Today I will address a few questions about forgiveness. And I will end with a challenge to consider two important questions, so be thinking about them as you read. The first question is: what is something for which you need to be forgiven? The second question is: what is something you need to forgive? I hope God will speak to you about both of these as you read.
Luke 17:3-43 So watch yourselves! “If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. 4 Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.
Matthew 18:21-22 21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven.”
What Did Jesus Mean?
Here we have two texts where Jesus shares wisdom about forgiveness. We are to forgive generously—extravagantly and recklessly. Jesus says even if you have to forgive the same person seven times in one day, do it! So does that mean we should forgive just seven times? No! 70 X 7 times! (Some versions say 7 X 7 or 77 times) Sooooo… Are we supposed to forgive people 49 times, 77 times, or 490 times? The point is not the number. Jesus means you should never stop forgiving people. Just keep forgiving as many times as it takes.
What is Forgiveness?
Have you ever tried to define forgiveness. It's harder than you think. So I looked it up online. According to Wikipedia: Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well. Let me highlight a few elements in this definition.
· Forgiveness is intentional – The first step in forgiveness, is recognizing that you have been offended. This might seem obvious, but you can't skip this. Sometimes people who grow up in the church skip this step because we've been told to forgive so much we almost think we don't have a right to be offended. When someone does wrong to us, we immediately say, "Oh, it's alright. Don't worry about it." The Bible does say we should be quick to forgive, but we also need to recognize--especially if the offence is serious--that someone has mistreated us. You cannot truly forgive if you don't recognize a mistreatment and glossing over it may lead to problems like passive/aggressive behavior.
· Forgiveness is voluntary – It must be your choice to forgive. It is not coerced. No one can force you to forgive. You must be the one who decides.
· Forgiveness is releasing – Forgiveness let’s go of the debt. Forgiveness releases the offender from the need to repay the debt. More importantly though, forgiveness releases the victim from expecting repayment. Some debts simply cannot be repaid. When you keep expecting to be paid when a debt can or never will be repaid, you only keep yourself locked in a prison.
· Forgiveness is increasing love toward the offender. That doesn't mean you will necessarily like the offender (that is not love). Remember, love is not a warm fuzzy feeling about someone because they make you feel good. Love is sacrificial. Love is what Jesus did for us on the cross.
A Financial Illustration:
Let me run through a simple example of forgiveness using a financial illustration. Suppose you loan your son $1 million dollars. He spends all the money and then you realize he cannot repay the $1 million and he never will. You could: get angry about it and cling to your anger, hate him for it, hold a grudge, and throw a fit. You could sue your son for the money (in which case, you may get some money, but nothing close to the full amount; he simply can't repay what he doesn't have). You could plot to ruin his life to make him pay for his mistake, but what good would that do? None of these will things you could do will actually do anything to collect on the debt. It is uncollectable.
So instead of seeking revenge, you intentionally decide to forgive the debt. This is voluntary, not forced. You release your son from the debt. He no longer owes you and you do not resent him for it. The debt and any negative emotions related to it are erased. In this case, you don’t get your money, but you are free from fretting about it; you are free from the need to plot and strategize, and worry about it or from making trouble for your son. You don't get repaid, but you can move on from the pain of the broken trust. You can have a new relationship with your son, so you forgive him and then you love your son, genuinely wanting what’s best for him, despite his failure to repay you.
Well, you may never have a million dollars to loan, but we all know of real life debts that cannot be repaid. How do you repay someone for a public humiliation? What are you going to say? "Ok, you humiliated me last week so I get to humiliate you this week and then we will be even." is that really going to make things even? What about a burglary? A burglar might replace things they stole and go to jail, but how do they repay the psychological damage done to a family? Can a drunk driver ever pay off a debt for someone they’ve killed in an accident? What about their family? What about murder? Well, we have the death penalty, but even the death penalty cannot erase the debt. Your loved one who has been murdered can never be brought back--even by the death of the murder.
What Forgiveness is Not: Now that we know what forgiveness is, let's take a look at what forgiveness is not.
· Forgiveness is not condoning – Condoning is failing to see the action as wrong and in need of forgiveness. Many people struggle to forgive, because they think it somehow condones what the offender has done. Not so. Forgiveness does not in any way condone evil actions. To the contrary, it recognizes that evil was committed, and chooses to fogive it.
· Forgiveness is not excusing – Excusing is saying the offender is not responsible for their action. (Excusing is like saying a person had a terrible childhood and so they aren't responsible for what they did...) You can forgive someone and still hold them accountable for their actions. If someone robs you, you can forgive them and still prosecute them. Your forgiveness does not necessarily cancel the consequences of their actions. It simply means, you have let go of the anger and hurt about the offence in your own heart. Love may actually require you to hold people accountable for their sake and/or for the sake of society.
· Forgiveness is not forgetting – The expression “forgive and forget” is not biblical. I have searched the Scriptures and I cannot find it. Jesus wants us to forgive, but Jesus did not teach us, nor does he expect us, to forget. In many cases, it is not wise to forget an offence. You should forgive someone who cheats you, but it would not be wise to forget what they did. Don’t hold a grudge, but be aware that they may try to cheat you again.
· Forgiveness is not reconciliation – Reconciliation is the restoration of a relationship. You can forgive someone without reconciling or putting yourself back in harm’s way. In some cases, reconciliation would not be wise or healthy.
Reconciliation may not be necessary if the person is a stranger because there is no relationship to rebuild. You can’t reconcile a relationship you didn’t have in the first place. One of my members at a previous church was a very sweet, prayerful, and godly women. However, Suzy had a terrible accident. She wrecked her car into a motorcyclist. It was an accident, but it was Suzy's fault and the motorcyclist was nearly killed. Suzy felt terrible about it and asked if I would visit the family in the ICU. I did and expressed Suzy's remorse and prayed for the family. Thankfully, they were Christians and understood forgiveness. They forgave Suzy, but they didn't need to reconcile with her because there was no relationship to rebuild. Furthermore, I believe they even went on to sue Suzy (really her insurance company) to try and recoup the money they needed for medical expenses (as they should have). So we seen in this a few elements we've discussed. First, that reconciliation is not always necessary as apart of forgiveness. And second, you can forgive and still hold people accountable.
Sometime, reconciliation is not advisable. Reconciliation is not wise or healthy if it would be dangerous or result in abuse. Reconciliation may not be wise or healthy if the person is unrepentant, otherwise they may feel it is ok to do the same thing again and they are likely to hurt you again (and again and again…).
There is also such a thing as partial or limited reconciliation. That means you re-establish a limited relationship with someone. We find examples of this frequently after a divorce where children are involved. You may never fully reconcile with your ex (and there are circumstances where full reconciliation may not be wise), but if you have children together and share custody, you probably need to reconcile to some degree just to cooperate as parents with joint custody.
Why Forgive?Why should we forgive? I mean, if it is so complicated and hard, why should we even bother? We forgive because Jesus forgave us and he asks us to forgive others. Psalm 65:3, "Though we are overwhelmed by our sins, you forgive them all." Often, the thing that keeps us from forgiving someone is thinking we are better than them. We say, "How could you do that? I would never do that!" And so we feel they don't deserve to be forgiven. If you think you have not sinned, or if you think you are better than someone else, you need to rethink. All of us are guilty of sin. And all sins are equally evil in God’s sight. Therefore, you are no better than anyone else.
Your sins--regardless of how small you feel they are--led to Jesus horrible death. Though he was completely innocent, he was arrested, abused, tortured, and crucified to atone for your sin. Yet, despite this, Jesus willingly died on the cross to forgive your sin. If Jesus went through all that for you, how can you refuse to forgive others when Jesus asks you to?
We forgive because it is the only way we can be healed. Holding on to a grudge is like you drinking poison and expecting it to hurt the other person. It’s ludicrous. Refusing to forgive creates bitterness in your heart that will poison everything you do. It will make you a bitter, angry person--even with people you love. It will hinder your ability to trust others—even people who haven’t done anything wrong. It will hurt your relationship with God. Matthew 6:14-15, “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
We forgive because it frees us. Proverbs 17:9, "Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends." We are happier when we let go of our grudges. It enables us to have better relationships with God and with people.
Forgiveness is HardIn just a moment, I’m going to ask you to pray about one thing for which you need to be forgiven and one thing you need to forgive. But before I do, I want to share my two things. First of all, one thing I need to forgive are church members who have disappointed me. I have been a minister for 17 years and it is always very hurtful to be betrayed by a church member. You would think a minister would have the whole forgiveness thing down after 17 years, but it can be very difficult. I can still think back to a time in 2004 when some church members went behind my back and tried to have me replaced as the church's youth pastor. It was very hurtful and the pain of their betrayal still lingers in my heart. I need to let that go, as I forgive other betrayals.
Sometimes, though, it is not a blatant betrayal that I need to forgive. You know, I pour my heart and soul into a church and it really hurts when a member of my church leaves to attend another church. It is especially hurtful when I hear things like: they didn't feel like they were being fed or they liked the music over there better or they had friends at that other church. And I need to let go of my disappointment and just forgive, because I know I'm not perfect either.
I realize I need to be forgiven because I have made mistakes as a minister. I have not always been the pastor people needed me to be. I have not always visited like I should--either because I didn't know or I was not able or (sometime) because I didn't want to. And people have been so gracious to me. People have forgiven my mistakes. Often, I'm sure, I have hurt people and they have forgiven me and I wasn't even aware of it. And I'm so thankful God has forgiven me and that people have been gracious and forgiven me. And so I think if God and people have been so gracious with me, I should be gracious and forgive others too.
So now I would like to challenge you to take a moment pray about your own situation. What is one thing for which you need to be forgiven and what is one thing you need to forgive? Pray about it. I invite you to go even further and write it down on a slip of paper. Then, after you've prayed to God about it, burn that slip of paper as a symbol of letting it go forever.