The Freedom of Forgiveness
Letting go of anger and bitterness opens the door to God’s healing.
During my first year as a believer I attended a Christian women’s conference in Berchtesgaden, Germany. On the bus ride to Berchtesgaden I was seated next to a beautiful young girl whose vocabulary seemed to consist of two words: yes and no. No matter what question I asked, she had the same two answers. Jean sat staring at her lap during the entire eight-hour trip. Not once did she raise her head to enjoy the beautiful German landscape.
I could hardly wait to arrive at our hotel and get away from this dull, withdrawn woman. At the registration desk I learned that Jean would be my roommate for the week.
On about the third day of the conference I discovered that Jean did have something to say. Alone in our room, we began talking about forgiveness. Jean told me dourly, "God never forgave me."
"Of course He did!" was my immediate response. And to prove my point I reminded her that God says He buries our sin in the deepest sea (Mic. 7:19).
"God never forgave me."
"Jean, God says He puts our sins as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). We don't even know where the east begins or the west ends."
Jean held fast. "God never forgave me."
Undaunted, I shared another truth. "God says He puts our sins behind His back (Isa. 38:17). We don't know where God is, much less where His back is. Your sin is gone."
"God never forgave me."
I had almost exhausted my repertoire of verses on forgiveness. In desperation I pleaded, "Jean, God says if we confess our sins—Jean! Have you ever confessed your sin?"
"I don't care what you have done. I want you to pray silently right now and confess your sin to God."
I prayed for Jean. After a few moments of silence I heard a long sigh. I opened my eyes to see Jean stretched out across he sofa. "It’s gone!" she told me. "My sin is gone! I did what you told me to do. I told God my sin and it’s gone!"
Much to the astonishment of all who new her, Jean became a radiant, vibrant, nonstop talker. "Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered" (Ps. 32:1).
I shall never forget the lesson I learned from Jean that day. Confession is imperative to receiving forgiveness. Many women I talk to are burdened with guilt because they are afraid to approach God with their sin. It’s almost as if they are ashamed to admit to God what He already knows. God cannot be shocked.
Now, when I talk with a woman who is laboring under guilt, one of the first questions I ask is if she has confessed her sin to God. When we confess we are forgiven (1 Jn. 1:9).
But what about those individuals who have confessed, yet still feel troubled? Often that person does not know the difference between guilt and sorrow.
James declared, "Let there be tears for the wrong things you have done. Let there be sorrow and sincere grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy" (Jas. 4:9, Living Bible). In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he wrote that godly sorrow works repentance unto salvation (2 Cor. 7:10). In other words, it is remorse for sin that makes a person change his mind about a specific thought or act. He then allows his mind to be transformed. It is these new thought patterns that bring deliverance the next time the temptation arises. Without godly sorrow we would not be as eager to avoid a similar situation.
Sorrow and forgiveness are separate issues. Forgiveness is complete upon confession. There is no condemnation now or in the future (Ro. 8:1, Jn. 5:24). In the eyes of God the believer’s sin is eradicated.
The Flip Side Of Forgiveness
But there is another side to forgiveness. As freeing as it is to know that God holds I no record of confessed sin, the forgiven one is now faced with the command to forgive others (Eph. 4:32) .Jesus told a story, recorded in Mt. 18:23-35, about a servant who owed the king the equivalent of several million dollars. The king ordered that the man’s wife and children and all that he had be' sold to pay the debt. But when the man fell to his knees and pleaded for mercy, the king cancelled the debt. Yet as soon as the man left the palace, he set upon a fellow servant who owed him only a few dollars. When the debtor pleaded for time to pay off the loan, the servant had him thrown into prison.
How incredulous we are when we read the story. Yet when we do not forgive one offense when we have been forgiven for a lifetime of sin, how are we different from the unforgiving servant?
Forgiving others is not an option. It is a command. When we forgive we are conformed to the image of Christ in attitude and behavior. He forgave. We are to follow His example.
The Cost Of Forgiving
Let no one think that forgiving is easy. Forgiving is costly. Forgiving cost God His only Son. Forgiving cost Jesus Christ His life. Forgiving will cost you.
My first husband, suffering from terminal cancer, was fired from his job because of a defamatory letter circulated to his superiors and peers. Life insurance and retirement benefits were bound up with that job. Because he was fired, he lost both.
When I learned about the letter and the consequences of being fired I did not say, "Praise the Lord anyhow!" The truth is I was furious. So overwhelming were my thoughts of hatred, vengeance—even murder—toward the one who had written the letter that the very thoughts terrified me.
I went into my living room, closed the doors, got down on my knees, and prayed. I saw the sun come up the next morning before I finished dealing with all the hate in my heart. But I rose from my knees free, because with the help of God, I forgave.
That forgiveness cost me emotionally. It broke my heart to see my husband devastated, and to know that a man with terminal cancer had nowhere to turn for a job to support a wife and five children. Forgiveness cost me my will. I longed to justify my husband, to prove the author of the letter wrong. I longed to punish the person who wrote it. Those desires had to be sacrificed to obedience.
The Cost Of Not Forgiving
But while forgiving is costly, failure to forgive is even more costly. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus taught that the one who is forgiven and then refuses to forgive will be delivered to the torturers (Mt. 18:34-35, NASB). How ironic that it is the unforgiving one who is tormented, not the offender!
I know many Christians who are tormented because they refuse to forgive. After I spoke on the subject of forgiveness at a seminar one evening, two sisters came to my room. Both had been sexually molested by an uncle fifteen years earlier. After listening to their story I assured them that they were not to blame. I identified with their desire for justice and agreed there ought to be some kind of retribution. But God moves beyond all our emotional reactions and demands our obedience first. Forgive. I pleaded with the sisters to pick up the phone, call the uncle, and tell him they forgave him. They both said, "I can't." "I can't" really means "I won't."
One sister told me she felt God never heard or answered her prayers. Of course not. God says if we hold sin in our heart he does not hear us (Ps. 66:18). Hers was the sin of unforgiveness. Both left the room still in torment.
The next morning another woman told me she understood forgiveness. She had been sexually molested as a teenager by a group of five men. But instead of clinging to bitterness and self-pity, this woman was a dynamic Christian leader, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, attracting women to the kingdom. God had certainly released her from the tormentors and given her a crown of beauty instead of ashes.
Many struggle with insignificant issues of offense: "She didn't even invite me to the party," "He never returned my call," "They never spoke." Then there are those against whom such horrendous acts have been committed that they dare not speak of them in public. The hurt is deep, the injury, real. But the command to forgive is the same for any offense. Likewise, the consequence for failure to forgive is the same: torment. Refusal to release the guilty party has a far more devastating effect on the unforgiving one than it does on the one who offended.
Barriers To Forgiveness
Why, then, do some hold on to anger and bitterness?
People with a poor self-image will use an act committed against them to gain the attention they long for. While they rehearse the story of being wronged, even to an audience of one, they are center stage. For a brief moment they feel important. To forgive would leave them without that incident that brings them sympathy and recognition.
Some individuals need to control others in order to feel significant. These people will use a wrong committed against them to manipulate the offender and anyone else who will go along. If they gave up the right to hold the misconduct over the guilty person’s head, they would lose control, and with it their sense of importance.
A man I know was involved in a flirtatious relationship with a coworker more than twenty years ago. His wife is still reminding him of his mistake every time she wants her own way. Further, she uses the experience to extract pity from others, who rush to protect her from any more injustices in life.
There are also those who think some offenses are just too great to warrant forgiveness. Little wrongs can be dismissed, but they hang on to the "biggies."
Joseph did not consider even tremendous cruelty at the hands of his own family too difficult to forgive. Joseph’s brothers hated him so much that they stripped him of his favorite garment, cast him into a hole in the ground, and sold him as a slave. He was deported to a strange country with a different culture and language, where he was thrown into prison for many years on a false charge.
Later, when Joseph rose to become second-in-command to Pharaoh, he had opportunity for revenge. Not recognizing him, Joseph’s brothers stood helpless before him, asking to buy food to keep their families alive during a famine. Eventually, Joseph not only gave them food, clothes, and silver, but sent wagons and animals to transport the entire family and all their possessions to Egypt from Canaan. Years later, reassuring his brothers that he would not take revenge, he told them, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish—the saving of many lives" (Gen. 50:20).
Never in the Word of God will you find that any crime is too great to forgive. Jesus died to forgive all sin. How can we as Christians have the audacity not to forgive one for whom Christ died?
"I forgive, but I can't forget," wail some. Praise God! Of course you can't forget. God created man with marvelous memory banks. Without them, the mental pictures of brilliant autumn leaves, snow-capped mountains, buds in spring, would not last beyond the season. Life’s joys, as well as its sorrows, would fade into oblivion. Education would be useless. Experience would be wasted. Thank God for memory.
Remember past offenses so that you never commit the same acts. Remember past offenses so that you marvel and wonder at the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
Only God can forget sin. He has not given us that ability. However, memory does not have to bring pain. Christ heals the injuries of the past, too.
In prophesy concerning the Messiah (Isa. 61:1-3), Isaiah wrote,
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
The good news is that Jesus heals the brokenhearted. He releases prisoners from the tormentors. He comforts those who mourn over offenses against them, and over those they have committed. He promises a crown of beauty instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning, and praise instead of despair. The choice is ours.