A friend and colleague committed suicide last week. Staff and students have been understandably upset by this tragic and shocking event, while the local press have had a field day with sensational and largely imaginary stories and lurid photographs. Pam and I have done our share of grief counseling over the past week, helping others to gain some perspective on why someone would do this. At my friend’s memorial service yesterday I sang Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” as a reminder that there will come a day when all grief is gone. But as I have reflected on the events and conversations of the past week, I have been driven to consider the importance of that most fundamental of all Christian truths: the doctrine of forgiveness.

As a non-believer I can tell you that I struggled long and hard with my own need for forgiveness. Why do I need to be forgiven – with the emphasis on the ‘I’ – when there were so many people in the world much more wicked than I was? After years of study of Eastern religions, especially Taoism, I considered myself a very ‘spiritual’ person and my spiritual pride wouldn’t allow me to admit that I NEEDED to be forgiven.

By finally reading the gospels myself I came to understand what God’s standard for spirituality actually was. And quite frankly I was astounded. Because as I read through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) I realized that God’s requirement for admission into heaven was nothing short of perfection; absolute sinless perfection (Matt. 5:48). That was a standard that even in MY vanity and arrogance I knew I could never obtain. Therefore I needed forgiveness; and I had to humble myself before a perfect God to obtain it.

Once I understood this, and understood that Christ had already paid for my sins by his sacrificial death, asking God to forgive me became not only logical, but easy. But accepting Christ’s sacrifice for my sins opened up a whole new realm that I hadn’t even considered. I almost at once began to feel lighter in my spirit. God had forgiven me! Not for what I had just done, but for everything I had EVER done. In one simple act I had wiped the slate clean! I was a new man and before me lay a whole new world of possibilities. Forgiveness had given me new hope and new purpose, and I couldn’t wait to see what God had in store for me.

Then I began to consider what my actions had cost others, and I felt strangely drawn to the idea of seeking their forgiveness as well. I had read in scripture that this was what I SHOULD do (Matt 5:23-26), but that was almost redundant; this is what I WANTED to do. I had set myself right with God, now I wanted to be set at right with others as well. It felt liberating as I made my way through past friends and associates making amends for thoughtless and unkind words and deeds. Understandably not everyone wanted to forgive me; in fact some were still pretty ticked and I dare say there are still some out there who remain so. But you know, pretty quickly I began to see that this was their problem, not mine. I just had to make it right with whoever was willing, and leave the rest to God.

That led to a further lesson in forgiveness; the need to forgive others for their offenses against me. This is a much harder lesson to learn, and it has occupied much of the time since my salvation. People are going to offend you all the time; people are going to let you down and do wrong things against you. Dealing with that – especially if they won’t admit their fault – is a difficult business, and I can’t really say that I have entirely completed my lessons in this area. But I am getting better at it, and I do recognize that God puts a reasonable limit on the process of reconciliation (Matt 18:15-17).

But the last lesson on forgiveness is possibly the hardest and most important lesson of all: you must learn to forgive yourself. If you don’t forgive yourself, then you are never going to be at peace with yourself and everything you do to paper that hole over with hugs and smiles and high fives will not silence the voices inside that tell you that you are not worthy of life. Forgiving yourself means recognizing that despite all of your efforts, despite even the grace of God that has saved you and given you purpose and hope in life, you are still going to mess up and hurt people because of your limitations and failures. God knows this, and loves you anyway and has already forgiven you not only for everything you HAVE done, but for everything you WILL do! That is the astounding power of forgiveness.

This is not to say that you should give up on allowing Christ to transform you, or thinking that it is okay for you to sin because God will forgive you. This doctrine of ‘cheap grace’ that has become popular in some circles is an insult to the sacrifice of Christ in paying for those sins. But it does mean trusting that God will never let you go. You have put your trust in Him and you understand that while there is nothing that you can do to earn your salvation – since you could never by your own effort achieve perfection – there is also nothing that can take you out of God’s hand; nothing than you have done or will ever do; not even taking your own life (Romans 8: 35-39). There will be no tears in heaven.

Forgiveness may look at first glance a difficult and even unnecessary act of humility. It seems to be something that we do FOR Someone else, and not for ourselves. But the longer I live and the more I learn about forgiveness the more I understand that it is for US, for OUR health and strength, for OUR peace of mind that God desires that we seek His forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift that He wants to give us. Forgiveness is what makes us whole.

If Christ is your Saviour, you are forgiven! Go ahead and have a great life!