There’s a book entitled, “Total Forgiveness”, by R.T. Kendall. In the first chapter of that book, Kendall tells about a time in his life when someone very near and dear to him hurt him greatly. He felt overwhelmed by a sense of anger. Sometime later, he was talking with a friend and he poured out all the sordid details of what this other person had done to him. Then, he paused for a moment, expecting his friend to say, “R. T., you are right to feel so angry. What happened to you was awful.” But he didn’t.
After listening to everything that had happened to him, his friend simply said, “You must totally forgive them.” Kendall was dumbfounded. So, he started to tell his story all over again, this time adding more details. But his friend interrupted him with words that would change his life. He said, “You must totally forgive them. Release them, and you will be set free.”
Release them, and you will be set free.
This morning, I want to talk about forgiving those who have hurt us, but everything I have to say in this lesson will be expounding on that one sentence: Release them, and you will be set free.
It’s possible that those words cause your mind to begin to argue:
- “But you don’t know what he did to me.”
- “They lied about me over and over again.”
- “She intended to destroy my career—and she did.”
- “You can’t imagine the hell I’ve been through.”
- “If you knew what this has done to my family, you wouldn’t say that.”
- “They deserve to suffer like they’ve made me suffer.”
- “I was sexually abused by a relative. How do you forgive that?”
- “I will never forgive those people. Never!”
C. S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”
The truth is, forgiving others is an extremely difficult thing for us to do. And, the greater the hurt, the more difficult it is. How do you forgive someone who has destroyed the dreams you had for your life?
Which brings us again to the story of Joseph. Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about many people who tried to destroyed his dreams – his brothers, who wanted to kill him but eventually sold him as a slave, the Ishmaelites, who carried Joseph into a foreign country; Potiphar’s wife, who lied and accused Joseph of committing rape which resulted in him being thrown into prison.
But, of course, prison was where things began to turn around. Joseph was given the ability by God to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Dreams which foretold seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine.
And, of course, you remember the story of how Joseph was promoted to second-in-command in all the land of Egypt, and it was his preparations that prevented disaster when the famine struck. People came to Egypt from all over the world to get grain, and among those who showed up were Joseph’s brothers.
After more than over 20 years, they didn’t recognize Joseph, but he recognized them, and all of those feelings that he had when they abused him must have come flooding back.
Three times during his conversations with them, we’re told that Joseph wasn’t able to control himself, and broke down in tears (42:24; 43:30-31; 45:1-2). The third time, we read, “And he wept aloud, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard it.” (Genesis 45:2). You need to understand that the hurt Joseph felt was deep.
To forgive those who have hurt us and have tried to destroy our dreams is usually difficult and sometimes even painful. But God wants us to know that it is always necessary.
The Necessity of Forgiveness
The emphasis Jesus put on forgiveness is almost shocking. He really doesn’t give us any other option, if we want to be his disciples. In what we sometimes refer to as the “Lord’s Prayer”, Jesus said, “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” (Matthew 6:12, NIV). Then, a few verses later, Jesus commented further by saying, “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” (Matthew 6:14-15, NIV). That’s strong language!
Later, when Peter asked Jesus, “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21), Jesus illustrated his “seventy-times-seven” answer by telling a parable. It was the story of a master who forgave a servant’s huge debt, millions of dollars, but that servant refused to forgive another servant who owed him a small amount.
The story ends with an angry master turning the unforgiving servant over to the jailers for torture and torment. And then Jesus made the application in one of the harshest statements he ever made: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35, NIV).
Jesus makes it painfully clear that forgiving others is directly related to our being forgiven by God, and if we are unwilling to forgive, we destroy the bridge over which God’s forgiveness comes to us. But forgiving others can be a hard thing to do.
It doesn’t help that we live in a society that doesn’t place much value on forgiveness. Our culture exalts those TV and movie heroes who take vengeance on others. There are dozens of movies that all have the same plot. In the opening scene, someone is hurt or their family is hurt, and the rest of the film is about them trying to get even and make the bad guys pay. And, at the end of the movie, we stand up and cheer for that person who refused to forgive. And it’s not surprising, because we live in a society that is filled with bitterness, vengeance, anger, hatred and hostility.
Marriages suffer because grudges are held and nobody’s willing to forgive. Crimes of retaliation and ridiculously excessive lawsuits are common as people seek vengeance both inside or outside the law. It seems every week, somebody carries a gun into a school or a mall or a subway, somewhere that they’ve been wronged and they start blasting away. It’s the mentality of our day — if I’ve been wronged, somebody’s got to pay. Nobody wants to even think about forgiveness. But, as Christians, it is essential that we do so.
Now, we need to understand what the Bible means by forgiveness. But, perhaps we first need to understand what forgiveness is not.
1. Forgiveness is not overlooking or minimizing someone’s sin
As Christians, we sometimes think we’re being spiritual by saying things like, “Oh, that’s all right. Don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal.” But overlooking a wrong isn’t the same thing as forgiving the person who has wronged you. In fact, it may make forgiveness more difficult.
Joseph is a good example in this regard. He said to his brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” (Genesis 50:20). Most of the time, we emphasize the last half of this verse, and rightfully so. Because it says something very important about the providence of God, and the way God works in our lives, even those times when we don’t understand.
But don’t overlook the first part of this verse. Joseph didn’t say to his brothers, “Well, that’s okay, guys. I was just a teenager, and I know you didn’t really mean to hurt when you threw me into that cistern. And I know you were just playing around when you sold me to those Midianites.” No, Joseph looked at his brothers and made no attempt to excuse or minimize the terrible things they had done to him. He said very plainly, “you meant evil against me.” “You intended to harm me, and that was wrong.”
One of the first steps in truly forgiving someone is to recognize the wrong and the harm they have done to you. Minimizing the sin temporarily covers up the hurt, but it won’t result in healing or reconciliation, because it’s not forgiveness.
2. Forgiveness is not psychoanalyzing the wrongdoer in order to explain what they did.
We live in an age where we feel like it’s necessary to analyze other people’s behavior so that we can understand why they do what they do. We somehow feel that if we can just figure out why that person did something bad to us, it will be much easier for us to forgive them. And there is a certain amount of truth in the saying, “To understand all is to forgive all.” Understanding why someone did what they did may put us on the road to forgiveness, but there are many times when it’s impossible to figure out the why of it all.
How often have you heard people say, “I just can’t understand how she could possibly do something like that.” Or, “It’s crazy. He had everything. Why did he throw it all away?” Jesus recognized this when he prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34).
I read about a woman in her thirties who came to a preacher in tears and told him about being sexually abused by an older brother when she was a teenager. She said, “Why did he do that to me? How could he do it? If I could just understand!” The preacher said to her, “Sister, if you are waiting to understand why he did it, you may have to wait a lifetime. I’m not even sure he knows the answer. The question now is whether or not you’re willing to forgive him, even though you don’t understand why.”
But we sometimes feel the need to psychoanalyze in order to understand before we forgive. It’s hard for us to face the fact that those who are supposed to love us can actually do things that hurt us so much. And so, we think if we could just understand, we can forgive. But sometimes forgiveness has to take place without that understanding.
3. Forgiveness is not taking the blame on ourselves.
Joseph never accepted the blame for his brothers’ shortcomings. He never said, “You know, I can’t really blame you guys for what you did. Looking back, I was pretty obnoxious and arrogant and I guess I just deserved what happened to me.”
But people say that sort of thing all the time. There was a young lady in college whose mother had thrown her down the stairs at the age of 3 and broke her leg. Her father had left scars on her body by using his belt buckle for “spankings”. But she would always say, “I must have done something terrible for that to happen. I guess I deserved it.” It was easier for her to assume the blame than it was to face the terrible wrongs they had done to her.
So, forgiveness is not overlooking the wrong. It’s not excusing or minimizing the wrong. It’s not psychoanalyzing the wrongdoer in order to explain away the wrong. And forgiveness is not taking the blame upon ourselves. So, what is it?
B. What Forgiveness Is
I found one definition of forgiveness that says that forgiveness is “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.”
And I think that’s a good biblical definition of forgiveness. Allow me to isolate three important elements of forgiveness.
1. Forgiveness begins by acknowledging the specific wrong that has been done to us.
When Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers, he was very specific in what he said. He said, “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4). There was no broad generalization like, “You know, you weren’t very nice to me.” or “You were pretty mean to me when I was a kid.”
And there’s an important principle involved here that we often mention in connection with God’s forgiveness of us. We often say, and rightfully so, that we need to be specific when we confess our sins to God. Instead of praying, “God, please forgive me of all the things I’ve ever done wrong”, we need to be praying, “God, I was angry and I said some things out of anger that were sinful” or “God, I’m guilty of gossiping about somebody at work and I know that’s wrong.”
In the same way, we need to acknowledge the specific wrong that has been done to us before we can to forgive the person for that wrong. Otherwise, we end up making sweeping generalizations of forgiveness which really don’t do much to heal our relationship. Whenever people have feelings of resentment and bitterness against someone, it’s essential for us to be very specific about what wrongs have been committed.
2. Before you can forgive, you have to acknowledge your resentment.
If forgiveness is “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment”, we first have to admit that we have those feelings of resentment. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul commands us to “forgive one another”. But, in the verse right before that, Paul says to, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger.” (Ephesians 4:31). Before we can truly forgive, we’ve got to be honest enough with ourselves to face our real feelings toward that person.
A number of years ago, there was a young lady whose background involved abuse at the hands of her mother and her mother’s boyfriends. She deeply resented her mother, but I never realized how much until one Sunday when her mother came back to church, and then she came forward during the invitation and expressed a desire to be restored. After worship was over, this young lady broke into tears and she said to me, “I’m struggling with my feelings. I know it’s not the Christian attitude, but I’m upset that my mother was restored. I want her to go to hell for what she’s done to me.”
Before we can forgive someone, we have to first recognize the resentment that we feel toward them. And so, it’s important for us to face that resentment, not bury it. And until you acknowledge your resentment, you’ll never get past it.
3. Forgiveness is making a choice.
Forgiveness is indeed “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment.” After we have acknowledged the specific wrongs that have been done to us and we have admitted the resentment we feel, we then reach the point where we have a choice – we can either choose to forgive or we can choose not to forgive.
Forgiveness is never an easy thing to do! It’s not an easy thing to say, “You did me wrong, but I don’t hold it against you anymore. I don’t resent you. There’s no bitterness in my heart toward you.” Because as long as we refuse to forgive, we feel like we have the upper hand. You did something wrong and any time I want to, I can bring up the past to make you feel bad. But when you forgive someone, you’re giving up the right to do that. That can be very difficult.
It’s a lesson that we all need to learn — to maintain our desire to forgive even when we don’t feel like forgiving. Forgiveness is difficult. But, if we have the desire to forgive, then by the grace and power of God, we can forgive. The important part is having the desire. I’ve known some people who have said, “There’s just no way I could ever forgive so-and-so. They’ve just hurt me too bad.” But what they mean by that is that there’s no desire on their part to forgive. But, if we have the desire to forgive, then by the grace and power of God, we can forgive.
When someone does you wrong, you have a choice to make. Will you forgive or not? Are you going to let it go, or hang on? Forgiveness begins with the mind, not the emotions.
I like this quote that I found, “Forgiveness is a promise not a feeling. When you forgive other people, you are making a promise not to use their past sin against them.”
Many people think that you forgive with your emotions and they can never do it. But you forgive with your mind, and the emotions will follow, although sometimes it takes a lot longer. This is where time helps. When you choose to forgive, you have disinfected the wound. Time can begin to heal, and the emotions will slowly subside.
Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom was once asked about this. Someone said to her, “I have forgiven the person who wronged me, but I still feel badly. So have I not really forgiven?” Corrie asked this lady if she had ever rung a bell in a church tower. She said that she had.
“After you let go of the rope, what happens?” She said, “The bell keeps ringing, slower and slower, until finally it stops.”
Corrie said, “Forgiveness is like that. You choose to let go of the rope — that’s forgiveness. But the bell keeps ringing for awhile from inertia — that’s your emotions. But if you’ve let go of the rope, eventually the bell will stop ringing.”
But we’ve got to make the choice. Choose to let go of the rope, to let go of the hurt and our desire for revenge. Let go, and eventually, the bell will stop ringing, your emotions will quiet down. You may have to make the choice more than once, or remind yourself that you’ve made it when the bell is still clanging. But forgiveness starts in your mind. Make the choice and your feelings will follow. Let it go.
There’s one more thing that I want us to learn about forgiveness from the story of Joseph. His story illustrates an important distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. Sometimes we assume those two things are the same thing. But they’re not, and we need to understand the difference. I believe Joseph had forgiven his brothers many years before they showed up. I don’t believe he could have survived all that he did if he didn’t have a forgiving spirit.
Joseph had forgiven them, but he hadn’t yet been reconciled to them. For that to happen, he had to wait more than twenty years, until finally “he fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. Moreover he kissed all his brothers and wept over them, and after that his brothers talked with him.” (Genesis 45:14-15).
To forgive those who do us wrong and hurt us is one thing; to be reconciled with them is another. When we forgive, the walls that we have built and which have kept us apart are broken down and, as far as we are concerned, we’re now free to go to them and be reconciled. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible because that person has died or is no longer around.
And sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible because that person who has hurt us doesn’t want to be reconciled. It’s not our responsibility to force them to want that. It’s merely our responsibility to forgive. Forgiveness does not always lead to a healed relationship.
Sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible. But, understand this — just as Christ requires our willingness to forgive, he also requires our willingness for reconciliation.
In Genesis 45:5, we find one of the most amazing scenes in this whole story. Knowing that his brothers were going to have a very difficult time accepting his forgiveness, that it would be hard for them to forgive themselves, Joseph, in an act of unbelievable unselfishness, went out of his way to comfort them. He said to them, “But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
Joseph was more concerned about how they were going to feel than about how he was feeling! But in spite of his best efforts, those poor brothers couldn’t quite believe that Joseph didn’t harbor any ill feelings — it was just too good to be true. And so, seventeen years later, after their father Jacob died and had been buried, they once again struggled with their guilt, certain that Joseph would then take revenge on them.
Joseph was so shocked by their lack of trust in him that he wept (Gen. 50:17), and once again he reiterated his forgiveness of them by saying, “‘Now therefore do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:21).
What a tremendous example Joseph is! It’s so hard not to have bitterness in our hearts toward those who have wronged us, toward those who have caused us years of grief. But it is essential for those of us who are Christians, not only for what it will mean to others, but for what it will mean to our peace of mind. “Release them, and you will be set free.”
Even more important than that, forgiving others is the only way that we can take on the nature of Christ. I can’t say that my goal is to be like Christ if I refuse to do what Jesus was willing to do!
And ultimately, the only way we can do that is to be filled with the Spirit of our God. A God who loved us so much, that even while we were yet sinners, Christ came to this earth as a man, born of a virgin some 2000 years ago. He dwelt among men, and eventually died on a cross, so that God could say to us, “What I want more than anything else in this world is the opportunity to forgive you, the opportunity to hold you close, the opportunity to restore our relationship.”
It is only as we allow God’s Spirit to fill our lives more and more that we can ever hope to be able to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt us.