A sermon by David Raey
The story has been told of a woman who had “got religion” and was telling others of the difference it made in her life. She told her church study group, “I’m so glad I discovered God. I have an uncle I hated so much that I vowed I would never even go to his funeral. But now, why I would gladly go to his funeral.” Such is the difficulty of forgiving one another. It isn’t as straightforward as it seems, and if it does seem simple or easy, chances are we have not actually started the process of forgiving. We may be denying the hurt or minimising it, or explaining it away.
Because we are not always good at loving one another, we need to be good at forgiving one another. Forgiveness is necessary because of the wounds and hurts we give and receive and which arise out of our failure to love and be loved. Let’s explore this crucial yet challenging area and so be set free from the prisons of resentment or bitterness.
We offer forgiveness to others because God has offered forgiveness to us. It is Jesus who brings this forgiveness to us. Before we look at how he does this, let’s first see why we need it. Back in the Middle Ages in England, the king used to send his officials around the kingdom to keep the peace. Any breaches of the peace were recorded in books with black binding. Hence ever since, we associate wrongdoing with black books.
While each of us is capable of much good, none of us is good enough to be friends with God because of that degree of goodness. God is perfectly good whereas we are not. So we are estranged from him and face a destiny apart from him. We choose to live our own lives independently of him. We are sheep who have strayed from the care and control of the good shepherd.
God could have left us to stew in our own juice and take the consequences of our declaration of independence. But he loves us too much to do that. He knew our disobedience had to be dealt with but didn’t want us to bear the consequences. So Jesus his son came to earth and lived a perfect life and then died on the cross. In doing so, he took on himself the penalty for our wrongdoing. God accepted this and proved his acceptance of it by raising Jesus from the dead.
He invites those who know their need of forgiveness to put their trust in what Jesus has done. Quit attempting to try extra hard to get right with God by good works or regular churchgoing. Admit the need of forgiveness and God’s provision of it in Jesus. Those who trust in what Jesus has done, its necessity and completeness are seen by God to share in his perfect goodness and so are acceptable to him.
In this way, Jesus brings forgiveness. It was costly. God’s forgiveness isn’t leniency or soft heartedness. Forgiveness doesn’t come by denying what is wrong but by squarely facing it. And the forgiveness covers all wrongdoing even the things we figure might be beyond forgiveness.
So God has offered forgiveness to us, but that isn’t the end of the story. Back in the mid-19th century in the USA, a bank robber named George Wilson was sentenced to death. His supporters petitioned President Andrew Jackson to pardon him. But Wilson refused to accept the pardon. So his supporters took his case to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Marshall ruled that Wilson had to die. A pardon was only a slip of paper. For it to have effect, it had to be accepted.
So it is with God’s forgiveness of us. He offers it, but we have to receive it for it to do any good. Someone may offer you a free round the world air ticket, but unless you take hold of it, you will get nowhere. He doesn’t force us to be forgiven because he doesn’t just want to transact some legal duty with us; he wants a relationship with us.
Jesus brings forgiveness to those who know their need of it and who recognise he provides it. Those who think they are good enough and don’t need it are mistaken. As are those who think they are too far gone to receive it. Jesus brings forgiveness to those who turn away from being lost sheep and instead return to the care and control of the one good shepherd.
It is good that Jesus brings forgiveness and so brings friendship with God and life forever with God. But the story of forgiveness doesn’t stop there. We are commanded in the Bible to forgive one another as God in Christ forgave us. The logic is that if God is prepared to offer forgiveness to we who have fallen so far short of his perfection, then surely we are to offer forgiveness to those who have offended we imperfect people. If we have received such great mercy, surely we are to extend it to others.
We save forgiveness of others for the significant things. Trivial irritations and upsets are dealt with by forbearance and a dose of patience and humour. When I forgive another person I am determining to not let what they have done to me dictate the course of my life, determining not to fight evil with more evil.
It is not forgetting: that is impossible. It is remembering but without the heavy load which stops us moving on and without the thoughts of revenge which poison us. It is not denying the wrong done to us as if it didn’t matter or didn’t hurt. It did hurt and it does matter. When Jesus brought forgiveness to us it involved facing what had gone wrong with humanity not denying it or pretending it didn’t matter.
In passing, this means forgiveness is quite compatible with punishing a crime. If someone assaults me I can both offer forgiveness and testify against them in court. The state must punish crime. We are not to become the punishers though. We recognise a wrong has been done and has to be dealt with. But we refuse to let hatred and plans of revenge to dominate and twist our lives.
Sadly, some people are wounded by others and become preoccupied with hitting back and wounding them. It is a loser’s game. No one wins: the pain merely escalates. Even if the pain is buried and not expressed, it is still doing harm. Only an offer of forgiveness can set us free.
And we dare not assume this forgiveness comes easily. It didn’t come easily for Jesus. If we tell ourselves we have forgiven someone and that it came easily, chances are we have succumbed to another sort of gesture: excusing, denying, minimising. Forgiveness always involves pain because it always involves facing the wounds inflicted on us.
Because it is costly and hard it is more a process than an event. Repeated hurts over many years can only be dealt with over time. Like grief, forgiveness can’t be rushed. We may think we have forgiven but then we see that person and some old thoughts and old hurts come back. This doesn’t mean we haven’t made progress: it simply means it is hard, ongoing work…which God empowers us to go on doing.
It is also costly because those we need to forgive are often those close to us. Those who love us or claim to love us. Most of our wounds are inflicted by those we know, not by strangers. Our friends and families have more power to hurt us than do strangers.
Despite the cost, the cost of not forgiving is even greater. We get stuck spiritually, unable to appreciate the grace of God extended to us, unable to get on with our journey to maturity in Christ. We can get sick…a stubborn refusal to forgive can give rise to physical sickness, and deep emotional despondency. Our spiritual and emotional arteries are clogged. Anger and resentment can consume us. And this is made even worse when we seek to justify our lack of forgiveness by claiming a superior status for ourselves. We surrender to a dark sort of self-righteousness.
But what happens if the other person doesn’t respond or can’t respond? Will forgiveness make sure everything turns out right in the end? We will look more at that shortly.
Forgiving others is of vital importance to our spiritual health and is commanded in the Bible. But even so, it is no magic wand to make everything come out perfectly. This is so because forgiveness is essentially in the form of an offer. We heard earlier of a man refusing an offer of pardon and so was executed. And we know of countless people who are estranged from God despite his offering forgiveness to each and every one of them.
So when we forgive others, we are offering them something of a fresh start if they will respond. But irrespective of their response we are allowing ourselves to move on with some freedom. In the case of those who have died or who are uncontactable, we cannot hope for any sort of physical or emotional reconciliation. And even if we can approach others and offer forgiveness, they may not respond favourably. They may in fact go on wanting to hurt us.
In such cases we cannot enforce reconciliation. It takes just one person to offer forgiveness. It takes two to achieve reconciliation. We then live with the discomfort or pain of knowing there is a fractured relationship over which we have no control. God knows how you feel: he constantly offers forgiveness to all and so many reject him and thus have a broken relationship with him.
And even if reconciliation is possible, it may not mean restoration. For example, a church treasurer embezzles church funds. The crime is punished, the treasurer repents. There can thus be some reconciliation with the church. But restoration to the position of treasurer won’t happen. Similar with an abusive husband. The wife may rightly leave that relationship. The husband shows signs of contrition but that might not be enough to restore the marriage if the abuse arises out of much deeper issues. To offer forgiveness and achieve a measure of reconciliation doesn’t mean we open ourselves up to ongoing abuse.
When Jesus said we are to offer forgiveness more or less endlessly, he was not saying we had to endlessly re-enter abusive relationships. Sadly, some hurts run so deep that we can only humanly achieve a measure of reconciliation. And sometimes complete restoration isn’t possible. But that isn’t our responsibility.
Indeed, we may have to repent of our own shortcomings and failures for any sort of reconciliation to be impossible. We dare not offer forgiveness from some position of arrogant superiority. We may have been wounded, but we too have wounded others and might seek their forgiveness.
Sometimes this whole process of forgiving, of not letting a hurt dictate our lives and push us to revenge, may happen internally. We may never confront the other person. In fact we may not be unable to do so. But if we do meet them, we do well to be aware of our own failings even as we face their own. We tell them we no longer want those wounds to dictate the course of our life. We tell them we are moving on having faced the pain and hurt. We may even have to tell them we can no longer have any relationship with them, but we do so without the bitterness that seeks revenge.
None of this is at all easy. But it wasn’t easy for God to bring forgiveness to us through Jesus either. So much within us might want to hit back and hurt as we have been hurt. But it does no good. Imagine if that were God’s attitude to us. But God chose to send Jesus to bring forgiveness to us.
To choose not to forgive may seem easier, but it leads to even more pain. When we choose to forgive, we set a prisoner free, and the prisoner we set free is us.
This poem by John Donne expresses our common concern, that God’s forgiveness is greater than our sin, that his goodness is greater than our badness:
|I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun|
|My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;|
|But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son|
|Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore:|
|And having done that, Thou hast done;|
|I fear no more.|
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