Three things in this world really irritate me: being late, being lost, and being in traffic. If I’m late, lost and in traffic, you probably should avoid talking to me. I am not likely in a forgiving mood. But, it’s just like God to take our kryptonite and demonstrate His glory.
The commute to my job takes me from southern Maryland to Arlington, Virginia…every day. An hour and a half commute on average days. A four hour commute on the worst day…so far. I hate traffic. To intensify my distaste for traffic are the traffic jerks. You know them. They ride the shoulder just to get two car lengths ahead. They tailgate you. They weave in and out of lanes without signaling. They speed up to narrow the gap because they saw your signal to get over. They honk at you to move when there is only a half-car’s length of space in front of you.
Let’s be honest. They are jerks. They might have come from a long line of jerks.
The cultural, bumper-sticker wisdom is not to get mad, just to get even. So, to respond to these jerks, the inner jerk awoke in me. “You’re honking at me to move? I guess I can sit here a few seconds longer.” “You want to cut me off? How do you like my brake lights?” “You want to ride the shoulder? See if you can get around me while I ride the shoulder at the pace of the slow traffic.”
Ah, yes. The immediate pleasure of revenge. Yet, something never sat right with me after I dished out my cold vengeance. Revenge never satisfies. It may be sweet to the lips, but it is bitter to the soul. This bitterness festers towards people created in the image of God. The cancer of revenge produces callousness towards people. Revenge often is disproportionate to the offense. Revenge begets revenge.
My Bible reading took me to Romans 12:17-21. “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
God has not given us the ministry of wrath. He has given us the ministry of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:18. Revenge never produces reconciliation. Revenge on the world has not been God’s plan. Reconciliation has. “[I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” 2 Corinthians 5:19. Jesus rebuked the Sons of Thunder (James and John) for wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan village that rejected Jesus. Luke 9:54-56. Some ancient Bible manuscripts include Jesus’ admonishment “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”
Jesus’ example towards the wickedness of the jerks was to forgive. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34. Jesus didn’t just forgive his friends. He sought forgiveness for those who put him to death. After all, what reward is there in only loving those who love you? Matthew 5:46.
In my commute, God wanted me to practice forgiveness. He wanted to take my weakness and show Himself strong. So, I embarked on a journey to forgive the jerks. To my surprise I found it more difficult than I had thought. When I decided to forgive a jerk, I did not get an immediate peace inside of me. I found out that forgiveness really hurts. Why does forgiveness hurt?
One answer to that question is found in the nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not simply an ignoring of an offense. For God to simply ignore our sin would mean that He is not a just God. Justice demands that offenses must be recompensed. God offers forgiveness for our sins, not because He ignores them, but because Jesus paid for them with His suffering and death. God does not ignore our sin. He Himself bore the punishment for our sin. He took the debt on Himself.
That reality is why I found that forgiveness hurts. Forgiveness means that I must refuse revenge and must bear the offense of the jerk. I pay the debt the jerk owes to me. I do not make him pay. That hurts. Yet, that is the easy burden and light yoke to which Christ has called his disciples. Through our acts of forgiveness, God has provided the message of reconciliation.
Day after day, commute after commute, forgiving jerk after jerk, I started to get weary of forgiving people. “God, why do I have to forgive these people? Day after day, there is no end to these jerks. Some of them are the same jerks I forgave yesterday. They don’t deserve it. They don’t even want it. When is enough enough?” Then God gently reminded me that by my practice of endless forgiveness I reflect His image because, day after day, He offers me forgiveness.
God’s mercies are new every morning. His infinite mercy offers infinite forgiveness. Because we are created in His image to reflect His glory, we must also offer forgiveness continually. See Matthew 18:21-35.
I wish I could say that I have matured to perpetual forgiveness, but sadly, the jerk of my flesh wars against the spirit. Last week, on my commute home, the streets of Alexandria were jammed. I had to get from the middle lane to the right lane in order to turn right on the next street. I put on my blinker and noticed the jerk in the Dodge Ram trying to close the gap so I couldn’t get in front of him. I was able to get over. But, his proximity to my rear bumper let me know he wasn’t happy. The car in front of me started moving and was about a half-car length ahead. Because I hadn’t started moving quickly enough, the jerk proceeded to honk at me. The choice to forgive presented itself. Instead, I let evil overcome me. Playing the jerk myself, I waited just a little longer to move, which inspired another symphony from his horn. I turned right at the next street and proceeded to the left lane, but a vehicle was stopped in the lane. Realizing the Ram was getting over to pass me on the right, I immediately got over and slowed down. After I went through the next traffic light, I got in the left lane and the Ram sped dangerously fast around me, exhaling black exhaust while running a red light.
Upon seeing that, I was convicted. My lack of forgiveness produced in me just enough hatred to repay evil for evil. My heart hurt as I realized that the anger I stoked in him caused him to put the lives of others at risk. I imagined him getting home, still stewing from his commute, and snapping at his wife or kids. My unforgiveness of a small traffic slight could have been the catalyst for even greater evil.
Putting to death the things of the flesh in order to forgive is hard. It takes practice. I still have a lot to learn about forgiveness. Those of us who are in Christ are new creations. Therefore, we are to act differently from the way those in the world act. Jesus commands us to forgive because forgiveness fosters reconciliation. We must show forgiveness, and take on the little debts of those who wrong us because our Master has borne our greater debt. Man’s reconciliation with God is the summary of the gospel message. As we practice forgiveness, we will become better at it and fulfill our ministry as ambassadors of reconciliation.