The Discipline of Forgiveness
One of the most challenging disciplines of the Christian life is forgiveness. In fact, the very word forgiveness may dredge up distressingly painful memories of events or people we’d give anything to forget. With God as our witness, we really do want to forgive, but that person caused us great harm. Someone’s intentional (or unintentional) act haunts us, the grievous words replay in our minds like a scratched record, and the offense seems embedded within our souls, giving us no hope of release. The fact remains, however, that Jesus said,
For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:14–15)
“But Jesus,” we say, “You don’t know what that jerk did to me! I’ll never be able to forgive. Never!” My friend, Jesus does know, and what’s more, He also understands—for He too suffered greatly at the hands of wicked people. Yes, the offending sin is documented. It happened. The words were egregious and the act indefensible. No one is diminishing the deep and severe harm done. Yet, read this slowly—Jesus’ words are right and true, and it is only in His words that we will find release from the resulting burdens that keep us bowed down. How could Jesus command such a seemingly impossible thing? Because He knows that forgiveness is best for us—physically, spiritually, mentally, relationally, and emotionally. Just how long will we continue shoving down the pain, when Jesus bids us, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28)? Forgiveness is for our benefit.
What’s more, whether over time or instantly, God can heal our pain. Many times, King David spoke of the healing and grace he received from God.
O Lord my God, I cried to You and You have healed me. (Psalm 30:2 AMP)
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds [curing their pains and their sorrows]. (Psalm 147:3 AMP)
You have turned my mourning into dancing for me; You have put off my sackcloth and girded me with gladness. (Psalm 30:11 AMP)
We can take comfort and find courage in David’s experiences, because, as we’ve learned, what seems impossible to us is completely possible with God. If we dare accept that Jesus’ words are vital for our well-being, and they are, then the question is, how do we possibly forgive such an offense?
The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (1985, 397) says the word forgive means “to hurl away.” This word communicates an intense, forceful action. The idea is that when we forgive, we hurl someone’s sin away from us. The action is planned; it’s decided on and arranged in advance. An offense occurred and is acknowledged; it is then forcibly hurled away—so that it no longer has an effect on us. The word forgive also carries the idea of releasing someone from a debt—someone who does not deserve to be released, after all, that someone stole something from us! We may have lost one or more of the following:
• sense of security
The loss is real and devastating, and that person owes us! Whatever happened, it was absolutely his or her fault, and no one on earth would blame us for holding that person guilty for the rest of our lives. But, Jesus said we cannot. For our own sakes, we must hurl the offense away. We must cancel the debt. Remember the prayer we just prayed? “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
“Fine,” we begrudgingly say. “I’ll forgive. But I will not forget!” Forgiveness, however, does not necessarily imply that we forget the sin or hurt someone has caused. Instead, forgiveness means that when we do remember the offense, it no longer matters—because the debt is cancelled, the person no longer owes us, and in releasing the offender, we too have been released. The scar may remain because all sin leaves a scar; but over time, it becomes only a reminder of God’s grace that helped us hurl away the sin committed and release the debt owed.
What if we choose not to forgive? Well, it’s simple. If we choose not to forgive, according to verse 15, we interrupt our relationship with our Father. Let’s use me as an example.
Years ago, a member of a church I served complained about everything (we’ll call him Smitty). When Smitty stood to speak in a meeting, all heads in the room would drop in silent dread because everyone knew the meeting was about to become very uncomfortable. Many Mondays, my assistant would bring me a note placed by Smitty in an offering plate. His cutting words were designed to hurt me and other staff members. And, nearly every month, I received a long letter from Smitty, letting me know all the things that I, as the pastor, had said and done wrong that month.
I found myself angry enough that when I received his notes and letters, I would pick up the phone and call him. On the phone I would speak to him just as he had to me, bitterly and hurtful. I even kept files of his notes and letters. Just looking at those files angered me. I wrote sermons pointed right at Smitty (although I never called his name—not saying I didn’t want to), hoping to make a public example of his bad behavior.
Then one day in my quiet time, the Lord showed me that bitterness and unforgiveness were holding me in bondage. He allowed my heart to break over my own sin and pride. I felt totally out of fellowship with the Lord. One of the most difficult days in my life was going to Smitty to confess my anger toward him and to ask for his forgiveness. I then tore up all the files I’d been keeping on him. In doing so, I canceled the debt Smitty owed me for stealing my reputation and the peace and unity of the church. I chose to release Smitty, and in the process, my own soul was freed.