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Bible verse on variegated blue background. Isaiah 55:6-8 ESV.

Graphics by Martha G. Brady

During the Advent season, I learned something new. That’s my favorite thing to do! Tucked away in one of the hope-filled passages in Isaiah that included many promises about the coming Messiah is a little section that reminds us about who God is and what He is like that is so completely foreign to us… I have heard one of those verses for years and didn’t realize its context. Once I did, I realized we miss so much of God’s message to us, particularly to the Church!

But once again, I”m getting ahead of myself. How often have you heard this verse and thought, yes, God is so much bigger than I am?

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:9 ESV

But wait. The truth of a Bible verse is found in the context. What is the context here? This is going to blow your mind!

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call upon him while he is near;
 let the wicked forsake his way,
    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:6-9 ESV

In the sermon, it was pointed out…and I realized the truth of it, The highness of God’s ways are that He does not respond to our returning to Him for forgiveness in the way we would to someone who has hurt us. God’s response is not that! HIs ways are higher. His ways are different than ours. We want vengeance. He forgives. But what does forgiveness entail?

These days I find a lot of misunderstanding about what forgiveness is. What does forgiveness entail?

Forgiveness involves letting them off the hook in terms of your taking vengeance…whether it is simply holding a grudge, or plotting to get back at them. This is separate from justice. In fact, justice is totally and completely appropriate. And that is where many church offenses have gone terribly awry! Justice against offenses is totally and completely appropriate. How do we know? God is a god of justice. Sin must be punished…either by the sinner or a substitute. A third party carries out the justice if an offense was carried out against you. if a sexual offense happened in a church, you go to the police. Hopefully, the church will deal with it too, but the police should as well.

Don’t allow yourself to be told or to believe that since an offense happened in a church, it has nothing to do with civil law; or that forgiveness means ignoring legal justice. That is simply not true! There are some people, even in churches, who care more about their power structures than about  the people that have been put in their charge. It takes wisdom to find people like that who are leading churches… and stay far away from them!

I heard an excellent interview with Tim Keller, part of which was on forgiveness, and he said that until we have forgiven or are in the process of forgiveness with a person (and it IS a process), our actions of legal justice are de facto vengeance and not justice. I had never thought of that before. I think he makes a great point. So much of forgiveness, vengeance, etc. particularly in the church, is not clear and has borne “children” that are horrible and to the detriment of the Body of Christ…particularly in the United States.

When you think about it, what is at the heart of the Gospel?

Forgiveness. Jesus forgave us when we did NOT deserve it. Not one of us did. As you read the Gospels, who were the people He condemned most? The Pharisees who thought they were just fine because they kept all the rules. He had horrible things to say to them. And they hated Him for what He said.

The story that clarifies the gospel so clearly is the Prodigal Son found here. Jesus is seen in this parable as the Father. The lost son is anyone who is without Christ and is leaning on their own resources to make them good enough to be acceptable to God. The lost son is contrasted with the older brother who seems to be with his dad, yet can’t find the joy in the return of his brother/realization that he is alive. He can’t find joy in his place either. He has spent all those years working for his father with no joy.

During much of Jesus’ ministry you see the contrast of the sinners, who are very aware that they are sinful and the religious leaders/Pharisees. They thought they were doing a good job of keeping the rules and fulfilling the Law. Jesus thought otherwise. He pointed out how they were not fulfilling the Law, but finding ways to get around it and being hypocrites. Much of Jesus’ diatribe can be found here.