Forgiving someone is the opposite of saying “it’s OK.” The only reason to forgive someone is because they truly hurt you. By definition, no one deserves forgiveness. We need to forgive for our own sake, because the alternative is bitterness and bile in our own souls. There is no way to get the person who hurt you to bear the pain that they caused, not even if they are willing. It’s like trying to get someone else to bleed for you. Jesus empowers us to forgive, and gives us a basis for forgiving others.
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COLOSSIANS #28. FORGIVING OTHERS, PART 2
Last time we started to look at what it means for Christians to forgive. Forgiveness is as much, or more, for our own sake, as for the sake of the person we forgive. When we do not forgive, our anger and bitterness binds us to the person that we are not forgiving. We cannot let go of them, because we cannot let go of the hurt they have caused us. Usually, the idea of being bound to the person that hurt us is repulsive – that’s the last thing we want! But the only way to become unbound is to forgive. Also, when we refuse to forgive, we are closing our own hearts to the forgiveness that God offers us. If we harbor unforgiveness, it may be because we don’t really believe and trust that we are truly forgiven ourselves. We don’t really believe and trust the good news, and that means it does us no good.
This is deadly serious. Jesus said it was so serious, that if you are on your way to worship God, and you remember there is something between you and another Christian, don’t go to worship until you have settled it:
23 “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, 24 leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. (NLT, Matthew 5:23-24)
You may not realize it, but this is even a bigger deal than it sounds like. At the time Jesus said this, he was talking to people who lived way out in the country, many days’ travel from the temple in Jerusalem. If someone was offering their gift on the altar, it meant they were at the temple in Jerusalem. Reconciling with the person who hurt them might mean not just leaving the altar, but leaving Jerusalem, and taking an extra journey of several days to go back home, find that person, and then reconcile, and then return again to Jerusalem. Remember, there were no telephones or internet, or even motorized vehicles in those days. Jesus is saying, “take an extra week or more, if that’s what it requires.”
So it is extremely important – earth-shakingly important – that we forgive others.
Let’s talk about exactly how we go about forgiving others.
In the first place, let’s consider what happens when someone hurts us. They cause us some sort of emotional or physical harm. Without asking our permission, suddenly they are forcing us to bear emotional pain that is their fault. They were the ones who did the thing, but now we are the ones who have to live with the pain of what they have done.
What happens naturally, is that we want them to pay. We want the person who hurt us to bear the “cost” of that hurt. We want them to suffer the consequences. Unfortunately, that can’t be done. The nature of being hurt is such that the one who does the hurting is not the one who feels the pain.
This is true in the physical world, also. If I cut you with a knife, it is your skin that carries the wound, and your body that bleeds. Even if it was an accident, and I wish it could be different, I cannot bleed for you, or carry the wound that is yours. You could cut me, but it’s not the same thing. Even if you cut me back, you still have to bleed from the wound that I inflicted on you. My pain does not ease your pain. This is exactly how things work emotionally and spiritually. There is no way to get the person who hurt you to bear the pain that they caused. Not even if they are willing.
So, when we refuse to forgive, we are trying to get something impossible from the other person. We are trying to get them to pay in a way that is simply impossible. We might inflict new wounds upon them, but that doesn’t help our hurt to feel better. And when we keep trying to get the impossible from someone, we are forever bound to them. The only way to end the cycle is to forgive. The only way to finally get healing is to forgive.
Sometimes, we get confused about how to forgive, and what it means. Forgiving someone is the opposite of saying “it’s OK.” No, the only reason to forgive someone is because they truly hurt you. By definition, no one deserves forgiveness. Forgiveness is releasing the “debt” incurred by someone who treated you in a way that is inexcusable. There is no justification for the way they hurt you – that’s why forgiveness is needed. So, to forgive is not at all to say “This didn’t matter,” or “No worries.” The first step in forgiving another is to recognize that they truly hurt you, and the way they treated you is not justified.
The next step is to release them from the “debt” they incurred by treating you badly. When you cut me down in front of other people, it creates an “emotional cost.” Suddenly, I have to deal with all sorts of negative feelings about myself, and about you. I have to deal with the fact that other people might now look at me differently than they did before. These are emotional and relational burdens that you just dumped on me by your cruel words.
If I don’t forgive, then I will treat you in a certain way, think about you in a certain way, in order to try and get you to “pay” for what you did to me. As we have already learned, however, that simply can’t be done. You cannot pay the cost of your hurt, not even if you wanted to. Again, as we have already said, trying to get you to pay will only create a negative bond between you and me. When we don’t forgive, we are always trying to get something out of the person who hurt us, some sort of payment for what they did to us. Our unforgiveness keep us tied to them. The only way to be separate from them is forgive, to release them from the emotional debt they incurred with us when they hurt us. Sometimes people say that you must forgive someone for your sake, not theirs. This is part of why that is true.
Deep feelings about forgiveness are not necessary. Forgiveness is, first and foremost, an act of will. That act can be immensely powerful, even if no emotions accompany it. When I was in my twenties, I found myself battling with a certain sin. Whenever I was tempted, I failed. I went to a counselor, and we discovered that I had not forgiven a certain person from my childhood. I did not even have strong feelings about what this person did to me. The counselor walked me through forgiving that person, and I had hardly any feelings at all as I determined to forgive the person, and release them from all emotional “debt” they had incurred. When it was over, however, I found that the sin I was battling with had lost its power. Now, I was still tempted, but I was able to easily overcome the temptation. That is the power of forgiveness.
If someone has come into your thoughts as you read this message, I want to encourage you to forgive that person. It is a simple process, though sometimes difficult emotionally. I encourage you to do the following steps out loud, perhaps with a spouse, or with a trusted Christian friend of the same sex with you to encourage you, and witness your declaration of forgiveness (I don’t mean the person who hurt you. I mean someone who can support you as you walk through this process).
First, we need to confess that our unforgiveness is a sin. As Christians, it is wrong for us to withhold forgiveness from those who hurt us. As we learned from the previous message in this series, it is outrageously offensive that we would withhold forgiveness from others after God has forgiven us. So, begin by confessing that your lack of forgiveness is a sin.
Next, we state, as clearly as possible, what was done to you that needs to be forgiven. Say who did it. Speak out loud what exactly hurt you, and why it was painful for you. State clearly that what was done to you was wrong. It is not acceptable, not OK. It should not have been done to you.
As much as possible, try to mean what you say, and say what you mean. You might be gritting your teeth, and saying, “I still feel angry, but I have determined in my will to forgive Jane. So I am forgiving her.” Rely fully upon Jesus as you do it. You might say something like: “I do not have the power to forgive Jane. But in the name and power of Jesus, I forgive her, trusting Jesus to make it real for me.” Go on to formally release the unforgiven person from the emotional debt that they have incurred. You might want to say something like: “I hereby declare that I forgive Jane for this. I say that Jane no longer owes me anything. She cannot pay for the wrong she did me, and I release the debt. We are done with this. I am done with it. I am letting it go. I rely on the power of Jesus to make my forgiveness real.”
Sometimes, it helps us to know that Jane’s debt really will be paid for. That is why we have Jesus. Jesus died for your sins. He also died for Jane’s. If she is a Christian, Jesus paid for Jane’s sin. Are you going to say that he should pay for your sins, but what he did is not enough to pay for Jane’s? Certainly not! And if she is not a Christian, we ought to have nothing but pity for Jane. She will indeed pay for every last thing she has done, and she will pay forever and ever. Surely, that is good enough.
If the old anger and bitterness comes back, remined yourself that it is over. You are done with that, now. Jesus has paid, for it, and if Jane rejects that, Jesus will make sure that Jane pays back every last bit of every debt she incurred.
Now, what does this mean, going forward? What if Jane does exactly the same thing to you, two days after you have forgiven her? Remember the standard that Jesus gave Peter, when Peter asked about this very thing? Peter wondered how many times he needed to forgive someone who kept on hurting him. Jesus’ reply was “a perfect number, multiplied by a multiple of a perfect number.” In other words, “over and over and over again, ad infinitum.”
Let’s say it is our imaginary friend Jane again. She has a habit of cutting you down in front of other people, especially people whom you love and respect. You forgive her, and sure enough, next time you are together in a group of friends, she does it again.
There is nothing sinful about confronting someone who hurts you over and over again like this. The confrontation should be loving, and done in a spirit of forgiveness. As much as possible, stick to talking about how you feel when Jane cuts you down in front of others. It might even help if you try consciously to start your sentences with, “Jane, I feel hurt and belittled when you talk that way about me in front of others.” You ask her to please stop the behavior that hurts you.
The best case scenario is that Jane stops, and through your forgiveness of her, you become close friends. The worst case scenario is that she keeps it up, or does it even more. If that is the case, you still need to forgive Jane. It would also be wise to stop inviting Jane to be there with you and your friends, or to avoid situations where you will be with Jane in a group of people. This is not unforgiveness. You still must release the “debt” Jane incurs when she hurts you. But it is not wrong to try and avoid situations where Jane has the chance to keep hurting you. It is OK to distance yourself a little bit.
If the hurt is taking place within your small Christian community (house church, or small group) you might need to follow the protocol that Jesus lays out in Matthew 18:15-20. After talking privately (and not before!), if that doesn’t work, bring another member of your church/group and talk with Jane again. If Jane continues to do this, and the person you brought along can see that this is so, then bring up the matter in front of the whole church. In this context, it would be happening during a house church meeting, in a group no bigger than could fit in your home. If, after addressing it in front of the church, Jane continues to put you down, the church might ask her to leave the group until she can learn to control her tongue. You must forgive her, even if you have to take steps to distance yourself so that you are not continually hurt.
By the way, we should not look for perfection in a scenario like this. In reality, probably Jane apologizes when you confront her, and she is genuinely sorry. Even so, old habits die hard, and she might forget at times, and say something before she stop herself. Again, you need to forgive her. If she seems to be working on it, even if she often fails, it is good to give her a chance.
Sometimes a person like Jane might absolutely deny that she has done anything wrong. If that is the case, you still need to forgive her. The course of wisdom would suggest that you also reduce all contact with her to a minimum.
Being hurt in marriage is a lot more complicated. We must forgive, as the scripture says. But it is more difficult, and also dangerous for the marriage, to start avoiding each other, or avoiding any deep conversation. In the case of abuse, of course, the abused party should distance herself immediately, and not return until the abuser has received professional help. In the case of adultery, the wounded party is free to leave the marriage (but not required). In all other cases, we need to stay and work it out. We can still try to avoid the sorts of situations that usually result in us being hurt, but we don’t have the option of just giving up on the relationship. I recommend professional counseling if your marriage is a source of continuing and ongoing emotional pain.
Once again, let us wrap it up by looking at the cross. Jesus, by the cross, made possible your own forgiveness. It is only by the cross that we can forgive others. The cross assures us that God takes seriously the sins of those who hurt us. It also humbles us, and helps us recognize that we cannot hold grudges against those who hurt us. And through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and his Holy Spirit, God gives us the power to forgive others. Let’s always remember to ask him for it!