On November 30, 2008, at The Hill , the message was about forgiveness, and what it means to truly be forgiven and to truly forgive others. The central passage used was Matthew 18:21-35 (The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant). To say that the sermon was thought-provoking, what I needed to hear, or meaningful on a personal level to me would be an understatement.
True forgiveness is an issue that many people (myself included) struggle with on a daily basis. I would imagine that most anyone who feels a normal range of human emotions, and has gone through experiences of broken trust, hurt, or betrayal has had to face the emotions that come afterward. This is not a very pretty list, because for many, it includes feelings such as anger, wrath, bitterness, vengeance, guilt, cynicism, hate, vulnerability, indignation, and depression.
Yet God commands us to forgive.
I know firsthand, how hard that command is to follow. I’ve had a many hard times in my life, and at various times, it seemed like there was no lack of people who would go out of their way to do something hurtful to me. Throughout my life, I have been ostracized, mocked, abused (physically, emotionally, and mentally), lied to, rejected, had possessions stolen from me, beaten up, cursed at, falsely accused (and unjustly punished), humiliated, insulted, threatened, and betrayed. Many of these acts were perpetrated by those that I trusted.
With a laundry list like that, it’s very easy to justify an emotional response, and to play the victim. It’s also very hard to forgive – hard, but not impossible. That list, or anyone’s list, pales massively in comparison to all that God had to endure for us and from us. The Bible reminds us that since we are all servants in God’s eyes, all wrongs are committed not against us, but against Him. Also, it is He alone that has the authority to pass righteous judgment, not us.
With so many things like those in that list having happened to me, it’s clear to see why I would have some struggles with the process of forgiveness. I remember one incident from my life in recent years in particular, which would serve to illustrate some of the points I have presented.
There was this guy that I had become friends with back in high school. While I had a few friends during high school, this guy had almost none. I was his friend when no one else would be. We soon became very good friends, even best friends, or so I thought. Honestly, I don’t know how much of that was genuine friendship on his part (at first), and how much was just him using me. All seemed to be going well between us, until around the time of my second semester of my freshman year of college. I noticed, around that time, that he seemed more and more distant, so I had tried to talk to him about it. These efforts were met with closed doors, unanswered calls, and poor excuses. Finally I decided to confront him about it, for better or worse. He responded with hostility, rejection, and threats. He told me (with much profanity) to get out of his house, and out of his life. Even as I left his house to walk back to my dorm, I was filled with rage and thoughts of revenge. Now let me tell you something about “revenge”: it’s only sweet in the planning; the aftertaste is quite bitter. Getting back at him, in the small way that I had, did not make me feel any better about the situation. In fact, it made me feel as if I needed to do more to bring wrathful judgment against him. The rage, bitterness, and thoughts of vengeance consumed me; they became an obsession, a parasite that would gnaw at my very heart. This syndrome of unforgiveness, from this one incident, poisoned my life for over a year. I eventually forgave him, but the process leading up to that point was definitely not instantaneous.
In fact, it was at the Hill, earlier in the summer of ‘08, that I had some realizations that would bring me to the point where I could get over it and forgive him. You see, I had known in my mind about the Biblical stance on forgiveness for some time, but to understand it in my heart was a totally different thing. I realized that when I forgave someone, especially someone who did not ask me for forgiveness, I wasn’t showing weakness by granting them pardon. The only person whom I was doing a favor for was myself.
I further realized that since Christ had forgiven me all my sins and paid my death penalty, that holding this grudge was something that I didn’t need to do, and in fact went against what Jesus teaches.
When I finally unshackled myself from this burden and handed it to God, the feeling of freedom was amazing. No longer was I burning with wrath against this person. No longer would I sit up at night plotting revenge. My life and relationships with others was no longer polluted with bitter memories of him.
Does this mean that I forgot completely what he did, or that I condone his actions? Of course not. First of all, I am incapable of simply erasing memories like a computer can delete files. The lessons that I learned from that incident are now part of my accumulation of life experience. Second, my forgiveness of his actions does not make them right. He will still face God’s judgment for what he did. But isn’t a big part of forgiveness the fact that we hand the case over to God, and put it under His divine jurisdiction?
God forgave us every sin that we committed against Him, and pardoned us from death and eternal torture. He showed us mercy and grace where we deserved only judgment and punishment. Christ tells us though, that if we do not forgive our fellow humans just as freely, that God will likewise withhold his forgiveness from us.
The process of forgiveness is not an easy or painless one, but it is necessary. With all the grace and mercy that Christ showed us, who are we to withhold it from others?