The late Bishop Lance Webb used to tell a story about a 5-year-old boy who misbehaved. His mother decided to give him some quiet time. She had a large closet. So she pushed back the hangers in the closet so there would be room for his chair. She turned on the light and told him he would have to stay in the closet for 30 minutes. She heard strange sounds inside the closet, then everything got quiet. The mother was curious, so she opened the door. “Jimmy,” she asked, “what on earth are you doing?” The little boy replied defiantly, “I just pulled all your clothes down and spit on them. I spit on your shoes, too. Now I’m just sitting here waiting on more spit.”
I know some grownups who get angry and react the same way. You can look at them and tell they are just sitting around waiting on more spit. Indeed, all of us have a tendency to harbor grievances against other people.
My plea today is for our Lord’s sake—and for our own sakes—that we stop fuming and start forgiving. In our heads, we know forgiveness is healthy. Medical science has linked a failure to forgive with all kinds of ailments, including stress, anxiety, depression, headaches, backaches, stomach distress, diabetes, hypertension and heart problems.
Real forgiveness is always a minor miracle. Real forgiveness or “forgiveness from the heart” as Jesus called it, requires more than will power. It is contrary to human nature and therefore requires the assistance of the Holy Spirit. A willingness to forgive is a choice for non-believers; for Christians it is an essential.
In Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel The Kite Runner, he says, “I became what I am today at the age of 12, on a frigid overcast day.” On that day Khaled witnessed something terrible being done to his best friend; but Khaled was afraid to intervene, so he ran away. For the rest of his life he bore the guilt of having deserted his friend. Finally he confessed his guilt to a religious leader in Afghanistan. The leader told Khaled that he could shed his guilt by doing lots of good things to make up for his sin, but it didn’t work. Khaled discovered that guilt is not something you can work off like demerits. Only Christianity offers a real way to wipe away guilt. The Christian way involves a cross, where Jesus Christ paid for our sin and offers forgiveness to every person who will confess sin and trust in Him.
In Matthew 6, Jesus taught His disciples about forgiveness as He gave them His model prayer, The Lord’s Prayer. New Testament scholar William Barclay called Matthew 6:12 the most dangerous petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
You see, if we pray this prayer, yet we and God know we have an unsettled quarrel or a grudge against someone, we are asking God not to forgive us! If we really think about what we are praying, there would be some days when we might say to ourselves, “I dare not pray The Lord’s Prayer right now, because there is a grudge in my heart that first must be resolved.”
In Matthew 18:23, Jesus told a parable about forgiveness. A certain king wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One of them owed the King $10,000. The kind and generous king wrote off the debt—just cancelled it—without taking a tax deduction. The servant should have been grateful. Instead, the same servant had a neighbor who owed him $100. Instead of imitating the king and forgiving the $100, the ungrateful servant demanded the neighbor pay. The neighbor said, “I can’t pay right now. Please give me a little time.”
“No,” said the servant, and had the neighbor put in debtor’s prison.
Well, when the king heard about this, he called that ungrateful servant before him and reamed him out. He said, “You are an ungrateful fool! Because you refused to be as forgiving toward your neighbor as I was toward you, I am reinstating your entire debt. You will stay in prison doing hard labor until you pay off the whole thing.”
Jesus concluded by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
Why is it so hard for us to forgive? Well, it’s because the evil one is a good salesman. He hates forgiveness because he knows that if he can persuade us not to forgive even one person, our own forgiveness from God will be cut off. Therefore, the devil whispers very persuasive lies to us.
First, the devil suggests we church folks are not really sinners; therefore, we don’t need to be forgiven. He tells us the real sinners are the dope peddlers, car thieves, adulterers and terrorists. Our sins, by comparison, are relatively small and benign, almost cute.
The Greek word for sin in The Lord’s Prayer literally means “debt.” Surely none of us can claim that he or she has perfectly fulfilled his or her duty to God and to all persons. Sin is a universal disease that infects all of us. The Bible is correct in declaring, “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6).
Scarcely a day goes by that all of us need to forgive and be forgiven. Let me give you a common example. If you have been married for as long as two months, and if you have even below-average intelligence, you know there are certain subjects you should not bring up in conversation with your spouse, because those subjects aggravate or even hurt. Perhaps your spouse served half-baked ham to your parents; perhaps he wrecked the car because he was distracted by his cell phone. Maybe he was supposed to be watching your children, but he got so engrossed in a ballgame on TV that he didn’t notice them wandering outside into the street. A neighbor retrieved the child and, of course, told you about it.
Something devilish within us is inclined to dredge up those hurtful memories and use them as sledge hammers against the very people whom we love most. As soon as we utter some unwise, hurtful statement, the angel of our better natures whistles and whispers, “Oh no, Brother (or Sister), you have messed up now!” If we treat the people we love most that way, just imagine how foul we can be toward people we don’t even like! Don’t believe for a moment that we church folks are not sinners.
There is a second lie the devil whispers to us in order to discourage forgiveness. He suggests that we say, “Yes, I will forgive that person, but only if he or she apologizes first.” Actually, none of us is good enough to make such a demand. Only God is good enough to demand repentance before He issues forgiveness. We sinners have no such right; to demand an apology first is presumptuous of us.
There is a third strategy the devil uses to discourage forgiveness. He tells us our attitude should be: “I will forgive, but I’ll never forget what was done to me.” Any person who makes such a statement is being foolish. We may have forgiven someone on a superficial level, but it is unlikely that we have forgiven from the heart as Jesus requires. Here is a clue that you may not have forgiven a past offense. When you talk about it, do your eyes narrow; does your volume rise?
You may remember Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. On day, a reporter asked her about an especially cruel thing that had been done to her years before. Miss Barton seemed not to recall the incident. “Don’t you remember?” asked the reporter. “No,” said Miss Barton, “I distinctly remember forgetting that incident.” A Christian keeps working with God until the memory of a grievance no longer has any power or “zing” in it.
Don’t misunderstand biblical forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean excusing something or pretending it didn’t happen. Some people think if you forgive someone who has bullied, cheated or abused you, you must pretend the offense didn’t really happen or that it wasn’t so bad after all. Not so! Nor does it mean you have to expose yourself to more bullying, cheating or abuse. The object is not to distort reality. The object is to cleanse your heart of poison, the poison of resentment. That poison can wreck your relationship with God, spoil your disposition, harm you physically and steal your joy.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as pardon. You may forgive someone who wronged you while still insisting on a just punishment for that wrong. If someone breaks into your car and steals your stereo system, then the police arrest the thief, you can and should forgive the person but still press charges. He owes a debt to society. You have a responsibility to see he does not steal again, but your forgiveness will release a healing power in you and the thief.
Look now at the seven steps of the forgiveness process:
• First, acknowledge that you have been hurt. Admit your anger or resentment. It is not helpful to deny reality or play games.
• Second, confess that you have sinned against your loving God. If you’re not sure you have sinned, ask your spouse or an honest co-worker.
• Third, acknowledge that God, instead of retaliating against you, allowed His Son to pay for your sin on the cross. That thought should tender your heart.
• Fourth, face the fact that unless you forgive all others, God cannot forgive you. Yes, that includes your in-laws.
• Fifth, with God’s help, make a conscious decision to forgive.
• Sixth, ask daily for God to give you the power to forgive. If you have been abused, it may take months, even years for God to drain off all your resentment.
• Seventh, as God releases you from the prison of resentment, ask Him if He wants you to notify your former enemy that he has been forgiven. Sometimes this is helpful, but sometimes it is not. God will help you discern.
This message has worldwide implications, particularly relating to our war on terrorism. We must stop the terrorists, but we must not hate them. Indeed, we must be willing to practice and model forgiveness if this world is to experience reconciliation.
Consider what has happened in South Africa. After decades of apartheid and racial hatred, the structures of bigotry were dismantled. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up under the leadership of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If a person came before the commission and confessed his or her sins, he or she was forgiven. Miraculously, the nation has been able to cleanse itself of revenge. Archbishop Tutu has written a book titled No Future without Forgiveness. He claims forgiveness will work all over the world, even in the Middle East. Indeed, I doubt there is any way on earth that Israelis and Palestinians can live in the same area unless they learn the Christian doctrine of forgiveness.
Let me close with a true story that touched my heart. It comes from the book by Marlo Thomas titled The Right Words at the Right Time. The author Amy Tan recalls the awful power struggles she had with her mother when she was a teenager. Her mother criticized her excessively, often humiliating her in front of others, refusing to listen to her side of things. Amy recalls shouting at her mother, “I hate you. I wish you were dead.”
Fast-forward 30 years when Amy was 46. For the previous three years, her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s. One day when Amy visited her, she said, “Amy, something is wrong with my mind. I feel like I can’t remember many things, even what I did yesterday. I can’t remember what happened a long time ago, but somehow I know I did something to hurt you.”
Amy started to say, “Oh, not really; don’t worry,” but her mother continued, “I did terrible things, but now I can’t remember what…and I just want to tell you…I hope you can forget just as I’ve forgotten.” Instantly Amy recognized this was her mother’s plea for forgiveness.
After Amy left, she cried—happy and sad tears. Something in her chest that had been pent up for a long time was gone. Her mother died six months later, but she left a wonderful memory. Together, they knew in their hearts the glory of forgiving and forgetting. So may it be for us.
If God would name the person we should forgive first, who would it be? Once you discern that name, then for God’s sake and your own, stop fuming and start forgiving!
(1) From an article titled “Freedom for the Angry Heart, and a More Productive Life,” by Marshal King, printed in The Seattle Times, July 30, 2006, p. 2
(2) Thomas, Marlo, The Right Words at the Right Time, (Atria: New York, 2002), pp. 239-241.