Lessons in Forgiveness
On March 24, 1998 Jonesboro, Arkansas was the lead story on every news report. Two students (Mitchell Johnson (13) and Andrew Golden (11)) fired 22 shots on their classmates. They murdered four students and a teacher, Shannon Wright who was 32 years old.
Time magazine had an interview with Mitchell Wright, the husband of the slain teacher in April of 1999 (a little over one year after the senseless tragedy.) In the interview, Mr. Wright said:
“The ballistics report shows the Johnson boy fired five shots and had five direct hits. He hit one person in the head, he hit my wife in the chest and the knee and two girls in the knee area.” The shooter, Wright recalls, stood up in court and said that he was sorry, that he was not trying to kill anyone, that he and his friend were shooting over the heads of the teachers and students, that it was all just to scare them. The anger rises in Wright’s voice. “I don’t buy that.”
But buy it or not, Wright knew that he must fight against being consumed by rage. He began on the very Sunday after the horror, asking his church family for support. The stakes, he realized, were high. First, there was his 3 year old son, Zane. “When my wife was dying, she said, “I love you, and take care of Zane.’ Well, if I lose it, then I can’t take care of him.” And then there was the spiritua issue. “If you let the hate and anger build in you, that’s a very strong sin,” he says softly. “I need to be able to totally forgive.” And what does that entail? “To me, forgiveness would be that when these boys get out, I can see them on the street or in a Wal-Mart and not want to . . .” He voices trails off. He concedes, “I am not at that point yet.” [David Van Biema]
It is easy to talk about forgiveness . . . it is much tougher to forgive. And it is even more difficult in a situation like Mitchell Wright was going through. It would be difficult to forgive the boys.
You and I may not face such tragic heartache, but the issue of forgiveness is alive and well for us. Perhaps it was a parent who didn’t protect us, a sibling that abused us, a friend who betrayed us, a spouse who took us for granted, a pastor who should have been more attentive, a fellow church member who opposed us or hundreds of other possibilities. When we are hurt, we want to strike back. When someone wrongs us, we want them to pay. When someone makes us suffer, we want them to know the same (or greater) kind of suffering. It is silly to pretend otherwise. Forgiveness is something we all struggle with.
This morning we focus on the issue of forgiveness. We do so because of the example of Joseph. We know that Joseph had lots of reasons to be bitter and to hold a grudge. But when Joseph meets up with his brothers he gives them a few tests . . . but when the tests are over He embraces them, weeps over them, and offers them the best of what he has to offer. He forgives them.
This morning we address several important issues that are involved in forgiveness. Hopefully this morning we will see the clear Biblical teaching and be able to answer some of the tough questions related to forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a required act. I’ve looked for loopholes. I’ve longed to find a reason to not forgive those who hurt me. But those reasons aren’t there. In the Lord’s prayer we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” And then in verses 14 and 15 of Matthew 6 we read these devastating words, “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.” In Mark 11:25 we read the words of Jesus, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Jesus is not implying that forgiveness of others is a prerequisite for salvation. Scripture is clear that we can’t earn our salvation by doing good. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. But Jesus is saying that a person who is a child of God will forgive. A true believer must manifest the character of the Father. If we don’t forgive we show that we have not experienced (or don’t appreciate) God’s forgiveness.
Jesus was asked by Peter, “How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me?” And Jesus answers by telling a story. Matthew 18:22-35
the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servants master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
In other words, the Bible tells us that we have been forgiven a great debt . . . we have experienced what it means to be set free . . . so we should extend that grace to others. I know this is difficult to hear but I believe it to be true: We do not forgive, because we do not appreciate what we have been forgiven. We feel that what others have done to us is worse than what we have done to God. Maybe it would be better stated this way: We do not forgive because we have not grasped the serious nature of our offense against God.
Do you know what one of the most serious crimes is considered to be? It’s Treason. It is violating the allegiance you should have toward your country. People who spy and sell secrets commit treason. And when they do execution is a distinct possibility. Why is this important? Let me tell you. The Bible points out that our rebellion against God was a treasonous act. We owed allegiance to God and we gave it to someone else. We committed spiritual treason. And our sin is not just against God . . . it is an attack on the foundations of society. If we understand our sin, we will find it easier to forgive others.
Forgiveness is not contingent on the attitude of the offending party. We would all like to believe that we don’t have to forgive unless a person requests forgiveness. Perhaps, it seems that Joseph doesn’t forgive his brothers until they show that they have repented. Only then does he embrace them. But to draw that conclusion is to beg the question. I suggest that Joseph had a forgiving heart from the very beginning. From the first moment he saw his brothers he was working to restore their relationship, not to avenge the wrong done to him.
Paul tells us, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” [Eph. 4:32] And to the Colossian church Paul wrote “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Col. 3:13) Our pattern for forgiveness is supposed to be Christ.
Spurgeon reminds us of Christ’s example.
What is this forgiveness of Christ? You know how he exhibited it in his daily life. He was much tried, but he was never provoked to wrath. Both by friends and by enemies he was made to suffer, yet he neither accused the one nor the other to his great Father. He never reviled those who reviled him, but patiently yielded to their malice, giving his back to the smite-ers, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. His disciples he gently rebuked, but he never spoke to them in anger. A life of forgiveness was crowned by his dying prayer for his persecutors, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” He loved his enemies; he lived for his enemies; he died for his enemies. He was incarnate gentleness, the mirror and paragon of forgiveness. [Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Vol. 31 p. 361]
Francis Schaeffer Wrote,
We must all continually acknowledge that we do not practice the forgiving heart as we should. We are to have a forgiving spirit before the other person expresses regret for his wrong. The Lord’s prayer does not suggest that when the other man is sorry, then we are to show a oneness by having a forgiving spirit. Rather, we are called upon to have a forgiving spirit without the other man having made the first step. We may still say that he is wrong, but in the midst of saying that he is wrong, we must be forgiving. [Francis Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer Crossway Books 1985]
The Bible urges us to forgive because it is the right thing to do . . . not because the other person is sorry.
Is it realistic to think we can forget? We are told that we should forgive and forget. But some scars are so deep that we feel we could never forget what happened. And we are not sure we should forget. We know the old saying, “burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.” Anyone can be taken in once . . . but if you make yourself vulnerable a second time . . . you are the fool. If we forgive and forget aren’t we setting ourselves up to be taken advantage of again?
This is an important issue. Let me explain what I think this means. First we must understand that forgetting has more to do with relationship than memory. God says “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” (Isa. 43:25). God doesn’t forget what we did . . . he chooses to remember what we did no more. There is a difference. One is biological . . .the other is volitional (it’s a matter of choice). What God does is to make a choice to not allow what has happened in the past to affect His relationship with us in the present. God knows our weaknesses and works on those in our lives . . . but His fellowship with us remains solid. That’s the kind of forgetting that comes with forgiving. We may not be able to literally forget what another has done . . . but we can refuse to let the past influence our relationship in the present.
Second, forgiveness does not mean subjecting ourselves to the same hurt over and over. I think we see this in Joseph. Joseph had no animosity for his brothers . . . but he was not going to make himself vulnerable again until he knew that they had changed. Joseph had no bitterness but he also had no desire to be victimized again. In other words, forgiveness precedes a restored relationship. But for a relationship to be restored, one must acknowledge the wrong they have committed.
Let me give you an example. Suppose a person is being abused by their spouse. The abuser says they are sorry. You believe them. You forgive them. But you also tell the person that unless they get some help you will not return to the house. Is that incompatible with forgiveness? No, you can care about the person, you can forgive them and still insist that something change. In fact, if you care about the relationship you know that there will have to be change.
Forgetting (and with that trusting) comes as we see genuine change and repentance. Forgetting becomes possible when both parties seek to establish a new relationship that will keep this kind of thing from happening in the future. Forgetting requires true repentance on the part of the offender and a resolve not to wallow in self-pity in the offended.
MOVING TOWARD FORGIVENESS
I hope you have come to realize what the Bible requires and what God calls us to do. But the real issue is not what forgiveness means . . . it is the question: How do I obey what I am directed to do? Well, I certainly don’t want to pass myself off as someone who has mastered the issue of forgiveness but I can give several practical suggestions.
Focus on God’s Sovereignty rather than Your Pain. Notice what Joseph says,
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry withyourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. (Genesis 45:4,5)
But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. (45:7,8)
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. [Genesis 50:19,20)
Joseph is able to forgive because he sees his situation from an eternal perspective. He realizes that even though his brothers intended to harm him . . . . God was working through even those sinful intentions. As hard as it is, you and I need to take to heart the promises of God’s word. Paul says, “God is working for our good in ALL things”. (Romans 8:28)
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)
Remind Yourself of the Kinship You Have With the one who hurt you. In other words, remember that you too are a sinful person. It’s easier to forgive someone when we realize that we are not much different than the one we are forgiving. When someone does something to us that hurts us, we need to remember that we are capable of the same kind of thing. We might commit that same sin. And as we will be dependent on the forgiveness of the Lord and our fellow believers, so we should extend forgiveness.
Realize that Action comes before feeling. We must act in forgivness before we will feel a feeling of forgiveness. What does that mean?
- We must extend our hand
- We must utter the first word
- We must make the call or write the note
- We must make the first move
- We must make the effort to act in a forgiving manner
Understand that forgiveness makes sense. The opposite of forgiveness is bitterness and resentment. From a purely selfish standpoint, it is foolish not to forgive. Why continue to live with bitterness? Why do that to ourselves? Why not “let it go?” Even if the other person never realizes the hurt they inflicted, WE are better off if we forgive. When we refuse to forgive, we erect a barrier to joy. What someone did to us was painful . . . but let’s not compound that pain by playing the hurt over and over in our minds.
Ask God to help you. You’re not superman. Our desire for revenge is strong. We are much better at being angry than we are at being loving. Even when we want to do what is right, we need God’s help to do so. Ask God to help you to let go and to “remember no more”.
On April 9, 1960, Adolph Coors III was kidnapped and held for ransom. Seven months later his body was found on a remote hillside. He had been shot to death. His fifteen year old son lost his father and best friend. Understandably, the younger Coors hated Joseph Corbett, the man who was sentenced to life for slaying his father.
In 1975 the younger Ad Coors became a Christian. He divested himself of his interest in the family beer business, but he could not divest himself of the bitterness he held toward Joseph Corbett. Resentment continued to eat away at him. He asked God for help because he could see that his hatred was affecting his relationship with God.
Finally, in God’s strength Coors went to the maximum security and tried to talk with Corbet. Corbett refused to see him. Coors left a Bible inscribed with this message. I’m here to see you today and I’m sorry that we could not meet. As a Christian I am summoned by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to forgive. I do forgive you, and I ask you to forgive me for the hatred I’ve held in my heart for you.” Sometime later Coors testified that he had developed a love for that man that only Jesus Christ could have put in his heart.
Give Yourself Time. We are to forgive as He has forgiven. However, we must never forget that we are not Christ. Our love is not perfect. And even in the case of Joseph, we are seeing him over twenty years after the initial offense of his brothers. Let’s not jump to the conclusion that since Joseph was willing to forgive at this point that he was willing to forgive immediately.
I imagine that it took time for Joseph to work things through with God. I’m sure that it took awhile before Joseph saw God’s hand in the circumstances that surrounded him. But Joseph kept working on it. I don’t know how long it took. And I don’t know how long it will take you. What happened to Joseph was certainly awful, but I know that many of you have had awful things happen to you as well.
- someone took the life of someone you love (intentionally or accidentally)
- you were abused either as a child or an adult
- your trust in marriage was violated
- someone told lies about you
- someone mistreated your children
- you were attacked
Can you forgive in these situations? It seems hard to believe. But it is also hard to believe that Jesus could forgive me after my persistent and reckless sin. Remember what Mitchell Wright said about forgiveness? He believed that forgiveness would allow him to see those boys who killed his wife in Wal-Mart and not want to kill them in return. It seems impossible doesn’t it? Yet, when Joseph saw his brothers in the aisle at the palace he didn’t strike them down like he may have wanted to at one time. Instead, he talked with them, worked with them, and was free to love them.
If God could bring that about in Joseph’s life there is hope for Mitchell Wright. And there is hope for you.