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Freedom Fighter
How God Wins the Universal War on Terror
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God must be odd, 'cuz He never "gets even"

God's forgiveness

"Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit." —Peter Ustinov

At the end of a long, dusty day, the sun is setting. An old man squints through clouded eyes. He fears today will be no different from any other day, the days past stretching out into an endless stream of waiting and hoping. Finally, he sighs and shakes his head. Just as he turns to go in for the night, something catches his eye. Frantic, he shades his eyes with a hand, squinting, straining, desperate to see if there is movement on the road.

There is.

With a shout, he leaps off the porch, running, flying as fast as he can on his crooked, old legs. One of his sandal straps breaks, but he doesn't even notice. He's running, crying, laughing, and screaming, racing toward the hunched-over, shuffling figure in the distance.

Jesus told this story of the boy who ran away with half his father's fortune, wasted it, and then came home. It is usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But the story is more about the father than the son.

In the culture and time when Jesus told this story, the son who ran away would never have been able to come home. His demand for his inheritance would have sounded like this: "Dad, I wish you were dead. Why don't you give me my inheritance now so I can leave, and we'll never have to see each other again." This would have been a grievous insult to his father, and his actions would have truly cut himself out of his family forever.

Yet when the son returns, Jesus said that the father saw him "while he was still a long way off." That means the father must have been watching every day, waiting for his son to return. The father wouldn't have done that unless he had forgiven the son long before he ever decided to come back.

Could this be true? Could a father so grievously insulted wait with fervent longing for the return of his rebellious child? Yes! That is just how Jesus described the loving father. Though the son couldn't have imagined it, he was already forgiven. The father wasn't holding any grudge against his son. In fact, while the son was busy begging his father for forgiveness, the father wasn't listening. He was celebrating, shouting out party instructions to the servants.

One of the reasons Jesus told this story was to help us understand the way God forgives. He was describing himself as the father in the story! When we embrace sin, we are overcome with guilt and shame, and we immediately become afraid of God. We're afraid he'll be angry with us. We're afraid he'll "make us pay" for what we've done. We're afraid he won't forgive.

Evidence to the contrary, however, is written all over the Bible. For example, after his resurrection, Jesus restored his friendship with Peter.1 On the night of Jesus's trial, Peter had denied three times that he even knew Jesus. Immediately, Peter realized what he had done, and he was ashamed. As soon as Jesus came out of the grave, he made a special point of singling Peter out and reassuring him of his place in God's kingdom. Over breakfast one morning, Jesus pointedly asked Peter three times if he (Peter) loved him (Jesus). Doing this gave Peter a special opportunity to declare what he had denied.

On another occasion, the religious leaders brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught committing adultery. They threw her down half-naked at his feet and asked him if they should stone her. Ignoring their question, Jesus stooped down and began to write in the sand. After a little while, he said that if any of them were sinless, they could throw the first stone at the woman. Then, he continued to write.

The Bible doesn't specify what Jesus was writing in the sand. Perhaps he was writing some secret sins these men had been hiding. Whatever it was, the religious leaders eventually slunk away. When they were gone, Jesus turned to the woman and said, "I don't condemn you, my daughter. Now go, and don't sin anymore."

The point is that there are no barriers in God to his forgiving us. He freely forgives because of who he is. He doesn't forgive us just because we ask him to or even because we're willing to receive it. When Jesus was on the cross, his abusers didn't want his forgiveness. But he spoke forgiveness to them because that's the kind of person he is.

Forgiveness is letting go of the "right to get even" with a person who has hurt us in some way. And that's what God is like, because he never seeks to get even. His door is always open to us. No matter what we've done, God runs to meet us with open arms the moment he sees us coming. No matter how long we've been gone, the only thing that matters to God is that we're home again.

This quality of total forgiveness in God means that he has even forgiven Satan for everything Satan has done. This idea might be confusing and even unpleasant for some. We might wonder if this is true. Jesus said clearly that Satan and his angels could not be saved. Can God forgive those who can't be saved? Of course. Salvation is achieved through friendship, not forgiveness.

For centuries, Christians have mistakenly believed that salvation was about finding a way to get God to forgive our sins. That's not true. Forgiveness isn't the obstacle to salvation. The obstacle to salvation is our unwillingness to trust God. If we embrace an attitude of distrust and fear toward God, we will refuse to have a relationship with him.

God freely forgives, but this forgiveness can't affect us if we aren't willing to receive it. The sad thing is that Satan and all of God's other wicked children will die having been totally forgiven, but they won't know it. In the same way, if the prodigal son had sat in the pigpen until he starved, he would have died having been totally forgiven by his father. He wouldn't have known it, though, because he never would have gone home to find out.

God wants to reshape our thinking on forgiveness. He has a special brand of "vengeance." Paul lays it out in Romans 12:

Don't insist on getting even; that's not for you to do. "I'll do the judging," says God. "I'll take care of it."

Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he's thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don't let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

Some suggest that God asks us to do the latter part—feeding and clothing our enemies—so he can take care of the judgment and wrath. They say this as if God is really looking forward to making his evil children suffer, and he wants to relish that task all by himself. That's ridiculous! God doesn't hold us to a different standard than himself. He never lets evil get the best of him, and he's eager to educate us in his method of "getting even." Overcoming evil with good: that's almost the very definition of God. He always repays evil with blessings.

If you're drowning in guilt and fear over the bad choices you've made in your life, don't be afraid. You can get up and go home. You are already forgiven! God is an immediate forgiver. He'll welcome you with open arms and treat you like you never left. In him, there are no obstacles to forgiveness.

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