding the model prayer Jesus circles right back to the matter of forgiveness…
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)
Did that last part grab your attention? It should. Seriously.
First comes the fortifying promise of God’s forgiveness for us when we forgive others. That’s God’s exercising of justice based on the shed blood of Christ. But then comes the sobering warning of God’s necessary judgment on us when we do not forgive others, even as the atoning work of Christ’s sacrifice stands. If this is how seriously Jesus deals with forgiveness, how dare we presume to claim the “justice” of what we think is owed us?
Throughout my day I’m prone to pray by the pattern of The Lord’s Prayer. Recently, while somewhat mindlessly repeating the phrase, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” a sudden conviction prompted me to ponder that plea to God…
LORD, please forgive my trespasses…sure, but against who exactly…?
You see, at that moment I couldn’t think of anyone I was trespassing against. Yet considering the verse further, I realized that just like I’m to forgive the one in debt to me, I need God to forgive my debt to him.
All suddenly became clear that the one I have trespassed against, first and foremost, is the one I am asking to forgive me. That is…
My Father in heaven, hallowed be his name.
As the psalmist cried…
Have mercy on me O God…against you, you only, have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight that you may be found just when you speak, and blameless when you judge. (Psalm 51:1, 4)
The potential complexities of forgiveness are settled when we understand that we are in continual debt to God for his goodness and our inherent rebelliousness against him. It’s called sin, and for it his justice demands his judgment upon us. Yet in Christ, by his blood sacrifice and resurrection life working on our behalf, we can ask the Father, over and over again, to…
Forgive us our trespasses (against you, LORD), as we forgive those who trespass against us.
It’s really that simple: Know the freedom of release from your debt to God as you release the debt others have to you. All this is accomplished in Christ, and it is ours for the repenting.
As you might pray this today, embrace the core value, according to Jesus…
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
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