Either our hearts are open to forgiveness, or they are closed in unforgiveness. They can’t be both at the same time. The bottom line is this: Our experience of being forgiven by the Lord should make a difference in our willingness to forgive others. If it doesn’t, perhaps we don’t really understand, accept, or truly believe the grace God has given to us. If we are struggling to forgive, the cross of Christ can help us. It shows us not only the seriousness of our sin, but also the seriousness of the sin committed by the person who hurt you. In the cross we find both justice and grace.
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Colossians #27. Colossians 3:13
There is one final thing that I did not yet cover in the overview of how Christians are meant to treat one another: Forgiving one another. This is an extremely important topic, and many people either don’t know, or don’t fully understand what the Bible says about it. We will spend the next two weeks considering it.
The Holy Spirit, through Paul, tells us that we must forgive as we have been forgiven by Jesus. This idea is repeated consistently throughout the New Testament. The Lord’s prayer is really a way of praying. We aren’t just meant to repeat the words: Jesus teaches us the kinds of things we should regularly pray for. So, with “hallowed be thy name” we learn we should pray that the holiness of God is manifested in the world, and in us. “Forgive us our debts, and we forgive our debtors” tells us that we should regularly confess our sins, asking for forgiveness, and also that we should regularly forgive those who hurt us. Matthew’s version ends like this:
12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (ESV, Matthew 6:12-15)
That’s right. “Thine is the kingdom…etc” is not in the Bible. What is at the end of what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” is an additional thought about forgiving others. Jesus says that if we refuse to forgive, the Father will not forgive us. Here is another one about forgiving in the same way we have been forgiven:
32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV, Ephesians 4:32)
Peter asked Jesus about forgiveness. He wanted to know if there was some sort of limit he could put on forgiveness:
21 Then Peter approached him and asked, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?”
22 “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven. (CSB, Matthew 18:21-22)
Seven was considered a special number in Jewish culture. It is the number of perfection, the number of God, a holy number. Though in the Greek could be the number 77, there is a more likely way to understand this, given the culture they were in. It is much more like “seventy times seven.” Even then, Jesus did not mean 490 times. The first people who heard Jesus would have understood that he meant: “a perfect number multiplied by a multiple of a perfect number.” In plain language: “an unlimited number of times.” In current language it might be something like this:
“How many times do I need to forgive? A thousand times?”
“I don’t say a thousand times…I say a thousand times a thousand! That’s right a million times, or even more!”
Right after this, Jesus told a parable about forgiveness. I’ll adapt it to our current culture:
There was a guy named Joe who got drunk, and drove his car into another vehicle. The other vehicle was carrying a wife and three children. The wife and two of the kids were killed outright, and the third child was left unable to walk for the rest of her life. The drunk driver, Joe, had a minor scratch on his arm, and was otherwise unhurt. The husband and father of the devastated family was a man named Rick. When Joe sobered up, he was taken to court. The evidence against him was overwhelming. He knew he was drunk when he got into the car. He resisted all the attempts of his friends to drive him home, or call him a ride. He was guilty as sin. But he begged for leniency. At his hearing, Rick, the husband and father of the family that was devasted by the accident, pleaded on behalf of the drunk driver. Rick himself was a judge, and he begged his fellow judge to let Joe go with just a warning. He told Joe he forgave him. The judge was moved, and dismissed Joe’s case.
A week later, a teenage driver – the son of one of Joe’s neighbors – backed into Joe’s fence. The kid was still learning to drive, and it was just inexperience. Joe’s neighbor, and the teenage boy, came and apologized to him. The family was struggling financially, but they promised Joe they would pay him back, just as soon as they got the cash. Joe refused to accept the apology, and told them that if they didn’t pay him immediately, he would sue them. They couldn’t, and so Joe sued them for the damage to his fence, and also for emotional damages amounting to five thousand dollars. When the case came to court, Joe found himself standing in front of none other than Rick, who was the judge assigned to the case.
Now, how do you suppose that Rick would respond when he judges the case? What would he think about Joe? How would you feel about Joe? Does Joe deserve to win his case? Doesn’t the fact that he himself was forgiven mean anything about how he ought to treat others? Shouldn’t it mean something?
Part of what makes us so angry about this story is that Joe is taking full advantage of the forgiveness that was given to him, but is absolutely unwilling to extend any grace to a teenage boy for a far smaller offense. If Joe continues to insist on suing his neighbor, do you think he should still be forgiven for his crime?
Jesus tells us that when we refuse to forgive others, we are acting just as offensively as “Joe” in the his parable. It is outrageous that we would beg God for forgiveness, but then refuse to forgive someone who hurts us.
One of the terrible things about what Joe did, was that by his negligence, he destroyed human lives. He ended the life of three precious people, two of them children. His actions devastated the lives of two others – the child who will never walk again, and Rick, the husband/father who lost his wife and two children, and now must care for his one disabled child. Joe’s crime strikes at the heart of things that we hold precious, and that is part of what makes us so angry about it.
God is the most precious thing in the universe. When we sin, we are striking at the heart of all that is good, right, beautiful and precious. It is like painting graffiti all over the Sistine chapel ceiling, or dumping toxic waste in the Grand Canyon, or hurting a child. That’s how serious sin is, because God is more precious than all of those things put together. The fact that God forgives us is HUGE. There is nothing bad that anyone could do to us that compares with the evil of our sin against God. Therefore, when we refuse to forgive someone after we ourselves have been forgiven, it is outrageous. The Bible is crystal clear. When we refuse to forgive others, we cut ourselves off from the forgiveness that is offered in Jesus.
I think this is as much about the way the things work as it is some sort of deliberate “punishment” from God. In the first place, if we are refusing to forgive someone, it is likely that we are convinced of our self-righteousness. If we can’t let go of what someone else has done to us, it seems unlikely that we are deeply connected, with both humility and gratitude, to what God has done for us. Think about the story I told (an adaption of the one Jesus told) about the drunk driver Joe, and the man Rick, whose family was killed by Joe. Part of what is so outrageous, part of what makes us angry when we hear it, is that the “Joe” character clearly has no appreciation for the forgiveness that Rick and the judge offered him. How could he really know he was forgiven by them, and still behave in that way toward his neighbor? The answer is: he couldn’t. The only way he could be so mean and petty toward his neighbor is that somehow, he doesn’t really understand, accept, or appreciate what Rick and the judge have done for him.
There are three possibilities for why Joe remained so mean-spirited, even after he was forgiven. First, he may not really believe that he is truly forgiven. His heart remains hard because he doesn’t really accept that his own wrongdoing has been washed away. He may not have forgiven himself. So he still lives under a cloud of condemnation and self-loathing, but it is based on the fact that he has not accepted the gift that was offered to him, he is not connected to the reality of the gift. So, just as he has rejected forgiveness for himself, he also rejects the idea of forgiving another.
Second, he may not believe that what he did was so bad. He might be somehow trying to justify his actions, and if he is doing that, he can’t receive forgiveness, because that would mean he was guilty, and needed it. He says to himself, “Sure, maybe I had a few drinks, but I wasn’t out of control. I bet that woman was looking at her cell phone, and she was the one who caused the crash. They just chose to blame me, because they think she was such a nice person.” Or, he might say, “My wife left me two months ago. I had to drink, it is the only thing that helps. If anyone is to blame, it’s my own wife for treating me so badly that it drove me to drink.” There are dozens of ways Joe could find to justify himself, or minimize his own blame. As long as he is denying responsibility, he must also deny the forgiveness that is offered to him. If he accepts the forgiveness, it means he must also accept that he was to blame.
Third, he may utterly reject the whole thing. He says: “It’s big pointless, stupid world, and bad things happen. I just happened to be involved in it, but I don’t accept these judgements that someone else is putting on me, about what’s wrong, or what’s right. Wrong and right don’t even exist. It is what it is. We live in a random universe, with no “God” in charge. No, I won’t let them try to feel better by blaming me. “
So it is with us. The only way we can persist in not forgiving others, is one of those three possibilities: 1) We don’t really, truly trust that our own sins have been completely forgiven. Or, 2) We justify our own sins, and either claim they aren’t so bad, or insist that there are good reasons we have to sin the way we do. We are self-righteous, and don’t accept blame. Or, 3) perhaps, we reject the idea of sin, God and right and wrong altogether. 4) Or, perhaps it is a combination of all of these things.
Think about it another way. We have our “spiritual fists” clenched tightly closed around the hurt that someone caused us. That means that our spiritual hands cannot, at the same time, be open to receive what God offers. Either our hearts are open to forgiveness, or they are closed in unforgiveness. They can’t be both at the same time. The bottom line is this: Our experience of being forgiven by the Lord should make a difference in our willingness to forgive others. If it doesn’t, perhaps we don’t really understand, accept, or truly believe the grace God has given to us.
Imagine a Christian woman who does ministry in the prison system. She tells a murderer that he can be forgiven for his sin of murder. She tells drug dealers the good news that Jesus has wiped all of their sins away. But at the same time, she holds a deep grudge against her sister-in-law. She has never forgiven her, because the sister-in-law didn’t come to Thanksgiving Dinner at her house five years ago, and made some comments about the lack of cleanliness in her kitchen.
How can this be? How can we say a murderer can be forgiven, but not a relative who has insulted us? Surely, this woman cannot be truly connected to the grace that God has given her, the grace that she proclaims to criminals. How could she believe her message of forgiveness for murderers, but, at the same time withhold forgiveness for family members who hurt her feelings?
Sometimes, we withhold forgiveness because the person who hurt us has never said sorry. This might be the case of the woman with the irritating sister-in-law. But the text says, “as the Lord has forgiven you, so also you must forgive.” How has the Lord forgiven us? Did he wait for us to say sorry? No!
6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. 10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son (NLT, Romans 5:6-10, italic formatting added for emphasis)
Christ loved us and forgave us long before we paid any attention to Him. It is true, the forgiveness offered through Jesus will not help us if we refuse to repent. But as soon as we turn to him, we find that forgiveness is there waiting for us. So, perhaps someone has hurt us. If we forgive them, and they don’t care, it may mean that the relationship remains strained. But for our part, we must let go of what they have done wrong. We must not hold it against them, and we must not hold on to grudges, or anger or bitterness.
I want to say one final thing. This might seem really difficult. We might think: “I know I’ve been forgiven, and I am grateful, but I have so much hurt and anger against this person, I just don’t know what to do with it all.” The key to all this is to consider what Jesus did on the cross. The cross shows us the seriousness of our own sin – that is the punishment we rightly deserve – to die the death that Jesus died, and to suffer in hell. It also shows us the seriousness of the sin of those who have hurt us. That is also what the sins of others deserve, including the sins that others committed by hurting us. God takes seriously the pain that others have caused you. He declares it deserves a humiliating death by crucifixion. If our sin was punished in Jesus, can we not see that the sins of our fellow Christians was punished the same way? Satisfaction has been made for that thing that was done to you. It has been declared utterly wrong, and it has been punished, on the cross. Find peace in the sacrifice of Jesus, which shows us both the depth of sin, and the depth of grace.
There is plenty for us to chew on right now. Next time we will talk about what forgiveness for those who hurt us really looks like. Does it mean we have to open ourselves up to be hurt again? Does it mean that we are saying that what they did to us was OK? How can I find it in me to continually practice forgiving others? What exactly must I do (or not do) when I forgive someone? How can I let go of the hurt and anger?