“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors;
“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 trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14
Shakespeare’s timeless play, The Merchant of Venice is about a businessman who borrows from a Jewish banker to fund a risky import trade. The collateral is a pound of his own flesh, something of a tradition in those days. When the merchant’s ships sink, and he cannot repay his indebtedness, Shylock, the banker, comes calling to collect his due, a pound of flesh.
Victimized by a lifetime of prejudice, Shylock seeks revenge on his Gentile tormentors. He will have his pound of flesh. He will cut the merchants heart out!
Townspeople beg the old Jew for mercy. But he who has been shown none offers none. And he bitterly sharpens his knife as the merchant bares his chest.
That’s when a lawyer intervenes to utter the immortal words, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”
See here? Four hundred years ago people were struggling with forgiveness. Even 2,000 years ago it was the same, for in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, the Lord mentions forgiveness eight times. And here in verses 14-15 Jesus pauses to re-emphasize one thing from the Lord’s Prayer. He highlights forgiveness.
Over the years, in the local church, I’ve come to see forgiveness as one of our biggest needs. To forgive is a quiet miracle. One does it alone, silently, invisibly, freely. It is a choice, hidden at first. It is a willingness to make something creative and good out of something ugly and destructive.
Forgiveness is a process. It happens slowly, over time. It is often three steps forward and two steps back. Forgiveness is definitely love’s toughest work.
Mercy is God’s intervention. It is His means of coming to terms with a world that has sin in it. And it is an uncommon grace God wills to share in us.
Today I desire to be very practical, to move beyond theory. I do not want to lambaste you with “how to.” I want to get down and dirty, provide analysis, practical steps.
The first stage of forgiveness starts with some sort of pain. The hurt can be one of three varieties.
There is personal hurt. Not being invited to the party. Ridiculed. Victimized by gossip.
There is the hurt of unfairness. Some pain we deserve. And there is healing in it if we are willing to learn. Example: I lose $50 in a sporting bet. It teaches me a lesson! But if I am mugged and robbed of $50 I suffer the pain of unfairness. Life is like this. It is full of indiscriminate hurts.
Some hurt us unfairly because they think we deserve it. John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln because he thought he deserved it.
Others hurt us unfairly because they are compulsive hurters. For instance, an alcoholic father who can’t control himself who verbally and emotionally wounds his children.
Unfair hurts can also result from the spillover from other people’s problems. As in a school child caught in the crossfire of busing and racial hatred.
Unfair hurts can also come from people of good intentions. How often I’ve seen a choleric, willful in-law trample the feelings of an entire wedding party by insisting things be done her way. Thus, a day of joy becomes a day of remorse.
Then there is the unfairness of mistakes. I remember lovely Cathy, a co-ed at Elon College. She was paralyzed in one arm and limped on one leg. She told me that during a routine surgery a drunken doctor had accidentally clipped a nerve.
Indeed, there are personal hurts, even a multiplicity of unfair hurts. But there can also be deep hurts. Not mere annoyances, slights, or disappointments. But disloyalty, betrayal, brutality, these type hurts can wound one more deeply than all others combined.
Disloyalty. When Peter, in Christ’s hour of need, denied even knowing Him. Haven’t we all reached for a friend in a time of great trial, and they withdrew from us?
Betrayal. As when Judas sold Jesus out to the Pharisees for a mere thirty pieces of silver. Can anything hurt so badly as a trusted employee who learns your business, steals your secrets, then walks off with half your clients to start a rival business down the block?
And brutality. The soldiers crowned Jesus with thorns. Beat Him in the head with a stick. We, too, can be brutalized by slander, rape, a drive by shooting.
There are a million ways to be hurt in this world– personal injuries, unfairness, and the deep hurts of disloyalty, betrayal, and brutalization.
If you skim through the Sermon on the Mount you’ll see that Jesus was all too familiar with hurt. He spoke of slaps on the face, theft, breaking oaths, and divorce.
The second stage of forgiveness is hate. Jesus showed He was aware of this also. He spoke of anger, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. He spoke of courts, and hating one’s enemy.
The typical human response to the hurts people send our way is hatred. I’m not talking about mere anger! Hate is more than mad. It is a tiger let loose in our soul.
There are two types of hate. Passive hate is when someone hurts you, you smile at them, excuse yourself, and go out and never speak to them again. They simply become a nonperson to you. You freeze them out, never wish them well, avoid and ignore them. The Arabs have a saying, “May you always stay in one place.” This pretty much sums up our feelings toward them.
The second form of hate is aggressive. This hate is active. It retaliates, fights, shoots, jabs, slanders, and sabotages. It is tit for tat, an eye for an eye, hurting back. Example: The husband in a divorce who takes out his chain saw and cuts his house in half, along with the TV, the sofa, the dining room table and fridge.
In the text Jesus says this sort of hate is destructive. It destroys our very ability to commune with God!
Consider what hate does . . .
It shows poor values. We hate the person and not the sin.
It separates us from those to whom we belong. An employee at work, a teammate, a church member, a family.
It makes us like the rest of the world. “You’re a Christian, but I’ve watched you. You’re really no different than the rest of us.”
It utilizes huge amounts of energy wastefully. We mull the hatred over and over in our minds. Lay awake nights. Refight battles, develop an emotional focus. Suffer mental anguish, are fatigued. Cross the street to avoid them.
Watch the movie Eleni. It’s about an investigative reporter who tracks down a Nazi war criminal who killed his mother in World War Two. You’ll see all of the debilitations of hatred hard at work in a man’s life.
Hatred poisons the soul. It unleashes dangerous chemicals in the body that stifle and cripple. The Greeks have a saying, “Before you go out for revenge, first dig two graves.”
Hate also destroys one’s prayer life. One can’t even pray the Lord’s Prayer. We choke on the words, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Hate interrupts the flow of mercy. We can’t receive it unless we give it. For how can I ask God to do for me what I’m not willing to share?
So far we’ve looked at the hurts and the hatreds of life. Both of which we’re all too familiar!
Now let us look at healing, something which is alien to us. But Jesus urges it upon us throughout the Sermon on the Mount when he talks of being merciful, pure, a peacemaker, and suffering persecution. It is even in the text, “Forgive men when they sin against you.”
It is January 1984. Rebibba Prison, Italy. Inmate Ali Agca is there, notorious as the man who shot the pope. Suddenly the door opens and Pope John Paul II enters Ali’s cell to visit and offer his forgiveness to the villain who shot and nearly killed him.
The merciful deed seemed unnatural. Ali Agca was guilty in the first degree. He’d gone beyond the forgiveness zone. Yet John Paul’s act of compassion and courage was a thrilling and unforgettable offer of mercy. And we all inwardly yearned to be able to do the same with our more or less public grudges.
The question is “how?” How can I forgive?
First, recognize that forgiveness is a process, not an event. “Let’s get it over with.” “Let’s put this behind us once and for all!” No. Forgiving does not work this way. It can’t be accomplished in one step, in a day. It takes time.
Spiritual surgery in your soul is just as complicated a process as physical surgery. There has to be a diagnosis, a treatment plan, checking into the hospital, post-op prep, surgery, the closure, and a recovery period. Healing can take weeks, months, even years! And it is no less the same with forgiveness.
Second: Confessional prayer is helpful. “God, I hurt . . . I’d like to wring his neck!” Get it all out. Be honest to God. It is no good walking around in denial. “I’m fine. I’m not mad. I love everybody!” Hah!
Third: Choose forgiveness. “God, you’ve forgiven me far worse sins. I choose to forgive them. I will to do this, Lord.”
Fourth: Think forgiveness. When Satan brings up hurt, rather than nurse a grudge, take your thoughts captive to obey Christ. Flee to Scripture and meditate on Christ’s words. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” “Forgive your brother 70 times 70.” “Blessed are the merciful . . . ”
Five: Put your emotions in perspective. Don’t deny them. Don’t repress them. Just don’t follow them. A man deeply hurt told me, “If I do what I feel, somebody’s going to die!” Pick a healthy outlet for your emotions. Swim it off. Chop wood. Hit a golf ball.
Six: See your foe as God does. How we dehumanize our enemies, reduce them to ogres we call Gooks, Krouts, Nips. We reduce them to their sin against us. And with tunnel vision all we see of them is their crime.
But stop and ponder two minutes! The deepest truth about them is not what they did but that God made them in His image. They are one of a kind, beloved of God, infinitely redeemable. And we must ask God to give us faith to see them as He does.
Seven: Ask the Holy Spirit to help you. The fact is– I choose it and God empowers it. It’s like sailing. I raise the sail. The wind pushes the ship. I make myself available. God supplies the mercy.
Eight: Pray for them. Jesus said, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Hand your foe over to God for purging, for growth, for mercy. Let God handle them.
Finally, ninth: Look for a time to put action to your thoughts, a time to come together.
This is not always possible. As in a father/son relationship rife with hatred. The father died and the bitterness was unresolved. All the son can do is go through the first eight steps and leave it there.
Or an adulterous marriage which ends in divorce. The parties remarry. The first eight steps can be tread, but it is not moral to remarry. The two cannot be husband and wife again. But they can be
civil, cooperate with the children, pass on the street in a friendly manner.
Sometimes forgiveness must end here. And we must avoid the all-or-nothing syndrome. It’s like climbing a mountain. One might not make it all the way to the top. Yet the view from 90% the way up is magnificent. We should simply climb forgiveness as far as we can.
The key is to establish reunion within the bounds of reality.
When Jesus forgives you and me He does not say, “I forgive you. But I’ll have nothing further to do with you!” Christ’s mercy abolishes the moral hindrances in our memory, will, and emotions and reestablishes our relationship with joy.
Often we seek a meeting, our foe is shameless, “I’m not admitting I did anything wrong” or “Aw! Let’s just let bygones be bygones and go on!”
But you mustn’t paint over rust. It’s not forget and forgive! It’s forgive and forget! True mercy holds respect for the truth, for justice, for the feelings of the victim.
So we must ask for repentance, a confession, an apology. This is not a condition I need. It is a condition he needs. He must take responsibility for his actions, understand what he did hurt you, feel the pain he has caused. He must be willing to confess, to begin a new relationship built on truth, not denial.
It is important here to recognize that you two will never agree on the details of the hurtful events. At best a general understanding can be accepted and then move on.
But what if they refuse to confess, to repent, to reestablish rapport? Then forgive. And go on without the relationship. They won’t buy their ticket to ride the grace train with you.
If, however, they do reconcile, accept it with joy! Just as Jesus accepted Peter on the beach after the Resurrection. Such healing shows the kingdom of God has come upon you! And what a witness to the world!
Novelist William Faulkner wrote, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” It often lives in our very real hurts and severed relationships. But in Jesus we can redeem the past. We can move beyond the hurt and hate to healing. Let all those of faith keep their feet on this path.
Lord, let’s get started . . . Who’s first?
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