Tag Archives: forgiveness

Difficult Love

November 2018 Pulse

In 2017, ISIS detonated bombs at two Coptic churches in Egypt during their Palm Sunday services that killed at least 45 worshippers.

The first explosion, which killed 27 people and injured 78, took place in the Mar Girgis church located in the city of Tanta, about 90 km from Cairo. The second explosion took place three hours later at St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, killing 18 and wounding 35.

Days after the incident, a journalist spoke to the widow of Mr Naseem Faheem, the Christian guard who was killed at St Mark’s Church. “I’m not angry at the one who did this”, she said, with her children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’ ”

Mr Amir Adeed, arguably the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, was stunned when he heard what the widow said. “How great is this forgiveness you have!”, Amir exclaimed, his voice cracking. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”

Naseem’s humble widow embodies and so profoundly exemplifies that radical self-forgetting love that the Bible calls agape.

There are a number of passages in Scripture with the injunction for Christians to love their neighbours, including their enemies:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28, NIV)

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” (Romans 12:14)

“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing…” (1 Peter 3:9, NIV)

Agape is a difficult love. It calls us to do something that clearly goes against our inclinations. By calling us to love our enemies, the very people who hate us and who have either done us harm or wish to do so, agape stretches human love beyond its limits.

The American Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, who has poured out her life to serve the poor and disenfranchised, confronts the impossible possibility of such love with undisguised honesty.

“All men are brothers,” she wrote, “but how to love your brother or sister when they are sunk in ugliness, foulness, and degradation, so that all the senses are affronted? How to love when the adversary shows a face to you of implacable hatred, or just cold loathing?”

The command to love our enemies is a call to love in the way God loves. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he tells us that while we were sinners (i.e., God’s enemies – see Romans 5:10), God showed His love through the sacrificial death of Christ (Romans 5:8). On the cross of Calvary, Jesus prayed that God the Father would forgive the people who tortured and crucified Him (Luke 23:34).

Thus, in loving an adversary who emanates only “implacable hated” or “cold loathing”, we reflect in our lives the very ‘agapic’ love of God.

Approached from another angle, in loving others in this way, we become more human, for to be human is to be the bearer of the image and likeness of God.

But is such love even possible? Naseem’s widow has clearly demonstrated to us that it is. Agape is possible because of the power of the Spirit who dwells in us.

Following the approach exemplified by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy suggests that we could begin to love in this way by seeing Jesus in the other. “Jesus is disguised and masked in the midst of men, hidden among the poor, among the sick, among the prisoners, among strangers,” she wrote, no doubt with Matthew 25:35 in mind.

But decades of selfless service to the poor and marginalised have disabused Dorothy of all puerile idealism. ‘Agapic’ love is never easy, and very often she feels that her “love is too small”.

But Dorothy recognises that the Bible commands such love, and obedience requires nothing less than a strenuous act of will. In her book, On Pilgrimage, she put this again in manifest honesty: “If you will to love someone, you soon do… It depends on how hard you try.”

For Dorothy – as it should be for all Christians – loving our neighbour is not an option for those who have themselves received the forgiveness and love of God. It is a responsibility.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Repentance and Forgiveness

September 2017 Credo

Reader’s Question: Does the Bible teach that Christians should forgive the unrepentant?

Christians are commanded to forgive because they worship the God who forgives. In Matthew 6:15, we read: ‘… if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’.

But are Christians required to forgive those who have wronged them even if the offenders remain unrepentant? What, if any, is the relationship between forgiveness and repentance?

Christians are divided on this issue. Some Christian writers, like R. T. Kendall, believe that forgiveness should be given unconditionally, even to offenders who are not repentant and who continue in their offense.

However, the majority of Christian theologians and spiritual writers maintain that forgiveness should only be extended to offenders who are truly repentant. Based on passages like Ephesians 4:32, where Paul exhorts his readers to forgive ‘one another, as God in Christ forgave you’, they maintain that we should forgive as God forgives (See also Colossians 3:13).

How does God forgive? It is clear in Scripture that God does not forgive the stiff-necked and unrepentant sinner. In fact, the Bible explicitly teaches that only the repentant will receive divine forgiveness and the blessings of salvation (Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 3:19).

There are numerous passages in the NT that underscore that forgiveness is premised on repentance. For example, in Luke 17:3 we read these words of Jesus: ‘Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him’.

In this passage, the subjunctive ‘if’ (Greek: ean) sets the condition for forgiveness. This passage therefore clearly teaches that forgiveness should always be conditioned upon repentance.

Matthew 18:15-17 helps us to look at this issue from another angle. Here Jesus gives specific instructions on how to deal with a member of the community (suggested by the descriptor ‘brother’) who has sinned.

Several attempts must be made to convince the person of his sin, but if all these attempts fail and the offender refuses to listen and repent, ‘let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’ (v 17).

In Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community, ‘Gentile’ denotes ‘heathen’. ‘Tax collector’ is here used as a derogatory term since the Jews despise people in this profession. Commenting on the force of Jesus’ injunction, Donald Hagner writes: ‘Thus the unrepentant offender is not simply put out of the community but categorized as among the worst sort of persons’.

This passage again stresses that forgiveness is only offered to the repentant sinner.

Christians who maintain that forgiveness is not dependent on repentance but must be extended unconditionally to the offender often point to Jesus’ words on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). Kendall, for instance, argues that Jesus asked God to forgive the people who crucified him without expecting them to first repent of their wrongdoings. Of Jesus’ executioners Kendall writes: ‘There was not only an utter absence of repentance, but also total contempt’.

Jesus’ prayer should not be understood as an anomalous departure from the general biblical principle that forgiveness must be preceded by repentance. As the NT scholar Noval Gledenhuys has shown, Jesus’ prayer demonstrates his ‘earnest longing that his persecutors should be given another chance to repent before otherwise inevitable judgement is executed on their sins!’

Jesus is the very embodiment of that unconditional love that the Bible calls agape, a love that is extended even to one’s enemies. It was this agapic love that compelled Jesus to pray for his torturers and executioners (Cf., Matthew 5:44).

The Dutch NT scholar William Hendricksen paraphrases Jesus’ prayer thus: ‘In thy sovereign grace cause them to repent truly, so that they can be and will be pardoned fully’.

Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, emulated his Lord when he prayed ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ just before he died at the hands of his persecutors (Acts 7:60).

Jesus’ prayer therefore does not breach the principle that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance. Rather it shows his magnanimity and willingness to forgive his executioners.

The prayer therefore teaches us that Christians must be always willing to forgive their offenders when they repent. This brings us back to the Lucan passage discussed above. Luke 17:4 reads: ‘and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, “I repent”, you must forgive him’. To love with agapic love is to be always willing to forgive.

In doing so, we are imaging our gracious God, who is always willing to forgive us of our sins when we confess them in penitence (1 John 1:9).

However, to offer forgiveness without repentance is to cheapen grace itself, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has perceptively pointed out when he wrote: ‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance’. Unconditional forgiveness also devalues the theological and spiritual significance of repentance.

The advocates of unconditional forgiveness often argue that if we refuse to forgive the offender unless he repents, we will be weighed down with hatred and mired in bitterness. While this can certainly be true for some people, it is not necessarily the case.

Christians are called to love everyone (even their enemies) unconditionally regardless of whether they express remorse for their wrongdoing. It is possible to love someone in the biblical sense (i.e., with agapic love), with a love that is never resentful (1 Corinthians 13:5), even when an unsettled issue continues to persist.

The advocates of unconditional forgiveness have wrongly conflated the command to love others (which is unconditional) and the command to forgive one’s offenders (which is conditional). Or, they have wrongly assumed that to love someone in the biblical sense necessarily requires Christians to automatically and unconditionally forgive their offenders.

The ultimate goal of forgiveness is reconciliation, the healing of relationship. This is just not possible if there is no repentance on the part of the wrongdoer, that is, if the offender denies that he has committed an offense or if he does not show remorse.


 


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Religion, Public Policy and Human Flourishing

In recent years, academics here have been arguing that Singapore has to revise its social compact due to rapidly changing circumstances, both at home and globally.

Founded on strong fundamentals – individual responsibility and self-reliance, economic growth and jobs for all, and a social security system that is based on savings and home ownership – the current social compact has served the country well over the past forty years. It has enabled the Government to deliver high standards of healthcare, education, and housing without imposing an enormous burden of public spending.

But a number of developments such as globalisation, a more volatile economy and an aging population, have necessitated a revision of the current social compact.

However, not all the troubles of society are due to circumstances beyond our control. In fact, scholars have shown that some of the policies of the Government have in fact worsened the inequalities that already prevail in our society.

One example is the excessively liberal foreign worker and immigration policies that have resulted in inequality and wage stagnation. Another is the Government’s quest to transform Singapore into a ‘global city’ that has caused the income of those at the higher end of the labour market to be raised artificially, thereby widening the income gap.

The Government is well aware that its policies have not always been helpful in addressing the pressing concerns of society. In his keynote address at the Singapore Perspectives 2012 conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said, quite candidly, that ‘Our policies are not sacrosanct. But let’s keep a sense of perspective as we discuss how we should evolve and improve them’.

To construct a new social compact in the wake of these new challenges requires nothing less than an imaginative leap. The British philosopher Roger Scruton has quite brilliantly defined imagination as ‘a going beyond the given’.

Imagination plays an important role in almost every aspect of human life. It is needed whenever we make judgements about values. Imagination is indispensable in planning and decision-making, as alternatives are entertained and as possible ‘worlds’ that are better than the status quo are explored.

Imagination is therefore requisite for ordering society for human flourishing. In order to improve the lives of Singaporeans, the Government must ‘go beyond the given’.

How is this new compact being re-imagined by our leaders? How must social policies be recalibrated in order to promote the wellbeing of all Singaporeans?

High on the agenda is the problem of inequality, which must receive urgent attention. The Government is well aware of the fact that inequality negatively affects the wellbeing of society.

In their 2009 study, R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett noted that high inequality in society is detrimental to all its members, not just the poor. Their study also showed that inequality in society could not only cause stress, anxiety, and depression, but might even encourage behaviours such as drug use and criminality.

In his address DPM Shanmugaratnam states unequivocally that ‘we cannot resign ourselves to widening inequality … We have to try to contain inequality, and ameliorate its effects on our society’. The Government is thus determined to address this issue, not just superficially by minor tweaks in certain policies, but through a comprehensive and holistic reassessment of Singapore’s economic and social policies.

But the Government also acknowledges that for society to flourish, the poor, the sick, the disabled and elderly must never be forgotten. In his address at the opening of the new session of Parliament on 16 May, President Tony Tan Keng Yam placed special emphasis on the vulnerable and the elderly in our society.

‘We will strengthen safety nets to help the vulnerable and elderly cope with the vicissitudes of life’, he pledges. Further in the speech, he reiterates this commitment: ‘We will pay particular attention to vulnerable Singaporeans, including low-wage workers and our elderly’. The President then delineated a series of initiatives aimed at improving the lives of Singaporeans.

Christians here of every stripe can and must wholeheartedly endorse these goals because they resonate so profoundly with the teachings of Scripture and the Christian tradition. In fact, with its rich theological heritage and profound moral vision, the Christian community has much to contribute to public discourse on the wellbeing of society.

Against the many agent-oriented versions of the pursuit of wellbeing (eudaimonisms) – ancient and modern – the Bible presents a radically different vision of social flourishing, based on the second love command of Jesus (Mark 12:31). Moral responsibility towards one another, implied in Jesus’ command, is an integral aspect of the Christian concept of justice. In addition, for the Christian tradition, justice must be wedded to mercy and compassion.

It was the great fifth-century theologian, Augustine, who insisted that vulnerability and compassion must be included in our conception of human flourishing. In City of God Augustine writes: ‘But … what is compassion but a kind of fellow feeling in our hearts of the misery of another which compels us to help him if we can? This impulse is the servant of right reason when compassion is displayed in such a way as to preserve righteousness, as when alms are distributed to the needy or forgiveness extended to the penitent’.

The wellbeing of society is dependent on how its members regard and treat each other. This means that society’s flourishing requires its members to be concerned for one another’s wellbeing, not merely their own.

In his magisterial work, Secular Age, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observes perceptively that the history of Christianity reveals a profound tension between flourishing and renunciation. According to the Christian understanding, writes Taylor, ‘the believer … is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing … they are called on, that is, to detach themselves from their own flourishing … to that renunciation of human fulfilment to serve God in the other’.

In concluding his May address, President Tan looks to the future with optimism as he prepares the nation to celebrate its Golden Jubilee: ‘Our best years lie ahead. We have not overcome all our challenges, but we are determined to do so, and we will. Singapore remains a home that brings out the best in us … As we approach our 50th anniversary of independence, let us pledge ourselves anew to build a better, brighter Singapore’.

The wellbeing of society is the responsibility of all its members, not just that of the Government. The Christian community must work with the Government and other faith communities to build a just and compassionate society so that all may flourish. Only in this way can Singapore truly become a home that endears.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was published in the Trumpet (TTC).

It is Finished!

‘It is finished’ is the sixth of the seven words of Christ on the cross. From the late eighteenth century, meditation on the Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross became a very popular form of devotion. In some churches today, the last words of Jesus are heard in the liturgy of Holy Week, when the passion narrative is read in its entirety. Reflection on the last words of our Lord can be a deeply rewarding experience, for they are pregnant with spiritual and theological meaning.

‘It is finished’ is the cry of our Saviour just before he commends his spirit to the Father. These words must not be understood merely to mean ‘It is over’. They must be taken in the sense of consummatum est – it is consummated, fulfilled and brought to perfection. These words, then, should not be understood as the final cry of someone who has come to the end of a terrible ordeal. Rather it is the assertion that the task that Jesus came to perform is now completed. The work that Jesus set out to do has been accomplished, and brought to perfection. His goal is achieved, and there is nothing else left for him to do!

What was this work that Jesus came to do? He came to offer himself as a complete and perfect sacrifice in order to atone the sins of humanity and make available the salvation of God. The theme of sacrifice and atonement is replete in the New Testament. Paul in Ephesians tells us that ‘Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5:2). Comparing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the high priests of Israel, the writer of Hebrews asserts: ‘Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself’ (Heb 7:27). And John in his first letter maintains that Jesus ‘is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2:2).

To skeptics the death of Jesus does not signal victory. To them, ‘It is finished’ simply means ‘He is finished’! But for the Christian, ‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle. It is the cry of victory! As Stanley Hauerwas has put it, ‘It is finished’ means that ‘God has finished what only God could finish. Christ’s sacrifice is a gift that exceeds every debt. Our sins have been consumed, making possible that glow with the beauty of God’s Spirit’. Far from being a sign of defeat, the cross points to victory! In this sense, ‘It is finished!’ points beyond the cross to the Resurrection. It brings together Good Friday and Easter.

Nicholas Lash has summed this up eloquently in his book Believing Three Ways in the One God:

Out of the virgin’s womb, Christ is conceived. Out of that world threatening death on Calvary, life is new-born from an empty tomb. Christ’s terror is God’s Word’s human vulnerability. But, it is just this vulnerability, this surrender, absolute relationship, which draws out of darkness finished life, forgiveness of sins.

More, however, must be said. It is finished. But it is not over! It is finished. But time marches on! It is finished. But evil and suffering persist! How are we to make sense of this?

This situation is perhaps best described by the use of an analogy. The victory over sin and death by the death and Resurrection of Christ is like the liberation of an occupied country from Nazi rule towards the end of World War II. To understand the excitement of the liberation, we must imagine what it must be like to live under the shadow of Nazi presence. We must appreciate something of the utter hopelessness of the situation in order to sense its true poignancy. Many in that situation had resigned themselves to the thought that nothing could be done to turn things around.

Then, suddenly, news of a battle fought somewhere far away came to them. Some call it D-Day. And this battle is turning the tide of the war. The war seems to be brought to a new stage, and the enemy is now in disarray. Its back has been broken. Before long the Nazis will be driven out, and occupied Europe will be liberated. This is exhilarating news indeed!

But the Nazis are still present in that occupied country. Thus, in a sense, the situation has not changed at all. But in another sense, the situation has totally changed! The Nazis are defeated, and they will be driven out of that occupied country. The sweet scent of liberation and victory is in the air. This brings about a dramatic change in the psychological climate to the citizens of that occupied country. The whole atmosphere is changed. The gloom is lifted and the citizens of that country could rejoice as if they were free, even though freedom still lies in the future.

It is finished! But it is not over. Evil, suffering and pain still persist in our sin-scarred world. But the horror does not have the last word! At the heart of this horror is hope, because at the heart of the horror is Christ who has declared, ‘It is finished!’

In addition, at the foot of the cross, we realize that we are not merely victims of a senseless fate. At the foot of the cross we realize that we are participants of the drama of salvation, for our stories have become part of the story of the One who was crucified. Here at the cross the suffering of all time, the suffering of every human being is gathered to his suffering. The out-stretched arms of Jesus on the cross reach out to embrace, complete and make whole every human moment of horror. All the victims of evil, those who suffer in hospitals and at home, the victims of genocide, rape and murder, the innocent victims of war, and those who are crushed by injustice– their suffering need not be ‘senseless’ if they are caught up by faith in that once-for-all-time sacrifice of Christ on the cross for which it is said ‘It is finished’.

The cross of Christ does not give us all the answers to the world’s troubles and to ours. But the cross of Christ enables us to face these troubles without any answers because through it God has opened up a way for us to live without answers. In a statement that must surely be enigmatic to some Paul asserts ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church’ (Colossians 1:24). Paul is surely not saying that the suffering of Christ on the cross was insufficient. Rather Paul is saying that he is able to suffer because the work of the cross is finished.

It is finished! But it is not over.

We live in a time between the times. The kingdom of God has begun in Christ, but it will not be consummated and perfected until the end of the world. But the Good News is our Saviour has won that decisive far-off battle on Golgotha. The enemy is defeated! Its back has been broken! Although everything looks pretty much the same, the situation has totally changed. That is why the church throughout the ages could echo the words of Venantius Fortunatius, who in the sixth century wrote:

Sing my tongue, the glorious battle, Sing the last, the dread affray;
O’er the cross, the victor’s trophy, Sound the high triumphal lay:
How, the pains of death enduring, Earth’s Redeemer won the day.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in the Trumpet (TTC).