The Year of Good Riddance

2 Corinthians 2:5-11

Did you hear about Good Riddance Day?

Probably not unless you happen to live in New York City. Last Monday (December 28) was Good Riddance Day in Times Square.  Organizers encouraged people to write their grievances down and then throw the lists into shredders symbolizing the act of letting go of painful memories, bad experiences, foolish mistakes, bad relationships, dumb choices, and long-held grudges that had been gunking up their insides. Participants could use a sledgehammer in case the shredder didn’t provide enough emotional release.

One blogger clearly loves the idea:

I think this is becoming one of my favorite holidays!!! Today’s the chance to say Good Riddance to something... and I’m making quite a list!!!

There is something almost irresistible about the idea of “out with the old, in with the new.” Sometimes we need to say “good riddance” to the pain and hurt of the past. To do that we’re going to have to find the courage to let go of our anger, say farewell to our bitterness, and cast off our malice toward those who have hurt us deeply.

We must learn to forgive. Until we do that we can never go forward. As long as we live in the past, we will be chained to the past, and the people who have hurt us deeply win a double victory-once when they hurt us the first time and twice when we refuse to let go and move on.

I learned this many years ago in the first church I pastored right out of seminary. One year I surveyed the congregation and asked them to choose the topics for a series I called “The Marriage Clinic.” It was so successful that the next year I did the same thing for a series called “The Family Clinic.” When I surveyed the congregation two years in a row, only one topic was repeated. And that topic ended up receiving the most votes both years.  It was “How to Handle Anger and Bitterness.” I remember being flabbergasted at the results so I asked my wife why that topic came in # 1 both years. With characteristic wisdom, she replied, “I guess it’s because our people have a lot of anger and bitterness.”

We all struggle with broken relationships, people who hurt us, painful words, deceitful actions, friends who turn against us, and unkind words said about us or our loved ones.

The Great Offender

The following two things seem to be true about the human condition: We always need forgiveness and we always have someone we need to forgive. It is precisely at this point that 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 becomes so relevant. In this paragraph Paul challenges the Christians at Corinth to reach out and forgive a man in the congregation who had sinned. He is sometimes called “the great offender." We don’t know exactly who the man is or exactly what he did but it must have been bad. Historically, Bible commentators have connected this passage with the man Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5 who was sleeping with his father’s wife (evidently meaning his step-mother). And worse yet, the church was glorying in its “grace” in allowing this man to remain in the church. Paul instructs them to come together as a congregation and put that man out of the church so that, having been cut off from Christian fellowship, he might eventually come to repentance. If that’s the man in view in 2 Corinthians 2, then the excommunication clearly worked because the man repented and wanted back in the church but the congregation refused to take him back. And that may well be the background.

Which is harder? To judge sin or to forgive sin?

More recent commentators say that the man in question is not the man mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5, but rather another man who led a rebellion against the Apostle Paul, claiming that he wasn’t a “real” apostle, dividing the church and causing great harm. Paul had written the church, telling them to put the man out. They had done so, and evidently he had come to his senses and wanted to be reinstated. So Paul writes to tell the church that the troublemaker had suffered enough and they needed to forgive him so that he would not be utterly heartbroken.

In a sense it doesn’t matter which scenario is correct because the underlying teaching is the same.

Sometimes we must take a strong action against those who sin.
When we do, we must be willing to forgive them later on.

Which is harder?

To judge sin or to forgive sin?
To take a stand against sinful behavior?
Or to believe a man has truly changed his ways?

It seems to me that both are equally hard but in different ways. Both require courage, wisdom and love. And we need the Holy Spirit to show us the way forward.

We are never more like Christ than when we forgive those who have sinned against us. 

As we survey this passage let’s note five benefits of forgiveness.

1. Forgiveness Displays God’s Mercy.

The passage begins by stating the adequacy of the church’s previous discipline (vv. 5-6). What they had already done was enough. By putting the offending man outside the church, they had acted in a righteous manner. But what do you do next? How do you know when enough is enough? Parents struggle with this when they discipline a misbehaving child. Should the child be grounded? Reprimanded? Sent to his room? Spanked? Should he be required to write a letter or make some apology? Should he perform some restitution? How long should he be punished? Proverbs 27:6 reminds us that “Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy" (NLT). When we discipline those we love, we may be perceived as an enemy and not as a friend, sort of like parents who say, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” When my parents were disciplining me, I never really believed that, mostly because I could sometimes be very mischievous and sometimes downright disobedient. The punishment never seemed to bother them as much as it hurt my backside. But of course I was not an objective observer!

Here we come to a tricky issue, one for which there is no absolute answer. How do you know when the punishment is sufficient? I say it’s tricky because all parents understand that children are different, and what works with one child may not work with another. I have heard parents say about certain children (usually boys), “Nothing we did seemed to bother him,” and of other children (usually girls), “All I had to do was look at her and her heart was broken.” So in dealing with these matters, we need courage and tact and grace and wisdom.

Paul wants the Corinthians to know that what they had done was right, but now the time had come to forgive and receive this man back into the fellowship of the church. Forgiveness in that case displays the mercy of God. Consider David’s words in Psalm 103:8-9.

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever;

Sometimes we mistakenly think that if we forgive, we are going soft on sin. But if God treated us the way we sometimes treat others, we would never be forgiven at all. Have you ever known anyone who loved to argue? We all know people who love to keep a quarrel going because they are so angry. God is not like that. He is willing to end the quarrel and welcome us back home. Sometimes the real problem is that we want to keep fighting him.

Truth be told, we think we’re better than that guy who made all those stupid choices.

We are never more like Christ than when we forgive those who have sinned against us.

2. Forgiveness Restores the Sinner.

So many times we are like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Down deep the sins of others disgust us to the point that we really don’t want them to repent. Forgiveness seems too cheap, too quick, too easy. After all, we’re the ones who played by the rules. We didn’t ask for our inheritance early, we didn’t waste it all in the “far country,” and we certainly didn’t end up eating with the pigs. We’re not the ones who got into a bad marriage. Our kids never got hooked on drugs. We’ve built our life around the church. We are good, Bible-believing Christians who go to church, have a Quiet Time, give a tithe, go on mission trips, and we pray every day. We’re not like those “other people.” If you ask us, we’re all in favor of forgiveness on a theoretical basis. But when it comes to someone we knew and thought we could trust, someone who let us down or hurt us deeply, we’re not very quick to forgive. Truth be told, we think we’re better than that guy who made all those stupid choices. Why should we want him back in the church?

How little we understand the grace of God.
How little we understand about ourselves.

When we read the story of the Prodigal Son, we have to ask, “Who is worse off? The son who left and returned? Or the son who never left but would not forgive his brother who did?” In the end it seems as if the older brother is worse off because he cannot bring himself to rejoice in his brother’s return. 

In his sermon on this text, Robert Rayburn says that when we see someone being punished for their sin, we are to remember that we too are great sinners. We should speak to ourselves this way:

“I am that man. In a thousand ways I am that man. I have murdered in my heart a host of men and women. I have stolen their names and reputations in the things that I have thought and said about them. And what I have done against men and women, I have done still more and still worse against God. And, if I never actually committed murder or theft, well, I know my heart well enough to know that that has more to do with the circumstances of my life than it has to do with any virtue in me. With a different upbringing, with a different set of temptations, what would I have done and what would I not have done?”

If there is no hope of forgiveness for the worst of sinners, then there is no hope for any of us. True forgiveness restores the sinner. Look how Paul puts it in verses 7-8:

Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.

By the way, notice an important fact. He doesn’t name the person involved nor does he specify the sin. That’s a crucial point. One reason we debate this passage is that Paul veils his comments so as not to pile on more public shame. The Corinthians knew exactly who Paul was talking about and that was all that mattered. Our discipline and our forgiveness ought to be tempered by a desire not to smear someone’s reputation unnecessarily. In this age of instant communication via Facebook and Twitter and instant messaging, when we can post anything on YouTube for all the world to see, we would do well to follow Paul’s example.

Love doesn’t smear someone.
Love doesn’t humiliate others.
Love covers a multitude of sins.

Love doesn’t humiliate others.

 

I am reminded of a line from the song “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” that says “We will guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride." That’s exactly what Paul is doing here. And that’s what we should do when we discipline and when we forgive. Follow the path of mercy, not vengeance.

3. Forgiveness Demonstrates Obedience.

Look how Paul puts it in verse 10. “The reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything."

Again, this has two sides.

Will you be obedient in exercising discipline?
Will you be obedient in offering forgiveness?

In this case forgiveness proves the genuineness of our Christian faith. Do you love enough to forgive when discipline has led to repentance? This can be very hard to do, especially if the person involved hurt us deeply or if he hurt those we love deeply. But there must come a point when we let go of the pain and anguish and reach out with the love of God to say, “You are forgiven in Jesus’ name.” I have never forgotten the case of a church member who had committed adultery repeatedly over a long period of time. No one in the church knew about it until suddenly the sin came to light. The resulting ordeal put the leadership of the church to the test. At length the man repented of his sin. What would his wife do? In my judgment she had every reason to get a divorce. His sin was deliberate and repeated. Many wives would say, “I cannot trust this man any longer.” But I recall her words, spoken softly but with deep conviction. “If Christ has forgiven me for my many sins, how can I not forgive him?” And that’s exactly what she did. I do not know what it cost her to say that, but it could not have been easy. Her decision to forgive saved their marriage when it might easily have ended.

4. Forgiveness Reflects the Character of Christ.

Five times in verse 10 Paul uses the words “forgive” or “forgiven.”

If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven-if there was anything to forgive-I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake.

He’s saying, “We’re all in this together-you, me, and the man who sinned.” All of us stand in desperate need of the grace of God.

Someone has said that the key to forgiveness is the middle syllable-forgiveness.

The man needs forgiveness.
You need to forgive.
I am happy to forgive along with you.

Someone has said that the key to forgiveness is the middle syllable-forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift we give to those who do not deserve it. We do not forgive because of anything the person has done, and not because their repentance has “earned” forgiveness. When you have been deeply hurt, no amount of repentance, no matter how genuine it may be, can “earn” forgiveness. You still must give it anyway.

We will never live this way until we grasp the final phrase of verse 11, "I have forgiven in the sight of Christ."

We forgive because we have been forgiven.
We release others because Christ has released us from our sins.
Love covers their sins because Christ’s love covered our sins.

Forgiveness always flows this way:

From Christ to us to others.

We do for others what God has done for us. We have been forgiven; we know what it is like. Now do the same for others. We are not left to wonder what it means to forgive those who have hurt us.

You cannot understand God’s love unless you go to the cross.
You cannot understand the cross unless you see in it God’s love.

Man’s murder became God’s sacrifice. A heinous crime paid an impossible debt. Through the death of an innocent man, we the guilty go free. If we had been there, the stench of death would have overwhelmed us, but the cross smelled good to the Father. The work of salvation was finally done.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love or sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
If you want to know what love is like, go to Golgotha and fix your eyes on the man hanging from the center cross.

If you want to know what love is like, go to Golgotha and fix your eyes on the man hanging from the center cross. Study what he did and you will know true love.

Then go and do for others what God has done for you.

5. Forgiveness Thwarts Satan’s Schemes.

Paul ends his appeal by reminding his readers of the high price of unforgiveness. We forgive “in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes" (v. 11). The word “schemes” speaks of a military strategy. It has the idea of an enemy force of commandos that under cover of darkness slips behind our lines and sets up a camp far in the rear. Because we were sleeping, we never saw it coming. And that’s exactly what has happened to many Christians. Our unforgiveness has allowed Satan to set up a “base camp” in our hearts. We don’t even know what is going on, but Satan (the ultimate spiritual terrorist) attacks us when we least expect it.

We get angry without a cause.
We are too quick to criticize.
We avoid talking to certain people.
We nurse a victim mentality.
We slander others who have hurt us.
We rip into innocent people.
We say unkind things and then try to laugh it off.
We refuse to consider meeting with certain people.
We think about “those people” day and night.
We are consumed by bitterness.
We know something is wrong but we can’t put our finger on it.

It’s like having a low-grade fever where you feel rotten all the time but not sick enough to go to the doctor. You’re miserable but because you can still function, you shrug off your bad attitude and your quick temper and your sharp tongue.

Satan has won the day and you don’t even know it. Until you deal with that “base camp” of bitterness, you’ll continue to be miserable. And most people will choose not to be around you.

Satan has won the day and you don’t even know it. 

Perhaps as we prepare to enter 2010, you may be aware of some bitterness, some anger, some unresolved issues that you need to deal with in order to get rid of Satan’s “base camp” in your life. Whatever the Lord shows you, do it. Do it!

As we come to a close, I would point out Paul’s compassion not only for this man (whoever he was) but also for the Corinthian church. Even though the man had evidently sinned against Paul, he seeks no vengeance. He calls no names. He doesn’t say, “I’m glad you got rid of that jerk.” Instead he says, “I forgive him as you forgive him in order that Satan may not get a foothold in the church." Here is true Christian maturity at work. Paul’s concern was not for his own reputation. He only wanted the church to grow spiritually and become more like Christ.

Forgiveness is God’s medicine for a broken heart.
Forgiveness heals the deepest wounds.
Forgiveness repairs what the devil has destroyed.
Forgiveness opens the door to even greater blessings.

Quick Forgivers

Oh, that we might become great forgivers. Oh, that we might become “quick forgivers.” Oh, that the love of Christ might fill our hearts so that as we have been forgiven, we might freely forgive those who sin against us.

But you say, “I can’t do that. You don’t know what they did to me.” What if God treated you as you treat others? You’d be in hell already.

What if God treated you as you treat others?

What if God were as unkind as you are? What if he kept a record of your sins? You’d never get within a million miles of heaven.

“I’m going to trash him like he trashed me.” What if God said that about you?

“I don’t know how much I can take?” Just go as far as Jesus went for you.

I began this message by talking about Good Riddance Day. The folks in New York mean well but the best they can offer is self-improvement by shredding your grievances. Christianity goes further and deeper because it bases everything on what Christ has done for us. Having been forgiven so much, at so great a cost, can we not forgive those who have disappointed us? Whatever forgiveness costs us (and sometimes it costs us a great deal), it can never cost us what it cost Jesus when he hung on the cross, the Son of God dying for the sins of a rebel race, crying out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). 

Maybe we should make 2010 a Year of Good Riddance in which we say farewell to anger, bitterness, blaming, finger pointing, self-justification and a critical spirit, and ask God to grant us a fresh infusion of his grace in all of our relationships.

So may we be like Jesus in the coming year, full of grace and truth, abounding in mercy and quick to forgive.  Set us free, Lord Jesus, from corrosive anger that your love might flow from us to a hurting world. Teach us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Amen.

2009-12-30-The-Year-of-Good-Riddance

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RAY PRITCHARD

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