Who is a God like you, who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance, who does not persist in anger forever, but instead delights in mercy? You will again have compassion on us, treading underfoot our iniquities. You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins. –Micah 7:18-19
Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners. –Matthew 9:12-13
I’m not one to get over things. I get angry easily and burn with resentment basically forever unless I make repeated efforts to forgive.
But I don’t want to forgive. I find it incredibly satisfying to run through a long list of grievances, exciting righteous indignation in myself so that I can remember how wronged I was and how far superior to my opponent in every virtue.
Too bad it’s entirely unchristian.
As with most things in my Christian life, I didn’t realize this right away. I remember being on the phone with my best friend one afternoon in high school, waiting for him to wish me a happy birthday. He didn’t. The conversation went on and on and my responses became more terse and tense as I began to realize that he wasn’t going to remember.
“Add it to the list,” I thought. The list of offenses he had committed against me, topped by the heinous crime of not inviting me to his King’s Dominion birthday party in fourth grade even though he knew I had never been to an amusement park. By the time we hung up, I was seething with rage.
I don’t know if it was before or after he called back, begging me to forgive him for his oversight, that I realized: I couldn’t be a Christian and relish holding people’s sins against them. I couldn’t pray “forgive us our trespasses” unless I was going to forgive. It was time to give up my anger.
That was, of course, only a first step. All I really learned that day was that I was doing something wrong, not how to do it right. And still I struggle to forgive, as I’m sure most of us do. It’s often a process of resentment and discouragement and attempting to forget and then being angrier than I initially was.
But God delights in forgiving.
It’s like delighting in a root canal. Mercy is hard and painful and hashes up all kinds of brokenness we’d rather leave buried.
God delights in forgiving.
He doesn’t just consent to it or roll his eyes while grudgingly attempting it. He delights. He rejoices not just to have his child back but actually to bring that child back. He is overjoyed, more even than over his children who have never left him.
God longs to forgive you.
Whatever your sin, he’s waiting to cast it into the ocean of his mercy. He’s standing before you with pierced hands stretched out, begging to pour out his precious blood to save you from the evil you’ve done. He wants to trample your sin under his pierced foot, grinding it into the dust along with every other sin of every other sinner he’s refused to condemn.
He expects you to do the same.
What great Good News that God is thrilled to forgive a sinner! It seems an occasion for pure elation—until we realize that being forgiven is only the first step. We then have to forgive others. We have to forgive those who have hurt us terribly and we have to look with eyes of mercy on the prostitutes and tax collectors who seem less worthy of God’s love.
God appreciates your piety. He approves of your acts of charity. He enjoys the time you spend with him. But he demands mercy.
When Jesus quotes Hosea as saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” he’s not arguing against religious traditions. He’s just saying that all the holy customs in the world aren’t worth anything if you’re living with hatred in your heart. How many of us congratulate ourselves on our righteousness while condemning the deadbeat dad, the immodest woman, the cohabiting couple, the tattooed teen, the immigrant, the felon, the other? How many of us are excellent at sacrifice while refusing mercy? How many of us have staked out our seat at the heavenly banquet table while hoping Peter keeps out the riffraff?
That’s not our job. Our job is mercy. We don’t get to decide who deserves it or which sins can be forgiven or at what point people are no longer welcome in God’s house. We may not be able to delight in mercy, but we can choose to live mercifully. We can rejoice that God so loves to forgive us and then go and do likewise.
It’s actually the only choice. As you forgive, so will you be forgiven. Judge not or you will be judged. You can live in the prison of your own hatred and judgment and false superiority or you can live in the freedom of God’s mercy.
It might seem that it’s not worth the struggle, that even if you wanted to make the choice to forgive it would be impossible. Maybe even the promise of God’s mercy doesn’t seem to warrant such an effort. But when you forgive, you give this God of ours, who delights in mercy, the joy of forgiving you. That, I think, is worth the effort.