Dear Sarah: A Letter About Forgiveness at Christmastime
December 14, 2006
(A few days ago I received a letter that took over a month to finally reach me. It came from someone I have never met. Because of the unusual nature of the letter, I began to think about the question, “What does forgiveness mean at Christmastime?” This week’s message is actually the letter I wrote to her. To protect her privacy, I have changed her name. I am passing it along because many people struggle with hard questions of forgiveness. In this case, “Sarah” waited too long to forgive. What do you do then?)
December 14, 2006
Although you wrote me over a month ago, your letter did not reach me until a few days ago. Thank you for writing and sharing your story with me. It is quite unlike any other letter I have ever received. After I read it, I thought about it for a while because the question you raise is very challenging:
How can you let somebody know you still love them and forgive them, and you’re sorry and live with it every day, when they’ve gone to be with the Lord?
I know from your letter that you are over 80 years old, and that your husband died eleven years ago. The two of you were married for 49 years. But there was an issue of forgiveness that stood between the two of you. This is how you put it:
There really wasn’t anything to forgive, only a little white lie he told over 48 years ago.
And then you add: “We had a great marriage.” I do not doubt you when you say, “I loved him dearly.”
You didn’t say what the white lie was, and after so many years, perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps he did something foolish and then tried to cover it up. Or maybe he didn’t tell the whole truth about something. But whatever it was, it must have really bothered you because as you said, “I didn’t let it go.” You made a very human mistake, one that all of us have made many times. You held on to whatever it was. Forty-eight years is a long time to hold on to a “little white lie.”
But the hardest part, the saddest part, comes next:
He asked me to forgive him two weeks before he passed, and I wouldn’t say the words. I grieve every day that I didn’t forgive him. I would have but he passed suddenly.
Now your dear husband has gone to heaven to be with the Lord. And you are haunted by the memory, not of his “little white lie,” but of your unforgiving spirit. As a result, you are still carrying the burden of what you wish you had done but didn’t do. That brings me to your bottom line:
I know that at over 80, I could go any time. I just need to know the Lord will forgive me. And where to look in the Bible. This is urgent.
You are right on all counts. You could die at any moment. And you do need to know if the Lord will forgive you. And you need to know what the Bible says about this matter.
Finally, I note that you even enclosed a stamp so it would be easy for me to answer your letter. That touched my heart. I would have answered anyway, but I’m going to use your stamp when I send this letter back to you.
Your letter illustrates a truth that is as old as mankind. Generally speaking, as we look back on life, our greatest remorse comes not from the things we did, but from the things we didn’t do that we should have done. I have often thought that there is no pain greater than a self-inflicted wound. Others rarely hurt us as deeply as we hurt ourselves. And sometimes the pain comes, not from foolish things we did or said, but from a time when we could have shown kindness but didn’t, when we could have shown mercy but were harsh instead, when we could have reached out to someone in need but turned and walked away. As we journey through life, all of us end up with a long list of things that we wish we had done differently. Often our deepest pain comes from knowing that we should have forgiven when we had the chance, but we didn’t do it, we let things fester, we nursed our grudges, we hung on to remembered hurts, and we ended up the loser because the time comes when we can no longer say to someone we loved, “I forgive you. It’s over. By God’s grace, I have put it behind me. Let’s move on from here together.” I know you wish you had said that to your dear husband.
Your letter is like a modern-day version of the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. It’s all about a man who had been forgiven an enormous debt being unwilling to forgive a small debt owed to him. The shock of the story is that he was so unforgiving after having received such mercy himself. The man ended up being thrown in jail until he paid all that he owed. Jesus applied the story to his disciples in verse 35: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” You have already experienced this at a very personal level.
Jesus told this story in order to impress us with several truths: First, the greatness of God’s forgiveness. Second the enormity of our own sins. Third, the relative lightness of the sins of others against us. Fourth, the simplicity of forgiveness. Fifth, the danger of an unforgiving spirit.
You see, we are like the unforgiving servant. We stand before Almighty God with our sins piled up like a mountain. The mountain is so tall we can’t get over it, so deep we can’t get under it, so wide we can’t go around it. That’s every one of us. Our sins are like a $25 million dollar debt we could never pay in our lifetime or in a thousand lifetimes. We come as debtors to God, come with empty hands and say, “I cannot pay.” And God who is rich in mercy says, “I forgive all your sins. My Son has paid the debt. You owe me nothing.”
“With You There is Forgiveness”
The only hope you have of being set free from the guilt of not forgiving your husband is to turn away from yourself completely and look to the Lord Jesus Christ. You asked me if God will forgive you, and you asked where to look in the Bible. I want you to ponder these verses carefully:
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
“If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness.” (Psalm 130:3-4).
I love that phrase–“But with you there is forgiveness.” God makes a habit of forgiving sin. He does not delight in punishing our sin. He looks for chances to forgive us because forgiveness is in his nature.
That’s a huge insight because it touches how you see God.
He is eager to forgive.
He is ready to forgive.
He wants to forgive you.
“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). Let this promise sink into your soul: “He will abundantly pardon.” What a huge, amazing statement that is. God is in the pardoning business, and he pardons abundantly.
As you think about your husband asking for forgiveness just two weeks before he died, and how you couldn’t say the words, I know you have replayed that a thousand times in your mind, and you have said, “If only I had another chance to tell him. I would forgive him. I would say the words.” And I believe that you would. But now that so many years have passed, and your husband has gone to heaven, the devil whispers in your ear that you are not good enough to be forgiven, that your failure to forgive when you had a chance has turned the Lord against you forever. The only way to deal with Satan’s accusations is go back to the character of God: “With you there is forgiveness.”
Four Words for Forgiveness
There are four important words for forgiveness in the Bible–three Hebrew words and one Greek word. The first Hebrew word means “to cover”–like using a rug to cover the dirt on your floor. The second word means to lift and take away–which happens when you remove a stain from a carpet. The third word means to pardon or to wipe the record clean. The fourth word means to “let go” or to “send away” as when you release a prisoner from jail. When you put these words together, you get a graphic picture of forgiveness. God covers our sin, he removes the inner stain, he wipes our personal record clean, and then he releases us from the guilt so that we are set free.
If the Lord kept a record of sins, if he forever gazed on our sins, who could stand? No one. We’d all be doomed and damned. But that’s the whole point of forgiveness. We cry from the depths of shame and guilt, and God says, “Good news. With me there is forgiveness.” The Bible uses a number of images to describe how God deals with our sins:
God blots out our sins as a thick cloud (Isaiah 44:22).
God forgets our sins and remembers them no more (Jeremiah 31:34).
God puts our sins behind his back (Isaiah 38:17).
God buries our sins in the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19).
God removes our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).
When God forgives, he forgets our sins, he clears the record, he erases the tape so that when he pushes the button, nothing shows up on the big screen in heaven. Our sins are forgiven, forgotten, removed, buried, and blotted out. They can never condemn us again. Let that thought grip your soul, and you will never be the same. But how could it be this way? How could God forgive us? Why doesn’t he look at our sins? Here’s the answer: A long time ago God fixed his gaze on the cross of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. When we are honest enough to admit that we are wicked and evil, a stream of mercy flows out from the cross of Christ and our sins are covered by his blood. We discover in one shining moment that with God there is forgiveness.
In the end it all goes back to God. It’s not about you. And it’s not about your husband who is with the Lord. And it’s not even about your holding a grudge for so many years or your refusal to forgive him just before he died.
It’s all about God. It’s about who God is. It’s about the kind of God we serve. It’s about how God has revealed himself to us.
You have suffered long enough. Now it is time for you to be set free.
Born to Set Thy People Free
I have been thinking about your letter in light of the fact that Christmas is just a few days away. What does Christ’s coming have to say to our desperate need for forgiveness? And the answer comes back loud and clear. It has everything to do with our forgiveness because if Christ had not come, we would all still be in our sins. In Isaiah 9 the prophet looked far into the future and saw a day when God would send a Deliverer to the world. You know these words, you’ve heard them since you were a child:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
How wonderful those promises are. God will send a child into the world who will be meet our deepest needs (Wonderful Counselor) because he is the Mighty God who is the Father of Eternity and the source of all lasting peace. If you go back just a few verses, you find another promise about the coming of our Lord: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isaiah 9:2). That verse is just for you. You have been walking in deep darkness for many years, struggling with guilt because of an unforgiving spirit. Jesus came to bring a great light into your life. He came to dispel the darkness of guilt and replace with the light of joy and the radiance of his everlasting peace.
Do you remember what the angel said to Joseph? “Call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The name Jesus means Savior. He came to save sinners. No one else need apply. And the great good news of Christmas is that Jesus came to set us free from our sins.
As I’ve been writing this letter, the words of a beloved Christmas carol have been ringing in my head:
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Does that not describe your own heart? Is that not what you want? Do you not long to be set free from the past and to be released from your guilt and finally to find rest in your soul? I am happy to tell you that you don’t have to look anywhere else to find forgiveness. Jesus came two thousand years ago to set you free.
You know that Jesus loves you.
You know that he died for you.
You believe that with all your heart.
Run to the Cross
As I write these words, you aren’t far from heaven. You have a lived a long life, but you won’t live forever on this earth. So I say with all my heart,
Run to the cross. Run to the cross and lay hold of the Son of God and never let go.
I write this to you, not as to an unbeliever, but to you as a sister in Christ who has struggled with the deep pain of what you didn’t do that you should have done. All of us who believe in Jesus need to run to the cross every day. We need to trust him completely every day for our forgiveness and our healing.
Before I finish, there is one suggestion I would like to make. I know that you wish you had told your husband that you forgave him for his “little white lie.” But that day has come and gone. You cannot tell him directly. But there is something you could do that may help comfort your own heart. Sit down and write a letter to your husband and tell him how sorry you are that you didn’t forgive him when you had the chance. Tell him that you have suffered with that thought every day since he suddenly left you for heaven. Pour out your heart as you write the letter. Then I suggest that you gather a few trusted Christian friends around you. Let them be people whom you know and love. Include your pastor in this group if it is possible. Let them be people who know the Lord and know his Word. Read the letter to your husband aloud to them. Have someone read the Scriptures on forgiveness that I quoted in this letter. And then ask them pray for you that you might be set free from the past once and for all. The letter cannot change the past, but it can help you express your own sorrow in the presence of godly friends who can then pray for you. That may help you experience a new degree of freedom in your own heart. Then take the letter and destroy it because once there is forgiveness, no record of sin remains. As for your husband, you can rest in the knowledge that he is with the Lord right now. You don’t have to worry about letting him know anything. He is in God’s hands and the Lord can tell him anything he needs to know. By God’s grace you will see him again, the past will be gone forever, the guilt that has dogged your steps will be forgotten, and you and he will be in the presence of our Lord forever.
Rest in the promises of God. Do not punish yourself any longer. Believe what God has said and you will be set free.
God’s Rescue Mission
One final Christmas thought. Jesus came because we made such a mess of things. God said, “I will not leave you alone. I will not let you destroy yourself, each other, and the world I have made. I love you too much to leave you alone.” After we had trashed everything, God said, “I’m coming down there so you’ll know once and for all how much I love you.” We didn’t pay any attention; it didn’t even make sense to us. How could God visit us? But he did—and he came to the world in a very strange way. He entered a virgin’s womb and came out as a baby, born in Bethlehem, a baby named Jesus, born to save us from our sins.
So he came as a baby, and when he grew up, we killed him. Murdered him. Hung him on a cross. That’s the thanks we gave to God for visiting us. But we were wrong about everything. After we killed him, he came back from the dead—proving that he was right all along and we were really wrong—dead wrong about everything—and still God loved us and came from heaven to earth on the greatest rescue mission in history.
He came because we blew it so badly.
He came and we killed him.
He died and became our Savior.
No one but God could have done something like that. What a story! What a Christ! C.S. Lewis said, “The son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.” God has done it all. That’s the good news of Christmas: God has done it all. God wrapped up his Son in swaddling clothes and said to the whole world, “This is my Christmas gift to you.”
Christmas matters because truth matters. And the heart of the truth is that God did not leave us alone, but in our misery he came to visit us one dark night in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.
Christmas is all about who we are, and who God is, and how far God will go for us. And it is because Christ came that you and I can be forgiven even when we have a hard time forgiving ourselves.
Sarah, I thank you for writing, and I hope my words have been of some comfort to you.
God bless you this Christmas season.