A few weeks ago, I was able to share the story of *Alexa with my Romanian tutor. I told her our whole history. My tutor acknowledged that it would be hard enough for her to accept a Roma person, like Alexa, into her house at all, let alone forgive her for stealing. In fact, my tutor couldn't believe that anyone - Roma or not - deserved a second chance for so egregiously breaking our trust like Alexa did when she stole our credit card. That lead us into the typical, but important discussion about the gospel, how we ought to forgive because we've been forgiven, and the magnitude of God's continued grace towards us. While our discussion dealt a little with the notion of inflationary grace brought up earlier this year in our men's Bible study, my tutor's questioning centered more around the worthiness of the object of forgiveness rather than the immensity of God's forgiveness. Why did Alexa deserve another chance? Why was it good to forgive a person like her? Wouldn't we be justified in cutting her off for her egregious offense? She and her community will never change, so wouldn't forgiveness be wasted on her? These questions weren't about the magnitude of grace, but about the worthiness of the recipient.
In our two weeks of prior discussions my tutor and I had broached all sorts of issues ranging from the priesthood of the believer to parenting. One of the issues we had discussed in depth was abortion, human value, and the image of God. I explained my stance on the issue and described the importance of recognizing the intrinsic value of humanity. A human's value is intrinsic, meaning that wherever, whenever, and however a human presents themselves, they are made in the image of God. They have value. This value is located inside of each individual and follows them wherever they go, regardless. This is different from extrinsic value which only ascribes worth to an object based on some external qualifications. A baseball card without a scratch may be very valuable, but may become valueless if it is torn. The external characteristic of its physical appearance and condition can make or break its value. Human value, however, is not like the baseball card. Human value is not extrinsic, but intrinsic. No matter the deficiency, deformity, or characteristics of an individual, they are infinitely valuable.
Our previous discussion of intrinsic worth proved invaluable to our discussion on forgiveness. If humans are created in the image of God and are intrinsically valuable, then nothing they do can erase that value. The value follows them. This doesn't simply mean that one's race, social status, physical ability, or mental capacity is incapable of adding or detracting value from an individual. It also means that the external act of an individual's choice cannot add or detract from their value. In our case, it meant that Alexa's choice to betray our trust and steal from us in no way devalued her. If Alexa remained the same valuable human being after her sin as she was before her sin, then her worthiness to receive my love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness did not change either. A refusal to extend such things to someone who wrongs us is not choosing to enact justice. For Christians, choosing to forgive is not a neutral, amoral, personal preference which some Christians may choose to enact, while other Christians deny it. A refusal to show love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness to another image bearer of God is a denial of intrinsic human value. It makes human value dependent on something external to the individual. It denies that the image of God transcends characteristics, situations, and actions.
But something doesn't sit well with my assessment up to this point. Surely forgiveness and grace has its limits. Do we forgive a sex-offender and allow them to run our church nursery? Such a suggestion would seem obviously wrong, and I think that's because it is. But it's not a wrong sentiment because the notion of limitless forgiveness, grace, or intrinsic human value are wrong, but rather because we have conflated the idea of redeeming situations and redeeming individuals. We have conflated trust with forgiveness. A sex-offender has shown that situations involving inferiors, children, etc are a problem for them. That's a serious issue. We don't want to put that individual in a situation where they have responsibility over children in our church nursery - because we don't want harm to come to our children, but also because we don't want our brother or sister in Christ to fall. True love seeks the protection of all parties. We cannot give a sex offender this position of trust. Likewise, when Alexa comes into our home, we likely won't allow her to move throughout our house without us tagging along close behind, at least for awhile. The external actions of individuals have consequences. An offense creates relational barriers, and also means that situations will be handled differently as we move forward. Barriers, stipulations, expectations, and restrictions don't necessarily mean that grace and forgiveness are not present. While we can certainly put up barriers which are too harsh, or refuse to deconstruct antiquated barriers because of our resentment and the harboring of a grudge, situational barriers are not inherently bad. They can simply be a legitimate, appropriate, necessary, loving response to a situation. We don't owe situations a second chance.
On the other hand, to refuse the extension of forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love to a sinner is inexcusable as a Christian. It's understandable, but not tenable. There are some scenarios in which I couldn't imagine how it would be possible for me to forgive someone, but by the grace of God. I am not at all taking the act of forgiveness lightly or minimizing the depth of reliance some will need to draw upon in order to forgive the most egregious sins against them. But my sentiments and empathy cannot possibly go deeper than those of the one who endured the greatest injustice - Jesus Christ. And his sentiments are that we trust in God, endure, and forgive. We first forgive because God has commanded us to do so, but we also forgive because of his example. Jesus Christ demonstrated what our forgiveness should look like, as he literally loved his enemies to death. Beyond God's command and example, foregoing forgiveness is also inexcusable in light of the immense mercy and grace we have personally received from our Savior. God not only tells us to forgive and shows us how to do it, but he extends this great gift to us. If we have truly experienced the generosity of God's forgiveness, then we should be changed in such a manner that we ourselves seek to forgive. Finally, forgiveness is important because it upholds the image of God. Failing to forgive undermines the very notion we have of human value and the image of God as it deems another human being as unworthy of what we have received. Failing to forgive views others as being of lesser value based on the external factor of their actions.
Both the sex-offender and Alexa are worthy of our forgiveness and love because God commanded us to forgive, he forgave sinners as bad as them, he forgave me personally, and because they are made in the image of God. Their value cannot be lost in their actions, nor can it be regained. It is ever present. So while I may advocate for the sex-offender not running the church nursery, or I may have some restrictions for the friend who stole from me, I will forgive and love them. Forgiveness may look like inviting these sinners over for dinner. If restricting entrance to my home is an appropriate barrier for now, maybe I meet them somewhere for coffee instead of having them over for dinner. Maybe forgiveness means I should send them a card on their birthdays. Maybe it means I only meet them in the presence of a counselor. Maybe it means we retain weekly contact and a friendship, or maybe it means we only meet once to unload our burdens and forgive, parting company in love, and not pursuing a continued, deep relationship. Maybe it means I should avoid gossip about them at church and advocate for their inclusion in the church if they are repentant confessors. Barriers are important and vital, but far too often the barrier we choose to erect is the barrier of ostracization. When an offense reaches our particular threshold, we choose to cut others off. We choose a barrier that is no barrier to relationship at all, but rather a termination of relationship. That is not the forgiving attitude we are to have. Behind the last barrier - whether that barrier is as small as constant supervision while someone is in your house, or as large as the ability to only meet in the presence of a counselor outside the home - behind the final barrier must always be an open hand. It's a willingness to communicate and receive a confession of repentance. While it is totally appropriate and necessary for me to be wise in how I treat situations, there is no doubt in my mind about how I am to treat offenders - after the first offense or the 491st offense.
The best example I can give of this process is found in I Corinthians 5. In this passage we see that a member of the church is living in some very deep sin. Paul reprimands the church for allowing this man's sin to continue without erecting relational barriers. Yet Paul is explicit that erection of barriers is not a cutting off of relationship. It is an action which looks to the restoration of the sinner - whether here on Earth or through God's preservation of his soul in the taking of his physical life. In fact, we eventually see the restoration of this individual in II Corinthians 2. In that passage, Paul tells the Corinthian church to ease up on the sinner. The barriers were sufficient and they now needed to seek restoration because the sinner was repentant. The barriers erected were not closed hands or the severing of relationship. There was always to be an open hand behind the last barrier.
Christ's teaching on forgiveness is hard. It's not hard in the sense that it's difficult to discern, but rather in the sense that it is difficult to enact. If Christ's extension of mercy towards us isn't obligation enough for us to extend the same mercy towards others, surely the teaching of the image of God is sufficient. We value all races, classes, the physically disadvantaged, and the unborn because we recognize that they are all human, and humans are made in God's image. Surely the same is true of those who are morally marred from their own choices. Surely it is the morally deformed who need something like mercy the most. And surely those of us who claim to have received infinite mercy can and should give to those in need that which amounts to an infinitesimal share of what we have ourselves received. To refuse mercy and forgiveness is not merely to deny another of a good, it is also a denial of our savior. It is to be the ungrateful debtor who had his debt forgiven, yet refused to forgive the small debt of another. It denies the greatness of our need of Christ and the magnitude of his work towards us. The mercy Jesus has extended towards us, could, like the bread and fishes, be divided up and given to the masses with basket-fulls of sustenance left over. We could give a share of our forgiveness to everyone in this world 491 times each and still be amazed at how abundant our savior's mercy was in our lives. Forgiveness isn't just a suggestion, it's a point of discipleship. It's a footprint of Jesus we are to follow, and will follow if we are His. It proves how great we think Christ's work is and how great we think our sin and need is. It proves what we think of the image of God in others and the true value of humanity.
Ultimately, Christ's teaching on forgiveness proves that we need Jesus, and that our only hope is in Him - for who could live up to such a high calling without Him? While I don't want Christ's teaching on forgiveness to be true because it then demands that I follow it, my soul hopes with all hope that this teaching is indeed true, for Jesus has already forgiven me 490 times. If Christ forgave as most of us do, what hope would I have for tomorrow? While I could choose to continue propping up the common Christian notion that Christ's teachings are murky or metaphorical, I realize that my only hope is if His teachings really are true. While the truth of His teaching would make my life more difficult, and the depths of my sin even greater, it would also mean that I actually have hope in following Christ because there is forgiveness for my failings, not just for my 490th offense today, but for my 491st tomorrow.