Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Forgiveness and Honour in the Bible and the Qur'an

Luke Plant

I have had many debates with Muslim friends about the matter of forgiveness, which is quite different in the Qur'an and in the Bible. In this article I want to share some thoughts on the forgiveness of God and the honour of God.

Our sin dishonours God. When I sin, I choose something else as more valuable, more important than God. If I worship something that isn't God, such as money or fame, I am saying that these things are better and more attractive than God. If I commit sexual immorality of some kind, although God has clearly forbidden it, I am saying that the pleasure of that sin is better than the pleasure of obeying God. My disobedience treats God as if he is small, as if he is like dirt to be trampled on.

When we treat each other like this, it is a serious thing. But the scale of the insult depends on who or what you are insulting. If I spent time creating a painting, and you attacked it with spray paint, it would be an insult, but not much of one, given my very limited artistic abilities! But if you went into the Louvre and spray painted over the Mona Lisa, the crime would be far greater. So, if we are insulting not just finite creatures like each other, but the infinite Creator, who is absolutely perfect in every way, the offense is scaled up — by an infinite amount. When we sin, we are offending a God who is infinitely important, so the dishonour and the insult is infinite.

Further, the level of dishonour changes not only according to the person offended, but according to the relationship you are in. It is possible to dishonour a complete stranger, but shame is multiplied when there is an existing relationship, especially a family relationship. Everything I do, I do as a representative of my family and in connection with them. They have a right to expect loyalty from me, and a certain standard of behaviour. This means there are, in fact, two ways that I can dishonour my family: firstly I can insult them to their faces, and secondly I can behave in such a way that even though they might not be present, I drag the good name of my family into disgrace.

When it comes to God, we were created in the image of God, which means that we have a moral dimension, and we are supposed to be his representatives on earth, acting in a kingly, God-like way (Genesis 1:26-28). In that sense, we are metaphorically ‘his offspring’ (Acts 17:28). God intended that we should be a part of his family. In the Garden of Eden, we are told that God ‘walked’ with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8) — they enjoyed an amazing relationship. What astonishing privileges we were made for as human beings!

So, when I disobey God, I am dishonouring him in both ways: I am firstly insulting him to his face, by ignoring his commands and disregarding the fatherly love he has lavished on me, just like Adam and Eve did; but I am also sending a signal to the rest of the universe: “the offspring of God behave in this shameful manner”.

To put these things together: our sin against God is like a prince going up to his good father, the king, in public, sneering with contempt and ingratitude, and spitting in his face.

What will God do in that situation? Will he simply ignore the way we have shamed him? No, that dishonour must be avenged. The right vengeance must be an infinite penalty — eternal punishment in hell.

If someone draws an insulting picture of Mohammad, Muslims do not stand for it. If they did nothing about an insult to Mohammad, it would send a very clear signal to the world: it is quite OK to insult and dishonour Mohammad. And that is why Muslims will never allow insults to Mohammad to pass by without doing something about them, to show that it is not OK to insult him.

But what about God, who is infinitely above Mohammad? If God simply forgives people who have dishonoured him, without doing anything about the dishonour, he is sending a very clear message: it is quite OK to trample him as dirt. Go ahead and insult him, he's not very important. Will God ever say that?

I can imagine some circumstances where human beings will accept shame and dishonour without doing anything about it:

  1. If there is nothing that can be done, if I am powerless to put it right, I might choose to do nothing. But of course, God is never in this situation, as he has infinite power.
  2. Or if I realise that I have no right to require vengeance, because I have done worse things to other people. Again, this does not apply to God, who has always done what is absolutely right.
  3. Or if I have no self-respect — if, for some reason, I have lost sight of my dignity as a human being. But God's dignity is infinitely above mine, and he would never lose sight of it!
  4. Or if I realised there was something more important, for which I was willing to sacrifice my honour. But again, how could God ever think like that — what is more important than God himself?

No, God has infinite self-respect, and is always ‘jealous’ for his honour, insisting that nothing and no-one else dishonours him or takes the honour that he alone deserves. As he says in Deuteronomy 4:23-24:

Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the Lord your God has forbidden you. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

Isaiah 42:8 puts it this way:

I am the LORD; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.

God insists that he is honoured, and this is right, since he is the most important and most valuable being in all of reality. So God will only forgive if he can restore his honour at the same time. He will only forgive if he can show, at the same time, that he is treating the offence as infinitely serious.

Is that possible? Yes, in the Bible, God the Father and God the Son both do exactly that.

All through the Old Testament, God showed the need for sacrifice to avenge the dishonour caused by our sin. Yet the life of a bull or lamb is nothing compared to the dishonour we have caused God. So, in due time, God the Father showed how serious our sin truly is by the most astonishing sacrifice ever — he gave his one and only Son. (John 3:16). This was an infinite sacrifice, and his blood of infinite value (Hebrews 9:11-14, 1 Peter 1:18-19).

And the Son showed the true honour that is worthy to God, because he was willing to do this to bring glory to his Father. The Son of God showed the infinite value of the Father by, first of all, giving up even the glory of heaven to become a man, a servant. And not only living as a servant, but dying, and not only dying, but dying the most shameful death as a criminal, and under the curse of sin and God's anger (Philippians 2:5-8). All this Jesus was willing to do to bring glory to his Father (John 17:4).

It is in this way that God forgives sinners — Jesus bore the shame that we deserve, and we are given the honour that he was worthy of. Yet at the same time, God does not compromise his own honour. The Father showed, by an infinite sacrifice, that the offences against himself are infinite. And the Son showed, by his willingness to go through hell out of love and obedience for his Father, what the true worth of the Father is, and what our behaviour to him ought to be.

The god of the Qur'an does not act like this. When he forgives, he does nothing about the dishonour we have heaped on him. At the end of the day, he considers the pleasure of men and women in paradise as more important than his own honour, and just ignores their offences. From a Christian perspective, a god who acts like this appears to be the invention of a human mind — because only human minds think that being forgiven and getting to heaven is more important than the honour of God. In fact, that is what we have always done — from Adam and Eve onwards, we have put our own desires before honouring God. So you would expect human beings to invent a god that has no self-respect — which makes him a god who is not worthy of our respect.

But the God of the Bible stands on his honour, as he must, and yet out of his unbelievable love towards us has made a way to bring us to a position of honour without compromising his own.

The cross is also why Christians can have full forgiveness and yet not just live as we please. The forgiveness of God is amazing and absolute, and there is wonderful freedom in it. I know that every sin of mine, including those I will commit in the future, is already forgiven. Yet I cannot think “Well, I'm forgiven, I may live as I please” — the infinite price that Jesus paid on the cross has made it clear that sin is infinitely serious, infinitely dishonouring to God. And for the Christian, who loves God, this provides more motivation to avoid sin than even the thought of hell.

(Many thanks to Rolland Muller for his book ‘Honour and Shame’ which inspired this article).