I heard a story recently about a woman who was visiting a friend. When she was on her way home again, she saw her husband driving by the other way towing their fifth wheel RV. She did not remember that they had made plans of any kind and so she followed him until she caught up with him. When she talked to him, she found out that he was leaving her. It caught her completely by surprise and was devastating. How do you respond when someone abandons you?
I knew about a lady who was having a lot of trouble with her relationship with her brother. As I learned more about the story, I discovered that when they were still both at home, she had been sexually abused by her brother. How do you respond when someone has violated your person?
I heard about a family in which the aging father was in a nursing home. Some of the family members discovered that a large amount of the father’s money was missing. Later they found out that one of the family members had persuaded the father to give them a large enough sum of money so that they could buy a car. When confronted, the sibling who had gotten the money indicated that the father had wanted to do this. The other members knew that the father no longer was aware enough of what was happening and they knew that the inheritance was significantly depleted because of this. What do you do if someone does an injustice to you?
All of these stories involved people who were members of churches and claimed to be Christians.
Over the last several weeks, we have been talking about what it means to live as a community of God’s people. We have explored the phrase “one another” in its various aspects. We have been encouraged to love one another, to bear with one another and to submit to one another. But there are situations in which these phrases are not adequate. When we are wronged or someone sins against us, something more is needed. It is no longer a matter of bearing with each other or submitting to each other. A wrong has been done. How do we respond in those situations? Today is the last in the series and we will examine what is probably the most difficult thing to do in the “one another” relationship. We will look at what it means to forgive each other.
The German philosopher Schopenhauer compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter's night. He said, "The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills.” I think this is also an excellent picture of the church. We have already established that as Christians, we are not perfect and we will hurt each other. We all have quills that poke others, we all do things that wound others. We will be wronged and sinned against.
When we are wronged, what are our options?
One thought that quickly comes to mind is that the wrong must be made right. If they have stolen from us, then they should repay what they have stolen. Justice is a good thing and the fair thing to do. Where restitution can be made, it should be made, but many times, that just does not work. How do you repay a stolen reputation? How do you repay hurting words that are spoken? How do you repay adultery or abuse? If the wrong can be accurately calculated mathematically, then restitution works, but most often you can’t do that and so restitution is not a complete option.
Since it is so hard to calculate restitution, it is natural for us to desire revenge. If you have hurt me, I want to see you hurt just as much as you hurt me and maybe just a little bit extra. It gives us satisfaction to see another hurt in retaliation for hurting us. But revenge only makes things worse. The obvious problem is that revenge usually involves a return retaliation and so spawns a cycle of violence that is already so destructive in the world. Someone has said that if the rule is eye for eye and tooth for tooth, what you end up with is a world full of toothless, blind people. Another person wrote that “The man who seeks revenge is like the man who shoots himself in order to hit his enemy with the kick of the gun’s recoil.” Revenge puts you below your enemy and barely satisfies your anger.
Many people realize the futility of trying to seek restitution or revenge, but are still filled with great anger at the injustice of the wrong which has been done to them. As a result, they seethe with hatred towards the person who has wronged them and refuse to let go of the hatred. Hatred is a natural expression of our anger and sense of injustice, but we need to be very careful if we choose this as our response to a wrong. Hatred eats you up from the inside. As a root of bitterness grows up, it can consume you. Every time you see the person, negative emotions overwhelm you. Anger and bitterness have serious negative side effects, both psychological and physical. Instead of getting back at the other person, our own anger destroys us.
In his book, Lee: The Last Years, Charles Bracelen Flood reports that after the Civil War, Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky lady who took him to the remains of a grand old tree in front of her house. There she bitterly cried that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Federal Artillery fire. She looked to Lee for a word condemning the North or at least sympathizing with her loss. After a brief silence, Lee said, "Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it." It is better to forgive the injustices of the past than to allow them to remain, let bitterness take root and poison the rest of our life.”
As we examine these options, we see that none of them satisfy or work. Restitution is impossible and does not bring back what we have lost anyway, revenge puts us below our enemy and simply multiplies the pain and hatred leads to bitterness and destroys us from within.
The Bible gives us what I believe is the only option. Twice in the letters of Paul, we are told to forgive. In Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” In Colossians 3:13, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
In the parable of the unforgiving servant, we have one of the most powerful lessons on forgiveness. There we read about a man who had a huge debt. The debt would be in the millions of dollars. After begging his master for forgiveness of the debt because he could not pay it, this same servant went out and demanded payment of a tiny debt from one of his fellow servants. The story is the most powerful example of the reason why we must forgive. If we do not forgive, it is evident that we have not understood our own forgiveness. If we have understood our own forgiveness, then we have no choice but to forgive.
In the lesson on prayer which Jesus gave to his disciples in Matthew 6, we have another reason why we must forgive. There we read, “…if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” That is a pretty serious warning which leaves us no choice but to forgive others.
Chris Carrier of Coral Gables, Florida, was abducted when he was 10 years old. His kidnapper, angry with the boy's family, burned him with cigarettes, stabbed him numerous times with an ice pick, then shot him in the head and left him to die in the Everglades. Remarkably, the boy survived, though he lost sight in one eye. No one was ever arrested.
Recently, a man confessed to the crime. Carrier, now a youth minister at Granada Presbyterian Church, went to see him.
He found David McAllister, a 77-year-old ex-convict, frail and blind, living in a North Miami Beach nursing home. Carrier began visiting often, reading to McAllister from the Bible and praying with him. His ministry opened the door for McAllister to make a profession of faith.
No arrest is forthcoming; after 22 years, the statute of limitations on the crime is long past. In Christian Reader (Jan/Feb 98), Carrier says, "While many people can't understand how I could forgive David McAllister, from my point of view I couldn't not forgive him. If I'd chosen to hate him all these years, or spent my life looking for revenge, then I wouldn't be the man I am today, the man my wife and children love, the man God has helped me to be."
Forgiveness is the only real choice we have as Christians, but what does it mean to forgive? There are a lot of wrong ideas about forgiveness out there and it is important to understand true forgiveness.
When we are wronged and someone apologizes, what do we often say? One of the most common responses is, “it’s OK.” The problem is that it is not OK. We have been hurt, we have been violated and we have been wronged. What makes us say that it is OK? Are we afraid to hurt someone’s feelings? Are we afraid that a good intention will be prevented? What makes us sweep sin under the rug? What makes us ignore what is going on in our heart and mind about the situation.
True forgiveness will not happen until we admit that a wrong has been done. As long as we are blind to the fact that we have been hurt or ignore the truth of the sin which has been done, we will never be able to deal with forgiveness. If we merely say “its OK” we will deny the truth which is within us. We may say “its OK” but our heart will be saying something else. As a result, we will continue to tell others the story of the awful thing that was done to us. We will continue to rehearse and nurse the pain and as a result we will grow a root of bitterness in our heart.
Another problem with saying “its OK” is that we will have no power because we have already absolved the other person of the wrong and so we can’t load it back on them, even though we continue to try. We never learn to respect or love the person, we become bitter towards them and we grow in our hatred towards them. It is no wonder that we have a growing bank of anger and resentment.
The first step of forgiveness must be the acknowledgement that a wrong has been done to us. We must say it was a wrong done and we must accept that we have been hurt and violated by the other person.
The parable in Mt. 18 helps us understand that forgiveness creates the deepest awareness of sin. The debt could not be paid. Sin and wrongs are just that, a debt that cannot be paid.
But to acknowledge the wrong is only the starting point. If we leave it at that, we will merely increase the bitterness which destroys.
Although true forgiveness begins with the acknowledgement of wrong, it goes on from there. Forgiveness means that we accept the cost of the wrong. Forgiveness means that we acknowledge that a wrong has been done, we choose that we will not hold it against the other person, which means that we also choose to accept the cost of the wrong.
Every wrong has a cost and as long as it is not dealt with, it is born by both people. The person who did the wrong bears the cost of guilt for doing the wrong. The person to whom the wrong was done bears the cost of the wrong done as well as the cost of hatred and bitterness towards the person who did it. When forgiveness happens the person to whom the wrong was done absorbs the cost of the wrong done and accepts the cost and refuses to hold the cost of the wrong done against the other person. Now the cost of the wrong is no longer born by the one who did the wrong because his guilt is removed. The cost of hatred and bitterness is also removed from the person to whom the wrong is done. The only cost remaining is the cost of the wrong done and that is accepted and born by the person who is wronged.
As a last resort, sometimes banks or credit unions will choose to cancel a debt. They realize that it will not be paid back and they write on it “debt cancelled.” The cost of cancelling the debt is born by the bank. They are the ones who are out the money.
That is what we must do when we forgive. If, for example, someone tells a story about me that puts me in a bad light, a story that perhaps was told to them in confidence, I bear the cost of that story being told. It may be the cost of a lost reputation, or embarrassment or some other cost. It is a debt that cannot be paid back and in order to forgive, I have to choose to write over it, “debt cancelled.” The cost of cancelling the debt is mine. It is my reputation that is ruined and can’t be restored and in forgiveness, I accept that.
“James Buswell wrote, “No one ever really forgives another, except he bears the penalty of the other’s sin against him.”
Another writer says, “Either the sinner bears his own guilt - that’s cold justice. Or the one sinned against, the first party, may absorb what the second party did - that’s forgiveness!”
In Colossians 3:13, we are told to forgive as “the Lord has forgiven you.” In the parable of the unforgiving servant, we are reminded that this is exactly what Christ did for us. When he cancelled the debt against us, he did so by bearing the cost of our sin. He accepted the wrong of our sin showing us how to forgive.
Such forgiveness is costly and very difficult. Sometimes it is hard to understand how we can do it and even why we should do it. How can we choose to bear what may be an enormous cost? How can we let the other person go free? How can we do it?
In part it will be possible to forgive if we remember that we also at times need forgiveness. None of us is perfect and if we expect grace from others, we will have to sometimes extend grace to others.
In part it will be possible when we recognize that God loves us and God also loves the other person. If we get angry at another person, we might be tempted to complain to God about the other person. But when we realize that God loves them and us and knows both perspectives perfectly, it changes the nature of our complaint. It may be a little jarring to realize, but it isn’t us and God against the other person. God loves both of us and knowing that can help us to forgive.
For the most part, it will be possible to forgive when we recognize what Christ has done for us. If we know our sin and the holiness of God, we will know the great depth of Christ’s sacrifice and the tremendous gift we have received from Him. In knowing that, we will be able to forgive. This is the power of the parable of the unforgiving servant. Whenever I have a hard time forgiving, I just try to remember that parable and what I have received and forgiveness becomes possible.
In large measure, it will be possible to forgive only when we do it in the power of God. God has given us his Spirit and forgiving is a gift of the Spirit. We will have to choose obedience and ask God to place that choice deep in our heart by His power.
Spencer Perkins tells the following story in “Playing the Grace Card.”
"Daddy, come quick," shouted my four-year-old daughter. "Someone stole the presents from under the Christmas tree."
At first I thought that the children were playing on me. But I could see quickly that they were visibly upset. Apparently someone had come into our house while we slept, picked out some choice presents, removed the blanket that covers my favorite chair, and used it to haul away about a dozen or so gifts that were to be given to the children and to friends and family on Christmas morning.
To say that the children were angry would be an understatement. After my 11-year-old son, Jonathan, realized that among the gifts stolen were his brand new Nike sneakers, he stormed out of the house in tears.
I sat silent on my coverless chair, stunned and fuming. I had seen the children's Christmas special, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" dozens of times since childhood. But I never believed such a tale could come true. How do you forgive a person like this? How do I teach my children to practice forgiveness?
Because it is unnatural, we have to practice forgiveness, like any other discipline. According to Dr. King, "Forgiveness is not just an occasional act: it is a permanent attitude."
Later that day I put the question to my son. "How should we as Christians respond to the person who tried to steal our Christmas?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know, Dad," he said. "Even though he doesn't deserve it, we're supposed to give him grace."
Sure, I knew that the words that came out of his mouth were almost the complete opposite of what he was feeling in his heart (I knew because I felt the same way). But I also knew we had to start somewhere. And if, one step at a time, our discipleship as Christians could include giving each other grace, if our children could learn and practice forgiveness as well as they practice praise and worship, if we could literally create a counter-culture of grace, then just maybe, as we all mature in our faith, our hearts could finally line up with our words. And the world would have to take notice.
Cozying up with porcupines is such a good description of life in the church. Hurt and wrongs and even sin are a part of life among God’s people. We have a choice, of course. We can go out on our own and never get into any kind of deep relationships with others. We can keep on attending church, but build a wall around ourselves so that we will never be touched by other people. But of course, that will only cause us to miss out on the blessings as well. Christ has not called us to these ways. He has called us to community with the full awareness that we will hurt and wrong each other and be hard to live with.
With that call and that knowledge, he invites us to relate to one another by loving, bearing with, submitting and forgiving one another. He does so with the promise of his prior acceptance of us and his assurance that we will spend eternity with him and with each other.
So my invitation to all of us today is to make this real. I invite you to forgive - to acknowledge the wrong, accept the cost and write “debt cancelled.” Whom do you need to forgive today?