This beautiful image is not what it seems.
As he hung, dying, on the cross, Jesus looked at those persecuting him and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” They were doing objectively wrong things, and yet Jesus discerned there was more to the story; he even believed they should be forgiven, though they murdered him.
Forgiveness has been an immensely difficult concept throughout human history. From the moment Adam and Eve believed God wouldn’t forgive them and hid, to the tension we feel today with those that have wronged us, we have struggled to understand what forgiveness means, how we do it, and — more to the point — how we can muster the willingness to do it.
I write this still deep in processing the events of Wednesday, January 6th, 2021, when a large group of rioters — including Christians — stormed the U.S. Capitol Building, leading to the deaths of 5 people. Some went there with the intent to capture, harm, and possibly kill political leaders. Many were at the building displaying the name of Jesus, and claiming the events at the Capitol were God’s will.
To some, the actions of that day are unforgivable. And yet, it seems Scripture calls us to forgive.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.“Matthew 18:21-22
Passages like these, though, can be used for deflection by those that want to avoid condemnation. This can lead many to bristle when someone says, “we must forgive!”, as they feel the call is being used as a free pass.
They can also be expressed by those that feel wrongfully condemned. As a peacemaker at heart, I get it; I have had moments of being falsely accused, and wished the other would just let it go. It can sometimes seem that pointing fingers makes things worse, and “forgiveness” makes things better. Sometimes entertaining accusations doesn’t appear restorative.
Yet as I’ve grown, so has my understanding of when to let go, and when it’s vital to press in; when to release, and when to rebuke. It has been heavy on my mind this week.
So how do we respond? Should we forgive? How do we forgive? What happens after?
I won’t answer those questions here; it is too hefty, too challenging, and too important a topic to rush through. Instead, I want to talk about one specific part of this:
“…for they know not what they do.”
What did Jesus understand in this short phrase that allowed him to forgive those that participated in his execution, the most unjust act in human history?
What do you see in this image?
The first thing you might notice is the amazing sunset. Without a doubt, it is beautiful.
Just as beautiful is the reflection on the water.
The silhouetted trees add an artistic contrast to the rich colors around it.
It looks calm and peaceful.
One could be envious that they don’t see beauty like this in their environment. They may desire to pursue it, to make it their reality.
One could look at this image and say, “I want to go there; I want to vacation there; I want to live there.”
If one were to believe so much in the beauty and goodness of this image that they planned a vacation around it, they would be sorely disappointed.
This is the reality.
The immediate reaction to this image is that it is nothing special, and in fact is not an appealing picture. Yet this is taken from the exact spot as the previous image.
What is happening here? The truth is that what we celebrated as good and beautiful was actually immensely destructive, and was never meant to be, no matter how beautiful in the moment. Excessive rainfall in the state led the river to rise the highest it had been in decades, flooding the land around it. While the water did create a lovely reflection of the sunset, it also damaged property and covered the landscape in mud.
You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking the first image portrayed a good, desirable thing; the question is, how do we adjust our understanding when we learn what is true?
It’s not hard with pictures; it’s easy for us to say, “Oh, I thought that was a lake or something, and while it is a pretty picture, I can understand that flooding is bad and that it may have caused harm.”
It is much harder when what is in question are our beliefs. What if we have beliefs that seem right and good to us, but are actually destructive?
There was a period of the Apostle Paul’s life that he once believed was good and right:
“The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee.
“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.Acts 26:4-5, 9-11
Let’s speak plainly about what is described here. Paul had devoted his life — starting as a child — to living in a God-honoring way. This wasn’t just opinion; the standards he lived by could be publicly verified. He was convinced that a man named Jesus was a threat to God, and believed it was his call to do whatever was needed to oppose him. He believed this was supported by a myriad of scriptures he had studied and memorized. The highest spiritual leaders affirmed this, and equipped him to carry out what they believed was a righteous mission.
Paul believed what he was doing was right and God-honoring. He had a lifetime of seeking and studying God behind him, and no reason to question his understanding. He acted on his beliefs in a way that not only seemed right to him, but were affirmed by the highest spiritual authorities.
Then, on his way to arrest Christians, the God he thought he was serving knocked him off his feet and showed him the reality.
And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.“Acts 9:4-5
Whereas he once thought Jesus was just a man causing dissension, the blinding heavenly light and soul-piercing voice revealed without question that Jesus truly was from God. What’s worse, in that moment Paul realized that he had actually been persecuting the very person he desired to honor with all his life.
With great humility — and no small amount of persecution — he turned and began walking a new way. He saw the picture for what it was, and acknowledged the truth:
…though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3:4-11
Paul was well-intentioned and deeply desired to seek God with the fullness of his life… and he got it frighteningly wrong. Yet Jesus still met him on the road, and gave him an invitation. Paul rose and followed, using the reality of his missteps to guide his future steps.
What do Paul’s story, the images of the flooding, and “…for they know not what they do” mean for us today?
Jesus was not dismissing the wrongs of those that were persecuting him, but pointing to a deeper reality. Paul did not ignore the wrongs he had done, but used them to shape how he sought God moving forward; he also dealt with the ramifications — such as abuse from his fellow Jewish people and distrust of Christians– for the rest of his life.
There are many who deeply believe that God wants America to look and function a certain way, and over time — like Paul’s interaction with Christians — belief turned into action, and action escalated. There are some that prayed on the Capitol grounds on Wednesday for God to save the nation, then excitedly broke into the Capitol, then returned home to continue to pray for God to keep going. Their beliefs are like the beautiful sunset reflected on the water: to them a wonderful landscape worth pursuing that actually disguises a destructive flood. Regardless of the good elements, ignoring the destruction of the flooding is to ignore reality.
Not everyone stormed the Capitol; some Christians were actually down the street peacefully praying. Broad sweeps of people can get messy. When Jesus was executed, some joyfully participated, some repented after, and some — like Nicodemus — recognized their complicity and tried to push back against the injustice. And let us not forget that the disciples betrayed, denied and fled. People who previously railed against religious control stood, watched, and cheered on their overreach. Complicity takes many forms, not just the most obvious. Introspection is vital in times like these, because too often, “we know not what [we] do.”
But the events of this week show again there are some — who may believe their intentions are noble — who fight a dangerous fight because they believe God wants the threats to be removed.
Jesus knew the threat of death was not the enemy, and so forgave those that perpetuated it; he knew that they were not demons, but misguided people that had absolutely no clue of the evil they were contributing to. He understood the battle was bigger than what they could comprehend.
Paul owned the reality that while he once thought Jesus was the threat that needed to be removed, Paul and those with him were the true threats all along. He devoted his life to “loving God and loving others” in a way that dwarfed his previous devotion.
In the midst of all this was an incomprehensible grace to hold both the extreme brokenness and deep spiritual realities in tension. It is the first step in the journey toward grasping forgiveness; building the capacity to see the deeper reality and fuller picture allows us to begin to understand how forgiveness is possible, and why it is valuable. It doesn’t make it easier, but it is a start.
My heart breaks for many that I know and love who believe they are honoring God when they are actually causing — or allowing — great harm and dishonor. My prayer is that they will have a moment like Paul, where they can be knocked off their feet by the actual reality of who God is and what He desires.
And my heart goes out to those on the fringes or in the midst, that are struggling to know how to respond. There is a spirit of confusion that can cause the best of us to wrestle with understanding and response.
In the meantime, I press into the tension of Jesus’s example of forgiveness, wrestling with how to see the authentic identity of others amidst the destruction, and trust a deeper reality than that which I perceive. How does one forgive murder and treason? How does one forgive complicity in or justification of those things? How does one forgive evil acts done in the name of God? It is immensely difficult; fortunately Jesus has not left us. We don’t have to figure this out alone.
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