COLOSSIANS #28: PRACTICAL THOUGHTS ON FORGIVING OTHERS

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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!

FORGIVING OTHERS: IT MAY NOT BE WHAT YOU THINK

 last_supper da vinci

Forgiveness is not pretending that nothing is wrong, or that you weren’t hurt. Forgiveness is saying, “yes, I am hurt. I have been wronged. But I choose not to hold that against the person who wronged me. That person owes me nothing.” The essence of forgiveness is releasing someone else from the “debt” they owe you because of what they did.

 

 

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Matthew #64. Matthew 18:21-35

When Leonardo da Vinci was painting the Last Supper, he had an intense, bitter argument with a fellow painter. Da Vinci was so enraged that he decided to paint the face of his enemy into the face of Judas. That way the hated painter’s face would be preserved in the face of the betraying disciple. When the great artist finished Judas, everyone easily recognized the face of the painter with whom da Vinci had quarreled.

Leonardo da Vinci continued to work on the painting. But as much as he tried, he could not paint the face of Christ. Something was holding him back. He finally decided his hatred toward his fellow painter was getting in the way. So he worked through his hatred by repainting Judas’ face, replacing the image of his fellow painter with another face. Only then was he able to paint Jesus’ face and complete the masterpiece.

Let’s set our text in context this week. It began with a discussion of who was the greatest. Jesus encouraged child-like trust, and said greatness was found in that, and in childlike humility. Speaking of childlike humility and trust, Jesus mentions how much he values those who trust him in this way, and warns against making them fall away. Speaking of falling away, he talks about how much he cares for lost sheep and pursues them. Speaking of lost sheep, he describes one way to bring back lost sheep, through what we call “church discipline.” Speaking of church discipline, Peter asks, “how many times should we forgive someone who repents? So now Jesus says: “Let me tell you about forgiving each other when someone wrongs you.”

He uses a parable, describing a servant to a King, who was forgiven an enormous debt – on the order of millions of dollars. The man was not required to pay one cent. This servant then went out, and sought out a fellow servant who owed him maybe five-hundred bucks, and demanded payment. When the second servant could not pay, the first, the one who had been forgiven so much, refused to release the man from his obligation, and had him thrown in jail.

In my mind, this parable begs a question: how could the first servant have been so unmerciful? Seeing what great mercy he has just experienced, how could he be so hard-heated? There are only two possibilities that make any sense to me. The first is that he really didn’t feel obligated for the millions of dollars, and so it was no big deal to have that debt canceled. In other words, he didn’t really believe he owed the debt, so when it was forgiven him, it didn’t touch his heart at all.

The other possibility is that he didn’t really believe in the forgiveness. Somehow, he felt like he was still deep in debt, and so needed the money the other man owed him. Either way, for all practical purposes, he never really received the forgiveness the King offered him. Otherwise his miserliness is almost inconceivable. It is here that we find the key to Jesus’ troubling words in 18:35,

So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart.” (Matt 18:35, HCSB)

I think what Jesus is saying is that if you don’t forgive others, that is an indication that you yourself have not really received God’s forgiveness. Anyone who holds on to a grudge, who is clenching bitterness in their heart, cannot at the same time have a heart that is open to receive God’s forgiveness. Thus, as Jesus says, if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven – you can’t be. Your own un-forgiveness blocks out the forgiveness God offers you. Forgiveness and un-forgiveness cannot reside in the same heart at the same time. Lest we soften the intent of scripture, I think it is also important to realize that our un-forgiveness is offensive to God. When we read that parable and “get into it” there is a sense of outrage at the actions of the unmerciful servant. I think God feels this same outrage when we refuse to forgive those who have wronged us.

Now we need to be very clear about the nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not saying “Oh, that’s OK.” The reason there needs to be forgiveness at all is because whatever happened was not OK.  Forgiveness is not pretending that nothing is wrong, or that you weren’t hurt. Forgiveness is saying, “yes, I am hurt. I have been wronged. But I choose not to hold that against the person who wronged me. That person owes me nothing.” The essence of forgiveness is releasing someone else from the “debt” they owe you because of what they did. If you forgive someone, you no longer expect them to make up for what they did. You no longer hold their actions against them. You aren’t saying that what they did was OK, but you are saying that you will no longer require anything from them because of that wrong.

In contrast, un-forgiveness retains the right to some sort of payment. If you are refusing to forgive someone, you probably feel like that person owes you something. Haven’t we all heard the phrase “you owe me an apology!”? That is un-forgiveness in action. You may feel that the person who hurt you has to make it better. You may feel that you have a right to be angry. You may continue trying to get something out the person. The irony is, when we continue to try and get something out of someone, we remain bound to them. In other words, when we don’t forgive, we keep ourselves in bondage to the person we won’t forgive. As long as you are trying to get something from another person, you are bound to them. You can’t let them go, and at the same time, demand something from them. We can’t be free until we let go.

If anyone is in your “doghouse” you can be sure you are harboring un-forgiveness. Now you may indeed be entitled to payment of some sort. But if you want to get what you rightly deserve, then keep in mind that we all rightly deserve to go to hell. If you want to get what’s rightly yours, then be sure to remember everything you’ve got rightfully coming to you.

A lot of people have questions about the differences between forgiving on the one hand, and forgetting or trusting on the other. Jesus did not actually say “forgive and forget.” He said, “forgive.” So in his parable, I doubt the King would have loaned the servant millions of dollars again. He forgave him; that didn’t mean he was going to forget that the servant wasn’t able to handle a debt of millions. The king was not likely to trust him with that kind of money again, not because of unforgiveness, but simply out of common sense. When someone hurts you deeply, Jesus teaches that you must forgive that person and that if you don’t, it will interfere in your relationship with Him. But he does not command that you trust the one who hurt you at the same level you trusted before. You can release someone from his debt, and let him go, and still be wise in the future about how much interaction you have with him. You can do this without demanding something from the person, or holding something against him.

Now, sometimes we bury our un-forgiveness deep, out of our own awareness. A few years ago, there was someone in my life that I had not forgiven. But in my conscious world, I was not holding anything against that person. I wasn’t trying to get anything from that person. Instead, I was trying to get what that person owed me, from other people. At some level, I still felt someone owed me something. And so I was relating to other people as if they had treated me like the very first person. When the Lord showed me this, I forgave the original person who hurt me – even though I had no particular feelings of bitterness or anger against them – and my behavior towards others was radically changed for the better.

Another time, as I struggled to forgive someone else, I said to the Lord, “But he ought to pay for what he did. There needs to be a just punishment for this wrong action.” And in a flash, I saw a picture of Jesus on the cross, nails being driven into his wrists. The sin has been punished. It did not go unnoticed. It was punished on the cross, and the punishment was borne not by the one who wronged me, but by Jesus. If I declare that what satisfied God for that sin does not satisfy me, then I am saying I know better than God! In fact, I am saying that Jesus’ death was not enough! And now we get to the heart of the matter. If I say Jesus’ death was not enough punishment for the one who hurt me, then I cannot seriously believe that Jesus’ death was enough for my own sin. If I want the one who wronged me to pay for his own sin, then surely I also ought to pay for mine! But scripture says: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘it is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord.’”(Romans 12:19). So let God be the judge, and release the hurt and anger to him.

Often the thing we hold against others is an admission of guilt. I don’t want to forgive until the other person admits that he was wrong and I was right. In other words, I am still demanding something of this person for his offenses – I am still holding something against him. This is not the way Jesus forgave us. Romans 5:6-11 says that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. He did not wait for us to admit our sins or to repent and come to him. He sought us out with his forgiveness long before we ever admitted we were wrong. Since scripture tells us we are to forgive as Christ forgave us (Ephesians 4:32, among other verses), we also need to be prepared to forgive someone who never ever admits they are wrong or says sorry.

In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus says:

“So if you are standing before the altar in the Temple, offering a sacrifice to God, and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there beside the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. (New Living Translation)

The concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation are so important that you may interrupt your worship of God to get things straight with your neighbors. In fact, where there is unforgiveness, it will interrupt your worship anyway, whether or not you acknowledge that fact.

Corrie Ten Boom, a veteran of the terrible internment camps in WWII, shares this true story in her book, The Hiding Place. It was after the war, and she had begun to have a ministry traveling and speaking about her experiences, and the grace of God that she found, even in the horror. Then, this happened:

It was a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there — the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”

His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.

I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.

Corrie Ten Boom’s point is extremely important. We can’t forgive without God’s help. Sometimes the hurt we have received is so deep and terrible that it seems we simply cannot release the person who hurt us without trying to get something back from them. But when we ask for God’s help, he can give us what we need to forgive those who hurt us and he will. He is not giving us an impossible command – he will give us his own love and forgiveness with which to love and forgive those who hurt us. All we have to do is ask.

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