My new eldership had spoken. I was their twenty-seven-year-old new preacher. Their congregation was an important church in our fellowship. I was their young preacher and a bit of a risk and reach. We needed to maintain the momentum of our good start together. I loved my work with them. But...
Brother So-and-so was a famous preacher who had cheated my dad out of money on a business deal. The cheat was less intentional than it was ineptitude, but it was a sizable amount when my dad was quite ill and nearly cost me the opportunity to go to college. Fortunately, the Lord provided other means for me to attend the university and begin my studies to become a minister. Ten years later, I was being asked to invite and host this same person who had cheated my dad. For the first time, of what would be many times in my adult life, I was confronted with forgiving someone of a wound their actions had carved into my heart.
Three things challenged me not to say anything to my eldership and find a way to forgive this brother in Christ and friend of my dad:
First, before my dad passed away, he had forgiven his preacher friend. He had called on us to forgive him, as well.
Second, I kept hearing the echo of Paul's words to the churches of Asia Minor, especially the church in Ephesus:
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 4:31-32; 5:1-2 NRSV).
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors (Matthew 6:12)
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14-15).
Ouch! Jesus' truth and Paul's reminder are truly convicting. My lack of forgiveness toward others can shut off the flow of God's forgiveness to me.
But, how do I understand my "conditional forgiveness" — that I will not receive forgiveness unless I am forgiving — in light of God's grace, love, and mercy?
How can the requirement for me to forgive others be a loving gift from God and not a threat?
How can Jesus' mandate that I must forgive or my forgiveness is blocked, be a gracious gift to me?
If you listen to the words above, they betray a profound misunderstanding of what Jesus said. God's forgiveness of me is not provisional based on what I do. I have ALREADY RECEIVED his forgiveness. God's rhythm of mercy is to give grace and then ask his children to respond appropriately. However, when I refuse to be a conduit of his grace, to pass along that grace, then something breaks inside of me.
Two insights from so long ago have helped me understand that Jesus' harsh words are grace-propelled reminders. They reawaken me to my need to forgive.
The first insight came in from an article I read about forgiveness during the weeks I had to work on my heart after I had invited Brother So-and-so to speak. I don't remember much about the content of the article. However, I do remember a picture of a bird being released from a cage. The caption under it read:
My unwillingness to forgive was poisoning my heart. That poison impacted my relationship with the person I refused to forgive. That poison also seeped into all of my relationships as it destroyed part of my heart. An unwillingness to forgive killed something inside of me.
The second insight explains why the first insight is true. As I kept asking God to help me forgive my dad's preacher friend, the Holy Spirit kept reminding me of an old song I had heard when I was a kid. The song was about the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee was a vibrant sea full of life. The Dead Sea was different: it was dead. It contained too many salts and minerals to support much life. The difference between the two seas? The Sea of Galilee gave up its blessings and shared them downstream through the Jordan River. The Dead Sea, however, never gave up anything. What it received, it kept. Eventually, the accumulated "gifts" it received killed it. The Dead Sea died from taking in too much and not giving up anything. God called me to be a conduit of his blessings (Genesis 12:1-3). When I hoard and hold God's blessings while refusing to share them, I choke off the life-giving flow of God's grace from my life and end up choking out my own life. I am forgiven to forgive.
Is forgiveness hard? Absolutely! Over the years, the subject of forgiving others has been the number one focus of people who have emailed me from our delivery of over 225,000 daily devotionals through Verse of the Day. Forgiveness is hard. Wounds can be deep, unfair, maliciously planned, and intentionally executed. The scars might hide the wounds, but they don't heal them. Forgiveness, for many, is a daily battle with hurt, anger, and a desire for fairness that sometimes manifests as vengeance.
Does forgiveness mean forgetting? Not immediately!
Only God can forget. If we get focused on forgetting, we won't. Try actively forgetting something. You can't! Forgetting should be our intention, but forgetting is ultimately the work of grace from the Holy Spirit. Some sins (sexual exploitation, abuse, serial violence) shouldn't be forgotten. Forgetting, in some situations, is harmful for both the offender and the victim. Others don't need to be left vulnerable because of a lack of needed knowledge — that's remembering. We can, however, begin to act in ways toward the other person that demonstrates our intention to forgive. As the Holy Spirit empowers us to treat the other person in forgiving ways, the Spirit can also help us slowly release the memory of the offense to God to handle in his way of true justice and redemptive righteousness.
I believe one of the reasons we are wise to say The Lord's Prayer regularly is to challenge ourselves about the areas of our lives where we are unforgiving. God wants us to release the captive bird and realize it is our hearts that are set free. God wants us to pass on the incredible forgiveness he has given us in Jesus (Romans 5:6-11) to others. He wants us to forgive, as the apostle Paul reminds us, as God has forgiven us. Grace is not grace when we hoard it; Jesus intended for his grace to be shared!
When Brother So-and-so preached at "my" church, I took him to dinner. We had a pleasant dinner together. He did a good job of speaking to our people about reaching our lost neighbors using friendships as an opportunity to model and share the love of Jesus. As I presented him his stipend check for the evening, he looked at me and said, "Phil, I hope you know how good a man your father was."
The nasty, unforgiving part of me wanted to retort back some sharp, quick remark, but, by the grace of God, I didn't. He was genuine in what he said. My dad was genuine in his forgiveness. I needed to be authentic in mine. Plus, I know that my daddy, who was with Jesus, wanted my caged heart to go free. I needed to forgive as the Father has forgiven me!
I didn't want to disappoint my dad who had long ago forgiven this man he considered a dear brother. I didn't want to disappoint my heavenly Father, who had forgiven me completely. What began as a night that I dreaded, turned into a night of healing, grace, and church momentum. That night, that forgiveness, that brother's message, propelled us into outreach and growth we could have never expected.
My struggle to forgive my dad's friend was the first of many lessons the Lord would use to remind me: God designed forgiveness to be shared freely and graciously. Brother So-and-so would pass from this earth many years after that event. He went to the Lord as an older and respected preaching friend of mine. Our church was propelled into greater outreach by his message and his resources. And I, by God's grace, was led to become more like the Sea of Galilee than the Dead Sea.
Forgiveness is often the hardest gift of grace we give to others. It is also the most precious and necessary one we must give if we are to be a follower of Jesus. Over the years, however, I have found that forgiveness is the most precious gift I give that brings back more grace that it shares. We are the living legacy of this truth when we realize just how much the Lord has forgiven us!
More than an afterthought:
All too often, I fear, we individualize The Lord's Prayer when the pronouns are all plural. Jesus gave us The Prayer for us to use in our relationships. When we pray about OUR need for God's forgiveness, the Spirit also reminds US of OUR need to forgive each other and those who consider US their enemies. Church life is hard because all the people in our church family are as broken and flawed as the person we see in the mirror in the morning. We need to give grace just as much as we need to receive grace!
And if we listen to Jesus carefully, he has given us an incredible and powerful way to redeem each other. We can proactively liberate each other from our failures, flaws, and rebellions. We can forgive actively, intentionally, and redemptively. We don't have to wait to be asked. We can reach out with the grace of God and ransom those whose hearts haven't reached the end of their rebellion and self-destruction. Who knows if our proactive forgiveness won't be the beginning point of their rescue. So, as you pray The Prayer, I hope you will let the strong theme of forgiving and being forgiven ignite your heart to claim the powerful promise of Jesus. In a later message about forgiveness, we find these words (Matthew 18:1-35):
[Jesus told his disciples,] "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name there am I among them" (Matthew 18:18-20).
Let's make our times of prayer with fellow believers a time of forgiveness. Let's not only forgive those who ask for it but also forgive those who desperately need it and haven't realized that need. Our great God of forgiveness has given us. As our Father's forgiven children, let's use our power to grant grace and share his mercy. Let's be like Jesus and offer forgiveness freely, redemptively, and sacrificially!
His name is Ira — an intelligent, wise, prayerful, and Christ-centered, shepherd. When he prayed publicly, it was as if he had just been on the mountain with Jesus. Not so much in the sound of his voice, but instead, it was his spirit. His longing for God led us into the throne room of grace.
As a young youth minister in his mid-twenties, I'll never forget what he said about forgiveness. It happened in an elder-minister Wednesday night meeting. A fellow elder recalled a hurtful exchange by a church member to Ira. It had occurred recently — within a few months. Ira said:
I was shocked. I couldn't believe he didn't remember. Forgive and forget — you got to be kidding. Forgive? Yes, maybe, with a lot of trying! Forget? Not really.
When others responded, "Surely you remember," he said, "Grace means we forgive, and in Christ, forget."
Granted, he is a very disciplined man who longed to be formed by Christ in all areas of his life. Still, Ira stretched me in every way that night — mind, body, and spirit. He demonstrated forgiveness in his heart and in his behavior:
- He refused to be held captive by an unforgiving spirit by remembering the incident.
- I witnessed him move toward, not away, from the person at assembly times as if nothing had ever happened
- Grace changes behavior. Leading with a gracious response trains our feelings to follow over time.
As the wise one of Israel said long ago:
One who forgives an affront fosters friendship,
but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend (Proverbs 17:9).
That exchange between elders on forgiveness was forty years ago. I still remember what Ira said, and even more, I remember what he did. Grace, as he demonstrated it, changed the way I pray.
This prayer is enough for me on any given day, especially when the old tapes play, and I realize that I have not forgotten.
Lord, please help!
Open your Bible to just about any place, and you won't have to read very far before forgiveness jumps off the page. It permeates the First Testament. God's forgiveness of his people is mentioned at least 122 times in Leviticus with these words: "...do this, and your sins will be forgiven." Also, notice the repeated refrain in Psalms:
Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name's sake (Psalm 79:9).
Forgiveness punctuates the ministry of Jesus. For Jesus in his earthly ministry, forgiveness was consistent, yet somehow always surprising. His forgiveness of others was often scandalous, especially for those whose religious boxes had no room for the bruised, broken, and culturally despised.
No doubt the disciples hesitated when they heard their Lord say, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). Whoa! Forgive us as we have forgiven? That sure underlines the seriousness of Jesus' commitment to forgiveness and his disciples being forgiving.
Notice the phrase "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil" (KJV). (Sometimes translated, "do not bring us to the time of trial but rescue us from the evil one" (NRSV). Jesus sandwiches this phrase between our shared plea for forgiveness and his teaching about our need to forgive. It is, it seems to me, that the temptation and time of trial we often face can be best understood as our own need to forgive. Let these words of your Savior echo in your heart:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15).
A disciple of Jesus will find no shortage of opportunities to forgive given our propensity as mortals to wound one another. Some of the deepest, gut-wrenching pain, are in family and church relationships. Broken trust makes forgiveness a challenging process that takes time and effort, sometimes expended over a lifetime. Forgiveness, or our refusal to forgive, is a sobering and essential part of our challenge to live the life of Jesus in our broken world.
The Apostle Peter understood the struggle to forgive. When he heard Jesus explain what to do when a disciple sins against you, he asked the question: "How often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Most of us understand the power of the number seven in the lives of God's people. Peter uses the number seven as a way of saying, "Should I forgive him the perfect religious amount?"
Jesus responded by upping the ante to an absurd amount, a God-like amount: "Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times"! Only the example of God's forgiveness of us in Jesus (Romans 5:6-11), and the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18; Ephesians 3:20-21) can help us approximate this God-like place of forgiveness.
Peter's interchange with Peter about seven-fold forgiveness echoes Cain's murder of his brother and recalls a key phrase involving the number seven. The Lord put a mark on Cain so that he would not be killed: The Lord said, 'whoever kills Cain will suffer a seven-fold vengeance..." He then went away from the presence of the Lord to the land of Nod [the land of wandering] east of Eden (Genesis 4:15-16). God protected Cain because it is from Cain's offspring came the Savior of the world, Jesus. Jesus is the one who put flesh and blood into forgiveness. Forgiving seven-fold is nearly God-extravagant forgiveness. But, only nearly!
Jesus turned the concept of forgiveness inside-out as he moved from vengeance to mercy when he answered Peter. Whether the number of times we are to forgive is 77 or 490, the point is obvious: forgive and keep forgiving. And, forgiveness isn't about math; it's about God-sized extravagance. Jesus deepened our sense of our need for forgiveness with the parable of the unmerciful servant later in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 18:25-31). Read the story. With whom do you identify? Why? Who needs your forgiveness? How can you even approximate the God-extravagant forgiveness he has already given to you?
An unforgiving spirit is a dark, cold prison that holds your soul captive with the chains of resentment, anger, and bitterness. It is no wonder that the Apostle Paul says to Jesus' people, and to us as church people:
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:30-32).
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive (Colossians 3.13).
The scriptures have so much more to say about forgiveness — see Hebrews 8:12; Psalm 103;1 Peter 3:8-12; 4:8; 1 John 2.7-14 for some more good biblical reading on forgiveness. Suffice to say, forgiving others, and acting with forgiveness toward others, until the Spirit helps us forget, is enough of a challenge for a lifetime.
Bottom line: Since God forgives, at the cost of Jesus going to the cross, we commit to forgive. How can we not forgive?
A Prayer of Forgiveness
Lord, you forgive. I confess my struggle to forgive.
Because I remember and can't let it go,
And distance me from the hurt.
Even the mere mention of a name can hold my spirit captive.
Lord, you forgive, so I will forgive.
I confess that seventy times seven is overwhelming.
Because I still taste the bitterness and feel the anger.
And moving on is about a tender heart and kindness,
Even when I don't feel like it.
Lord, give me the strength to forgive and the behavior that goes with it while I live forward into the time the Spirit helps me forget the wound and the memory of the offense against me.
In the name of Jesus Christ, the one who said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," I pray this. Amen.
Grady King, D. Min, serves as V. P. and Co-Leader of HOPE Network, doing work in mentoring leaders, guiding churches and interim ministry. He also serves as Director of Church Resources at Oklahoma Christian, part-time. He was involved in congregational ministry for over 40 years with 26 of those years in two congregations: Mansfield Church of Christ and South MacArthur Church of Christ, Irving, TX. Grady received his formal education at Oklahoma Christian and Abilene Christian (B.S. in Education; M.S. Biblical Studies; D. Min). He and his wife, Karen, were married in 1979 and have two married children: Josh and Carolyn King; Christin and Chad Paradowski. Grady’s writing includes blogs for HOPE Network, chapters in various books: HOPE for Weary Leaders; When Leaders Are Stuck: A Guide to Communal Discernment; and, A Bully on the Playground: Courageous Strategies for Dealing with Bullies in the Church and Leadership.Contact Grady at firstname.lastname@example.org.