I looked into his eyes. My hands fidgeted, my heart was racing, and I was sweating like a sinner in church. Though I was waiting for him to speak, I was not at all sure I wanted to hear what he would say.
I knew what I had done was wrong. It had gnawed at me all week, despite my best efforts to justify what I’d done as “no big deal.” He was my friend, and I knew I had hurt him by my selfish words and actions. I finally worked up the nerve to talk to him, and as I stumbled through an apology which was neither eloquent nor endearing, I watched his eyes. He listened, nodded in understanding, and then said three words that are burned into my mind:
“I forgive you.”
It stopped me short. I had hoped for a response like “That’s ok,” or “That actually didn’t bother me that much.” I wanted to hear that my offense hadn’t been that bad, that it hardly merited a second thought from my friend. But what I’d done hadn’t been ok, and it had bothered him. I had worried he would either give me an earful or refuse to speak to me altogether. Whatever I had been expecting him to say, it certainly wasn’t, “I forgive you,” period, full stop.
Whatever I had been expecting him to say, it certainly wasn’t, “I forgive you,” period, full stop.
I could feel the weight of his words as they cut through the tattered excuses I had tried to wrap around my actions. He attached no conditions to his forgiveness—there was no threatening “but if you do that again…” appended to his statement. That was not what I had expected, and those three words brought a sharp sense of relief—so sharp, in fact, that it was a painful type of joy.
“Eucatastrophe” is a term coined by JRR Tolkien to describe “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears” (Tolkien, Letter 89). The union of two Greek words, it quite literally means “good destruction,” or as Tolkien explained, a “sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.” The pain as the limb is reset may be severe, but it fuses with relief to create that startling, unexpected echo of Truth which Tolkien believed was latent in fairy-stories.
We see this sudden turn echoed in all sorts of stories, from books to movies, the theater to the cinema, and often in the most unexpected places. Take, for example, the hit musical Hamilton, which follows the political career of the titular founding father and grapples with the very human foibles of the larger-than-life leader. While it can be argued what the true climax of the show is, the moment I was confronted with a “good destruction” came in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown.” Alexander Hamilton has just dealt his wife, Eliza, two heartbreaks: first, his affair with another man’s wife, and second, his part in the death of his son. In a gut-wrenching turn of events, Eliza chooses to stand beside Alexander. “There are moments that the words don’t reach,” the song explains, “There’s a grace too powerful to name.” Not an excuse for his actions, but a pardon. Not a blithe, “everything is fine,” but a raw, messy setting not of broken bones, but of two broken hearts. Long after the score ended, after the final tragedy had been revealed, this line kept repeating in my mind: “Forgiveness. Can you imagine?”
And in some ways, even in real life, we can’t. It’s unimaginable, contrary to our senses of self-preservation and self-justification. When confronted with our sins that we can no longer hide, those three words sear our hearts. They identify the disease and apply the painful bite of the cure, the all-powerful grace—but unlike Angelica in “It’s Quiet Uptown,” we do not say that this grace is “too powerful to name.”
Tolkien believed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ “was the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible.” The resurrection proclaims that the sins which Christ bore in His body, as mentioned in 1 Peter 2:24, stayed in the grave when He was slain. On Good Friday, we see the Father declare that our sins are real and cannot be glossed over. They must be paid for in blood. The One whose bones were not broken chose death to snap the broken relationship between humanity and God back into joint. But had Christ not been raised, our hope would be in vain (1 Cor. 15:14). Then our sins would still be our own, and death would be only too happy to mete out our earned wages of everlasting separation from God in hell.
The resurrection is the lynchpin of our faith. Without it, there is no sudden, happy turn in the story. There is no mending of our broken souls, hearts, and bodies, and there is no life after death. Our “good destruction” happened about 2,000 years ago as Jesus Christ arose from the tomb and crushed the head of Satan, broke the jawbones of death, and snapped the chains of sin. The grace that is more powerful than all the powers of darkness is not too powerful to name because He has revealed His Name to us: Jesus, our Savior, and Deliverer.
Our “good destruction” happened about 2,000 years ago as Jesus Christ arose from the tomb and crushed the head of Satan, broke the jawbones of death, and snapped the chains of sin.
We stand in confidence of the forgiveness Christ won for us by His perfect life, death, and resurrection. The sting of death has been taken away forever by the Innocent One who became sin for us. Every time we speak “I forgive you” to our brothers and sisters, we are not overlooking the weight of their sin against us. We are saying that the weight of their sin and ours was laid upon the Man of Sorrows (Is. 53:6) and nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). We are proclaiming that Easter is the seal set upon the heart of God Himself that He remembers our sins no more but that He does, at this very moment and at the moment of our deaths, remember us in His kingdom. When the Father looks at those covered in the blood of the Lamb, He sees the perfection of His Son. Because He lives, we also shall live. Because He forgives, we point others to the eucatastrophe of the empty tomb and confidently proclaim that their sins are annihilated because of Jesus’ sacrifice. Because of the good destruction of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we do not fear earthly or spiritual destruction but look forward to eternity with Christ in unimaginable and unending joy.