I could ask the question, if God is so strong on forgiveness why doesn't he forgive Satan and restore him to his place in heaven? No, don't answer that or even think about it. The only reason I raised the question is that I want you to consider that there are different aspects to the question of forgiveness and reconciliation. But you would admit that the question sets off a chain of thoughts racing through your mind. Good, that is as I intended.
Christians are taught a lot about forgiveness and reconciliation and many preachers have preached many sermons dealing with this subject and yet there is the sense that people have not bothered to seriously look at the substance of the matter.
All of us are sinners, some of us are big sinners and some of us are small sinners, and yes the Bible did make such a distinction (John 19:11) but sinning is missing God's mark and we are all guilty of that. As sinners we all are in need of forgiveness, so the person who comes to God in repentance and expecting to get it, and does, should understand that just as he wants and gets forgiveness he too should grant others forgiveness in like manner. Jesus reminded us of this when he said, "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Luke 6:31)
This reciprocity is important for to be forgiven is conditional on our willingness to forgive; if we are so arrogant or intransigent as not to forgive others their transgressions against us then we are not in the right frame of mind to receive forgiveness from God. This is the clear teaching of Jesus when he taught his disciples to pray and said, "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." (Matthew 6:12) And Jesus consolidated this principle with this, "But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses." (Mark 11:26)
There are many examples of forgiveness and reconciliation in the Bible but there are also good examples in recent times, and one in particular is noteworthy.
In World War 2, Germany, Japan and Italy (the Axis) fought a bloody and sustained campaign against the Allies and it is estimated that as a result 50-80 million people were killed. This bloody conflict came to an end in 1945 and today all those nations that were involved have moved on, are reconciled and coexist in harmony and some are even good friends.
This is as it should be because if we keep the past alive, keep stirring up old animosities and grudges then we will forever be squabbling over one thing or another. Let bygones be bygones is an excellent attitude to adopt and is highly commendable but the process has to be done right. As we approach the seventh decade after cessation of hostilities in World War 2 we can see how that situation contrasted with some prevailing situations, and in particular the contrast could not be different to what went on in South Africa as it emerged from apartheid.
Some people do not understand that what went on under apartheid was just as criminal as what went on under the Nazis and just as Nazis war crimes; genocide and the holocaust were crimes against humanity so were the crimes of apartheid.
In the case of the crimes committed by the Nazis there was a thorough, transparent and united approach to bring the perpetrators to justice and so bring catharsis and closure but in the case of South Africa there has neither been a catharsis nor closure but rather a Mandela inspired and a pragmatic acceptance of the cessation of hostilities. Peace and reconciliation, if it is going to endure, need to be based on much more than the cessation of hostilities.
There are always people in society who will never bury the hatchet, who because of legal and community restraints may not be bellicose but there is a simmering hatred of the status quo and they will exploit any opportunity that arises to return to the bad old days. I read that certain groups affiliated to the Afrikaner Broederbond and other Apartheid supporters are agitating and rearming themselves for the inevitable backlash that they think is coming now that Nelson Mandela is dead.
Notice that the victims of Apartheid have gone the route of forgiveness and reconciliation, they have moved on with their lives even though many have suffered terribly, but the perpetrators and beneficiaries of that evil system who are in the main still reaping the benefits are now the ones from among whom hostilities are festering.
Herein lies the problem.
The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid stated very clearly in Article 3: International criminal responsibility shall apply, irrespective of the motive involved, to individuals, members of organizations and institutions and representatives of the State, whether residing in the territory of the State in which the acts are perpetrated or in some other State, whenever they:
(a) Commit, participate in, directly incite or conspire in the commission of the acts mentioned in article II of the present Convention;
(b) Directly abet, encourage or co-operate in the commission of the crime of apartheid.
The South African government established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee and those who appeared before it and confessed their acts of violence and give testimony could request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. Many did and were given amnesty but one of the most detestable leaders, Apartheid President P. W. Botha defied a subpoena to appear before the commission, calling it a "circus". His defiance resulted in a fine and suspended sentence, but these were overturned on appeal. In essence the worst of the lot escaped justice. Some people regard him as a demon.
The question arises, can you forgive and be reconciled to someone who does not want to be forgiven? And just as important is this; can reconciliation be accomplished without justice?
Taking the last question first, the Nuremberg Trials were set up by the Allies after World War 2 not just for revenge but to ensure justice after a conflict that involved war crimes and gross violation of human rights. Nazis leaders were tried, convicted and in most cases executed and some given life sentences. Even after the Nuremberg Trials were completed Jews set up their own institutions to hunt down and bring to justice Nazis who, in their eyes, were guilty of war crimes.
In contrast the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa was established along similar principles but instead of the perpetrators being punished in line with their crimes they were given amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. In truth justice was not done or seen to be done. And since justice was not done there will always be an underlying tendency to want to see justice done at last.
How would you feel if a local thug stole your new car and after the police caught up with him and he was brought to trial, found guilty, and was given a derisory fine he was then allowed to keep your new car? Every time you look up you see him driving your car and you have to do without? I do not imagine for one second that your mind would be full of the sweet musings of forgiveness and reconciliation. You would want your car back first; and justifiably so.
But the other question has to impact matters for can you forgive and be reconciled to someone who does not want to be forgiven? Former president F. W. de Klerk appeared before the commission and reiterated his apology for the suffering caused by apartheid but former apartheid President P. W. Botha showed his contempt for the commission by refusing to appear before it. He refused to seek forgiveness for his wrongs and never showed any remorse or contrition.
Can he be forgiven and be reconciled without movement on his part?
Forgiveness is taught as a central tenet of Christianity. Without forgiveness, first from God and then abounding towards each other, we would be unable to function within the community of faith as God requires us to.
Failure to forgive places a heavy burden on us, a burden so heavy that our heads are bowed earthwards and we are thus prevented from lifting our attention heavenwards where we can assess all that God has for us to live joyously and to run this race successfully. The reason to forgive is to remove that debilitating burden and set us free.
Jesus showed us the way when, by cruel and evil people he was put to death, and just before he died said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) And this wonderful example was followed by the first Christian martyr Stephen who just before he died after being stoned said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep." (Acts 7:59-60)
Christians are people who know what it cost to follow Jesus Christ, what it means to say from the heart, "not my will but thine be done" and no matter how galling it might be at times, we always have to do what is right for God requires no less. It is this determination to do God's will that makes us true believers whether or not those who offend against us do the proper thing.
This we should always remember that God will always hold us responsible for our own actions, or inactions, and will judge or reward us accordingly. We might not win the demon for Christ but we can stop the demon's attitude from causing us to stumble.
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Dr. Henderson Ward received his Doctor of Divinity in theology, with distinction, from Masters International School of Divinity, USA, where he is currently a post-doctoral fellow. Dr. Ward's career involved pastoring, evangelism, and teaching. Copyright 2013