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LIFE ISSUES

Forgiveness - The Key To Freedom 

 

The phone rang just before 6.00am. It took me a minute or so to focus but then I recognized Edith's voice. She was excited. "Pastor, I'm free! They have forgiven me and I have forgiven them. I'm free".  

 

As you might guess, there was a history behind that phone call. The abridged version reads like this: Edith was an elderly widow. Her husband had died many years before and his side of the family had somehow manipulated the terms of his will so that Edith was largely dispossessed. Over the subsequent years she had nurtured an attitude of bitterness, refusing to forgive those family members for what they had done.  

 

No matter how much she justified her refusal to forgive, Edith became imprisoned within her bitterness. Even though she claimed to be a Christian, her unwillingness to forgive soon robbed her of any sense of assurance she had concerning her salvation. It was because of that lack of assurance that she initially contacted me.  

 

As we talked and prayed together over some months, the connection was made between her refusal to forgive her husband's side of the family and her lack of assurance concerning her relationship with God.   As she came to terms with these spiritual realities, she eventually reached out to those family members seeking forgiveness from them for the bitterness she had towards them over those many years. That was accompanied by her extending forgiveness to them.  

 

Who would complain about an early morning phone call when it contained that kind of news?!  

 

THE APPEAL FOR FORGIVENESS.  

 

Over the 40+ years that I have been involved in pastoral ministry, I have long held the conviction that there are few (if any) more toxic emotions or attitudes than resentment or bitterness or unforgiveness. I believe that is true within the community of faith as well as in the wider community.  

 

My personal conviction does not stand alone. The Bible brings its own testimony on this subject of forgiveness. I refer the reader to a conversation Jesus had with His disciples (Matthew 18/15-35).This conversation was prompted by a question from Peter about forgiveness: "Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me?"  

 

In response to that question Jesus told a story (as He often did) to illustrate the nature and need of forgiveness. Without rehearsing every aspect of that story, I do want to highlight some basic truths that emerge.  

 

1. The debt incurred by the first servant was impossible to repay. Yet, as foolish as it seems to us, he actually asked for an extension of time so that he could do the impossible; i.e. pay back the debt. The point being that our debt to God is huge and our ability to repay that debt is impossible. 

 

2. Instead of an extension of time, that servant received what he did not expect and certainly did not deserve - mercy, forgiveness and cancellation of the debt. Again, the point is that God extends to us the same salvation. He cancels our debt because of His mercy and extends to us forgiveness.

 

3. In stark contrast, the first servant refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a relatively small amount of money and he also refused to give him an extension of time. What he had received from his master, he refused to give to another servant of the same master. The lesson here is that the forgiven ought to be the forgiving.

 

4. Not to forgive others is to end up in prison. Not a literal prison but an emotional, relational prison. The punch line to the story is staggering in its implications, Jesus said, "That's what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart". (Matt.18/35)

 

THE BASIS FOR FORGIVENESS  

 

"Pastor, you don't know what he/she did to me. They don't deserve to be forgiven. I just can't forgive them. No, I won't forgive them!!"   The truth is that forgiveness in the Bible is rarely (if ever) related to what one 'deserves'. Certainly God's forgiveness of us has nothing to do with what we deserve. God's mercy might be described as giving to us what we don't deserve (mercy and grace) and withholding from us what we do deserve (conviction and judgment).  

 

As with the story that Jesus told, the key to understanding forgiveness is to be found in the relationship between the forgiveness extended by the master to the first servant being the basis of the forgiveness that should have been extended by the first servant to the second servant. "Shouldn't you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?"  

 

The basis of our forgiveness of others is God's forgiveness of us.  

 

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. Eph 4:32 NLT  

 

You must make allowance for each other's faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.Col 3:13 NLT  

 

Here is what I believe is a foundational principle in this whole deal about forgiveness. It is decisive and confronting for those who are refusing to forgive others.  

 

Principle - When God withholds His forgiveness from those who have wronged me, then I can withhold my forgiveness from them as well.  

 

THE EVIDENCE OF FORGIVENESS  

 

How can I know if forgiveness has truly been extended to another? I may want to forgive another. I may say that I've forgiven that person. Is there any evidence that indicates that such forgiveness is a reality?  

 

Some years ago I read an article written by Dr. David Seamands in which he identified six features that are part of authentic forgiveness. I have found them to be very helpful points of reference over the intervening years.   Keeping in mind that forgiveness is usually the result of a process rather than a sudden event, here are 6 questions that will help me evaluate the genuineness of my forgiveness of others.  

 

1.  Can I thank God for what I have learned in this experience?

 

2.  Can I talk about the experience without being gripped by feelings of resentment and revenge?

 

3.  Do I need to accept that I may have had a part in creating the hurt that has impacted me?

 

4.  Can I re-visit the 'scene' (either physically or in my imagination) without experiencing debilitating negative reactions?

 

5.  Can I actively pursue the benefit and welfare of those who have wronged me?

 

6.  Do I still need to rehearse with others the details of the experience/event that caused me pain?

  One final thought:Forgiveness means more than the absence of negative resentment . It means the presence of active love towards those who have wronged us and who we have forgiven.  

 

I've often thought about Edith. I lost touch with her when we moved to another Church but I have never lost touch with the lesson she taught me about forgiveness being the key to freedom.  

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