IN THE SCHOOL OF FORGIVENESS
1. A few evenings ago at the bookstore I was browsing through of display of suggestions for summer reading when I ran across The Sunflower, a story from World War II by Simon Wiesenthal.
a. He was a young Jew cleaning out an old barn that German soldiers had turned into a hospital. He was taken to the top floor where there was an SS soldier facing his last hours, a man who wanted confess his wrongs to any Jew and plead for forgiveness. Upon hearing his story, Wiesenthal pulled away and, and without saying a word, stalked out of the room.
b. He concludes his account of the episode in his little book with a question: “What would you have done?”
c. The edition I saw includes more than forty responses from prominent writers who wrestle with his question.
2. It may not be in quite as drastic a situation as his, but all of us will have questions about forgiveness we will have to address.
a. Each one of us, either because we fell short or because we stepped over the line, will need to be forgiven.
b. Every one of us, either because we live around imperfect people or because tough things happen to us, will need to forgive.
c. And, a failure in either area will take a terrible toll in our lives – and beyond.
3. But neither giving forgiveness nor accepting it comes naturally. They have to be learned in the school of forgiveness.
1. The first thing we have to learn is what forgiveness is.
a. This is where our problems with forgiveness frequently begin. We say or think things like:
i. “I don’t need forgiveness; this is my life and I haven’t committed any crime.”
ii. “I couldn’t be forgiven; I’ve just messed things up too badly.”
iii. “I can’t forgive him; I just can’t forget what he did to me!”
iv. “I’m really hurt, but I won’t say anything. I don’t want any trouble.”
v. “Didn’t you see what he did to me? I just can’t act like it was right!”
b. These are all misunderstandings, and every great example of forgiveness in the Bible corrects one of them. Consider, for example, the precious story of the father and his two boys in Luke 15.
i. The younger boy left his father’s house, ignoring his father’s heart in favor of the far country, where he wasted his blessings and made a mess of his life. But he finally saw what he was doing to himself and, having turned his own heart toward home, he went and asked his father to forgive him, casting his unworthiness upon his father’s mercy. (v. 11-19)
ii. His dad saw him way off down the road, ran to meet him, and embraced him with all the riches of compassion. As soon as he heard his erring son begin to confess dependence upon his grace, he called for all the best he had and began to celebrate because his son, who had been separated from him in the far country, was alive again. (v. 20-24)
iii. But the older boy was not ready to join in any celebration of forgiveness. In fact, he was angry at the thought of it, and he refused to go in where the party was in progress. He could see the worst in his brother’s actions, and he was imagining could see all the ways in which he himself was being neglected. (v. 25-30)
c. From the attitudes these characters displayed, notice some important practical points about what forgiveness is not.
i. Forgiveness is not excusing or evading the wrong-doing; it in now way lessens the seriousness of an offence.
ii. It is not the same as forgetting – which is not possible and, if it were, would prevent real forgiveness from ever happening.
iii. Neither is forgiveness the same thing as reconciliation, for the father could not receive his boy home that boy wanted to be in his father’s house again.
iv. And, forgiveness, which is given as a gift, is not trust, which must be re-established by demonstration of trustworthiness.
d. Forgiveness is the “sending away,” perhaps at great cost to the forgiver, of whatever has created distance or alienation or fear in the relationship.
i. The one who is doing the forgiving values the relationship to the point that, out of his own grace, he deliberately accepts the offender, dropping all claims against him, even though both know something unacceptable has been done.
ii. The one seeking the forgiveness wants the relationship restored (notice, not merely to avoid punishment), even though he knows he has no claim to make on it, to the point that, forsaking the thing which has estranged him, he turns to the grace of the heart he has hurt.
iii. In the language of Luke 15, forgiveness is receiving the sinner. (v. 2)
2. The next thing we have to learn is how forgiveness comes.
a. By the nature of what we’ve just described, there will always be certain stops along the way in the process of forgiveness.
i. It will start with something that hurts, a complaint that is deep and personal enough that forbearance does not resolve it. (cf. Col. 3:13).
ii. That produces some form of hating, either the passive unwillingness to be in the presence of that person or the more active desire to harm him.
iii. Then, as grace begins to overcome, healing begins releasing the offender from the animosity and looking to the future.
iv. Finally, hugging may occur – but, of course, this part takes two. The forgiver is ready for them to come together in reconciliation, but the one to be forgiven has to share that desire before it can be made actual.
b. This helps us to understand how forgiveness comes in our relationships with other people.
i. God wants me to always be able to bear with people, and to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving in my disposition (Eph. 4:2, 32).
ii. When I do get hurt, I can decide on my own to drop the bitterness, animosity and resentment.
iii. Healing can begin then, but, if we’re going to come together as before, I’ll have to talk to the other person and he’ll have to care.
(1) Mk. 11:25 – “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
(2) Lk. 17:3 – “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”
c. And, very importantly, this also helps us to see how forgiveness comes from God.
i. God’s love for us is unconditional; he loves us even when we are still sinners, and he always wants back with him (Rom. 5:8).
ii. He took the initiative in making it possible for us to come back home by giving his own Son to remove what separates us from himself.
iii. But, the circle of forgiveness cannot be completed until we accept it. God’s love is unconditional, but, by the nature of forgiveness, his forgiveness cannot be.
(1) He has built a bridge of forgiveness, but it must be walked across.
(2) Acts 2:37-38; 1 John 1:7, 9
3. The other thing we have to learn is why forgiveness transforms us.
a. Forgiveness teaches us how to treat ourselves.
i. On the one hand, obviously, a forgiven person has no business being arrogant or self-absorbed. He has nothing but what he was received by someone’s grace (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7).
ii. But on the other hand, it is improper for a forgiven person to continue whipping himself with guilt and unworthiness.
iii. He can’t just wipe out his own memory of wrongs done, but, when those thoughts come to the surface, he can remember that through the grace of the one who forgave him, that poor choice no longer effects the relationship.
iv. For a Christian this is especially significant, for it means that we believe God when he says the sacrifice of Jesus is enough to cleanse us.
v. Someone wrote, “When you do all that is humanly possible to correct some mistake, and it is still not right, then put it in a box called grace, and tie it in the scarlet ribbon of Jesus’ blood, and drop it in the bottomless pit of God’s forgiveness.”
b. In the school of forgiveness, we learn how to treat the people around us.
i. Jesus concluded his story of the unforgiving servant with, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).
ii. Paul described the appropriate course for a forgiven person in Colossians 3:12, 13: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
iii. In a real sense, when you treat other people like that, you do it for yourself. You allow the Lord to forgive you (Matt. 6:14, 15), and you set yourself free from miserable situations.
iv. One writer said, “In my personal experience, the greatest single barrier to full peace and perfect rest is un-forgiveness.” (Derek Prince)
v. It is said that General Oglethorpe once commented to John Wesley, “I never forgive, and I never forget.” To which Wesley replied, “Then, dear sir, I hope you never sin.”
c. Forgiveness trains us in relating to God, too.
i. Forgiveness certainly cannot mean that we should go right on doing the things that estranged us from God to start with.
ii. If I realize that I have been forgiven – if I have any kind of recognition of what I’ve been forgiven of, and of how much my forgiveness cost – my heart will surely be filled with gratitude and respect for God.
iii. A desire to serve him and honor him should begin to transform me. (Cf. 1 Cor. 15:8-10).
iv. Appreciation for forgiveness was one of the secrets of the joyful and glad devotion which characterized the early church. (Cf. Acts 2:37, 42)
v. It can be that way again if we will let it!
1. Before Marghanita Laski died in 1988, she was one of England’s best known novelists and secular humanists. Shortly before her passing, she gave an especially revealing interview on television. In a moment of candor, she said, “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me.”
2. But the gospel says all of us can have! Anyone can enroll in the school of forgiveness!