Friday, July 29, 2016
Can I Forgive (Matthew 6:14-15; Ephesians 4:29-32) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel
Christian author Max Lucado tells the story of being dropped by his insurance company because he had one too many speeding tickets and a minor fender bender that wasn't his fault. As he reflected on how he wasn't good enough for his insurance company, the spiritual tie-in was obvious. He writes this imaginary letter sent from the Pearly Gates Underwriting Division:
Dear Mr. Smith,
“I'm writing in response to your request for forgiveness. I'm sorry to inform you that you have reached your quota of sins. Our records show that, since employing our services, you have erred seven times in the area of greed, and your prayer life is substandard when compared to others of like age and circumstance. Further review reveals that your understanding of doctrine is in the lower 20 percentile and you have excessive tendencies to gossip. Because of your sins you are a high-risk candidate for heaven. You understand that grace has its limits. Jesus sends his regrets and kindest regards and hopes that you will find some other form of coverage.”
How would you like to receive a letter like that?
Think of a person whom you are having trouble forgiving. From families to friendships, from the workplace to worship places, the potential to be hurt or wronged or wounded by another is always present. Someone hurt you, maybe yesterday, maybe many years ago, and you cannot forget it. You did not deserve the hurt. It went deep, deep enough to lodge itself in your memory. And it keeps on hurting you now. The question is – will you forgive, should you forgive, can you forgive?
Yes, forgiveness is a beautiful notion, a lovely ideal, until you are faced with the messy reality of having to actually forgive someone who has wronged you. And yet, if the gospel says anything; it’s the message of God’s forgiveness of us in Jesus and God’s call for us to forgive others. For who are Christians but believers who recognize that are forgiven sinners.
As human beings God did not give us the power to change the past. God did give us the power to forgive the past. God did not give us a delete button to erase the past. God gave us memory. God gave us the power to forgive.
What does forgiveness mean? Biblically it speaks about changing your head, your heart, your attitude toward someone who has sinned against you. It doesn’t mean you must forget what has happened or minimize it. It doesn’t mean you deny the other person’s responsibility in hurting you. It doesn’t mean you must make an excuse for their action. It doesn’t mean the other person is not accountable for his or her actions. It doesn’t mean you must become best friends. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report them to the police if they are physically hurting you. It doesn’t mean allowing or tolerating abusive or bullying behavior toward you. Remorse, repentance, making things right is also a part of the biblical understanding of forgiveness.
In the Old Testament there are some Hebrew words for forgiveness – nasa - means “to remove or lift up or carry away” a barrier or obstacle which stands between you and another person, which then opens up the possibility for restoring the relationship.
Another Hebrew word is – Salach - means to “let go,” to let go of the resentment or anger you harbor toward another. Forgiveness is a means of letting go of bitterness and thoughts of revenge. Forgiveness can sometimes lead to feelings of understanding for the one who hurt you.
How do we forgive? I like the way the late theologian Lewis Smedes answers the question: “How, you do it slowly, with a little understanding, in confusion, with anger left over, a little at a time, freely or not at all.”
We forgive slowly. Forgiveness is an intellectual, emotional and spiritual process. You might forgive someone in your head, but in your heart you are still wounded. It takes time for your heart to catch up with your head. Today we like things to happen fast: fast food, fast computers, fast cell phone service, but some things take time and forgiveness is one of them. Forgiveness is a journey. It happens a little at a time. It requires patience. One's commitment to it has to be renewed every day. Late theologian Lewis Smedes writes: “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”
We also forgive freely. You cannot be forced to forgive someone. The person who hurt you may try to pressure you into forgiving him or her or even your friends might pressure you to forgive, they might plead with you, beg you, but no one can force you. It must come freely from inside of your soul.
I remember a cartoon where one guy has his hands around another guy’s neck and is choking him. The guy in the chokehold says: “But you’re a Christian, you have to forgive me.” The other guy says: “I know, I’m trying, I’m trying.” For me, the bottom line is that the ability to truly forgive someone is an act of God’s grace. The power comes from God. It’s an answer to prayer. God empowers us to do what we cannot do ourselves.
Scripture teaches about forgiveness. “Don’t keep a record of how many times someone has hurt you and how many times you have forgiven them.” Have you ever done that?
Jewish scribes in Jesus’ day taught that one should forgive someone three times. Peter in the Gospel of Matthew approaches Jesus and asks him: “How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me, up to seven times?” Peter thought he was being more than fair given the custom of the day. But Jesus answers: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” That equals 490 times, is that the limit? No, this is a Jewish maxim that means “without limit.” There is no limit to forgiveness.
Why forgive? First, remember who you are – a child of God, a follower of Christ. Jesus commands us to forgive in His name. We in the church are a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners. We aren’t perfect, far from it. I like that old bumper sticker – “Christians are perfect, just forgiven.” Christians haven’t earned God’s grace; we didn’t earn a bronze, silver or gold metal before God in the Spiritual Olympics. God forgave us in spite of ourselves. We have received God’s free gift of salvation by grace through faith. Forgiveness is one of the marks of being a Christian. It’s a sign of living in-Christ. It is a witness to the world.
God’s forgiveness abolishes the walls that separate us from Him and restores our relationship with God. Because God has forgiven you, Christ says I want you my followers to forgive others. Jesus says: “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you don’t forgive others their sins, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your sins.” Forgiveness is serious business in the mind of Jesus.
Second, we are to forgive because our ability to share the forgiveness of God possesses an incredible power to change and impact lives. There is power in a parent forgiving a child or a child forgiving a parent. There is power in a wife forgiving a husband or a husband forgiving a wife. There is power when a friend forgives another friend. The power to erase shame and guilt. It is a potent gift you can give to another. “I forgive you.”
You never know what a difference that can mean in another person’s life. It can totally change a person’s life. There are many stories which bear this out, like the woman who was mugged in broad daylight, her purse was stolen in the robbery. The man was arrested. She visited him in jail for over a year after he was sentenced for the crime. He came out of jail a changed young man because of the love he experienced from her in the form of forgiveness.
Third, forgiveness opens up the possibility, and I say possibility, for restoring a broken relationship which you once valued. You invite the person who hurt you back into your life. If the person is remorseful, repents, comes honestly there is a chance for creating a new beginning. Nothing else can do this. No, there are no guarantees. Forgiveness brings a hope for reconciliation. If the person refuses to acknowledge his or her responsibility, you have to be healed alone. We know sometimes reconciliation happens and sometimes it doesn’t, it’s as they say, complicated.
Third, we are to forgive because you shall ultimately find healing, renewal and peace in forgiveness. You will discover healing inside of you from the hatred, the resentment, the anger, the desire for revenge. The inability to forgive the past robs you of joy and gladness for today. It can sour your soul. Forgiveness, as a friend told me - “Is in the long run the only remedy for the pain which you didn’t deserve and the pain that will not go away.”
When you ask God to help you forgive another person, then you open yourself up to experience God’s grace and peace in your heart. Bitterness, unresolved anger or hostility slowly fades. If not, such negative emotions will poison your soul. They will become toxic and bring sickness to your body. God’s grace can begin to bring healing to our lives. “Anger makes you smaller, while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you were,” wrote Cherie Carter-Scott.
Forgiveness can change the power that a negative past experience can have on our lives today. Lewis Smedes wrote: “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”
A good way to begin the process of forgiving someone and to begin healing is to pray for that person. What? Pray you say! This is difficult, I know, I know this personally, but ask God to give you the strength to pray for that person. And God will. And remember the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
I believe forgiveness is a paradox. It is something you can do only on our own. At the same time, we can only truly forgive, when we open ourselves to God’s grace and allow God’s Spirit to empower us to forgive. God began by forgiving us in Jesus.
I close with these words from Ephesians: “Get rid of all bitterness, passion and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort. Instead, be kind and tenderhearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.” Amen!