“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Wrong. Words can destroy us. Everyone has been hurt by word or deed.
Paul said we should forgive. But, that’s easier said than done. In Colossians 3:13 he writes, “Bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone…” This verse literally means, forget the small irritants and forget the deep personal injuries. Basically, forgive and forget any harm done. That’s hard. It’s one thing to forget about a small irritant like the toilet seat being left up but it’s quite another thing to forgive indebtedness, thievery, divorce, adultery, abuse, or abandonment. Most Christians rate “Forgiving” as more difficult than “Witnessing.”
Let’s analyze three parts of forgiveness and then note three powerful reasons we can forgive.
FORGIVENESS IS THOUGHT
Maybe you’ve heard the famous mantra, “Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” Forgiveness begins in the mind.
Ephesians 4:32 uses the term, “Tender-hearted” when referencing forgiveness, and the Greek term literally means a heart that maintains it’s empathy under duress. Jesus even said that divorce happens, “Because of hardness of heart.” Therefore the critical element in forgiveness is controlling the thoughts about the person who has harmed us. This is a difficult task as our natural propensity is to think derogatory things and to reflect on the pain we feel.
FORGIVENESS IS CHOICE
One of Christ’s most famous parables is of the prodigal son who took dad’s inheritance and blew it partying. As he returns home, the father had mentally prepared to forgive and subsequently ran to him, eventually embracing him and calling out the family for a party.
When a person is harmed by word or deed, a contract is broken. It may be a contract of promise, boundary, plan, or protection. Most often it is subconscious, “They’ll care for me” or, “They’ll never leave me.” Thus, when the offending party breaks that expectation, the receiving party has lost control of the agreement. But, the choice to forgive places the receiving party back in control, disallowing the broken promise to cause any further damage.
Certainly, the greatest example of this is Christ. He chose to save us, literally giving us heaven, and in turn we live holy in love. Yet, sadly every day we break that contract. But Christ continues to forgive, always in control, giving a love outside of our requisite failings.
FORGIVENESS IS SACRIFICE
Acts 7 shares the story of the Bible’s first martyr. He’s being stoned to death and says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (v. 60) and then he dies. The text also tells us that the Apostle Paul, still unregenerate, stood by holding the jackets of the sweaty men who threw bloody stones at Stephen.
We must assume that in heaven Paul first knelt before Christ. It is also likely that he next went to speak with Stephen, likely offering an apology for his choice to join in his persecution. Yet, Stephen surely would have reminded Paul of his words on earth, that even while dying he asked Christ not hold it against him. Did Christ not answer by making Paul his greatest earthly emissary? A failure on earth became family in heaven.
Forgiveness lays down appropriate revenge on planet earth because it trusts God’s judgment in heaven. Forgiveness is a form of laying down the sword of personal vengeance, trusting that God has a better plan. It is earthly sacrifice to not file the lawsuit and get the money back. It’s earthly sacrifice to not file for divorce. Yet, we’re never more Christ-like than when we forgive those who do not deserve it.
WHY CAN WE FORGIVE?
Understanding forgiveness doesn’t make it easy. The only way to truly forgive is to truly grasp that, “the Lord first forgave us.” (Colossians 3:13). Once we’ve come to terms with the vertical forgiveness showered upon us by Christ, we’ll have the internal strength to forgive the horizontal afflictions of earth.
- Jesus Forgave Firstly – After David had sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband Uriah he wrote Psalms 51 stating, “Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned…” This shows that although he had hurt many people, ultimately he had sinned against God. Before you or I sinned against anyone else in our life, we sinned against God. Understanding this is an important step in forgiving others. When we realize that God designed us, chose us, died for us, and forgave us, apart from any act of our doing, we begin to feel the necessity to do the same for others.
- Jesus Forgave Fully – Psalms 103 says that God forgave our sins as far as the, “East is from the west.” God knows everything but daily chooses to let go of one thing, my sin. That’s a stunning reality. How often do we go to prayer heavy burdened, sinking to the floor, reminding God of our sins? Yet, He sits upon the throne and looks to Christ asking, “Is this not one of our own? Is he not forgiven already? Why does he keep pleading?” Jesus agrees and does not insult us, await further apology, sting us with sharp reminders of our past, harbor silent hatred, or plan future retaliation. All is forgotten. Once we realize Christ forgave first and forgave full, we will do the same for others. We will not use former sins when attempting to win an argument. We will not use terms like, “Always” or, “Never” when in the heat of battle, for we have truly let their sin go as far as east from west.
- Jesus Forgave Firmly – Peter writes, “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10) Note that the very storyline of Christianity exists because Christ was willing to suffer and likewise He confirms that His followers will be matured through trial and pain. The majority of life’s pain will come from people, thus we may trust that God is using that pain to build Christ-like character in us. Do you have a difficult marriage? Hurtful parents? Tough kids? Conflicts at home or work? Don’t avoid the trial. Grow from it. Injustices, offenses, persecutions, mistreatments, all shape our spiritual maturity.
Susanne Geske made international headlines the morning after her husband was tied up and tortured to death by six Muslim men simply because he was a Christian. After leaving the police station she released a statement, “I forgive the murderers of my husband the way Christ forgave his murderers, ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do.’” After her statement, thousands of calls and letters poured into the Turkish TV station asking for more information on how to convert from Islam to Christianity.
When we forgive while suffering, we become Christ-like. When we forgive while suffering, we bring heaven to earth.