Forgiveness – Part 1
The subject of forgiveness and what it really means has been looming in the background of my life for a little while. That is to say that, although I know that I am forgiven, forgiving others will be a constant part of my life until I am received by the Lord. Then, I suspect, it will not matter.
To teach on forgiveness means to live it. To teach something that you don’t live out yourself is short-sighted and hypocritical. And so, the challenge that I set myself over the past few weeks is to examine myself and my attitudes towards the subject before teaching it to others.
I have been severely challenged and ultimately convicted in recent weeks about some of the things that have come from my mouth. The conviction came when I was confronted with the ‘why’ I had said what I had said. The answer (immediately in my heart) was that I was justified in doing so. The truth then shone into my heart and exposed the subtle lie. It wasn’t that I felt justified; it was, however, that I simply hadn’t forgiven the person I had spoken ill of. The unforgiveness had given birth to anger and bitterness and I had allowed them to move into my heart. The trouble with allowing things like anger and bitterness to dwell in your heart is that they take up room and can grieve the Holy Spirit. If we want the Holy Spirit to dwell in your heart and give you His peace then we can’t allow the bad fruits of the flesh to occupy that space.
Nehemiah chapter 13 contains the account of Nehemiah returning to Jerusalem from Babylon and finding that Eliashib the priest had allowed Tobias (one of the three people who had tried to discourage the Israelites from rebuilding the walls of the city) to move into and occupy a large room in the temple. This room was designated for the storing of grain offerings, the articles, tithes, and the like. The things of God. And as a result, the Levites who were meant to receive their portions from the store room were forced to work in the field in order to survive. When Nehemiah returned he turned Tobias out and had the room cleansed and restored to its correct purpose. This allowed the Levites to then return to their duties in the temple and the worship of God was restored.
God spoke to me some time ago from this chapter and continues to do so. He showed me (it took a long time for I can be a bit hard-hearted) that the temple represented my heart. And what I stored in my heart affected how I worshipped Him and meant that there was no room for the gifts He wanted me to have. The first time He showed me this I realised that I had something in the store room of my heart that I needed to repent of. And just as I repented, in my mind I saw a vision from God. This vision was a message of encouragement for fellow disciple and I was able to share it with them and encourage them. At that point I realised the importance of what we store in our hearts. The moment I let go of what I had tried to hide there, He filled my heart with His gifts. That is how God works.
Now, on that particular occasion, the thing I held in my heart was subtle, almost impossible to detect. God has used the imagery more recently and shown me something less subtle. The elephant in the room, so to speak.
Sometimes events can overtake us. What we planned in our minds can be superseded by circumstances. I hadn’t planned to do a Bible Study this week but it turned out differently. The subject of forgiveness had been on my heart and I had been challenged by it personally, as well as watching something that has the need for forgiveness at the very heart of it, erupt in the lives of some family members.
On my book shelf was a totally unread (not even thumbed) copy of ‘Total Forgiveness’ by RT Kendall.I must hasten to add that this wasn’t a book that I had purchased but had come in a box of donated items for Cornerstone. Now, for those of you who are familiar with his work will know that RT has mastered a way of being totally uncompromising to the gospel, whilst maintaining a practical outworking of his message and challenging you to the very core. I quite like him. As I thumbed this book I realised that it was a real treasure trove of insights into the subject and felt that I should teach directly from the book. So what follows here is (unashamedly) based upon RT’s teaching with some personal insights into what is being discussed. The book is intense and I knew it would take at least four sessions to get through it…preferably with time in between for the digestion of what God’s Spirit is saying to individuals, as well as any areas of healing that might surface when you disturb the dark waters of our hearts.
I stated earlier that teaching something you don’t live out yourself is short-sighted and hypocritical. It can also lead you to a place where your resolve might be tested. If you purpose to do things in a certain way, you may find that God will allow that to be proved. What follows is the start of a series of teaching on forgiveness. Some will be challenged. Some won’t. Do it with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit if you feel God speak into what’s in your heart.
First, let us understand of what we speak when we say forgiveness.
In the New Testament there is only one word given to mean forgiveness. According to the Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible that word is:
Aphesis (G859) which literally means freedom and figuratively can mean to pardon; deliverance, liberty or remission.
So, in other words, we see yet another legal term in use. Both freedom and pardons are synonymous with the legal system. When we practice forgiveness, we grant freedom or a pardon to those we are forgiving.
I started the Bible Study by reading the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant from Matthew 18:21-35. This sets the tone for what forgiveness means in practice. Note that the first servant was totally forgiven all his debts by the master. This represents what happens when we repent – God forgives us…totally. God hopes that the knowledge of our debt being settled by Jesus on the cross will be enough for us to practice the same mercy to others. But, in the parable, the forgiven servant instead of showing mercy, demanded payment from a fellow servant, and when he couldn’t pay, he threw him into prison. The only way he can be released from that prison is by the first servant forgiving him. The parable shows us that that doesn’t happen. When the master finds out just how unforgiving the first servant is he delivers him over to the torturers until his entire debt is paid. Verse 35 shows us God’s position on matters such as these:
“So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother’s trespasses.” [Matthew 18:35 NKJV]
I have based the following list upon the lists in RT Kendall’s book. I am yet to seek permission to use it here verbatim and so this is my paraphrase of what of what Total Forgiveness isn’t. In the Part 2 of this study we will look at what Total Forgiveness is.
Total Forgiveness Isn’t:
Approving of what someone has done to us:
Despite forgiving our sins, God never approved of what we did. In doing so He showed us how we should be towards those who sin against us.
Making excuses for their behaviour:
To make excuses for what someone has done to us is to say that circumstances dictated they way they behaved.
Making them look justified in what they did:
If we justify what they have done to us, we say that they were right to do it. To justify means to show someone to be right.
To pardon their actions:
Another legal term. If we pardon their actions we are saying that they are exempted from responsibility. That is not our decision to make.
Sometimes reconciliation takes place after forgiveness, but not always. I could approach someone and tell them I forgive them in an effort to be reconciled to them. But unless they acknowledge their trespass against me then they are likely to be offended and consider me to be condescending or judgemental.
Denial of what took place:
To deny an actual event is a form of repression. This happens at a subconscious level usually. Denial is the refusal to accept the reality of a given situation. If we are in subconscious denial it will almost always manifest in physical symptoms at some time.
To be blind to their actions:
We can make ourselves blind to people’s actions in an attempt to make ourselves believe that we have forgiven, when really we are just pretending. It is like repression except that we do it consciously, but it can manifest in similar ways.
To forget their actions:
The old adage ‘forgive and forget‘ will always come to mind but sometimes to forget is almost impossible, particularly if an experience was traumatic or life-changing. That God chooses to overlook our wrongdoing doesn’t mean He has forgotten. He chooses. We can do the same. Choose not to recall while never forgetting.
To class their actions as insignificant:
Total forgiveness can never be achieved until with view the seriousness of their actions. God treats us in the same way. If it was ‘no big thing‘ when we sinned, then it makes a mockery of the cross. All sin is serious, that’s why Jesus had to take our place.
To behave as if we didn’t get hurt:
This is pride. Look at how God dealt with David over his adultery with Bathsheba and his consequent murder of Uriah. It hurt God and He showed David how much. Yet God remained impartial with David when it came to dealing with the offences.
So, this is a brief outline of what total forgiveness isn’t. And there is where we stopped in the Bible Study and I feel where I should stop now also.
Forgiveness of others when they have done us wrong is essential. It is not even optional if you wish to receive the benefits of God’s Holy Spirit. If you like having God’s peace in your heart then it is the only way. But it is a process, always a process. Let me give you an example from my own life:
My first marriage imploded in 2006 after years of selfish behaviour from me. At the time I was in a wilderness from God of my own design. My drug use was spiralling out of control and I behaved as neither the husband nor father as I should have done. My then wife decided that enough was enough and decided to dissolve the marriage. I had a brief moment of sobriety and sought God’s mercy and forgiveness. I also sought reconciliation. But instead of reconciliation I was faced with revenge. What happened hurt me so badly. It felt like the ground had opened-up and swallowed me. The pain turned into bitterness and then jealousy and would have consumed totally had it not been for a single line of advice. Strangely enough a very similar line of advice that RT Kendall explains at the start of the book.
I had started attending at a local congregation and I had been assigned a pastor to steer me through. I was desperate to be reconciled to her and thought it God’s will to be so but was also consumed with pain, rage, bitterness and jealousy. This pastor said to me “Phil, you will have to forgive her completely. You have no choice” …tough words.
But as I began to explore the notion of how much I took for granted that God had forgiven me, I asked God to show me how to forgive her. I learnt to speak it out to God. I would tell Him that I forgave her completely. I would ask Him to bless her and not hold it against her, even when some of her actions continued. Sometimes I would feel the peace of God for a few hours and then I would again allow the rage and hurt to fill my heart and His peace would leave me.
I felt I needed a reminder to keep me on the right path so I asked God to remind me to forgive her every time I saw a Magpie. For the first few weeks I saw a whole lot of Magpie’s. And each time I saw one I spoke out loud to God that I forgive her. After a while I saw less and less Magpies and experienced more and more peace until one day, about year after I started forgiving her I saw a Magpie. I realised that it was the first one that I had seen in a while. I also realised that I had forgiven her…completely. The magpie made me smile, and still does to this day, because I learnt how to forgive and learnt how to trust God at the same time. We were never reconciled but we are now at peace and God, in His great mercy, restored my life and found me a new wife, who is simply wonderful.