One of the most moving stories in the Bible is about the thief on the cross. When Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, He was not alone. Two men had been sentenced to death with Him, one crucified on His right and the other on His left. Other than that these men were “robbers” (Matthew 27:38), we don’t know much about them. However, we can be sure that whatever they stole, it was not a loaf of bread for their hungry children or the like. Though the Romans were sticklers for their laws, they generally did not crucify (the worst form of punishment) petty thieves. Whatever these men had stolen, it was deemed serious enough for capital punishment.
At first, both the crucified men beside Jesus and the crowd below mocked Him. “Even those who were crucified with Him reviled Him” (Mark 15:32). However, at some point during the terrible hours of their punishment, one of the thieves had a change of heart. Somehow this poor man got a glimpse of who Jesus, dying next to him, really was. Which is why he cried out to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
And what did Jesus answer? Did He say, “Well friend, I would like to help you but, you know, you should not have reviled Me before as you did?” Or did Jesus say, “Well friend, you know the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal’, and yet you stole a lot, so what can I do for you?” Or did Jesus say, “Sorry fellow, but your past life of sin is so bad that even the Romans want you dead. Therefore, I have nothing to offer on your behalf?“
No. Jesus said none of these things. Instead, Jesus looked at this helpless, dying sinner, a man who had absolutely nothing to offer and by his own admission (Luke 23:41) deserved his punishment, and said, I’m telling you right now that you will be with Me in paradise (Luke 23:43).
Talk about grace! Talk about forgiveness! Here was not just a sinner, but a criminal, one worthy (in that time) of death — and yet what did Jesus do with him? He never threw up the man’s past; He never told him how unworthy or underserving he was. In fact, despite the man’s past, unworthiness and guilt — Jesus forgave him for everything that he had done.
Wow! No matter how intense or dramatic this story is, there’s a lesson here for us about grace, about forgiveness, about letting go of your own past and that of other’s.
Look, we all know that life can be difficult. Sometimes others make it difficult for us; sometimes we make it difficult for others. And how often have we made it difficult for ourselves? Yet, somehow, some way, we need to find it in our hearts to forgive, not just ourselves but others, even when we feel forgiveness is undeserved. It takes nothing to forgive the deserving; it takes grace, such as what Jesus offered the thief, to forgive the undeserving.
Whether or not they believe in God or even in Jesus, mental health experts almost universally agree that forgiveness is a key component for personal healing of not only your spirit, but of your body as well. Who hasn’t felt the stress, damage and pain that anger, bitterness, hatred and so forth can do to you? You can at times even feel it, physically — in your chest, in your stomach, in your head, can’t you? You don’t need to be Dr. Phil to know that these powerful emotions cannot be good for your health. On the contrary, these things can literally kill you. Sure, this is one way to be free from the hatred, bitterness and anger. But in the end, this means the one you’re angry with has won out over you, big time.
Though author Oscar Wilde had quipped, “Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much,” forgiveness is not just about, or even primarily about, the other person. It’s about yourself and those impacted by your moods, feelings, words and actions. Life comes with enough external stresses and strains; it would be much easier to get through the day without the internal miasma of anger and bitterness poisoning your thoughts like carbon monoxide.
God is a God of forgiveness. If He wasn’t, none of us would stand a chance. Forgiveness isn’t about worthiness; it’s about grace, it’s about getting what you don’t deserve and giving to others the grace that they don’t deserve either. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Forgiveness does not mean that what the person did was right. Jesus didn’t condone the thief’s thievery; He forgave it. You also don’t have to condone what was done to you; you forgive it — an act that, while not changing the past, sure makes the present and the future more livable.
Written by Cliff Goldstein