Some years ago, Simon Wiesenthal wrote a powerful essay in remembrance of a chilling personal encounter during the Second World War. While still a slave laborer, he was brought into the presence of a dying SS soldier. The soldier begged Wiesenthal to forgive him for murdering us Jews. Wiesenthal listened, struggled with the plea and finally left the room without saying a word. At the end of his essay, Wiesenthal invited the reader to "change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, ‘What would I have done?’"
In the response section of the book, Jewish author and lecturer Dennis Prager wrote, "People can never forgive murder, since the one person who can forgive is gone forever." (Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower, (Schoken Books, 1976, p. 226).
Prager is right, but he’s also wrong.
Even when a murderer genuinely repents, he or she cannot go to the victim and ask for forgiveness, because the victim is dead. But God is alive. And because all sin is ultimately committed against Him, then we have hope. When we repent and ask His forgiveness, we can receive a complete pardon and cleansing from Him. Even for the crime of murder.
But isn’t God a God of justice? Yes, He is. But He’s also a God of unfathomable mercy, when we approach Him with the sacrifices of "a broken and a contrite heart," just as King David wrote in Psalm 51:17. Isn’t this what David discovered after committing adultery with Bathsheba and then ordering the murder of her husband, Uriah? Could David go to Uriah and ask for forgiveness? No, because Uriah was dead. But when confronted by the prophet Nathan, David repented, and Nathan declared, "The Lord has also taken away your sin, you shall not die" (2 Samuel 12:13).
To be sure, there were severe consequences, but they didn’t compare to the mercy that David received. He deserved condemnation. Instead, he found grace.
Last summer, my colleague, Kata Tar, received a phone call in the middle of the night from a woman who’d read a tract that Kata had written. "I’ve been hiding from the police for two years for something I did, but now I’m more afraid of trying to hide from God," she confessed.
"What did you do?" Kata asked.
"I murdered my mother. Can God forgive that?"
Kata was shocked. But knowing what the Bible says, she assured the woman that if her repentance were true, she could ask in faith and Jesus would forgive. Kata then gave her a further assurance. "Certainly, there are consequences for what you did. But no matter what consequences you may have to face for your crime, Yeshua (Jesus) can use you for the glory of His name."
However, His forgiveness and mercy confront us with a serious challenge: Jesus expects us to forgive others, even as He forgives us. In His parable about the unforgiving servant, Yeshua said,
Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?" (Matthew 18:33).
How can we possibly grant mercy and forgiveness to those whose crimes have hurt us so much? The key lies in truly understanding the greater mercy and forgiveness that God has granted each one of us. No matter how bad a sin might be, a person’s sin against me cannot compare to all the sins that I’ve committed against God, who created me and is more deserving of my trust and obedience than any human being could be. But because I’ve repented, God has chosen to lavish me with His mercy and forgiveness. And He expects me to do the same.
Can we be forgiven? Yes. Can we forgive? Yes, we can.
Please pray for us Jews for Jesus as we labor to fulfill His commandment "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name" (Luke 24:47).
And as January 27th draws near, why don’t we make this a special day to do three things:
- thank God for the forgiveness that we have in the Messiah Yeshua
- approach and seek forgiveness from the ones we’ve wronged
- forgive those who have sinned against us