On those occasion when I am to speak on forgiveness, I know that I will be speaking to a real need in people’s lives. Every one of us has been hurt deeply by someone else. It may have been a parent, an ex-spouse, a current mate, a sibling, a former friend, a relative, or perhaps a stranger. It be a hurt that came from some violent or reckless act. It may have been something that somebody should have done but didn’t. It may be something that took place over many years. It may be something that happened in a moment.
Even as I speak these words there may be a situation or person that immediately pops into your mind and begins to make your stomach churn. In fact, the danger I face here is that this issue will remind you of a pain that distracts you from the clear teaching of the Bible.
The command to forgive is most difficult because sometimes we don’t want to forgive. We want to strike back. We want justice. We want the other person to know the pain they inflicted. And if we can’t have justice we vow that we will never have a relationship with that person again. We avoid them and ignore them. It is not surprising then that when we talk about forgiveness we are more interested in finding loopholes than we are in obeying.
This morning I quote lots of different people. The reason I do so is simple: I am still learning about forgiveness. So, today I enlist the help of others.
THE CALL TO FORGIVENESS
Let’s begin with the facts: the Bible tells us that we are to forgive.
Matthew 6:14,15 “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Matthew 18:21, 22 Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Followed by the parable of the ungrateful servant)…….35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
Mark 11:25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Luke 6:37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Luke 17:3, 4 So watch yourselves. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
Ephesians 4:32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Why does God make such an issue of forgiveness? I think we can answer that question several different ways. First, forgiveness reflects God’s character. When we forgive we reflect the Father’s love. The standard is this: forgive AS He has forgiven you. Forgiveness gives us the opportunity to extend to others what God has extended to us.
Do you remember where you were when He found you? Can you recall the countless times you ignored God, spurned Him, did what you knew was wrong? Even then the Lord reached out to You and offered His forgiveness. And when you received His love He promised He would “remember the past no longer”. You have been forgiven. When we forgive others we show that His Spirit is at work within us. When we forgive we demonstrate that we have not forgotten where He found us.
But (you say), “If we forgive aren’t we just letting someone get away with a wrong?” We feel if we “simply forgive” (there’s nothing simple about it) we will be allowing someone to take advantage of us. Shouldn’t we make people aware of the wrong they have done? Thomas Watson answered this objection quite effectively,
To pass by an injury without revenge, is not eclipsing our honor. The Scripture says of a man, ‘It is his glory to pass over a transgression.’ Proverbs 19:11. It is more honorable to bury an injury than to revenge it. Wrath denotes weakness; a noble heroic spirit overlooks a petty offense.
But what if the wrong is great . . . not forgiving is a greater wrong. In injuring you he has offended against man, but in not forgiving him you offend against God. [THE LORD’S PRAYER p.317]
One of the best ways of showing someone the wrong they have done is to contrast their actions with grace.
Second, forgiveness releases us. The alternative to forgiveness is bitterness and resentment. Dale Carnegie tells about a visit to Yellowstone Park where he saw a grizzly bear. The huge animal was in the center of a clearing, feeding on some discarded camp food. For several minutes he feasted alone; no other creature dared draw near. After a few moments a skunk walked through the meadow toward the food and took his place next to the grizzly. The bear didn’t object and Carnegie knew why. “The grizzly,” he said, “knew the high cost of getting even.” [House of God p. 122]
People who refuse to forgive, hurt themselves. Bitter people are no fun to be around. They can’t sleep. Ulcers line their stomach. Their blood pressure rises. They see the negative in every situation because their life is polluted with these feelings of resentment and anger. People who are unwilling to forgive may feel that they are punishing the other person but the only person paying the price is themselves.
“Try a simple experiment on yourself. Make a fist and hold it tight. One minute of this is sufficient to bring discomfort. Consider what would happen if the fist were maintained in that state of tension during a period that extended into weeks, months, or even years. Obvious it would soon become a sick member of the body.
You may hurt a person by not forgiving them and thus feel some satisfying sense of getting even, but almost without exception, the hurt you do to yourself may be even greater. After a while you may not feel the pain of the clenched resentment in your soul, but its self-inflicted paralysis will have its effect upon your whole life. [Robert Harvey and David Benner UNDERSTANDING FORGIVENESS p. 59]
Forgiveness not only releases us physically and emotionally, it also releases us SPIRITUALLY. One of the greatest barriers to effective prayer and spiritual vitality is an unforgiving heart. DL Moody wrote,
I believe [unforgiveness] is keeping more people from having power with God than any other thing — they are not willing to cultivate the spirit of forgiveness. If we allow the root of bitterness to spring up in our hearts against someone, our prayer will not be answered. It may not be an easy thing to live in sweet fellowship with all those with whom we come in contact; but that is what the grace of God is given to us for. [Moody Prevailing Prayer p.46]
An unforgiving heart binds the Holy Spirit’s ability to work. It becomes a barrier to effective and fruitful ministry. An unwillingness to forgive disrupts our fellowship with God. It steals from us the joy of knowing His forgiveness in our lives. Are you having trouble praying with power? Could it be that there is someone you need to forgive?
A third reason for forgiveness is that Forgiveness yields power in the life of the one forgiven. Just as God’s grace had a transforming effect in your life, your extension of that grace to others has power to transform them. In these painful situations we must keep in mind that every lost person matters to God. Paul endured all kinds of persecution and pain in order to share Christ. Jesus endured the pain and shame of the cross in order to redeem you. When we endure and forgive rather than strike back and resent, we open the doorway of grace to someone else.
PRINCIPLES OF FORGIVENESS
True Forgiveness is an act of grace empowered by God
Forgiveness is not easy. In fact, I suspect that many of you here today are already bristling at the idea of extending forgiveness to someone who has hurt you. It’s an unnatural act. We desire justice and vindication. We want to get even . . . no, we want to get ahead! To forgive someone requires the work of God in your life. This is NOT a natural act . . . it is a supernatural act. How else do you explain a parent who can forgive someone who murdered their child? How else do you explain the spouse who forgives a mate for their adultery? These things happen only as a result of God working through them.
True Forgiveness results in a changed attitude toward another
What does it mean to forgive a person? In Thomas Watson’s book on the Lord’s Prayer he writes,
When have we truly forgiven? When we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them. This is gospel- forgiving.
Forgiveness has taken place when we can honestly seek good for the other person. It is when we make an effort to restore a relationship rather than avoid the relationship. Forgiveness has taken place when past actions no longer hold a present bearing. Forgiveness is real when hate is replaced by love.
True Forgiveness takes time
Forgiveness is seldom a one-time affair. We have to consciously seek to forgive again and again. One moment we may feel we have let the matter go and in the next something stimulates a painful memory that must be dealt with again. The roots of bitterness go deep. The deeper the hurt, the more time may be needed for the difficult work of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a decision of the mind and the heart which must be reaffirmed over and over.
I have often said, “I forgive you,” but even as I said these words my heart remained angry or resentful. I still wanted to hear the story that tells me that I was right after all; I still wanted to hear apologies and excuses; I still wanted the satisfaction of receiving some praise in return-if only the praise for being so forgiving!
But God’s forgiveness is unconditional; it comes from a heart that does not demand anything for itself, a heart that is completely empty of self-seeking. It is this divine forgiveness that I have to practice in my daily life. It calls me to keep stepping over all my arguments that say forgiveness is unwise, unhealthy, and impractical. It challenges me to step over all my needs for gratitude and compliments. Finally, it demands of me that I step over that wounded part of my heart that feels hurt and wronged and that wants to stay in control and put a few conditions between me and the one whom I am asked to forgive. [Henri Nouwen quoted by Yancey p.82]
True Forgiveness must be Realistic
We must understand that the act of forgiveness may not heal the relationship with the person who hurt us. The person we forgive may not even see anything they need to be forgiven of. It may seem that they are indifferent to the pain they have inflicted. Forgiveness may not affect the other person at all. But we must extend forgiveness anyway as an act of trust toward God. We must forgive because we choose to do what is right, not because of the response we hope to get from the other.
We also need to realize that we cannot wait for someone else to make the first move. We feel the person who offended should be the one to make the first move. However, the Lord gives us no such rule. The rule the Lord gives us is simply this: forgive as I have forgiven you. And, if you remember, God made the first move toward us.
True Forgiveness involves Forgetting
We’ve heard it said, and even said it ourselves: I can forgive, but I can’t forget. Yet, what are we to make of the Biblical passages that tell us that God will “remember our sins no longer.” There is a sense in which we must forget.
God is omniscient, knowing all things possible at all times and at every moment in time. God cannot forget our sins in the sense that he loses them from his memory. By forgetting then, he must mean that he sets aside the punishment we deserve when he forgives us. He holds the guilt of our sins over our heads no longer. Our past culpability it not a factor in how he treats us in the future-except to continue his forgiving, healing mercy. So when we “forget” the offenses done to us, it means we will not in the future “use” the offense as reason to punish the offender. We will not raise it as an issue between us; not use it as a weapon in arguments. We will not continually remind third parties about it. And we will determine to work at not dwelling upon it in our own minds. [Harvey and Benner p. 55]
I can’t think of a more difficult command given in scripture. It goes against our nature. Every pore of our body screams, “No, I won’t do it.” And then Jesus says, “If you do not forgive, I will not forgive.” We know what is right to do. We even want to do what is right. But we feel paralyzed. You may still feel it is impossible. If so, listen to this true account.
Rebecca Pippert relates the powerful story of the late Corrie ten Boom. This Dutch woman and her family were sent to Auchwitz for hiding Jews in their home during the Second World War. Corrie was a Christian woman and had been invited to speak at a conference in Portland Oregon. This is what she said,
“My name is Corrie ten Boom and I am a murderer.” There was total silence. “You see, when I was in prison camp I saw the same guard day in and day out. He was the one who mocked and sneered at us when we were stripped naked and taken into the showers. He spat on us in contempt, and I hated him. I hated him with every fiber of my being. And Jesus says when you hate someone you are guilty of murder.”
“When we were freed, I left Germany vowing never to return,” Corrie ten Boom continued. “But I was invited back there to speak. I didn’t want to go but I felt the Lord nudging me to. Very reluctantly I went. My first talk was on forgiveness. Suddenly, as I was speaking, I saw to my horror that same prison guard sitting in the audience. There was no way that he would have recognized me. But I could never forget his face, never. It was clear to me from the radiant look on his face while I spoke, that he had been converted since I saw him last. After I finished speaking he came up and said with a beaming smile, ‘Ah, dear sister Corrie, isn’t it wonderful how God forgives?” And he extended his hand for me to shake.
“All I felt as I looked at him was hate. I said to the Lord silently, “There is nothing in me that could ever love that man. I hate him for what he did to me and to my family. But you tell us that we are to love our enemies. That’s impossible for me, but nothing is impossible for you. So if you expect me to love this man it’s going to have to come from you, because all I feel is hate.”
She went on to say that at that moment she felt nudged to do only one thing: “Put out your hand, Corrie,” the Lord seemed to say. Then she said, “It took all of the years that I had quietly obeyed God in obscurity to do the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I put out my hand.” Then, she said, something remarkable happened. “It was only after my simple act of obedience that I felt something almost like warm oil was being poured over me. And with it came the unmistakable message: ‘Well done, Corrie. That’s how my children behave.’ And the hate in my heart was absorbed and gone. And so one murderer embraced another murderer, but in the love of Christ.” [Hope Has It’s Reasons p. 189, 190]
Our friend Max Lucado sums it all up and places it in simple words we can understand.
Perhaps the wound is old. A parent abused you. A teacher slighted you. And you are angry.
Or perhaps the wound is fresh. The friend who owes you money just drove by in a new car. The boss who hired you with promises of promotions has forgotten how to pronounce your name. Your circle of friends escaped on a weekend getaway, and you weren’t invited . .
And you are hurt.
Part of you is broken, and the other part is bitter. Part of you wants to cry, and part of you wants to fight. The tears you cry are hot because they come from your heart, and there is a fire burning in your heart. It’s the fire of anger. It’s blazing. It’s consuming. Its flames leap up under a steaming pot of revenge
And you are left with a decision. “Do I put the fire out or heat it up? Do I get over it or get even? Do I release it or resent it? Do I let my hurts heal, or do I let hurt turn into hate?” . . .
Resentment is the deliberate decision to nurse the offense until it becomes a black, furry, growling grudge.
Unfaithfulness is wrong. Revenge is bad. But the worst part of all is that, without forgiveness, bitterness is all that is left. [Max Lucado LET THE JOURNEY BEGIN p. 71]
“In the final analysis, forgiveness is an act of faith. By forgiving another, I am trusting that God is a better justice-maker than I am. By forgiving, I release my own right to get even and leave all issues of fairness for God to work out. I leave in God’s hands the scales that must balance justice and mercy.” [Yancey p.83]
So what about you? Where do you need to extend forgiveness today? I’ll give you a hint: it’s in that area where you resist forgiveness the most. It’s time, my friend, time to let go. It’s time to let the grace and love of God work in you and through you. Perhaps you need to forgive someone here. Perhaps it is someone you work with. Maybe you need to forgive yourself. It’s time to make that decision to let go. It’s time to extend our hand, dare a smile, build a bridge.
It’s not easy. It’s not natural. But when we forgive we find that a prisoner has been set free. And that prisoner, is us.