This morning, we continue in our series entitled “Our Journey with Jesus”. So far, we’ve talked about letting go, welcoming, friending, and resting. And, last week, I said that last week’s discipline was perhaps the most difficult of all the disciplines in this series – confessing. Not just confessing our sins to God, but confessing our sins to one another. Being open enough to admit our failures to one another. And I said that confessing our sins to one another is a difficult thing to do because we are often more concerned with our image and what others think about us than we are with being honest about who we truly are and what we do.
But, if there is a discipline which is more difficult than confessing, it would have to be the discipline that we’re talking about this morning. You could say that it’s the flip side of confessing. When we do wrong to others, we need to confess. But when others do wrong to us, we need to forgive. And so, this morning, we’re going to talk about the discipline of forgiving.
Simon Wiesenthal was a Jew who lived in Europe in the 1900’s. He was a survivor of the Nazi death camps, but he lost 89 relatives in those camps. And so, after the war ended, Simon devoted his life to finding Nazi criminals and bringing them to justice. Toward the end of the 20th century, he was still hunting down men in their 70’s and 80’s for crimes they had committed half a century before.
In 1998, he wrote a book (The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness) in which he tells of a true experience that he had while he was a concentration camp prisoner. One day, he was yanked out of his work detail and taken to a hospital room, where he was left alone with a man lying on a bed. The man on the bed was a badly wounded German soldier. His name was Karl.
And, with a trembling voice, Karl made a sort of confession to Simon. He told how he had been brought up in a Nazi family, the fighting he had experienced on the Russian front, and the brutal measures his S.S. unit had taken against Jews. And then he told about a time that all the Jews in this one town were herded into a wooden building that was then set on fire. This soldier, Karl, had taken an active role in that crime.
And then he said, “I am left here with my guilt. I do not know who you are, I know only that you are a Jew and that is enough. I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you. But without your answer I cannot die in peace.”
And then, Karl asked for forgiveness for all the Jews he had killed. Simon sat in silence for a while. And then, without saying a word, he got up and left the room, without forgiving that soldier.
Simon Wiesenthal wasn’t sure that he had done the right thing. And so, in his book, he asked 32 rabbis, Christian theologians, and secular philosophers to answer the question, “What would YOU have done?”
And, of the people he asked, most of them said that he had done the right thing in leaving the soldier unforgiven. Only 6 out of the 32 said that he should have forgiven the man.
I don’t need to tell you that forgiveness is a difficult thing to do. It’s difficult to forgive the people you work with. It’s difficult to forgive Christians who have hurt you. And it’s even difficult to forgive your husband or wife.
It may seem strange that forgiveness is needed in marriages more than anywhere else, but it only makes sense. Your spouse is the person whom you are around more than anyone else. As someone has pointed out, “bitterness has less to do with the magnitude of the offense than the proximity of the offender.” When you see that person every day who has hurt you, the hurt is magnified.
And when you’re around someone seven days a week, you have more opportunities to mess up, more opportunities to do or say something that’s hurtful. It is sometimes said that “We always hurt the ones we love the most.” And I think that’s true. Because I can only be hurt by someone to whom I have opened myself up and to whom I have made myself vulnerable. So it only makes sense that the person who has the opportunity to hurt me the most is the person to whom I have given myself completely.
And when we are hurt, we have the choice to either forgive or not forgive. But if you refuse to forgive a person who has hurt you, the result will always be bitterness. Hurt results in anger, anger simmers and eventually turns into bitterness. S. I. McMillen once wrote, “The moment I start hating a person I become that person’s slave. I can’t enjoy life…he controls my thoughts.”
And that’s the problem with bitterness. A bitter person will keep thinking about that hurt. They will play it back in their minds over and over, and clearly remember every detail of what happened. And you eventually become so wrapped up in that wrong that happened in the past. that you can’t enjoy the present. And, the result is that bitterness will always have a negative effect you physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Which is why one reason we all need to learn to forgive is for our own sakes. As Jonathan Huie put it, “Forgive others, not because they deserve to be forgiven, but because you deserve peace.” Which sounds nice, but the very moment we say those words, our mind begins 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’d be angry too.”
• “They deserve to suffer like they’ve made me suffer.”
• “My daughter was raped. How do you forgive that?”
• “I was sexually abused by a family member. How do you forgive that?”
C. S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” And so, I say again, that forgiveness is a difficult thing to do. And the greater we have been hurt, the more difficult it is.
As we talk about forgiving this morning, I’m going to be looking back often to a story in the Old Testament that I think gives one of the greatest examples of forgiveness in the Bible, and that’s the story of Joseph. There were so many people who did him wrong – his brothers, who wanted to kill him but eventually sold him as a slave in a foreign country; Potiphar’s wife, who lied and accused Joseph of committing rape which resulted in him being thrown into prison; the cupbearer, who had the chance to get Joseph out of prison, but didn’t say anything.
And, as you read through the story of Joseph, you can feel his pain. You can imagine the temptation that he must have faced to become bitter and unforgiving. But, as we’ll see in just a little bit, Joseph was able to forgive even those who hurt him the most.
To forgive those who have hurt us is usually difficult and sometimes even painful. But, according to God, it is always necessary.
I. 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 debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12). Then, a few verses later, Jesus commented further by saying, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15). That’s strong language!
Later, when Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21), Jesus illustrated his “seventy-times-seven” answer by telling a parable. It was the story of the master who forgave a servant’s huge debt, 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 punishment. And then Jesus made his application in one of the harshest statements he ever made: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35).
Last week, we saw that confessing our sins is essential to being forgiven, but Jesus makes it clear that forgiving the sins of others is just as essential. Forgiving others is directly related to our being forgiven by God, and our unwillingness to forgive destroys the bridge over which God’s forgiveness comes to us. But forgiving can be a hard thing to do.
It doesn’t help that we live in a society that doesn’t place a high value on forgiveness. Our culture exalts those TV and movie heroes who take vengeance on others. Anybody who is willing to forgive is portrayed as weak, and those who refuse to forgive are the ones who are regarded as strong. And the result is a society filled with bitterness, vengeance, anger, hate and hostility.
Marriages suffer because grudges are held and neither is willing to forgive. Crimes of retaliation and ridiculously excessive lawsuits are common as people seek vengeance both inside and outside the law. It seems like 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, before I go much further, I need to explain what the Bible means by forgiveness. But, first, let me tell you what forgiveness is not.
1. Contrary to what you may have heard, forgiveness is not forgetting.
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that we need to just “forgive and forget”, but that’s just not true. First of all, God doesn’t forget. It sounds like he does in Jeremiah 31:34 which says, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more”. But, if God truly forgot, then we wouldn’t have any record of those people in the Bible who sinned and found forgiveness. God always has and always will know all things, but he has promised never to use our sin against us or to treat us as if the reality of our sin were present in his mind.
Furthermore, for us to “forgive and forget” is psychologically impossible. As soon as you make up your mind to forget something, you can be assured that, in most instances, it is the one thing that will linger at the forefront of your conscious thinking. Now we all forget things, but we do it unintentionally over the course of time. Life and experience and old age all help to erase certain things from our memory, but that’s rarely, if ever, the case with sins committed against us and the wounds we have suffered.
2. Forgiveness is not excusing or minimizing the sin.
Joseph is a good example of this. He said to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (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 anything that day you threw me into that cistern at Dothan or sold me to those Midianites.” No, Joseph looked at his brothers and he 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.”
Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you no longer feel the pain of what was done to you. 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.
3. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you stop longing for justice.
Vengeance is not a bad thing! If it were, God would be in trouble, because Paul said, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). To want justice to be done is entirely legitimate, but to seek it for yourself is not.
The point is that forgiveness does not mean you are to ignore that a wrong was done or that you deny that a sin was committed. Forgiveness does not mean that you close your eyes to moral atrocity and pretend that it didn’t hurt or that it really doesn’t matter whether or not the offending person is called to account for his/her offense.
4. Forgiveness does not mean that you make it easy for the offender to hurt you again.
To put it another way forgiveness does not mean trust. Forgiveness should be freely given, trust must be earned. There are times when you may need to set boundaries on your relationship with those who have hurt you. The fact that you establish rules to govern how and to what extent you interact with this person in the future does not mean you have failed to sincerely and truly forgive them. Forgiveness does not mean you become a helpless and passive doormat for their continual sin.
So, if that’s not what forgiveness, then what is it?
B. What Forgiveness Is
1. Forgiveness is acknowledging the specific wrong done to us.
When Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers, he was very specific in what he said. He said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4). There was no attempt to get by with a broad generalization like, “You know, you guys weren’t very nice to me.” or “You were pretty mean to me when I was a kid.”
There’s an important principle involved here that we sometimes hear stressed in connection with God’s forgiveness of us. We often say, and rightfully so, that we need to be specific in confessing 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 someone at work and I know that it’s wrong.”
In the same way, we need to acknowledge to ourselves the specific wrong done to us in order to forgive the person for it. Otherwise, we will end up making sweeping generalizations of forgiveness that don’t do much for our relationship. Whenever people are battling resentment and bitterness against someone, it’s important to be specific about what wrongs have been committed.
2. Forgiveness is acknowledging your resentment.
In Ephesians 4:31, Paul said, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Before we can truly forgive, we need to have the courage to face our true feelings toward that person.
In most cases, the only way you can stop hurting is to stop feeling, and the only way you can stop feeling is to die emotionally. This may be one of the reasons that people are reluctant to forgive. They know they can’t stop feeling the sting of the sin against them and they don’t want to be insincere by saying they forgive when deep down inside they know they didn’t. In order to forgive, though, we acknowledge that hurt and that resentment.
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 her mother came back to church and she came forward during the invitation and expressed a desire to be forgiven by God. This young lady broke into tears afterward and said, “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.”
It is important for us to face that resentment, not bury it. And until you acknowledge that that resentment is there, you can’t get past it.
3. Forgiveness is making a choice.
After we have faced the wrongs done to us and we have felt the hurts and admitted our resentment, we reach a point where we have a choice — to forgive or not to forgive.
When we forgive, we make the decision: I will not dwell on this incident. Don’t replay the incident in your mind. I realize that’s easy to say but hard to do. When that reel begins to play in your mind, intentionally push the Stop button. Realize that it will not make things better, dwell on what is good, and ask God to give you the strength to withstand those attacks on your mind.
When you forgive, you are also intentionally choosing to release your bitterness, resentment, vengeance, and anger toward the person who has hurt you.
Let me share two quotes with you that I think help define what forgiveness is. The first is this – “Forgiveness is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.” Because that’s what someone deserves. If they have hurt us, they deserve to pay. But forgiveness is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.
The second quote is this — “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.”
Forgiveness is not an easy thing to do! It’s never an easy thing to say, “You did me wrong, but I don’t hold it against you anymore. I don’t resent you anymore. There’s no bitterness in my heart toward you.” The reason it’s heard to do that is 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 your right to do that. And that can be a difficult thing to do.
And I don’t know of any way we can do it without God’s help. Paul ends the Ephesian passage I mentioned a few moments ago by turning to Calvary. He says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32).
Understand that forgiveness is one of the ways that God communicates his nature to us. He is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9), so he paid the enormous price of the cross to bring forgiveness to all who would accept it. But what we sometimes fail to appreciate is that Jesus didn’t just die on the cross to remove the barrier between us and God but also to remove the barrier between us and others. He died to make peace, as Paul explains in great detail in Ephesians chapter 2. And if we aren’t willing to forgive others, then we don’t fully understand the significance of the crucifixion.
It’s a lesson that we all need to learn — to maintain our desire to forgive even when our feelings tend to overwhelm us. 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 that 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.
There’s one more thing I want you to see — the story of Joseph illustrates an important distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. We sometimes think 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. I don’t believe he could have survived everything he did if he hadn’t had a forgiving spirit.
Joseph had forgiven them already, 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 upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. After that his brothers talked with him. (Genesis 45:14-15).
To forgive those who wrong us and hurt us is one thing; to be reconciled with them is another. When we forgive, the walls that we have built which have kept us apart are broken down and, as far as we are concerned, we are now free to go to them and be reconciled. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible because maybe 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.
Sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible. But, know this – not only does Christ require us to forgive others, he also requires us to seek reconciliation.
It is so hard for us to not 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. Even more importantly, it’s 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! Someone has put it this way – “You are never more like Jesus than when you forgive.”
And ultimately, as I said, the only way we can do that is to be filled with the Spirit of God. A God who loved us so much, that even while we were yet sinners, Christ came to this earth as a man, 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.”
And it is only as we allow God’s Spirit to fill our lives more and more that we can ever hope to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt us.