Tuesday, May 10, 2005

extending forgiveness when it hurts (a sermon)

Here's the text of a sermon I gave at Oasis some time ago. I hope it helps you. --Troy

Extending Forgiveness When It Hurts
a sermon by Troy Cady

Today’s topic is forgiveness. What would you say if I told you that, in preparing this teaching, I was trying to think of a personal story where I needed forgiveness from someone, but I couldn’t think of a single instance where I needed to be forgiven? I mean: I tried really hard to think of a time when I had actually done something wrong, but I just couldn’t come up with an example! What would you say to that?

You would tell me that’s rubbish, because we all have the need to be forgiven! Forgiveness is, indeed, a universal need.

Recently, I read a humorous story about the universal need of forgiveness: In Spain, a father was searching for years for his runaway teenage son named Paco. Finally, in one last desperate effort to find his son, the father put an ad in the newspaper. It said: "Dear Paco, meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon. All is forgiven. I love you. Your father." The next day at noon in front of the newspaper office 800 "Pacos" showed up. They were all seeking forgiveness.

The need to be forgiven is something that applies to everyone, not just a few. The need for forgiveness is universal. It’s needed by all of us, including even me (though I’m still not going to tell you a story about it)!

So ask yourself: “When was the last time I needed to be forgiven? When was the last time I said something insensitive or unkind to someone?” At work? At home? With a friend? To a family member? And ask yourself: "When was the last time I needed to extend forgiveness to someone? When was the last time someone said or did something to me that really hurt me?”

It's true: Forgiveness is a pressing topic because it bears universal importance. But there’s at least one more reason it’s important: because if we don’t, we’ll find ourselves bound up, driving ourselves and others crazy, and obsessing over things that (most of the time) don’t really matter.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were like that. Instead of warmly embracing others with forgiveness and grace, they clung to a system of cold rules whereby they could determine who was right and who was wrong. “Are you in or are you out?”

It is a fact that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were so obsessed with the law that they had a catalogue of 248 affirmative precepts (which was significant to them because it was the same number as the parts of the human body); In addition to that they catalogued 365 negative precepts (which was the same number as the days in the year). The total: 613 (which was the same number of letters in the Ten Commandments!). The hidden message: “You need to make sure every centimeter of your body is obeying every letter of the Ten Commandments every minute of every day! If not, look out!”

Imagine having to keep track of all that! I couldn’t handle it. Could you?

No wonder Jesus said to them in Matthew 7:1-2: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Translated more literally, Jesus said, “If you want to be a critic with your criticism, you’ll be critiqued.” “Judge, judge, judge. Measure, measure, measure.” When is it ever enough? When does someone cross the “unforgivable sin” line? Is it when they break “Section 173 of the Affirmative Preceptual Code”? How good does someone have to be? Why not just be rid of that mentality and live under a new law: the law of love, grace, and forgiveness? Wouldn’t that be liberating?

Now: While we don’t have a list of 613 precepts nowadays, we sometimes still fall into the legalistic trap. You see: We all have an arbitrary line, an “unforgivable sin” line. “I can’t forgive them, because they did this! It was so awful! I’m supposed to forgive that jerk?! No way!” Ask yourself: “Where is my line? How good does someone have to be, or how acceptable does someone have to be for me to give grace?” Where’s the line? When is it enough?

Why not just be rid of that mentality and live under a new law: the law of love, grace, and forgiveness? Wouldn’t that be liberating?

The reason this shift in our heart is important is because we will commit spiritual suicide if we hold on to a legalistic, judgmental attitude. Jesus tells us this when he says “Do not judge or you will be judged.” Now: We often think he’s saying, “God will judge you if you judge others”, but perhaps he’s also saying “You will judge you!” I think Jesus may really be saying the latter, because Jesus’ whole point is: “God wants to forgive, not condemn.” Romans 8:1 emphasizes this when it says: “There is… no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Put another way: the main thing God condemns is condemnation.

Here’s why: if you have a judgmental, unforgiving heart, you will not only direct that judgment towards others, you will direct that towards yourself, too! You will kill yourself if you have a judgmental, unforgiving heart, because (if you haven’t already done so!) you will in time focus that contempt inward!

Question: Why heap that abuse on yourself? We’d better learn the art of forgiveness and living in grace, because someday you may find you need that grace for yourself (and from yourself, too!).

So, learning to forgive is important because it’s something we all need and because, if we don’t, we’ll find ourselves bound up and miserable; but if we do, we’ll find ourselves liberated, loved and loving. Now let’s talk about what to do, in light of how important it is to adopt a forgiving posture in life.

Ephesians 4:32 says what to do: “Forgive each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

This verse is short on words, but long on truth, hope, freedom, power and restoration. There are at least 3 applications when it comes to learning the art of living with a consistently forgiving spirit.

The first thing we need to do is receive God’s forgiveness personally. The second half of our verse says, “just as in Christ God forgave you.” Paul is assuming here that, before we can extend forgiveness to others, we need to receive God’s forgiveness for ourselves. You can’t give away what you don’t have. Receive God’s forgiveness.

And God really does forgive you, by the way. I Peter 2:24 tells us that Jesus took upon himself everything that we have ever done wrong when He died on the cross. He took the blame.

You can receive God’s forgiveness by expressing your faith to God in a prayer like this: “Father, I know that rightfully, my sin should have killed me, but by your grace and mercy you have forgiven me and you died in my place. I accept that forgiveness for myself.”

By receiving God’s forgiveness personally, you will have a good start in learning how to extend forgiveness to someone else.

The second thing we need to do in order to learn the art of forgiving is to realize that sometimes you need to be forgiven by others also (not only by God…). This takes humility. Author Stanley Hauerwas in The Peaceable Kingdom identifies why this is difficult: “Our first task is not to forgive, but to learn to be the forgiven. Too often to be ready to forgive is a way of exerting control over another. We fear accepting forgiveness from another because such a gift makes us powerless, and we fear the loss of control involved. …”

Most times it is easier for me to say to someone “I forgive you” than it is to say, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” Why? Because saying that involves admitting I did something wrong. The last thing I want to do most times is admit I am wrong.

But refusing to admit that you may have done something wrong is stupid! Think about it: if you’ve done something wrong, people know about it (and God knows about it too!). Even if you never say “I’m sorry, I was wrong” everyone still knows you were! (By the way, this happens with me and my wife all the time! I’ve learned she sees right through me and it’s no use trying to pretend I am right when really I am wrong!) So, why not just settle it all and admit wrongdoing on your own part?

If you can learn to do this, it will set you free! There’s a clip in the movie “About Schmidt” that illustrates this. Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, has just lost his wife to a sudden death. After her death, he discovered that, when they were much younger, she had an affair. Naturally, he feels cheated, hurt, and bitter. But, one day, he realizes he needs to forgive her. As he starts to do this, however, he realizes that he hasn’t exactly been a picture of perfection himself. As he is in the act of forgiving his dead wife, he does an even more difficult thing: he asks for her forgiveness, admitting that he has been wrong, too. Through admitting his need to be forgiven, Schmidt is liberated.

So: to learn the art of forgiving others we (first) need to learn to receive God’s forgiveness and (second) we need to learn to say to others “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” We need to learn to be forgiven.

But, third, to learn the art of forgiving others, we need to come to the point where we actually do that: forgive others when they hurt us. II Corinthians 5:18 says, "God...settled the relationship between us and him…” (that’s the first thing we looked at) “…and then called us to settle our relationships with others." (that’s the second and third things we’re looking at.) Our verse in Ephesians puts the order the other way around, but both ideas are still there: “Forgive each other…” (that’s the second and third points) “…just as in Christ God forgave you” (that’s the first point). Learning to extend forgiveness to others is important because, as German theologian Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics says: “Grace must find expression in life, otherwise it is not grace.” So, here are a few thoughts on how to express grace through extending forgiveness:

First of all, realize that you will need to extend forgiveness to those you least expect: Christians, family members, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, friends and coworkers. Ironically, when we think of forgiving others, we often think of people who are not close to us. But it makes sense that the most deeply felt wounds are actually inflicted by those who are closest to us. Often what makes a wound deeply felt is the very fact that it was caused by someone close to you. So, realize that you will need to learn to forgive those you least expect.

Paul emphasizes this when he tells the Ephesians: “Forgive each other.” Who is “each other”? Christians! Forgiveness is not something you extend only to people “out there”; you need to extend it to those who are closest to you, too.

This is related to a second point: Forgiving big offenses becomes more possible when you learn to forgive small offenses. In fact, if you can’t learn to forgive small offenses, you will never learn to forgive big things.

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity explains it this way: “[Forgiving] is going to be hard enough, anyway, but I think there are…things we can do to make it easier. When you start mathematics you do not begin with calculus; you begin with simple addition. In the same way, if we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo. One might start with forgiving one’s husband or wife, or parents or children for something they have done or said in the last week. That will probably keep us busy for the moment.”

So, first, forgive those closest to you. Second, forgive small things. And third, forgive regularly. Our verse in Ephesians gives the idea of “continually” forgiving each other. Forgiveness is not something you do once and then you’re done with it.

Let’s use my marriage as an example again: I never stop doing wrong things, so I never stop needing my wife to forgive me! She needs to do that practically every day in small ways!

Forgiveness is a continuous action. Forgiveness is a way of life, not something we do every once in a while. That means it’s a good idea to connect with the grace God extends to you and remind yourself that God wants you to extend grace to others every day.

Fourth: so far we’ve noted the necessity of forgiving
those closest to us
in small ways
on a regular basis.

But this kind of forgiveness is easier to offer than say, forgiving someone who abused you when you were a child, or forgiving someone like a terrorist who killed a family member, or something more intense. So, how do we forgive hurts that penetrate deeper than just “unkind words”? A couple ideas:

One: We sometimes have the mistaken viewpoint that extending forgiveness is the same as coming to feel fondly about that person, or making out what was a deplorable action as if it was really laudable. In forgiving deep wounds you are not excusing what the person did, nor do you have to be chummy with them. Often we think that when we say we should forgive someone who is a child molester, for example, that we are really saying, “Well, actually, what the person did was okay, and I want to be friends with them now.” This is to say: By forgiving someone, you are not saying, “what they did doesn’t matter.” For example, when Jesus was unjustly crucified, he didn’t say to the executors, “You guys are nice. I really like you now.” He said, “Forgive them: they don’t know what they’re doing.” You can forgive someone without becoming their best friend.

This also means that (two) forgiveness is something you can offer even if the other person doesn’t want it. Ideally, forgiveness should set both parties free, but if one side doesn’t want to accept that, then at least you can be free.

Finally, realize: Forgiveness is an act of the will, not a feeling. To energize the will, however, you will need to ask God for strength when it comes to forgiving the most intense hurts.

Corrie ten Boom, a Christian prisoner in a concentration camp during WWII, tells a story that illustrates this. Years after being a prisoner, Corrie was face to face with one of the most cruel and heartless German guards she had ever contacted. During the war, he had humiliated and degraded her. Now he stood before her with his hand outstretched and said, "Will you forgive me?" She writes: "I stood there with coldness clutching at my heart, but I know that the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. I prayed, Jesus, help me! Woodenly, mechanically I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me and I experienced an incredible thing. The current started in my shoulder, raced down into my arms and sprang into our clutched hands. Then this warm reconciliation seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. 'I forgive you, brother,' I cried with my whole heart. For a long moment we grasped each other's hands, the former guard, the former prisoner. I have never known the love of God so intensely as I did in that moment!" This is to say: To grant forgiveness is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.

Think of a relationship that you have that is broken or strained. Maybe you've had a disagreement with a friend. Maybe you've been fighting with a member of your family. A relationship with someone has been broken. Realize: restoration is possible! Release from bitterness is possible! You can be set free! Let's allow God to restore us as we ask forgiveness and grant forgiveness.

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