Given for the Saints at Medicalodge, Neosho, MO, on 10/19/03
"forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Colossians 3:13, RSV).
We've all heard many sermons on the necessity of repentance in order to get God's forgiveness, but I have heard very few on why we must forgive each other. I think the reason for that is because forgiving someone who hurt us is one of the most difficult things we are called upon to do. Most Christians really don't struggle to restrain themselves from getting a gun and shooting someone they hate or robbing a bank either, for they have had it so thoroughly drummed into them that this is a sin, they'd be hard pressed to pull it off anyway. The call to forgive each other, on the other hand, is what makes Christianity different from the other great religions of the world, and it is exceedingly difficult for most to do. My bible computer program found 57 passages with the word "forgive," and in all but one instance in the Old Testament, it had to do with asking God to forgive their sins, rather than forgiving one another. The exception is found in Gen. 50, where Joseph's brothers feared he would take retribution upon them after Jacob had died. They sent him a message saying, "Your father gave this command before he died, 'Say to Joseph, Forgive, I pray you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.' And now, we pray you, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him" (Vs. 16-17). He, of course, had long ago forgiven them, but he wept when he realized their fear indicated the great guilt they still carried for selling him into slavery.
Jesus had a lot to say about forgiving our brothers, and I used to think His words sounded more like law than grace. For instance, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:14,15, RSV). That is also found in the Lord's prayer. "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matt. 6:12). I had difficulty reconciling God's unconditional love for us, with Christ's statement that our forgiveness of others was a condition of our receiving God's forgiveness. Jesus was speaking to people BEFORE the cross, who were indeed, living under law. Though He came to rectify the need to approach God on a conditional basis, He was speaking to people who were schooled in the Law of Moses, which said, "You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:18, RSV). They were also told "Vengeance is mine" (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30), and yet, they were allowed to wreak vengeance upon their enemies: "If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (Ex. 21:23-25, RSV).
That "eye for an eye" thing has kept the Middle East in turmoil, fueling violence upon violence, death for death, bombing for bombing, and maiming for maiming. Both Islam and Judaism are based upon LAW, and under law, violence will never cease because forgiveness of their enemies is NOT required of them, and it is practically never practiced by the extreme conservatives in these groups today. This is why Jesus was considered such a radical. He would be considered by the Religious Right and the NRA as well, a left-wing, liberal softy in today's world. Jesus made inflammatory if not revolutionary statements: "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:38-39). After discussing voluntarily giving to those who would take from you by force, He concluded, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:43-45, NIV). This got Him crucified by the Religious Right of His day, and some still act like that's what pacifists deserve today.
Lack of forgiveness gets played out on the world's stage every day with violence in the Middle East heading the list, but where it plagues us the most is right here at home, in the bosom of the family. As I was studying and meditating on this topic the Lord gave me, I came across a verse that had puzzled me for years. Right after He breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples, Jesus said, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven" (John 20:23, NIV). I have never bought into the Catholic doctrine that this means that priests have the power to forgive sins. Only God has the power to forgive sins, and under the law, they were not forgiven, but only rolled forward, because "...it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins" (Heb. 10:4, RSV). Christ came to nullify that imperfect system (Vs. 9): "And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for ALL. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" Vs. 10-14). Paul is emphatic that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation" (II Cor. 5:19). It seems very evident that MEN cannot forgive sins, or can we?
Those of us who have been through a divorce know that it is one arena in which forgiveness or lack of same means the difference between heaven and hell in our relationship with the ex-spouse after the marriage is terminated. I believe in counseling, and will go so far as to say, without it, I might not have survived a bitter marriage and a painful divorce. With help and support from a counselor with skin on, and the Great Counselor (the Holy Spirit), I learned some hard truths about Jan.
Some have commended my openness in my writing. That's wisdom born of pain. Covering up the sin (the flaw, the defect, the neurosis), only buries it, where it lies festering and emitting toxins throughout the physical body, the emotions and the soul. Undealt with "neurotic stuff" can poison all our inter-personal relationships. The Holy Spirit is so gentle and tender and kind in His dealings with us, that He only gives us what we can bear. Gradually, He showed me the defects in me, the dysfunctional ways I had learned to cope in my Fundamentalist up-bringing, and the glorious grace of God which covers all my deficiencies. He did not even show me my flaws until He had first grounded me in the glorious truth that all sin had been nailed to the cross. But like the Saints in Samaria, I had not received the Holy Spirit at my water baptism (Acts 8:14-17). He manifested Himself to me one night years later while I was taking a bubble bath. While I was immersed in warm, sudsy water up to my chin, the heavens opened up and I saw Christ on that cross for Jan. Until that moment, His death, burial and resurrection had not really been personal.
I wept and laughed and loved Him to a degree I had never felt before, and that was before the marriage went South. I felt His great love for me personally, and finally realized what John meant when He said, "We love, because he first loved us" (I John 4:19). I experienced the truth that He loved me before, during, and after my sins. What a glorious release that was, having come to believe that God could barely stand the sight of me when I was trying as hard as I could to be good. Instead of thinking He carried my photo in His wallet, as Ann Lamott expressed it, I figured He probably used my picture for target practice. Hell fire and damnation sermons can do that to a young, impressionable mind. In my youth, I saw God as a scary being, old, cranky, and extremely judgmental. I was taught that if I died before I repented of my sins, I would go straight down the chute to hell to be eternally tormented. This does not lend itself to a desire to crawl up on God's lap and tell Him your troubles. No Siree. It causes you to want to hide in a corner somewhere and hope He doesn't notice you if He looks in your direction.
The experience in the bubble bath changed my perspective, removed my fear of God, and infused my life with His Light and Love. I saw the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and realized that He was available, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, in short, every second of my life. What an empowering event it proved to be! This awareness came before the divorce, and in fact, had I not known that God loved me unconditionally, I could not have gone through with it, because the guilt would have eaten me alive. Divorce was the unpardonable sin in the church I grew up in. No divorced person could hold a church office or serve in any public way because of this sin, and God forbid, should they remarry, they were committing perpetual adultery, surely bound for hell.
I didn't really mean to get off on this, but the Lord has His reasons for everything and perhaps someone out there may need to hear it. In any event, the divorce and its aftermath, trying to bring up a child as a single mother without much help from her father, trying to sort out whose fault it was, what went wrong, and what to do about all that, came up for me today as I was meditating on John 20:23, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." I'll give you what the Lord gave me and you can embrace it or not, as you feel led by the Spirit. It fits right into our topic today.
What I saw was that if you are still holding a grudge against someone, they are NOT forgiven in your heart. That person's sins are retained in YOUR mind. It has nothing to do with them at all, but everything to do with your own mental health and well being. And I believe firmly that THIS is why Jesus said for us to ask for forgiveness as we forgive others. From a psychological standpoint (and Jesus was the Great Psychologist after all), when we hold hostility and unforgiveness in our heart toward anyone, it prevents us from receiving our own forgiveness. God forgave everyone on the cross, of course, but we can't feel it and benefit from it if the root of bitterness is crowding out His love in our heart.
About that root of bitterness, the Hebrew writer said, "See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many" (Heb. 12:15). Do you see how missing the grace of God (falling from grace and living by law) enables that root to grow up and cause us grief and pain? Paul declared about those who would live by Law, "You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:4, RSV). There is no grace in unforgiveness, none at all, which is why someone's sins are retained in your soul if you don't forgive them. This has nothing to do with how God sees them, but how the unforgiveness affects you! Other fall out from it includes fear and guilt, sure signs that Law is working in your life rather than grace.
Jesus told a great story which illustrates this in Matthew, Chapter 18:23-35. A certain king wished to settle accounts with his servants. One of them, who owed him 10,000 talents, was brought in because he could not pay what he owed. The king ordered that the man, his wife, and his children be sold to pay the debt. The man fell upon his knees and begged for mercy, saying he would repay him as soon as he was able. The king "took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go" (Vs. 27). The ungrateful servant immediately went out and found a man who owed him a hundred denarii and demanded payment. When the man could not pay, the servant threw him into prison until he could pay the debt. (Vs. 30). The other servants were horrified and told the king about his behavior. The king called him on the carpet: "'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?'" (Vs. 32-33). Jesus ended the parable with this chilling observation: "In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart" (Vs. 34-35).
We don't have debtor's prisons anymore, thank God, but what flashed in my spirit as I read this is the psychological truth that I have been trying to convey here, which is that when we do not forgive someone who has hurt us, we are tortured by our own unforgiveness of them UNTIL with God's help, we can forgive them, and we must, for our own well being.
I know several people who still carry a grudge for wrongs committed long ago. If you are one of these folks, give your hurt to the Lord; lay it at the cross and walk away. Our unforgiveness of another does not hurt them. If they cared much, they wouldn't have hurt us in the first place, but it rots our soul, making it a compost heap upon which the root of bitterness thrives. If you've tried and failed to forgive someone, remember that Christ living in you can do what you cannot.
About two years ago now, my former mother-in-law died and Lenny and I went to the funeral. When we passed by the family at the grave site, my ex-husband stood up, put one hand on each of my arms, looked me squarely in the eye and asked, "Will you forgive me for everything I did wrong to you?" I was moved to tears, and hugged him saying, "I forgave you years ago." It was a beautiful, totally unexpected moment, coming about twenty six years after the break-up. I rejoiced knowing he needed to say that for himself, not for me, and he would be blessed by it and the load he carried lightened considerably.
Father, we thank You and praise You that You forgave us in Christ so long ago, and that You continue to forgive us when we slip out of grace and back into Law. We ask for the ability and opportunity to tell everyone we meet that You are unconditional LOVE! We praise You that Your love is shed abroad by the Holy Spirit through us to the whole world. Amen. Jan Antonsson
To be continued.......
Jan and Lenny Antonsson
17178 Highway 59, Neosho, MO 64850 (Snail Mail)
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This page was uploaded to the web on 10/17/03
by Jan Antonsson, Webmeister
and last edited on 10/28/08.