Old Joe was dying. For years he’d been at odds with Bill, formerly one of his best friends. Wanting to straighten things out, Joe sent word for Bill to come and see him.
When Bill arrived, Joe told him that he was afraid to go into eternity with such bad feelings between them. Then, very reluctantly and with great effort, Joe apologized for things he had said and done. He also assured Bill that he forgave him for his offenses.
Everything seemed fine, and when Bill turned to walk out of the room, Joe called out after him, “Now, just remember, if I get better, this doesn’t count.”
One of the hardest things for any one of us to do is to forgive someone who has hurt us. If you’ve ever been bullied, felt left out, disrespected, lied about, you name it, forgiving another person is often one of the hardest things for us to do.
Thankfully few of us have the experiences lived by the German pastor Helmut Thielicke, a survivor of the Nazi regime. Thielicke proclaimed that One should never mention the words ‘forgive and forget’ in the same breath. No, we will remember, but in forgiving we no longer use the memory against others. Forgiveness is not pretending the event never occurred, or that it does not matter, and there is no use pretending otherwise. The offence is real, but when we forgive, the offense no longer controls our behavior. It is not acting as if things were just the same as they were before the offence . . . they will never be the same.
I have to confess that I used to think that if we are to forgive, we must also forget. I have come to change my mind about that. As we remembered the events of 9/11 on Thursday – I realize not only it is very hard to forgive anyone associated with that outrageous event that happened 13 years ago – but that we need to remember – we need to memorialize – the victims of that event.
No. I would say that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. However, having said that, what I think we do need to work on is letting go of the hurt, and as Thielicke says, not using the memory of that hurt against others. And what I really like about what he says, is that when we forgive, the offense no longer controls our behavior.
So when we do forgive – or when we are in the process of forgiving – just where does that ability – that desire – that power to forgive come from? Let me suggest that it comes from God. Would you agree with me with that? The power to forgive comes from God.
Now, one of the chief characteristics of the God whom we serve and worship is that He is a God who forgives. In fact God wants to forgive – he is anxious to forgive your sins. AND He wants us to know that our sins are forgiven. And that’s why every weekend – at the beginning of every worship service – you hear me say to you – on behalf of God – that your sins are forgiven.
AND remember that your forgiveness comes at a cost. Your forgiveness cost God something. It cost God the life of His Son Jesus. So the forgiveness that we receive from God comes at a cost, but it is something that we want – we know it is something that we need – and it is something that we gladly accept – even though it comes at great cost.
Now here’s the problem. Today’s reading is the parable about the unforgiving servant. Here’s a man who had been forgiven a ridiculously large debt by his master – who then refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owed him not too much. And because of the servant’s unwillingness to forgive after he himself had been forgiven much – well – it doesn’t end up well for that servant. The clear meaning is that God has forgiven you much – in fact, God forgives you everything. And the implied therefore is this. Therefore – since God has forgiven you everything – God’s great desire is that we learn to forgive a brother or a sister from the heart – the same way that God has already forgiven us.
Or – as we pray in the Lord’s prayer – “Forgive us our trespasses – or sins – as we forgive those who trespass – or sin – against us.” You hear me say this all the time. The Lord’s Prayer is a dangerous prayer to pray. Are you ready to pray that prayer? To ask God to forgive you the same way you forgive others?
The Bible tells us that we love because God first loved us. I want to apply that verse to forgiveness. And it goes something like this. We forgive because God has first forgiven us.
Having said that, let me repeat that I know that forgiveness is never easy. And that forgiveness is a process. Sometimes – quite often in fact – it takes time – maybe even years. When Jesus told Peter to forgive 70 times 7, he did not mean literally 490 times. What he’s telling us is this. “You are forgiven. So you also must forgive. No matter how many times it takes. No matter how long it takes.”
Let me tell you something. Even though forgiveness sometimes seems to be an impossible thing to do, I want you to know that it is still possible. Even when it takes a long time.
C.S. Lewis wrote about a teacher who brutalized him as a boy and how he grew up hating this teacher. Later in life, when he became a follower of Christ, Lewis realized he had to forgive this teacher if he was going to be able to move on with his relationship with God.
But, he said, every time he tried to forgive this teacher he just couldn’t do it the bitterness was just too great. So he finally resolved to just say the words, “I forgive you,” every day, whether he felt it or not. He would just say those words “I forgive you.”
And then something began to happen. Later he wrote, “Each time I said those words another stone was removed from the wall of bitterness I had built, until, one day, I came to realize that the wall was no longer there.”
So forgiveness – though difficult – is possible. And yes, it does take time. And I know that some of you are struggling with a situation where someone’s done you wrong – or hurt someone you love – and you’ve not yet been able to forgive them. And up until now you may have found it impossible to forgive. Well, if that’s where you’re at today – let me tell you something else. Not only is forgiveness possible, it is highly desirable.
You see, here’s the problem. Who are you hurting when you refuse to forgive? You know the answer to that, don’t you! You’re hurting yourself. What happens when you say you can’t forgive? You’re rehearsing – reliving – that pain, that hurt, that resentment over and over again. And you certainly are NOT hurting the one who hurt you when you don’t forgive – or darn it – when you absolutely REFUSE to forgive. You’re only hurting yourself. And unless you are a person who likes to torture yourself like that – then let it go. It’s over. Let it go. Why do you want to relive those feelings of resentment and anger – over and over again?
Someone once said that refusing to let go of anger – refusing to forgive – is like burning down the house to get rid of the rats. So let it go. Let it go. Refusing to forgive hurts you! And that can leave you bitter. And is that what you really want? I didn’t think so.
And by the way, maybe this will help. Study after study after study show that there is a link between forgiveness and better health. Did you know that? Better health through forgiving! The more prone a person is to give forgiveness, the less likely he or she will suffer from any stress related illnesses. Forgiveness is the key to a healthy mind and heart. Forgive someone who has done you a great wrong and you will sleep better at night. Forgive yourself and you will sleep better at night. Forgiveness is the best thing you can do for your body and your soul. Chew on that for awhile.
So forgiveness IS possible. It IS desirable. AND it IS essential. Why is it essential?
Now listen. Listen carefully. How can you ask God to forgive you – if you are not willing to forgive somebody else? Peter Marshall served as chaplain to the US Senate in the late 1940’s. He once said, “If you hug to yourself any resentment against anybody, you destroy the bridge by which God would come to you.”
In the Bible, in the book of Colossians 3:13, you will find these words, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you”
The key to understanding what it means to forgive is to remember that God in Jesus Christ has already forgiven you.
We love to sing the hymn that goes like this, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”
Do you see? Do you really see? Do you see that forgiveness is possible, desirable, and essential? Grace – God’s undeserved love and favor – makes it all possible.
So you’ve been forgiven. By God. And maybe even by somebody else! It’s what we all need. And every time you come into this room – and you see that big brass cross up there – let that cross remind you – let it remind you that you have indeed been forgiven – and that your forgiveness cost God the life of His Son.
And then think about – and pray for – that person who has hurt you. After all, you cannot stay mad for long at someone you are praying for – and give to them the same grace that God has given to you.
So – forgive and forget? Maybe. Maybe not. But do let go of the hurt. Let go of the resentment – the hate – the anger. Let it go. And start to say – day after day – “I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you.”