Forgiveness is Hard

Matthew 6: 5-15; 18:21-35

Isaiah tells us, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” (Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV)

True forgiveness is one of the hardest things to accomplish in the human experience, even for the mature Christian. Yet, this is our mandate, and call. Forgiveness is hard because it demands a surrender of our right to get even. Forgiveness even causes suffering for the person who was wronged, the victim. The suffering, from our human perspective and reasoning, should belong to the instigator of the wrong. It is natural to consider this unfair. And, yes, it is unfair; it was unfair for our Lord to go through what He did to forgive us!

Forgiveness is hard, also, because we can easily avoid it; we can walk the other way, and execute revenge. And, it would be considered justified in the eyes of our friends, our relatives, and, especially of society. We could even receive some kind of medal for coming up with a good scheme of revenge.

As a youth, I loved the comic book, ‘The Punisher,” where the super hero was a victim of a severe crime, and his wife and kids were inadvertently killed by the mob. So, he makes it his life’s crusade to affect revenge on all criminals who evade the law. This is appealing; the criminals deserve the Punisher’s revenge, especially since the law is unable to deal with them because of bribes, cut backs, and apathy. This pleases our human nature. However, God does not want us to rely on our human nature, rather, to rely on Him.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…”

This passage is telling us that our way of thinking is wrong. If God is the Creator of all things, including truth, and He is all knowing, and He is all-powerful, then, His ways are better than ours. We may not be able to recognize this, because our perspective is limited, as is our knowledge and insight.

  • God is governed by righteousness; whereas, desires and emotions drive us.

  • God has a moral and virtuous purpose; our purpose is self-seeking.

  • God’s primary purpose in our lives is to bring us out of our self-destructive and self-seeking nature, and into the reclamation of redemption in Him; this is the work of Christ.

  • God’s thoughts are beyond our comprehension and imagination; therefore, we should rely on Him, and not on ourselves.

  • These are spiritual debts; it is not necessarily referring to property or money transactions. Although, with discernment, it can be applied to all types of debts with forgiveness.

  • The Jewish understanding of Sin was a dept to God that needed to be repaid though redemption and sacrifice.

  • If you are not able or willing to forgive others, God will be able, but unwilling, to forgive you!

  • We are to forgive others in response to the fact that we have been forgiven. However, the forgiveness we may give to others will never compare to the forgiveness Christ has given us!

To forgive, we have to realize that we are all sinners, we still have sin and we still do sin. Thus, we always need to not only be aware of it, but also repent from it and seek forgiveness. This is a must, daily act, not just when we think about it, or wait until we are convicted. We must be willing to seek forgiveness daily from God and others!

Forgiveness is Complete

Colossians tells us,

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14, NIV)

Matthew 18:27 tells us, “The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” Forgiveness is actually canceling a debt. It is as if someone owes you one thousand dollars, and he or she cannot pay you back; you forgive the debt, never expecting to receive the money back. The amount owed to you is no longer owed or expected. You give up your right to seek the repayment of that debt. Forgiveness is bankruptcy; once filed, the creditor may not retrieve the debt, and it is wiped out. We need to see the cancellation of the debt as a write-off, and not some form of embezzlement. When we forgive, we forget; that is, we are no longer to even have the desire for restitution, pay back, or punishment.

There is a man, at a church where I was once on staff, who I admire greatly for exhibiting forgiveness in an instance that I do not think I could ever have done it; yet, with Christ, I should be able to, because all things are possible with Christ. His wife was murdered, indiscriminately, by a drive-by shooter in the Pasadena area a few years ago; she died in his arms. He realized that for him to go on with his life and faith, he needed to forgive that person. And, he did. Now, he did not tell the police to let the shooter go; forgiveness is not necessarily a release of the obligation, especially when a crime is committed. Rather, we, as Christians, are released from our personal desire for retribution. This form of forgiveness even prevents us from those “polite” sly remarks and glances; our revenge is repudiated…divorced from our desire to get even.

Forgiveness is so rare in our society. For it to become a powerful witnessing tool, it must be complete. Forgiveness does not make light of the wrong, nor should it give a license to others to take advantage of us, but, they may. Yet, it is well worth it! Out of the completeness of forgiveness will come the forgetting. Then, out of the forgetting, will come the healing. The healing we get from forgiveness will close the wounds we receive; it will allow us to go on with life. It will prevent our sufferings and setbacks from becoming our identity and obsession. For, without forgiveness, we give in to the bitterness that will consume and take us over, that it may give us a purpose for existing, but not for living. If we just try to forget, then agonize over it, we will get nowhere; but, through the process of surrender (Galatians 2:20-21) will come the forgetting. Forgetting is a process, and we can not expect it to come right away. We must be patient, let the process unfold, and embrace the forgiveness that Christ has given us. That man, who forgave his wife’s killer, took many agonizing months to do so. But, in the end, he and his remaining family were able to get on with their lives, and honor his wife’s memory by living life. Had he remained in bitterness, not only would his kids have become dysfunctional, but a total breakdown of that family would have occurred, and his wife’s memory would have been framed in bitterness, and not life! Forgiveness has to be complete; if not, it will not work, and you will not make it!

Forgiveness is Costly

Luke tells us,

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-31, NIV)

When we forgive, it may incur a cost to us. We should realize, and even welcome, that cost. These go against our inclination and Will, but, remember, the vengeance belongs to the Lord. We are to never forget the cost our Lord paid on our behalf. No cost we could ever incur could compare with the cost He paid for us. When we forgive, we will be refocusing our plans for our pain into God’s plan, and God’s ways. So, our pain is relieved, and our life can go on—in a better direction!

We can live improved quality lives when we forgive. Our relationships can grow, and we can become more useful to others and, especially, to God. When we understand that it does involve cost, we can gain the right mindset for forgiveness. We will realize from Scripture not to base it on our feelings and desires, but to focus on what forgiveness really is. We can see it as what Christ gave us, as He was our example. John 3:16 is the example on what forgiveness cost our Lord. His undeserved, painful death and separation from the Father was a substitution for what we deserved. This was our Lord’s suffering and cost. In comparison, the cost for us will be very minimal and limited, and we need to keep this in view, using it as our strength to get through it. Our cost is to live with the consequence of the evil that was brought on us. We then take the responsibility for the hurt brought on to us. Understanding this is hard, even for the mature Christian, and, virtually impossible for the non-Christian, since it goes against the common sense of society. In the eyes of the world, the suffering should be put upon the one who did the wrong. Yet, the Scriptural view is a beacon, a witness to the supremacy of Christ.

We could normally avoid this form of suffering, but we are called to face it. We need to accept the consequences of the wrong, such as a parent forgiving a child for breaking a priceless object. The parent bears the cost to either replace it, or suffer without it, and the child gets off free (well, with some sort of punishment). This is the cost of suffering. In the case of the man who lost his wife to murder, his suffering is that he cannot be with his wife anymore. Forgiveness chooses to suffer. It is very hard to make that voluntary choice to take on the suffering, even when we do not deserve it; yet, we must make it so as to grow in our walk with our Lord, and to grow toward our full potential.

Humanity owes a great deal to the Creator of the universe, and our willful disobedience to our Creator is a slap in His face. We owe a debt we could never conceive, or pay. Yet, most people live their lives as an insult to what Christ has done. And, Christ still pursues them with the ultimate love! Christ did not owe our debt, yet He paid it!

Christ was the substitute for our punishment, which we deserved; so is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a substitution too, since it requires a penalty to be paid, and, the victim pays that penalty. It is a faint reflection of what Christ has done for us! We may not understand the mystery behind this, but we can trust in our Lord, who will carry us through it. The relation between what Christ went through so that we could be forgiven, and the call for us to take on the responsibility for a sin we did not commit, will give us a deeper understanding into the character and nature of God. From this, we should mature to a deeper level, and be used in a greater way to further the cause of Christ. The result is that we take our response to evil and redirect it for good, and, even to a point, take the evil on ourselves. The result is that Satan is defeated and prevented from receiving a prize, his reward that he craved to gain, from our refusal to forgive. This is why the cost accepted by our Lord is the greatest cost of all. We need to realize this, and respond accordingly to one another.

Forgiveness is worth the agony we may go through, because, it will heal the wounds and relieve the pain. Perhaps a scar will remain. But, take it to heart, and recognize that scar as a badge of honor to help us grow and mature, to redirect our wrong path onto the right direction. Be the person who forgives. Do not be the person who refuses to!

Forgiveness Pursues

Hosea 2:14-15; Matthew 18: 21-35; Colossians 3:13

We, as Christians, must extend ourselves to other people with love, and that which flows out of love—forgiveness!

Hosea tells us,

Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. (Hosea 2:14-15, NIV)

There is possibly nothing greater and more dramatic to us, as Christians, in regards to God’s character, than His capacity to forgive! Most non-Christians cannot fathom this quality, and do not believe God can, or even should, forgive them. So, they blatantly reject His forgiveness. Other Christians only see a small facet of God’s forgiveness, because they refuse to apply it in their lives, and hold onto bitterness and strife as their identity. Or, perhaps they understand it a little, but think, If someone wants my forgiveness, they have to come to me and seek it. Or, I do not have to do anything, because I am the person who was wronged. But, these attitudes are wrong and unbiblical. The Bible tells us that the Christian has an obligation to actually pursue forgiveness. Even if we are the ones wronged, it is our duty to go after the person who wronged us--not to retaliate, but to forgive! We have to see why this is important, and from our human point of view, how forgiveness will help end the vicious cycle of revenge and pay back. Even when we cannot or refuse to see His plan! We may think it is not worth it, but God says otherwise. We may think it is unfair, but was it fair for our Lord to go to the cross? This may go against our pride and our culture, but this is what we are called to do. God expects us to entice forgiveness from the person we offend, or the person who offends us.

I had a run-in with an Elder at a church where I was on staff a few years ago. I took his daughter, along with twenty other youth, to a winter camp. On the way home, the daughter realized she had forgotten her gloves. This Elder was furious with me because she had forgotten her gloves at camp. I apologized to the dad—the Elder—and took responsibility for the gloves. I told him I would contact the camp the first thing in the morning, and arrange to get the gloves back. But, this just seemed to infuriate him even more, and from then on he persisted in a very condescending and mean attitude toward me. Although I took responsibility, I asked him to forgive me, even though I felt I had done nothing wrong. After all, I was responsible for twenty kids, their safety and spiritual growth, and, according to that Elder, all of their articles of clothing, too.

This Elder just would not get it when it came to forgiveness. From his perspective, I did a great wrong toward him since his daughter did not bring back the expensive pair of gloves; therefore, as the leader, I was responsible. Even though we received the gloves in the mail a few days later, he would not forget the incident, and this tarnished not only our relationship, but also my reputation with him and with several other people in the church. He made it a point to let everyone know what a bad youth Pastor I was, because his daughter's gloves were left at camp. Ten of those kids came to know the Lord, including his daughter, and this was one of the best camp experiences I have been a part of; but, the gloves incident is what everyone remembers.

Romans, chapter twelve, tells us:

“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” And the Lord will reward you.” (Romans 12:19-20; Proverbs 25: 21-22 NIV)

This experience gave me the chance to realize, firsthand, what the term, burning coals, was all about. The more I was nice and forgiving to this Elder, the more he was insolent and belligerent. In contrast, he had an issue with another pastor at this church, and this pastor decided not to follow Scriptural principles, but rather, the ways of the world. They came to a mutual understanding and respect of one another. So, I wondered if forgiveness was worth it. Then I realized that probably neither of these men knew the Lord, or, at the very least, did not have a growing, effectual relationship with Christ. So, they did not know how to express themselves in a godly way. All they knew was Galatians 5:19-20. Verses 22-23 taught a foreign concept they did not want to pursue or acknowledge. So, I realized, that is why we are to offer forgiveness freely, (as I tried to with that Elder I offended) even when we are not in the wrong. Forgiveness models Christ. People do not like Christ, because He calls us from our complacency and comfort into conviction and growth, where few are attracted or willing to go. So, we have to chase down forgiveness, because, out of our pursuit of forgiveness, we will build better relationships and reconciliation A few years later, that Elder came around, and actually helped me when my car broke down. (Before that, he was more likely to run me over.)

The typical response from society is, “I could care less,” or, “forget about it (in a cynical tone).” These are expressions of hurt, even though they verbally say otherwise. The burning coals will convict them or punish them. Because they do not see the cost that the Lord paid for them, they are unwilling to respond to the gift of Grace. Christ pursues them, and all they have to do is respond to His call. The world’s desire is to tell the person off and seek revenge. To observe this, watch the daytime talk shows. We, as Christians, are called to a higher standard—one that builds, edifies, and reconciles!

Forgiveness Is Continual

Luke tells us, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, `I repent,' forgive him.” (Luke 17:3b-4, NIV)

For the Hebrew, seventy times seven meant infinity, not just 490, because 490 has a limit. For Christ, there is no point beyond which our accumulation of sins becomes unforgivable. So, our response is to forgive others, as there is no cap, or limit, or expiration to forgive. As followers of Christ, neither the intensity of, nor the number of wrongs should have an impact on us. If we were to place a limit, then our effect of building relationships would have a chain attached to it, instead of having a chain reaction to grow. With a limit, you cannot grow. We must have the realization and capacity to understand how much we have been forgiven by Christ in order to forgive each other; this is crucial to the Christian experience. As our Lord continues to give us grace and forgiveness, are not we to do the same with each other? We show ourselves to be extremely selfish and prideful when we do not practice continual forgiveness!

God’s forgiveness is not some cheap markdown or bargain; His cost was immeasurable. Paul, in Colossians 3:13, tells us to forgive freely, as Christ has forgiven us. We must be willing to forgive as Christ has forgiven us. We must be willing to bear the cost, just as our Lord did. Forgiveness demands a substitution. So, how could we ever back away from forgiving each other? If we do, it is a bigger insult to our Lord than for the non-Christian to turn his or her back on His grace—because we know better. Remember, knowledge brings responsibility.

What Forgiveness Is Not

In 2 Timothy, we are told, “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.” (2 Timothy 4:14-15, NIV)

We know why we must forgive. So, the question is, what must we forgive? I do not believe we need to forgive trivialities, because, forgiveness is not trivial; its cost is high. So, things like bumping into someone, or typos and minor mistakes, should not call us to forgive. Just a simple, polite apology is given, and then, you move on. If a person was offended by an honest mistake, such as his or her name being misspelled in the church bulletin, he should not expect forgiveness, because it was an honest, un-purposed mistake, with no malicious intent. There must be a reason for forgiveness, such as a hurt, where malice and forethought were at work.

Forgiveness does not minimize the offense. When we forgive, we are not saying, “Hey, that was OK.” The offense does not need to be accepted; however, we are to embrace the person who committed the offense. It is like sin; we are to hate sin but we are still called to love the sinner—unless it continues, and they refuse to repent. Forgiveness is not the approval of the wrong; it only offers the grace of love, rather than vengeance. Forgiveness may not bring us to the level of trust that we had before. If a spouse cheats on you, you are called to forgive and reconcile. But, that trust will be eroded, and will take time to rebuild. Just forgiving the offender will not bring instant restitution of the relationship; perhaps the relationship will be severed completely. Perhaps a business partner embezzles and causes you to lose the business. You are to forgive that person, as we previously discussed, but this does not mean you would enter into a business relationship with that person again.

Forgiveness is directed to people, not causes or institutions. I, as a pastor, cannot forgive the victims of the Medieval Church for some of its notorieties, such as the Inquisition. If I worked for McDonalds, I could not forgive them for someone slipping on their floor, unless I represented them in a legal capacity. Forgiveness will not erase the past. As for that man in last month’s article who lost his wife, he will suffer greatly in her absence until they meet again in Heaven. She will not be brought back to life. We are to forget the past, so the resentment will not build up, but, we also need to realize the event will not be undone.

Not just human fairness, but excusing those things that could not be excused…” (C.S. Lewis)

When we do not forgive, we walk a path of self-destruction, brought on by the build up of resentment, and the unfulfilling nature of revenge. Nothing will wither our soul more than storing up this disease of unforgiveness. Pride and arrogance will take over, control, and ruin you. A Chinese proverb says, “First, before seeking revenge, you must dig two graves.” The cost and pain of forgiveness—even though we may be the victims of it—will be far easier than the path of not seeking the forgiveness. We read in Job 5:2, “Resentment kills a fool, and envy slays the simple.” The goal of forgiveness is allowing Christ to transform us to our full potential. Because we may go through bad stuff in life, it is not meant to be a personal attack, rather, a strengthening of our character so we can be better used by our Lord. Consider this, Christ has defeated Satan, so the sins we incur can be turned around to His glory. Forgiveness will refocus God’s plan, and make it our plan. Then, our sufferings will not be in vain, and can be turned around to further the Kingdom of God. The joy and happiness of who we are in Christ will bubble over, covering the pain and hurt.

Romans tells us, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose…. (Romans 8:28-39, NIV)


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