This last week I found myself thinking about forgiveness. This subject had come up in a conversation with a young woman who had recognized within herself an unwillingness to forgive. I assured her that forgiveness can be one of the hardest things we as Christians are called to do. During the discussion she made a very profound admission that if she forgives it feels as if the persons who hurt her are getting away with it. This is natural, and it was this side of the issue that got me chewing on the subject.
The desire for justice, that those who hurt us make amends and be punished, is natural. Justice is part of the nature of God and part of that innate sense of right and wrong present in every human being. Though the definition of what is just and of what justice requires differs from place to place and people to people, the idea that there is a right and a wrong is written into each of our hearts and the cry for justice is tied to this as a universal standard. So if you find yourself set on getting justice for a wrong, do not see this as sign of some weakness in your faith, but as a striving after what God has established as right order. This is not meant to take away the command to forgive, but must be taken into account in understanding the command.
Jesus commands us throughout scripture to forgive. Many passages tie our own forgiveness to our willingness to forgive others. This is the hardest side of salvation. We want to be saved, we want o receive grace and mercy, but we want those who hurt us to receive justice. To get beyond this we must understand forgiveness and justice.
When someone takes action that results in harm to us or violation of our rights we demand justice. Justice demands punishment of the offending party in line with the severity of the offense and where possible amelioration of hurt and recompense for loss. This demonstrates two sides of justice: justice for the offender (punishment) and justice for the victim (comfort). When one becomes a victim, justice is demanded and defined as, recovery of loss and transfer of discomfort to the perpetrator. It is an exchange—you gave hurt and took comfort, justice is met when you receive hurt and I receive comfort.
With this basic overview, we can look at how Jesus comes into the equation. For the Christian, comfort comes from Christ. His death for us, his life given for us and the presence of his Holy Spirit living within us gives us comfort far beyond the cares of this world. No matter how much we may be victimized the only true comfort comes through Jesus Christ. No matter the severity of the punishment inflicted on the offender, we will not find true comfort through human action. Only in the person of Jesus Christ can we find comfort for our loss and healing for our hurts. Rather than claiming a right to justice, we claim a need for the love of Christ. The resulting help we receive ameliorates our pain.
Besides Christ’s comfort for the victim, there is also Christ’s action for the offender. When Jesus Christ died he took on the sins of the whole world. They were applied to himself and hung on the cross with him. When he died on the cross the sins died with him. Christ came back but the sins died forever. Also consider that it was these sins that put Jesus there to begin with. He died, not for his own sins, but for ours—all of ours. This means that as Christians we can not demand justice for ourselves because we know the offense committed against us was already paid for. It was paid for with the ultimate sacrifice—death—by the most undeserving victim—Christ.
The person who offends is getting away with an offense only if the act was never punished. Since Jesus died for the act, it was punished. In most cases it was paid for far beyond what justice would normally demand. A thief would face prison time and restitution, Jesus died for the the theft in the place of the thief. So not only is justice met, it is surpassed. The comfort of justice comes to us through Jesus and the punishment of justice is inflicted on Jesus. No one gets away and no one goes uncomforted. This is a far better record than any man-made justice system.
Of course the question comes up about the non-believing offender. Does the fact that the perpetrator is not a Christian and may never become one influence this? Absolutely not! Jesus still died for his sins, they are paid for in full. The person will either avail himself of this free gift of forgiveness or he will choose to stand before God on his own merits—or lack thereof—and face eternal punishment. Either way, justice is served.
Christian forgiveness is not based on a lack of justice, but an understanding of divine justice and the ultimate payment for all sins Jesus Christ. To deny this is to deny the adequacy of Jesus’ death to pay for those offenses you have suffered. If his death has not take away those done against you, how can you be sure he has taken away those done by you?