FORGIVENESS ACCORDING TO JESUS
by Keith Giles
One of the things I love most about Jesus is that he rarely says things that we expect him to say. He is more dangerous, more scandalous, more radical than our Sunday School teachers would have us believe. He speaks with such authority and a shocking sense of raw audacity that sometimes we are tempted to water down his words at times. Thankfully the writers of the Gospel felt no such need to pull any punches when it came to quoting our Lord.
In Matthew, right off the bat, Jesus gets things started with a teaching on forgiveness that seems overly harsh to our ears. He says, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
- JESUS (Matthew 6:14-15)
I don't know about you, but when I read those words they seem scandalous. All my life I've been taught that, if we just believe in Jesus and we pray for forgiveness, he instantly and totally forgives us and never remembers our sin ever again.
Of course, this is based on good, sound Scriptural evidence. God really does forgive us if we confess our sins (1 John 1:9), and he really does cast our sins in the sea of forgetfulness, and as far as the East is from the West (Psalm 103:12).
However, Jesus teaches us something about forgiveness here that rattles the notion we only need to pray a prayer and go on our merry way in order to receive forgiveness. He suggests that our own forgiveness is conditional. If we do not forgive others who wrong us, then we will not be forgiven of our sins either.
That makes me squirm a little. Never, in all my days as a follower of Jesus, did anyone ever preach this from the pulpit. Maybe I was just attending the wrong sorts of churches growing up? I don't know. But, this sort of teaching from the mouth of Jesus, just seems to need a bit of what they call "Spin Control" in order to fly in our modern, American culture.
How can Jesus tell me that my forgiveness is contingent upon my being able to forgive others first? What is he talking about? Doesn't he know that if I believe in him I'm already forgiven from any sin I could ever committ? Doesn't he know that because of Grace I'm saved and guaranteed forgiveness no matter what?
If these words from Jesus seem harsh to our ears, perhaps it's because we've not understood that unforgiveness is also a sin. If we cannot forgive others, then we are guilty of this sin. Until we repent of our unforgiveness, we are continuing to wallow in our sins, refusing to truly repent. So, when Jesus tells us that we must first forgive others, he is stressing to us the importance of repentance, and the importance of practicing forgiveness ourselves when we are wronged.
That's another concept which lost to many of us these days; the idea of repentance. Our forgiveness is directly related to our repentance, not to our prayers. If we pray for forgiveness and we haven't repented of our actions, or our thoughts, then our prayers are just words and our sins are not forgiven.
Forgiveness is not some cosmic "Aw Shucks" from God just because we used the right formula, or magic words, in our prayers. Forgiveness is based on our honest repentance; our sorrow for the action, not just the consequences, and our sincere intention not
to do the action again. It is also based on the finished work of Christ upon the cross on our behalf. If we have repentance but we don't have Jesus, then we have no way to receive forgiveness from God. If we have Jesus, but we have no true repentance in regards to our sins, we do not have forgiveness from God. We must have true repentance, combined with an acceptance of Jesus and what he accomplished on our behalf by the Cross, in order to receive forgiveness.
There have been times when I have been severely wounded by a friend, or a brother in Christ. Nothing hurts worse than this. To be betrayed by someone who should be supporting you and loving you is especially painful. What I've learned is that, if I can pray for this person to be blessed by God, my hardness of heart usually melts and I find I can really forgive them for what they've done to me.
The most recent example of this was when I was praying for someone who had really hurt me with his words, and his actions. I felt betrayed and I wanted to strike back in some way. Instead, I found myself on my knees asking God to bless his family, his business, his marriage, his children, his ministry, and as I prayed for God to bless him, my heart melted and I found I really did love this person. By the end of my prayer, I found I really did want God to bless him. Not only that, God reminded me during my prayer of the many times I had done and said the exact same things to others in the past, and how He had forgiven me effortlessly for the same crimes. I remembered how good it felt when God forgave me and extended His Grace to me, and then it became easier to pass this same Grace on to my brother in Christ.
Someone once said that when you forgive someone the person you set free is yourself. I believe it's true. A great illustration of this is found in Africa where they have a unique method of capturing certain monkeys. They place a bannanna inside a jar which is tied to a tree by a rope. When the monkey puts his hand inside the jar, he cannot pull out the bannana because the opening is too small for both his hand and the fruit. Those who want to capture the monkey need only to walk up to him and cut the rope, placing the monkey and the jar in a large bag. The monkey hasn't learned that, in order to escape capture, he only needs to let go of the bannanna. In the same way, our unwillingness to let go of our pain only serves to imprison us. Like the monkey trapped by his own grip around the bannana inside the jar, if we could just let go, we would be free.
This week I got to counsel someone who simply could not let go. This person could not pray for the one who had done the harm.
Sometimes this is the hardest thing for us, to forgive, to let go, but we at least have to be willing to let God help us to forgive. We have to begin by praying for those who wrong us. We have to recognize that unforgiveness is a sin, and we have to repent of that sin in order to receive forgiveness ourselves.
"Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you."
-JESUS (Luke 6:28)
If you're finding it hard to forgive someone right now, I urge you to pray for that person and begin to ask God to bless this person in very specific ways. If you can't bring yourself to do that just yet, at least ask God to help you get to a place where you really can bless this person. Sometimes, however, we have to take the first step whether or not our feelings match up.
Corrie Ten Boom, who survived the Nazi concentration camps, tells of meeting one of the Nazi soldiers who had participated in the death of her sister. In her book "Tramp for the Lord" (1974), she recounts the story of how, after she had been preaching in Germany in 1947, she was approached by one of the cruelest former Ravensbruck camp guards who tearfully asked for her forgiveness. She was understandably reluctant to forgive him and tells of how she looked at him and wanted only to hate him for his deeds. Yet, she remembered the words of Jesus and she lifted her hand, heavy like a stone, and placed it on the shoulder of this elderly man.
She says, "For a long moment we grasped each other's hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God's love so intensely as I did then." She also wrote (in the same passage) that in her post-war experience with other victims of Nazi brutality, it was those who were able to forgive who were best able to rebuild their lives.
Sometimes we cannot afford to wait for the emotions to catch up to our actions. Sometimes we have to take a step of faith and forgive because we know it's the right thing to do.
"Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you."
- Colossians 3:13
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