The realization that no one other than God can make anything right, and God pledges to make everything right, in Christ, by the power of his Holy Spirit.
That’s why on earth here we willingly absorb our enemy’s sin against us in Jesus’ name as a reminder to our enemy—and to ourselves—that God in Christ is the one who is actually absorbing all sin.
As Christine Scheller notes in her fantastic post How Far Should Forgiveness Go?, Miroslav Volf, a professor at Yale, says:
I don’t demand that the one who has taken my eye lose his eye or that the one who has killed my child by his negligence be killed. In fact, I don’t demand that he lose anything. I forgo all retribution. In forgiving, I absorb the injury—the way I may absorb, say, the financial impact of a bad business transaction.
I absorb the sin not in myself, but in Christ, who lives in me. It’s no longer I who live, after all; it’s he who lives in me. And this is what I point out to my enemy in the midst of our battle against his sin.
Now let me hasten to note, for those in abusive marriage situations, for example, that absorbing the blow can only come on the other side of sharing with our enemies God’s sober judgment about their sin toward us. In the case of an abusive marriage, that judgment is “It is wrong to let you continue to use me as a punching bag; therefore we must separate and find help for you.”
But to abusers and all of our enemies, we do this as we share with them God’s sober judgment of us—our own stories of how he set us free from the penalty of canceled sin, and how he is even now setting us—and those whom we have harmed—free from sin’s power. Which is how we know they can be set free, too. And we need to announcing this to them even while proclaiming God’s sober judgment of their sins.
This is what prevents us from condemning others—because we of all people ought to know (and mirror) judgment with mercy and without condemnation, because that’s the Work of Mercy Christ performs daily on us who love him and trust him with our lives.
Remember: In God’s character, the offer of mercy follows judgment like day follows night. Condemnation doesn’t follow judgment in the kingdom of God; mercy follows judgment. The one to whom mercy is extended can reject that mercy, and that unrepentant spirit leads to condemnation. But never forget the order, no matter how grave the sin: Judgment/mercy/condemnation, not judgment/condemnation.
Mercy is the desired end of judgment. Meaning, we judge people in Jesus’ name in order that they might see how very badly they need the mercy of Christ, which we extend to them at no cost other than their willingness to accept it and enter into the lifelong process of letting that judgment and mercy work in their lives. This doesn’t preclude restitution in any sense–far from it (that’s what “lifelong process of etc etc” means in the previous sentence). But it sure does preclude condemnation and haughtiness on our part.
And just as it cost God everything to offer mercy to us, it costs us everything to mirror that mercy to those who sin against us. That’s how God expects us to use our lives—as Christ did, as a re-presentation of his offering for their sin. Our offering for sin does not save. But it is the most effective way to point to the only offering that has ever saved. M. Scott Peck, the therapist, writes:
I cannot be any more specific about the methodology of love than to quote these words of an old priest who spent many years in the battle: “There are dozens of ways to deal with evil and several ways to conquer it. All of them are facets of the truth that the only ultimate way to conquer evil is to let it be smothered within a willing, living human being. When it is absorbed there like blood in a sponge or a spear into one’s heart, it loses its power and goes no further.”
Peck is partly right. Evil loses its power and goes no further…to the degree that we human sponges mirror and testify to the judgment of the living sponge—Christ Jesus. The merciful God absorbs the sin of mankind not like a bad business deal but like blood in a sponge that, curiously, tells the truth as he is being stabbed—or, more accurately, speared in his side, nailed in his wrists, and crowned with thorns on his head.
And he calls us to judge in this same way. We should judge only the evil we are willing to personally absorb with him over time. This makes judgment costly and personally inconvenient, which ensures that it will only be entered into for the sake of the one being judged and not for the emotional and moral satisfaction of the judge.
For the abused, that doesn’t mean receiving further abuse. As we’ll talk about in our next post, that’s not mercy; that’s leniency. And becoming a human punching bag isn’t judgment; it’s insanity. But it does mean deep (unwarranted) care for the offender, which looks like staying with them but away from them until they refuse to acknowledge, accept, and fundamentally repent and change. Which is a lot harder than either staying with them and getting punched or walking away from them and finding someone else who’s not so obviously broken.
Judgment that’s not motivated by mercy always looks for someone other than us to cover the cost. Typically human judges look to pin the price tag on the offender. Judgment that’s motivated by mercy, though, draws others to receive God’s offer of mercy, because the one who is judged can see the judge bearing the cost of that mercy.
And that’s why the only people God trusts to judge are those who were once his enemies–those who now daily enjoy his endless patience and mercy. They judge mercifully in the natural course of pouring out to others the mercy that is daily being poured into them.
We need to learn how to judge the evil in others and in the world unapologetically and specifically and courageously while smothering that evil mercifully in ourselves, in the name of Christ Jesus. That’s how God in Christ performs the Work of Mercy of forgiving and reconciling in the world.
Typically the hardest part of this is being able to imagine judgment without condemnation, of which only God (and God extending his mercy through us) is capable. As we’ll talk about in Part V, that’s why we human beings fall back into leniency instead of letting God pour his mercy through us.