God created human beings in his image so they can be friends—intimate, love-filled companions—with him and one another. But soon they learn to live as enemies. To all the wonders that God has created, human beings add an invention of their own: revenge. You hurt me, and I’ll hurt you back. A kind of Newtonian law becomes as inevitable as the law of gravity: For every infliction of pain there must be an equal and opposite act of vengeance. A character in the book of Genesis named Lamech takes this concept to its ultimate extreme. He kills a man for wounding him; he says he will seek revenge seventy-seven times over against anyone who hurts him. This is the Law of Lamech: If anyone inflicts pain on me, I must make them pay. One of the most poignant statements in Scripture comes shortly after the episode of Lamech as God views the violence and corruption that has spread like an epidemic through the creatures he loves: “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” (Genesis 6:6) So God, who created the heavens and the earth in six days, has to create once more after the Fall. He invents a kind of spiritual surgery that can remove what is toxic to the heart and make dead relationships live again. This new creation is called forgiveness. It is in some ways his last, best gift to the human race. It is the only force strong enough to heal relationships damaged by hatred and betrayal.
God has developed a new possibility for dealing with betrayal and hurt: You owe, I’ll pay. He forgives. But forgiveness does not come cheap. This is where the story gets very personal for Jesus. Jesus knew all about friendship, pain, and betrayal. As a boy, he had to learn about friends the same way you and I do. God Incarnate learned what it is to be the new kid or to ask, Who might have room for me? Who isn’t taken? He would have learned to run the hazards of rejection, to send out just enough signals, to strategize and adapt and hope that someone else was searching, too. As an adult, Jesus would give himself to all people, and to twelve friends in particular. One of them would betray him, another would deny him, all would abandon him. On the cross, the entire weight of the unpayable debt owed by sinful humanity would fall on him. He would pay it all. This is why the cross is at the heart of Christianity. It shows us the heart of God. He feels compassion, his eyes fill with tears, his lips tremble a little out of love for his children. He chooses to pay the debt we never could. He longs to forgive. And what Jesus does at infinite cost, he invites us to do as well, though at much lesser spiritual surgery expense. So let’s think about what we’re being invited to do.