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Jesus said, "Father forgive these people, because they don't know what they are doing." Luke 23:34
Jesus’ prayer from the cross has to qualify as the greatest understatement of all time. He asked the father to forgive those participating in his murder "because they don't know what they are doing." Before we look at his amazing reason for requesting forgiveness, let's zoom in on the request itself: "Father, forgive these people."
To whom was Jesus referring when he said "these people"? Was it the Roman soldiers spiking his arms and legs to the cross? The bloodthirsty crowd cheering the soldiers on in jeering the condemned prisoner? The Jewish leaders who masterminded the plot to arrest him and drag him through a kangaroo court? Caiaphas, the high priest who accused the Savior of blasphemy and called for a death sentence? Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who let the execution happen?
Well, we don't know. In the text, Jesus didn't name any names or classes or categories of people. He just said "forgive these people." We must assume he was referring to the whole lot of them – anybody who had a hand in what was happening on Golgotha that dark, dismal afternoon. It was a blank check kind of prayer, as if Jesus had said, “Father, you know who's guilty, and I ask you to forgive every one of them."
Wow! How could the innocent son of God let anybody off the hook just like that? His answer: "They don't know what they are doing."
Who didn't know? Once again, no names are mentioned, so we must assume once again that everyone present was included. But wait. The Roman soldiers knew what they were doing, didn't they? They were following orders to conduct a grisly execution. And the Jewish leaders knew what they were doing, right? They were ridding themselves of a rabble-rousing rabbi who was upsetting the religious status quo with his unconventional and blasphemous teaching. To whom was Jesus referring?
The people Jesus prayed for that day thought they knew what they were doing, but their knowledge was shortsighted and self-centered. But they really didn't know what they were doing or, more important, who they were doing it too. Jesus saw the big picture. He could have said
"You don't know that you have condemned as a sinner the only person ever to walk the face of the earth without sin" (see Hebrews 4:15).
"You don't know that I am dying in innocence so you don't have to die in your guilt" (see Romans 3:23).
"You don't know that you're putting to death the one who breathed into you the breath of life" (see Genesis 2:7).
"You don't know that you are destroying the One who holds the universe together around you" (see Colossians 1:17).
"You don't know that the One whose life you were trying to end today never had a beginning and never will end" (see Revelation 21:6).
What capacity for forgiveness! Jesus was the victim of the greatest injustice and atrocity perpetuated by humankind. Here was an innocent man, God's own son, come to earth to fulfill the plans foretold in scripture – to fulfill his Father’s will. He didn't sin, he didn't hurt anybody, he cared for others instead of himself. He taught about love, forgiveness, faith, hope, and heaven. Yet they crucified him. He didn't fight back. He turned the other cheek. They nailed him to a tree, and he willingly submitted to their cruelty.
Why? Guiltless, he loved us enough to die the death of the guilty. He was our sacrifice for sin, the perfect lamb – slain. And while in mortal agony and with his dying breath, he asked his father to pardon those who did it even before they knew what a terrible thing they had done. Amazing!
How do you feel when your spouse insults you or ignores you or betrays you or lies to you or offends you in some other way – and you are supposed to forgive him or her as Christ has forgiven you (see Colossians 3:13)? Do you reach into your heart at times like that, wondering if you will find what it takes to forgive him or her?
If so, you're not alone. On our own we all lack the limitless grace that can release the offender completely and forgive the offense. Once again God the great forgiver steps in and helps us. He not only knows about the cost of forgiveness, but he wants to fill our hearts with what it takes to forgive our spouses when they offend us. He has lavished on us this gift of forgiveness amply supplying us with exactly what he wants us to give to others.
The power to forgive in marriage ultimately comes from God. All he asks is that we pass his gift along. Forgiving love comes from God, and when God's forgiveness fills us, we have more than enough forgiving love to share with others, including our spouses.
"But the hurt is too great," you may argue. "It is impossible for me to forgive." We have all endured situations so painful that we wonder if we can let go of the offense and forgive the offender. But forgiveness is never impossible. God would never command us to do something we cannot do. By allowing God's gift of forgiveness to fill your heart, you can overcome the greatest of offenses, including devastating financial blunders, addictions, abuse, and adultery.
You may further object, "Well, I'm not going to forget my spouse until he [or she] asks for it." Good luck, because it takes some people a long time to own up to their mistakes, and others may never get a clue. And when you get right down to it, forgiveness, as God showed us, is an act of grace. It's not something your spouse must earn with a heart of contrition and an apology, even though confession of wrong is a vital part of resolving conflict.
Our forgiveness must be patterned after God's forgiveness of us. Did Jesus die on the cross because we were worthy of it? Not a chance. He forgave those who killed his son – and all of us – with no strings attached. In fact, he forgave us more than 2,000 years before we even sinned against him. God forgives out of a grace-filled heart of forgiveness. It cannot be earned, so we must not offer forgiveness with conditions. We must simply forget as God does and let him deal with the heart of your spouse regarding his or her offense.
Imagine Jesus gazing at you from the cross as he prays, "Father, forgive these people." How do you respond to Jesus' request on your behalf? Is there a part of you that tends to resist because you feel that your sin is too great to forgive? Is there a part of you that takes God's forgiveness for granted because you have been a Christian most of your life? Is there a part of you that swells with gratitude because you are painfully aware of what God forgave in your life? What other thoughts and feelings rise up in you? Which response seems to be the most dominant for you? In your opinion, why?
Forgiving Father, I realize that I can never do anything so bad that you cannot or will not forgive me. I rejoice and revel in your goodness and grace. Your Son’s sacrifice on the cross has set me free from my sin and its penalty. Hallelujah! You treat my spouse the same way, even when he [or she] offends me. How can I hold something against him [her] that you will not? Fill me with your grace and forgiveness this week, not only toward my spouse but also toward others who offend me. May I continually grow as a forgiving person, beginning in my marriage. Amen.
Renew Your Love
As you peer into your heart today, do you find forgiveness for your spouse to be weak or incomplete in some areas? Do you have any conflicts between you that are not fully resolved because your forgiveness has not been fully offered? Prayerfully summarize your insights and feelings in a brief note to your spouse. Explain that God is teaching you about forgiveness and state your desire to follow through. At an appropriate time, read the note to him or her, then verbalize your total and complete forgiveness.