My goal today is not to make you feel guilty for not forgiving someone. Or to add more shame to your heart because someone won’t forgive you. Instead I hope to show you how forgiveness can free you to live life as God has always intended you to live.
Like food, Jesus teaches us that forgiving those who wrong us is essential to our health and wellbeing. Just as he told us to pray for our daily bread, so to must we pray for the forgiveness of our debts, trespasses, sins, so we can forgive others.”
One could argue that forgiveness is an essential element of love, kindness, peace and generosity; the good fruits of the Spirit that feeds and heals the world. Forgiveness is a way of life that resides at the very heart of our Christian faith.
Yes…it’s so simple to preach, yet so hard to practice.
As we marked the 16th anniversary of September 11th, Christians are forced to look at they way they practice forgiveness in the dark shadows of foreign and domestic terrorism.
While those 19 hijackers perished with their victims in 2001, a young man by the name of Dylann Roof had to face the rage and anger of those left behind in the wake of his violent rampage on fellow Americans.
You remember him, don’t you? He’s the white supremacist who murdered nine African American Christians as they bowed their heads in prayer during a bible study.
What you might not remember is at his bond hearing something amazing happened. Just two days after the horrific killings inside a historic church in Charleston South Carolina, five family members chose to face a cold-blooded killer and offered him their forgiveness.
These deeply wounded people understood this was the only way to claim their freedom from the deep seeded hatred that had been stewing for more than a century. It was the only way their families and community could heal from the pain one man caused because of his beliefs.
Melvin Graham, a brother of one of the victims, told the white supremacist, “The hate you possess is beyond human comprehension… You may have wanted to start a race war, but instead you started a love war.”
We mustn’t think forgiveness as impossible, but instead we must always remember that it's invaluable.
Forgiveness is hard. And an unwillingness to forgive can lock us up in bitterness. For months I held on to deep seeded resentment towards a person who had worked hard to ruin my career and reputation. No matter how many times we applied the Biblical steps of reconciliation, she continued her deceitful campaign against me.
There was no telling how far she would be willing to go in order to get her way.
I’ll admit didn’t want to forgive her, but I knew in my heart I had to. And so I did. But not really. The words of my mouth were nothing more than manure that fertilized the seeds of bitterness festering within me. And quickly those seeds began to grow. Before I knew it, I was becoming the phony she claimed me to be. I was having trouble practicing the very words I was preaching.
The feelings I harbored only allowed her to imprison me. And even though I knew I was only hurting myself, and not her, I continued to struggle to break free. My spiritual health and faith had flat lined.
Even though I held the key forged by God’s amazing grace, my unwillingness to forgive this person rendered this gift useless.
I learned the hard way that an unforgiving heart chokes out gratefulness. It prevents us from experiencing the freedom that comes with free-flowing grace. And dare I say, it nullifies the tremendous sacrifice Jesus made on the cross...because it stops us from bearing good fruit.
This begs the question: how far are we willing to go for forgiveness?
Are we like Peter who wants a hard and fast numbers to give someone who has done him wrong? Or are we more like Jesus, who understands the real costs it takes to forgive a person?
Of course there’s nothing wrong with Peter’s question. He speaks to the relationships we all have with ourselves, with God and with those we love or even hardly know. But then Jesus goes and tells us to make room in our hearts for our enemies, and people who try to harm us. This is where things get a little weird. And people start to tune him out.
Peter asks, “How many times do I let this person hurt me before I cut my losses and go?” In response, Jesus answers with a parable:
“The kingdom of God is like this… You will be forgiven only as you forgive.”
Now Jesus isn’t suggesting God’s grace is conditional. He’s just setting the line Peter needs to see to understand that none of us are in the position to withhold forgiveness from another. We all need it.
And it’s by God’s grace we receive it. To deny someone of it would be like piling manure on God’s gracious heart.
To be Christ like is to practice unlimited and absolute forgiveness. Failing to do so implies we fail to recognize our own debt that we could never repay.
Jesus has set the parameters: The forgiven must forgive.
Now you might have a desire to punish those who have hurt you. And I get that. But let me ask you this. Is your moral superiority that demands punishment more fitting than God’s grace?
Those five brave Christians in that South Carolina courtroom would beg to differ. They chose to use their time, not to sway judgment, but instead to forgive a young man who did not recognize his own need for forgiveness and grace.
There on live TV, they proclaimed the gospel. They did not side step the law to get what they wanted, but used a higher law to get what they needed; liberation from their pain and anger. They needed free themselves of their bitterness and hatred to make room in their hearts for God’s healing love.
The moral lesson is clear: forgiveness must engender forgiveness if there is going to be true healing within us, and within our world. It's that simple...and still that complex.
So you see how I could preach this every day, and still many of you will hold on to your anger. You’ll wear your bitterness like a badge, until it cripples and crushes you. If bitterness isn’t good for fruit or coffee, why then would it be healthy for human relationships?
We need the sweet nectar of God’s Spirit to help us be more like Christ who gave himself up willingly; even forgiving his enemies with his final breath.
Becoming a generous people who freely forgive is a painful process. For some of us, the hurts we have suffered and endured may never result in reconciliation or a restored relationship. That’s okay. But it doesn’t excuse us from participating in the process.
When you stop to think about it, Jesus didn’t say we should deny our hurt...or even forget the one who caused the wounds. He knows there are some events that happen that we must never forget:
September 11th is a great example; slavery; the holocaust; a violent relationship; a series of lies that turned your life upside down.
Jesus isn’t saying forget the pain, or the cause of it. He is simply saying constantly forgive and forgive and forgive... until forgiveness become as natural as God’s unending love towards us.
This finally became clear to me in the early morning of July 5, 2017. This was when I ran into that woman one last time. And when she saw me it was like catching a kid with their hand in the cookie jar. Not wanting to face the person she had harmed, she turned and quickly walked the other way in shame.
A part of me felt smug and I wanted to gloat. But inside my heart I just quietly bowed my head and asked God to forgive me for holding on to all that crap for so long. After that I asked God to forgive her for the pain and suffering she inflicted upon my family and my church. I took all that pain from my heart and left it in God’s hands. Then I got in my car and never looked back.
As those five families and their faith community demonstrated, the cultivation of a forgiving heart frees us from bondage… and opens us to the possibilities of giving forgiveness instead of punishing others or yourself.
For the one who first understands his or her need for forgiveness,... and then opens his or her heart up to forgive others,...is the one who enters the very heart of God’s everlasting love.
Story of Dylan Roof inspired by a piece written by Margaret Manning Shull on January 17, 2017 for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Bellingham Washington.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox) 2011. pp. 68-73.