Matthew 18:21-22. When we hear this teaching of Jesus, the thing we tend to focus on is the numbers. How often am I supposed to forgive? Do I need to forgive people 7 times, or is it 70 times, or 77 times, or 70 x 70 times? Just how many times does Jesus say I have to forgive someone? Instead of trying to pin Jesus down to a number, let’s ask another question. Why does Jesus tell us we need to forgive? Why do we need to forgive people when they offend us, hurt us and throw rocks in our backpacks? The answer is actually pretty simple. We forgive because it is in our physical, emotional and spiritual well being to forgive.
When we withhold our forgiveness, in other words, when he hold on to a grudge, it negatively effects every part of our lives. On a physical level, when we choose not to forgive it allows bitterness and resentment to take over which increases stress which in turn can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and many other illnesses. I found this really interesting; the Cancer Treatment Centers of America offer a forgiveness education program to help patients explore “the healing powers of forgiveness during cancer care.” Forgiveness can help bring healing and us feel better physically, but it can also help us emotionally. Bitterness and resentment often lead to depression, increased anxiety, anger and social disorders. Our inability to forgive takes a huge toll on us emotional which not only causes us to suffer but it strains every relationship we have. We may think that the only relationship that suffers is the one with the person who has offended us, but that is not true. When we are unwilling to forgive, bitterness and anger spills over into every other relationship in our lives – including our relationship with God.
On a spiritual level, not being willing to forgive others has a huge effect on us because it breaks down our ability to connect with God. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus said that if we are not willing to forgive others than God is not willing to forgive us. Matthew 6:15. Without God’s forgiveness and grace flowing into our lives, our spiritual lives stop growing and begins to decline. The longer we hold that grudge the farther away from God we move.
Over time, an unforgiving spirit not only poisons every relationship but every part of our lives. It destroys us. This week Paul Neff shared with me a saying that maybe you have heard, he said, holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. We think not forgiving someone will not have any negative effect on us but hurt the other person but the truth is that many times the other person doesn’t even know we are holding a grudge so they are fine, but we are the ones slowly dying because of the stress, depression and spiritual isolation that our un-forgiveness creates.
So we need to stop thinking about how often we need to forgive others and remember why Jesus tells us to forgive. We need to forgive because it is the only way we will be healthy in body, mind and spirit. Last week we talked about the steps needed in asking others to forgive us and they were to acknowledge our sin, feel genuine remorse, confess to God and others what we have done and work to change. This is a helpful process inasking for forgiveness but what helps us offer it.
If you are struggling to forgive someone, think about sparingwith them. No, I don’t mean getting into a boxing ring and going a few rounds, although sometimes that might sound like a good idea. What I mean is to S.P.A.R with them. First Seek to understand. What is it that shapes the other person’s heart and life. Many people hurt or offend others because there is some unresolved hurt or pain in their lives. Maybe their childhood was filled with abuse or loss. Maybe they were bullied through school so have learned that the only way to treat others is to bully them. Many times there are clear reasons why people have hurt us and when we seek to understand them it opens the door to forgiveness.
The second thing we can do is Pray for the person. We don’t pray for their destruction or downfall and we don’t pray that they come to their senses and apologize to us, we pray for their heart and soul. We pray that God heals their spirits and blesses their lives in some way that restores relationships. We also might need to pray to understand them better and pray that God opens our hearts to forgiveness regardless of what the other person does.
When I was in Altoona there was a member of the congregation who hurt and offended many people in the church. To put it simply, he was a bully and many of us struggled to forgive him. One day as I was struggling to pray for this man, I decided to go and sit in his pew. He always sat in the same spot so I went and spent some time sitting in his seat trying to understand him. I actually opened the hymnal he would use and prayed that the words of the hymns would speak to his heart and life. Physically sitting in his seat helped me pray for him. I’m not sure it changed him at all, but it changed me. If there is someone you are struggling to forgive, then when no is around find a way to sit in their seat and pray for them. Maybe it means taking a walk by their house, sitting at their desk after work, or in their room or their chair at home. If you have never done something like this, it can be powerful and help change our hearts and lives so we can begin to forgive others.
Something else we can do to help us learn how to forgive others is to Assume the best in them. Most of the time when we feel hurt or offended our first reaction is to get defensive and assume the worst in them. We assume they intended to hurt us and maybe even planned and plotted to harm us. Those assumptions poison our heart and life and many times they may not even be true. So instead of assuming the worst in others, assume the best. Assume they were having a bad day when they were short. Assume they were not feeling well or were stressed over some other issue when they lashed out. When we assume the best in people it helps us see them in a different light. It helps us see not only their value and worth but it helps us see them as children of God who also need support and love. Assuming the best can defuse a difficult situation and open the door to forgiveness.
Now if all of that doesn’t work, the last thing we can do isRemember our own sin. When we stop and remember all the things we have done wrong and all the times we have offended others and all the ways God has forgiven us and others have forgiven us, it begins to change our perspective. Jesus tells a story that illustrates this point in Matthew 18:23-33. The problem with the servant who was unwilling to forgive was that he had forgotten all that he had been forgiven of. When we remember our own sin and all the ways that other people forgive our offenses and failures it helps us offer forgiveness and grace to others.
So if we are struggling to forgive someone, we need to SPAR with them. We need to seek to understand them, pray for them, assume the best in them and remember our own sins and how often we have been forgiven. Now sometime our struggle to forgive others comes from questions we have about forgiveness, so let’s address some of those questions. The first one is: When we forgive others are we condoning their sin?
Does forgiveness mean that we are saying their sin or offenses are not that bad – or not bad at all. Clearly the answer to this is no. Forgiveness is not approving of people’s words or actions it is letting go of our right to seek retribution and revenge. God’s forgiveness of us doesn’t mean that God approves of what we have done, I think our sin causes God real hurt and pain, but God chooses to let go of his right to seek revenge. It is important for us to make sure we say to ourselves that the offense we have experienced is real and that many times it causes genuine pain and hurt and that forgiveness doesn’t excuse their behavior, we are just making the choice to let it go and not seek retaliation.
Another question people often ask is: Does forgiveness mean that there will be no consequences or punishment for wrong doing?
Let me answer that with a story I have shared before. When I was in Junior High School I came home after school and realized that I had forgotten my house key. My sister and I got the ladder out of the garage, climbed in an open window on the second floor, put the ladder away and chose not to say anything about it to our parents, not even when we were asked if we moved the ladder. In time we did confess to our parents that we moved the ladder, but not until we had already lied about it. Now my parents forgave me, but I was still grounded for a week. Forgiveness didn’t mean that there were no consequences to my lying. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we excuse people’s actions and behaviors it just means that we let go of the anger and resentment toward others.
For me this is helpful when I think about some of the situations we have seen in the news recently. For example, in Oklahoma, we can talk about forgiveness for the teenagers who shot Christopher Lane, the Australian college student, but that doesn’t mean that there will be no trial and no punishment for their actions. There needs to be. Our world needs clear boundaries and clear consequences when those boundaries are crossed or broken, but we don’t have to hold on to our anger. Seeking justice doesn’t mean seeking revenge.
This week is the 12th Anniversary of 9/11 and as a nation we have to deal with this same thing. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for those who planned this terrorist attack. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we let them go free, but we can let go of our anger and any desire we have to see the complete destruction of those who have harmed us. This doesn’t come easily or quickly – but as we seek to understand and pray – our hearts and minds can change.
A third question many people ask is: Are we supposed to forgive people even when they don’t ask for it?
To answer this question, let’s look at Jesus. When he was hanging on the cross he looked out and said, Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. Jesus forgave the Roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross. Jesus forgave his disciples who had failed him; the religious leaders who had given him an unjust trial and the crowd that turned again him. Jesus forgave all those gathered there that day before anyone asked. So, yes, we need to learn to forgive people before they ask for it.
The truth is that we need to learn to forgive people whether they ask for us to forgive them or not because if we don’t we continue to poison our hearts and lives. But there is another reason we should forgive others before they ask, sometimes it is our forgiveness that can bring them to a place of repentance. When Jesus offered forgiveness from the cross there was a Roman soldier who heard this and said, Surely this man was the son of God. That soldier saw what Jesus did and it made a difference in his heart and life, it brought him to a place of faith and trust. When we offer forgiveness before others ask or even know they need it, it can change their hearts and lives as well. But just a thought here, don’t make a show of that forgiveness and offer it in an attitude of pride. It is better to simply treat the person who has offended or hurt us with grace and love. Jesus taught us this principle when he said in Matthew 5:44, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And the apostle Paul said, do not be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good.
So this leads us to our last question: How can we forgive our enemies?
The last couple of weeks as we have been talking about our sin and our offenses toward one another we have used the analogy of rocks and some of our sins are small and need to be let go of. Other sins are medium sized and need to be worked through as we ask for and offer forgiveness and some sins large and even very large and need a lot of time, work love and grace for there to be any forgiveness and any hope or possibility of reconciliation. But what happens when the rock is this sized?
This rock is impossible to move and there are times when forgiving our enemies seem impossible.
I mentioned Christopher Lane earlier; he was the Australian college student who was shot in cold blood for no apparent reason. I can imagine that his parents are dealing with this kind of rock. Those who lost loved ones in the Fort Hood shooting might be dealing with this kind of rock. The women held captive for 10 years by a man in Ohio are dealing with this kind of rock and at times it must seem impossible to forgive such horrific sins.
I’m not sure that SPARing with people will help in these situations because sometimes there is no way to understand why people do such evil things and at times there is no way to assume the best in people who commit such evil acts and remembering our sins in light of such horrific events really might not help – so what does help? In this situation I think there is just one thing that can help us begin to remove the rock and that is the power of God. When faced with seemingly impossible situations Jesus said, with mortals it is impossible, but with God all things are possible, and the apostle Paul said, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
So forgiveness is possible but only through the power of God. Forgiveness is possible but only because God gives us the ability and strength to slowly let go of our anger and resentment toward others and begin to feel free. Now the reason God helps us forgive isn’t always because God wants the other person forgiven, it is because God wants us to be healthy and strong in both body, mind and spirit and that only comes when we are willing to forgive. So if you are facing this kind of a rock in your life – ask God to slowly break it down and break it apart so you can let it go. It takes time, but if we ask to God to help, I believe God slowly starts to break the rock apart.
And these we can begin to let go of.
If you want to see what this kind of impossible forgiveness looks like in real life, then I would encourage you to read stories of people who have offered this kind of impossible forgiveness. One suggestion is the book Unbroken which is the story of Louie Zemporini who was held prisoner during WWII and worked through a long journey of forgiving his captors who tortured him. The other book which is also in our church library is calledAmish Grace and it is the story of the shooting in Nickel Mines, PA, where in 2006 a gunman killed 5 girls at an Amish school. The community showed their forgiveness of the shooter by reaching out to care for his wife and family. Those stories show us that this kind of forgiveness is possible but we cannot do it alone. This kind of forgiveness calls for the power of God to step in and give us strength and power.
Forgiving others is not easy and it does not always come quickly, but it is important if we not only want to be healthy in body, mind and spirit, but if we want healthy relationships with God and every other person in our lives. So let us forgive others just as God in Christ Jesus, has forgiven us.
1. Name those people you are struggling to forgive.
· Acknowledge that what they have done has hurt you.
· Ask God to help you begin a process of forgiveness.
2. As you seek to forgive these people, S.P.A.R. with them.
· Seek to understand what has shaped their lives.
· Pray for them.
· Assume the best in them.
· Remember your own sin.
3. Forgiving our enemies seems like the impossible rock to let go of. Memorize and repeat these 2 passages:
· I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. Philippians 4:13
· With God, all things are possible. Matthew 19:26
4. To learn how to offer “impossible” forgiveness, read stories of those who have offered it:
· Unbroken , by Laura Hillenbrand
· Amish Grace, by Donald Kraybil, et al.