We are in a series called Life Rules where we are looking at some of the rules God has given us for the relationships in our lives. We all have rules that we follow in relationships. Many times we don’t know what the rules are that guide us, but trust me – they are there. While some of the rules we follow may not be the best, it is important to have rules because they bring order to the chaos of life. Think about the 10 Commandments. They are good rules and they help bring order to our relationships by providing boundaries to a variety of relationships. In our relationship with God we are to have nothing and no one before him. We are to honor the covenant of marriage and get along well with our neighbors by not taking or desiring any of their stuff. Last week we saw that a rule we often follow is called the golden rule and it was given to us by Jesus, do unto others as we would have them do unto us, but an even better rule for us to follow is to do unto others as God has done unto us.
But what happens when people don’t treat us the way God has treated them? What happens when we are hurt by others and get angry with people? What happens when differences of opinion leads to division and dissension? In some families when the going gets tough the rule is that the tough stop talking. When I was in college I had some struggles with a roommate and instead of talking it out we just stopped talking. When parents disappoint children or children disappoint parents – people stop talking. At work, among friends, on sports teams, in classrooms and with roommates; when we get hurt a rule many of us follow is to just stop talking. We even do this on social media, it’s called un-friending someone.
While following this rule might feel good for awhile, it doesn’t solve anything and so God has given us another rule to use when we get hurt or feel angry and frustrated and this rule is found in Ephesians 4:31. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. So when we feel angry we should just let it go. God’s rule is to get rid of it. Paul is subscribing to the Nike school of counseling here – Just stop it. If you are angry with someone – just stop. If you are feeling bitter – just let it go. That’s it. That’s the rule – just get rid of it.
Now if it were that easy, I could end the message right here and we could all go home early – but let’s be honest – it’s not that easy. In fact I am wondering how we can even take this verse seriously because there is no way that we can just get rid of it. If we are honest with ourselves, we might not want to get rid of it at all. Holding on to a grudge feels good sometimes. Giving our spouse, friend or parents the silent treatment feels good, at least until we realize they haven’t even noticed we’ve stopped talking to them, which of course just gets us angrier.
Holding on to our pain and brokenness also gives us a good excuse for the way we are because it always gives us someone else to blame for our problems. We turned out the way we did because our parents failed us. We lost our job because our coworkers weren’t supportive enough. Our marriage fell apart because he or she hasn’t there for us. As long as we can hold on to a grudge and blame someone else, the bitterness and pain gives us an excuse for the way we are feeling and it gives us a reason not to move forward. So we may not even want to get rid of our anger, bitterness and malice.
For most of us, however, the reason we don’t just get rid of it is because we don’t think it’s possible or we don’t know how. Is it really possible for us to let go of all malice and anger? Can we take Paul’s message seriously? We can and here’s why – Paul knew what he was talking about. Paul knew something about anger and bitterness. First of all, Paul is writing this letter to the Ephesians while being chained up in prison. Not only that he’s all alone, the Jewish leaders had turned on Paul when he started preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead, the early Christians were scared of Paul because he used to be the leader of those who persecuted them and the Romans had been holding him illegally without a trial. As a Roman citizen Paul had rights that were being denied and so here is Paul chained up in a prison cell with everyone against him. He had every right to be angry, bitter and filled with malice and yet he isn’t holding on to these things he has let them go which gives him some authority to tell us to let it go. Paul believes it is possible to get rid of anger and if Paul could do it after all he went through, it gives me confidence that I can do it too.
If we don’t believe it’s possible to get rid of our anger, then what we are left with is holding onto it for the rest of our lives and learning how to manage it. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to live my life holding on to more and more anger because at some point all that pain will overwhelm me – so I have to believe Paul and trust God that it is possible to let it go. Now the truth is that Paul doesn’t just say – let it go – period of end of story, he gives us rules for how to do this. Ephesians 4:32 – Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ, God forgave you.
So we let go of anger by picking up something else – compassion. We let go of bitterness and replace it with something positive – kindness. We help others. We encourage others. We serve others and those positive things give us the strength to let go of the bitterness, anger and rage. And then it says we are to forgive one another and Paul follows that up with the phrase we heard last week, as God forgave you. We are to forgive as God has forgiven us. Last week we talked about God’s rule which is to treat others as God has treated us. So we are to forgive others as God has forgiven us and what helps us forgive others is to let go of hatred and anger is to start doing something positive, by being kind and compassionate.
Last year we spent some time talking about forgiveness and we used the image of a backpack and each time someone hurt us or disappointed us it was like a rock being tossed into that pack. We can either carry these rocks around our entire life and be burdened by their weight and have our lives slowly decline because of what we are carrying, or we can choose to do what – let it go or forgive. Forgiveness is letting go of the rocks, it is an intentional decision to let go of the anger and bitterness. Forgiveness is a decision – it is not a feeling. Forgiveness is a choice we make long before our emotions are all lined up and we feel positive toward someone else – it’s making the decision to let things go even when others don’t deserve it and we don’t feel like.
In the Bible, the word forgive at times means canceling a debt. A debt is created when someone owes us something. When someone borrows money from us they have created a debt and they now owe us something and forgiveness in the Bible means that we make the decision to cancel the debt. Whatever people owe us, we make the decision to cancel the debt. So what we need to do if we want to forgive people is to first determine what they owe us.
Many times when we feel hurt or disappointed by someone it is because they have taken something from us. When relationships fall apart we may feel like our stability and self worth has been stolen. When we are let go from a job our dreams can be taken away, our financial future can be stolen. When divorce drives families apart we may feel like our children and the ability we have to always be with them has been stolen. Many times the anger or bitterness we feel toward others comes because of something we have lost or something that has been stolen and if we can identify the debt it helps us be able to forgive and cancel that debt.
Now you might be asking yourself, why should I cancel the debt? After all, they owe me. The truth is that many times there is no good reason why we should forgive. When the sin or offense of others is real and the pain is genuine and the disappointment runs deep there is often no good reason to forgive. The only reason we need to consider forgiving others is because God has forgiven us. When forgiveness is hard and makes no earthly sense, the only reason we should consider what Paul says here and forgive others is because we are forgiven people.
When we didn’t deserve it, God forgave us. When we were running hard in our sin – God’s grace found us and God forgave us, He invited us home again. Even today as we continue to fall short of how God wants us to live, God forgives us. When we hurt and disappoint God, God forgives us. When we make a mess of all God has given us, God forgives us. How can we accept God’s forgiveness and then not be willing to forgive others. How can we accept God’s grace in canceling our debt and then not be willing to cancel the debt of others?
When Jesus was asked a question about forgiveness he used this story to talk about how we need to forgive others because we are forgiven people. There was a man who owed his master over $300,000 and he had no way to pay off the debt so the master simply said, you don’t owe me anything. The debt is cancelled. The man left his master overjoyed but on his way home he ran into a friend who owed him less than $100. The friend said, I can’t pay you back and the man who had just been forgiven was so outraged that he took his friend to court and had him thrown into jail until he could pay back the money. When the master heard about this he called the man and said, How is it that I forgave your huge debt and you weren’t willing to forgive something so small?
It’s the same with God. He has forgiven us for so much. Think of all the words we have said that have hurt God and others. Think of the negative attitudes and destructive prejudices that have dishonored others and think of all of our actions that have gone against God’s will and destroyed the work of God. God has cancelled a huge debt and he’s not even done yet because there will be more words, attitudes and actions in our lives that will work against God and he will forgive it all. God has forgiven us of much and is willing to forgive so much more and all God is asking is that as forgiven people will now forgive others. The more we understand how forgiven we really are, the more motivation we will find to forgive others. The more grace and mercy we realize God has poured in our lives, the more grace and mercy we will be willing to extend to others. Forgiven people forgive and so we need to stop and reflect on all the ways that God has forgiven us and all the ways that people have forgiven us. Before we can really forgive others we need to learn just how forgiven we are.
So forgiven people forgive, but making the decision to forgive doesn’t instantly take away our anger, bitterness or rage. So forgiveness is not a onetime event but a lifestyle to embrace. In fact the Greek word that Paul uses here is in the present tense which implies that forgiveness is constant and ongoing. Jesus said the same thing when he was asked how many times we should forgive someone. 7 times? 70 times? 70 x 7 times? No, Jesus said, we are to forgive 70 x 70 times, which was his way of saying we are to forgive people all the time. Forgiveness is a lifestyle where every moment of every day we need to tell ourselves – they don’t owe me anymore. Someone offends me – they don’t owe me anymore. Someone hurts me – they don’t owe me anymore. Some disappoints me, takes from me, holds me down, steals from my heart, life and future and we say again and again – they don’t owe me anymore.
I’m going to tell you right now that just saying this over and over won’t suddenly take the feelings of our anger away. It won’t suddenly remove all bitterness, rage and malice – but it will start. I’ve been practicing this week and when I have gotten frustrated or angry I would say to myself and sometimes out loud – they don’t owe me anymore. When I have made the decision to forgive just as God has forgiven me, I have been immediately reminded if all I have been forgiven of, I have actually thought about my sin that God has forgiven. Did the anger or disappointment go away? Not completely, but my focus changed and instead of seeing what others had done to me or what others owed me, I was now thinking about how God had forgiven me and that forgiven people forgive.
This is life rule #2 – Forgiven people forgive. We forgive others just as God has forgiven us. I want to encourage you this week to take some time to reflect on the forgiveness of God. We have provided some scripture from the old and new testament that talk about how deep and wide God’s forgiveness really us and when we think about all those times and ways God has forgiven us – it gives us the motivation to forgive others.
I also want to encourage you to step into a lifestyle of forgiveness by identifying the people you are angry with. This is usually the easiest step because the people we are angry with are usually the people we are thinking about the most. These are the people with whom we have those imaginary conversations where we tell them exactly how we feel and how wrong they have been? Once we identify the people we need to identify what it is they have taken from us. Don’t just say they have offended me, or hurt me and stop there, identify what they have taken from you. Have they taken our self esteem or worth? Have they taken our hopes and dreams for the future or the possibility of having a healthy family? Have they stolen time and wasted energy that could have been put to better use? Have they stolen a piece of heart or integrity? What have they taken and stolen? We can’t fully cancel the debt until we know what it is they owe us.
The third step is to make the decision to forgive. Cancel the debt. Say it out loud – they don’t owe me anymore. You may not feel like it and they may not deserve it, but make the decision and tell yourself and God that they don’t owe you anymore. Forgiveness is the decision we make today and if we will make it today and tomorrow and every day to come then freedom will come and in time our feelings will match our actions. Paul experienced this freedom because every day he forgave and the reason he forgave is because he knew that he was forgiven. So identify who you are mad at and what they owe you and then make the decision to forgive because God’s life rule is that forgiven people forgive.
Life Rules ~ Forgive
1. Review these passages that help us focus on God’s ongoing forgiveness of our sin.
• Psalm 103:12, Isaiah 1:18,
• Daniel 9:9, Micah 7:18-19
• Matthew 6:14-15 and 26:28,
• Mark 11:25, Luke 23:34,
• Acts 3:19, Ephesians 1:7, 4:32,
• Colossians 1:13-14, 3:13, 1 John 1:9
2. Make a list of your sins that God has forgiven. Give thanks that God has forgiven you of all this!
3. Identify who you are angry with.
4. Determine what these people owe you.
• Make a list of all the debts.
• Be specific about what they have stolen
5. Make the decision to cancel their debt. Remember this is a decision we make and not a result of our feelings. Cancelling the debt may have to take place moment by moment, day by day before we feel any sense of peace and freedom.