Forgiveness Part Two: Forgiving Others - Jon Fryer
Having already written about God’s forgiveness for us lets move on to why we need to forgive others.
So what is forgiveness? Forgiveness in the Bible is the Greek verb aphiemi, which means ‘to let loose’ or ‘to untie’. When you let loose an arrow from a bow, the arrow has no ties and no further connection to the archer – it goes on its way unhindered. When you untie a boat from its moorings the boat no longer has any ties or connections to the shore – it goes on its way unhindered. This is what forgiveness is all about – when you forgive someone the incident that is forgiven has zero effect upon your relationship or upon your lives.
Read Matt 6;12-15 and Matt 18;21-35 – this is what Jesus taught about forgiveness. The most important phrase there is ‘forgive your brother from your heart’. Most of us have no trouble forgiving with our heads – if someone comes and says ‘I’m sorry’, we say ‘never mind old chap, I forgive you’ or words to that effect, but in our hearts we’re still saying ‘Stupid @*$£@**&!’ You get the idea. This is what theologians call ‘mental assent’ – you say yes to an idea, but you don’t actually believe it or put it into practice. Mental assent is not forgiveness from the heart. Mental assent is not what God calls forgiveness. For example, if someone borrows money from you but loses it all and can’t pay it back, most Christians would say ‘Don’t worry about it, I forgive you.’ From the parable they probably think that cancelling the debt is all there is to forgiveness… but what happens when that person comes back again and asks for more money? Sad to say, most of us would refuse to give it to them because we remember the last time. We might try to hide our hypocrisy by calling it ‘good stewardship’ or something equally ‘proper’, but what we are really saying is ‘No, I haven’t forgiven you’, because that past event is still influencing our actions. What kind of state would we be in if God said to us ‘Well, you screwed up the last opportunity so it would be ‘bad stewardship’ if I gave you another chance’?! How can we treat each other that way then?! As a rule of thumb, check your motives whenever you find yourself using phrases like ‘good stewardship’ to justify a decision – are you sure you are not just hiding from the fact that you are disobeying God’s command to ‘give to anyone who asks of you without question, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you’ (Matt 6;42)? ‘Good stewardship’ is often an excuse for a lack of love or a refusal to give or forgive.
This doesn’t just apply to money, it applies to everything. We say ‘I forgive you’, but its just shallow lip service and British good manners. If you ever find yourself saying ‘I got hurt before so I’m never doing that again’ then it’s a sure sign that you haven’t really forgiven from your heart.
Why is this so important? Forgiveness is absolutely vital to our Christian lives and our relationship with God. Notice that in the Lord’s Prayer in Matt 6, forgiveness is the only thing that we ask for that comes with a condition – ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. If we don’t forgive then God can’t forgive us – I’ll explain why later. Just in case we missed the point in the prayer Jesus then repeats it explicitly in Matt 6;14-15. More than that God will not accept our worship if we hold unforgiveness in our hearts – see Matt 5;23-24. Notice that it doesn’t even have to be your fault – ‘If your brother has something against you…’ – it’s still your responsibility to get it sorted before you come to God – again, I’ll explain why later.
Even more than that, God will not even hear our prayers if we hold unforgiveness in our hearts. Read Matt 6;12 very carefully in the NIV – ‘forgive us our debts as we have already forgiven our debtors’ – you can not even say the Lord’s Prayer unless you have already forgiven everyone who has wronged you, and the Lord’s Prayer is the most basic prayer there is.
The parable we read in Matt 18 is Jesus’ main teaching on forgiveness, and it is really interesting that just two verses before he was talking about prayer – see Matt 18;19-20. The words ‘together’ and ‘agree’ are the Greek word homothumadon. It doesn’t mean physically together in the same room, it means to be totally unanimous and in agreement in thought, in desire and in spirit. It means to be in love with one another. When we have not forgiven we are not in this relationship, we can’t be in this relationship, and outside of this relationship we come to God alone, not as part of the body, and He says ‘I don’t know you, I don’t know who you are’.
Continuing with the idea of prayer, when Jesus threw the moneylenders from the Temple in Matt 21;13 he said ‘My Temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves’. A comedian once changed this to ‘a den of lawyers’ in a joke, but it is truer than he knew. When we come together to pray we come as children to the Father’s House, to ask our Father for gifts. When we refuse to forgive however then we are judging another person, and we are effectively leaving the house of prayer and dragging them to the law courts. When we enter the law courts of heaven then God comes to us not as a Father, but as a Judge, and when He comes to judge He judges not only the other person but us as well – read Matt 7;1-2. When God judges he judges fairly across the board, and none of us is perfect – see Matt 5;25-26.
Earlier I said that when we refuse to forgive then God can not forgive us – that is because of our own free will we have entered the law courts and called Him to be judge, over ourselves as well as our ‘enemy’. Far better to forgive and stay in the house of prayer, the Father’s house, and never have to face Him as Judge!
Unforgiveness is totally crippling to a church in a spiritual sense. It is the reason that so many prayers go unanswered, and why we are so slow to see revival and new growth. Why is this? Read Matt 18;18. Many people apply this verse to spiritual warfare, but it applies to all things spiritual. We do have a God given authority to judge, but it is far better to choose to exercise that authority by forgiving instead. When we refuse to forgive we bind up the other person and drag them to the law courts. This is crippling to the church, for our decision not to forgive someone paralyses them spiritually as well as us; it’s not fair, but it is true. To forgive is to let loose, to untie, so that they can reach their spiritual destination. To judge is to tie up and hold back that person like a boat tied tightly to the dock. We are all part of one body – when one part hurts, every part hurts. When one part has a problem, everyone has a problem. That is why Jesus said ‘If you remember that your brother has something against you, go and be reconciled to him before coming to the altar’ – it may not be your fault, but it is your problem.
You may have noticed that I keep using the words ‘choose’, ‘refuse’ and ‘choice’. To forgive from the heart is our choice. To love one another is our choice. It may be an incredibly difficult choice, but it is still our choice. Even when we find it totally against our nature to forgive we can still turn to god and say ‘I want to forgive but I can’t – please heal me.’
Unforgiveness is a trap that ties us up, but Jesus came to set free all of the captives, and he whom the Son has set free is free indeed. The world tells us to hold onto our rights, our possessions, our right to self defence, our right to judge, but when we hold onto something then our fists are tightly clenched and in that position we can not receive from God. Only when we let go of our hurt, our rights, can we receive anything from God with open hands and open heart. We have a choice whether to live in the House of Prayer or the law courts, a choice whether to know God as a loving Father or a terrible Judge. Where would you rather be?
Our choice to walk in the law courts rather than the Father’s House has one other effect – when we enter the law courts of god it gives Satan a legal right to accuse. Satan is the Accuser, the prosecution lawyer in the law courts of God, and when we cling to our right to judge someone, to not forgive, then he is allowed to cling to his legal right to accuse us, and he is given spiritual power and authority over us. Satan has no power over us except that which we choose to give him. Reread Matt 18;32-35. The word ‘torture’ there is the Greek word kolasis which usually means ‘the torments of Hell’. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we can lose our salvation (that’s a whole ‘nother debate entirely!), and the ‘torture’ God turns us over to does not necessarily mean ‘Hell’. Rather, when we refuse to forgive then our own lives become tortured from within, twisted by our own frustration and anger and bitterness which are all tools of the Devil that we have given him power and authority to use – Hell on Earth. God says ‘Forgive your brother from your heart’, or else you will be tortured by your own heart. The Holy Spirit dwells in every Christian, but he will not, can not, stay where there is unholiness – it would contradict who He is. If we refuse to forgive then there is apart of our life that the Holy Spirit is not using. It’s like a plot of land lying fallow with no fruit or crops growing in it – and if the Holy Spirit won’t use that ground then you can be sure that Satan will, and suddenly all sorts of weeds and thorn bushes will start springing up in your life, which will then try to spread out and take over the good ground as well.
Jesus said that our lives are living temples to God. Again, if Satan finds a plot of ground that the Holy Spirit isn’t using then you can bet that he’s gonna start building on it! Through the unholy foundations laid by unforgiveness Satan will build up what the Bible calls a ‘lying imagination’. When you refuse to forgive someone, then soon you start to believe that everyone is out to get you, that every little thing is aimed at you. Because you can’t forgive these imaginary sins then you believe that you have no true friends, that no one loves you, that everyone hates you. If you ever find yourself blaming ‘they’, believing that there is this great anonymous group of people out to hurt you, it’s a sure sign that Satan’s lying imagination has taken hold in your life, and you have a spiritual problem that needs to be given over to God.
Often the hardest things to forgive are things that happened in our past. Many Christians suffer from things that happened to them in the past that they feel they simply can not forgive or let go. They believe, subconsciously or otherwise, that ‘I wasn’t a Christian then, so God can’t fix it. What’s it got to do with him?’ God however wants and demands your whole life, even the past. Jesus said ‘You must be born again.’ The past has to be not erased, but released into service for god. When Jesus said this to Nicodemus, Nicodemus asked ‘how can a man be born when he is old? Surely he can not enter the womb a second time to be born!’ Most of us laugh at this question, and think how stupid he is for missing the point, but it’s actually one of the most sensible questions anyone ever asked Jesus. Nicodemus knew from a human point of view that the past is the past and can not be changed. God’s grace is not limited by time however. If you look back to the time before you became a Christian you should still be able to see God moving in your life even before you came to know Him, from birth right up to the present.
When Moses asks god who He is, God said these words in Hebrew: eyheh asher eyheh, which sums up totally who God is. God said two things. Firstly He said ‘I AM WHO I AM’. God IS, at all times and in all places, and therefore god can deal with anything, anywhere, anywhen.
Secondly, He said ‘I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE’. God is our future, in whom we put our hope. One thing He never says is ‘I WAS’. God is never a has-been, and to God nothing is ever past or unreachable. If there are problems in your past then, yes, they may be impossible for you to fix, but please don’t let them poison you – rather, give them to God, ‘cos He wants your whole life, even the parts before you met Him; nothing is ever too late with God – there is always the second time, the second chance – you must be born again!
Even harder to forgive are people in church. Church is supposed to be safe, supposed to be our home, our sanctuary, but when we let down our defences and try to trust and love then we find ourselves hurt even more. This betrayal is hard to forgive, but we have to remember that other Christians are only human and therefore no better and no worse than we are. We need to forgive one another, because surely we need other Christians to forgive us too. Church is dead without forgiveness, because without forgiveness then there is no love, and without love then there is no church. To be truly called a church we have to be in the homothumadon relationship I wrote about earlier, we have to be together, we have to be in love with each other, and in love with the very idea of being together. Without this we cannot approach God as Father, but only as Judge. Read 1 Cor 11;28-32. Communion is the time when we come together closest of all to approach God. If anyone does not recognise the body of the Lord it says, not just the bread but the church, us together in total unity and love and forgiveness, then he invites judgement on himself for the same reasons that I talked about earlier. Paul describes the consequences of this – ‘many of you are weak or sick, and some of you have even died’ – not just emotionally and spiritually but physically as well. God’s discipline and judgement are a fearsome thing. You could say that I’m reading that too literally, but it’s impossible to take it too seriously – we need to love one another. This is why it is said that you should not take communion if you have something against your brother or your sister in your heart – it’s not a legalistic thing, but something very important. Any time that someone refuses to take communion for this reason is an absolute tragedy, since not only does it mean that they have missed out on a blessing from God, but it also means that they have refused an opportunity to heal a relationship and be made right with God. If we ask god to help us to forgive other Christians He will be even quicker to respond than usual ‘cos He will be healing a wound in His own body. Because it is so much harder to forgive Christians who we are supposed to be able to trust, God will give us even more grace to enable us to do it if we would only choose to ask Him to help.
I have to say that in the past I found it hard to forgive, because I had held onto my unforgiveness so tightly that I thought it had become part of who I was. I was scared that if I let God deal with my problems with people then part of me would be missing, that I wouldn’t be me anymore. God says that you have to give up all of your problems to Him however – if you ever feel the way that I did then Satan is lying to you. Your problems are not your identity. Your grudges are not your identity. Your hurt is NOT who you are. God is our identity, and who we really are is found only in Him, and you’re going to hurt until you find out who you really are, in Him, and in Him alone.
The hardest person of all to forgive is ourselves, at least for most of us. Far too often you hear Christians say ‘You don’t know what I’m like on the inside…’ – yes I do. In 1 Cor 6;18 it tells us that all sin is outside of us. You may say ‘My life is so crap, how can God possibly love me?’, but let me tell you right now that excrement washes off, and so does sin in the blood of the Lord Jesus, because it is all on the outside. Every time that you look in the mirror you may see an ugly sinner, but in 1 Cor 13;12 it tells us that mirrors are just distorted glass, and only through God can we see ourselves clearly. So yes, I do know what you are like on the inside, ‘cos on the inside you are still the perfect, beautiful person that God created you to be, and everything else will eventually wash off. Song of Songs 6;10 says ‘ Who is this that appears like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, majestic as the stars in procession?’ – that’s how God sees you, and how we need to learn to see ourselves and each other. On the outside you might think thast you are crap, but on the inside, on the inside we shine.
The one thing that I know, the one thing of which I am absolutely certain, is that God loves you. He loves you! He loves you, and He loves you, and He loves you, and God help me, sometimes He even loves me! Because of this, nothing is impossible, and the things that seem so huge to us can be dealt with easily by God if we choose to let Him – ‘Be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ – choose to forgive, to let go of your hurts, and God will give you a new heart towards others and towards yourself – read Ezek 36;24-29.
The way that we treat each other is our biggest disgrace, but it could also be our greatest witness. In Luke 23;34 it says that when Jesus was being nailed to the cross he prayed ‘Forgive them father, they don’t know what they are doing’. In the Nazarean text, the Hebrew version of Luke, the verse continues however and says ‘and at this, many Jews around the cross heard, and believed in Him.’ Forgiveness, especially when we are hurting, is so alien to the world that it shocks people into belief. More than that, prayers offered out of forgiveness have great power to save the lost – see Job 22; 21-30. Only when we forgive are we free to approach God as Father and ask Him to heal ourselves, heal our church, heal our friends, heal our nation.
‘Therefore, in view of God’s mercy in this, I plead with you my brothers and sisters, as strongly as I know how, to love one another. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, 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 total unity.’ (Col 3;12-14). Amen.
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