May 15, 2011 | Brian Bill
“It’s not often that forgiveness becomes the topic of a national conversation.” This sentence comes from a book called, “Amish Grace,” which recounts the true story of the murder of some Amish girls in a school house in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania almost five years ago. Exactly one week after the murders, at the exact time they took place, churches and schools throughout the county rang their bells in solidarity and support.
During one of the “grief sharing” meetings the murderer’s wife was mad at God and didn’t understand the way the Amish forgave her husband and the out pouring of love for her and her family. She asked, “How can you forgive?” She prays each day for the strength to forget what has happened to them.
Here are some more quotes from the book. One man asks, “Why is everybody all surprised? It’s just standard Christian forgiveness; it’s what everybody should be doing.” A man named Eli said this, “Refusing to forgive is not an option. It’s just a normal part of our living.” Here’s a question. Is forgiving a normal part of your living?
We learned last week that love is more an action than an emotion. In a similar way today we’re going to be challenged that forgiveness is an action, not a feeling.
After the first service last week someone came up to me and told me about a sermon she had heard in which the pastor began with this question: What are three most important words in a marriage? She thought he was going to say something like this: “I love you” or the “Pack is back” but he didn’t. The three most powerful words in a family are: “Let it go.”
Families that forgive know how to live
We could say it like this: Families that forgive know how to live. If you’re going to grow, you must let it go.
Before we begin I recognize that some of you have experienced pain or hurt or abuse or worse. I can’t imagine how you’re dealing with all that. This sermon may be very painful for you. One person, upon hearing what the topic is today, sent me this note on Facebook: “I have to admit I am dreading this message. I have something that is tearing me apart that I know forgiveness is the answer to, but I haven’t figured out how to do it. I’m scared for Sunday to come.” I believe that this might be the day that you finally and fully forgive that person who has harmed you so much.
Prohibitions to Avoid
We’re going to land in Ephesians 4:31-32 this morning but I want to go back a few verses to set the context. We see some prohibitions listed in verses 26-31 that apply directly to families.
1. Don’t sin in your anger (26a).
It’s possible to be angry and not sin but it’s also easy to sin when you are angry: “In your anger do not sin.” Some anger is righteous but for most of us, our anger is anything but right.
- Ring Bell
2. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.
We see this in the second half of verse 26: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” The night before our wedding rehearsal, the pastor who married us challenged us with this verse, and I’m glad he did, though we’ve had some pretty late nights! One person put it this way: “Forgive your mate or stay up late!” The danger of anger is that it picks up steam if it’s not dealt with properly.
3. Don’t give the devil a foothold.
Verse 27 tells us that Satan gets his foot in the door of families when there is unresolved anger: “And do not give the devil a foothold.” Proverbs 29:22: “An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins.” Satan will do anything to torpedo marriages and he often does so by tempting you to go on a tirade.
4. Don’t use corrupt conversation.
Look at verse 29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The word “unwholesome” means that which is bad, decayed, or rotten. Are your foul words stinking up your family?
5. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit.
Verse 30 tells us that the Holy Spirit is saddened when our anger erupts and when we use our words as weapons: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Unresolved anger and continuous conflict can distance you from God.
6. Don’t hold on to unholy things.
Ephesians 4:31 makes clear that we have a responsibility to throw away the stuff that is making a mess of our marriages and harpooning our homes: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” Unfortunately this verse is a composite picture of the dysfunction in many families today. Let’s look a little more closely at these words:
- Bitterness. This comes from a word that means “sharp” or penetrating and has the idea of bearing a grudge or a smoldering resentment. The word in Greek was used literally to describe plants that produced poisonous fruit. According to Colossians 3:19, husbands are commanded to love their wives and to “not be embittered against them.” One person who still struggles over what was done in the past said this, “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.” My favorite quote related to bitterness is this: “Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Ring Bell
- Rage. This is a blazing fire that explodes and consumes everything in its path. Like flying shrapnel, our words wound far and wide.
- Anger. A deep resentment that bubbles below the surface as it looks for the opportunity to let someone have it. It’s long-lasting and slow-burning anger, which refuses to be pacified.
- Brawling. This refers to violent public outbursts or “quarrelsome shouting.” The word suggests a rough and guttural sound, with a raucous voice like a donkey.
- Slander. Speech that is injurious to someone else as it demeans their character.
- Malice. The desire to injure another and to make them pay the price for causing us so much pain.
This list makes me think of Miss Havisham, one of the most memorable characters in Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations. Her pain is great because on her wedding day, at twenty minutes till nine, she received the numbing word that her groom had run away with another woman. From that moment on, life stopped for Miss Havisham. Every clock in her house was stopped precisely at the fateful hour of twenty minutes till nine. Her drapes were pulled, she lived in seclusion and her wedding cake and feast lay rotting on the table, as spiders and mice carried them off in bits and pieces. The jilted bride-to-be continued to wear the now-fragile dress and wedding veil; their colors long faded and yellowed, their lace and fabric in tatters.
Pip, the main character in the story, wonders why this spectacle is taking place. Miss Havisham gives this depressing analysis: “On this day of the year, long before you were born, this heap of decay…was brought here. It and I have worn away together. The mice have gnawed at it, and sharper teeth than teeth of mice have gnawed at me.” Those teeth are the sharp edges of bitterness, resentment and unforgiveness. (Note: the wording for this illustration comes from Nancy Leigh DeMoss, “Choosing Forgiveness,” pages 25-27).
Has the clock stopped in your life? Do you have some of these attitudes in your heart right now? Is your marriage made up of malice? Is your family no longer functioning well because of some unholy habits? We’re to “Get rid of them,” which means to throw them away. The phrase actually means to “put away” or to “let it go” and refers to lifting an anchor of a ship so that the ship could set sail.
And notice it says, “all” at the beginning of the verse and “every” at the end. Let’s be honest about something. Some of us don’t want to let go of this garbage because we actually enjoy being vengeful and bitter. We like watching our spouse squirm. We enjoy belittling our kids. We like to pile on our parents. Some of us want people to crawl back to us. Others of us simply want revenge.
- Ring Bell
While we might find some pleasure in this, it’s dangerous to hold on to hatred. It’s time to repent, to change your mind, and to stop justifying your attitudes and actions by thinking you somehow have a “right” to feel this way because of what someone else has done to you. This is really step one and is the responsibility of each one of us: we must make sure we are not doing these six things. Sure, we all want our family members to change. But we must start with asking God to change us.
Practices to Embrace
After taking these prohibitions seriously verse 32 gives us three practices that we’re to follow: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
1. Be kind.
The tense of this command means that we are to “keep on becoming kind.” It carries with it the idea of being gracious. Keep in mind that it’s not necessarily prompted by the good the other person has done, but by the good that God has done.
2. Be compassionate.
When your wife weeps, weep with her. When your husband hurts, hurt with him. When your child is all churned up, allow yourself to feel their pain. 1 Peter 3:8 sums up how we should treat each other: “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.”
3. Be forgiving.
The word “forgiving” is in the present tense and implies a continuous action
After being kind and compassionate, we are to practice “forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” The word “forgiving” is in the present tense and implies a continuous action. It’s not just a one-time event but is actually ongoing. It literally means “to give freely and unconditionally or bestow as a gift of grace.” The phrase “each other” means that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and we are sinned against by sinners and therefore need to forgive them. Especially in a marriage relationship, both parties provoke and both spouses sin. And in families, you will have multiple opportunities to forgive the failures of others.
Our model for forgiveness is Christ himself. When it seems we can’t forgive remember how much we’ve been forgiven. Because we have been forgiven, and only because we’ve been forgiven, are we able to forgive others. When someone sins against us, we must remember how much we’ve sinned against God and how much we’ve been forgiven. As a forgiven sinner we extend forgiveness to another sinner. My capacity to forgive is directly related to my understanding of how much God loves me and how much He’s forgiven me. Christians are the most forgiven people in the world and should therefore be the most forgiving people in the world.
Actually, without the doctrine of forgiveness, what is Christianity? If we withhold that which we’ve received, Jesus says that there will be trouble for us in Matthew 18:35: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Here’s a question. Would you want God to forgive you in the same way you forgive others?
The Bible uses a number of different words to convey the concept of forgiveness. One word means “to blot out,” in the sense that God erases the record of the sins we commit. Another common Hebrew word means “to lift and carry away,” speaking of the complete removal of our sins from us, as if a heavy load had been lifted from our shoulders. Still another word means “to release from debt,” indicating that the punishment for sin has been canceled. One Greek word means “to show grace to one who has sinned greatly,” speaking of the undeserved nature of forgiveness. Another word often translated as “forgive” means, “to let go or release.”
Families that forgive know how to live. If you’re going to grow, you must let it go.
Here are some points to ponder…
- Forgiveness is a costly activity. When someone sins, they create a debt, and someone must pay it. That’s exactly what Jesus did for each of us.
- God has only one solution to the problem of human sin: the act of forgiveness.
- We are to forgive others because God has forgiven us. In a nutshell, you can take payments on the debt owed you or you can make the final payment and declare the debt cancelled.
- There is a direct connection between our spiritual health and our willingness to seek forgiveness and grant grace to those who have sinned against us. As Hebrews 12:15 says, we’re to “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”
Is it possible to totally forgive people? R.T. Kendall tells of a time when someone very near and dear to him hurt him greatly. The anger that he felt overwhelmed him. At length he talked it over with a faithful friend. After he poured out all the sordid details of what had been done to him, he paused, waiting for his friend to say, “R. T., you are right to feel so angry. What happened to you was awful.” But he didn’t. After listening to all the details, he simply said, “You must totally forgive him.” Kendall was dumbfounded. So he started to tell the story all over again, this time adding more details. He was interrupted with words that would change his life, “You must totally forgive him. Release him, and you will be set free.”
Excuses, Excuses, Excuses
Most of us know that we’re supposed to forgive and we understand what God says about forgiveness, but we still fight it. Here are some common excuses I’ve heard from others and sometimes from myself:
- The hurt is too big. Actually, the bigger the hurt, the more we should want to be rid of it. C.S. Lewis has said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.”
- It’s not fair. Forgiveness is not fair; but that’s precisely the point of it.
- But you don’t know how bad he (or she) hurt me. That’s not the issue. Your spouse may still hurt you. Your parent may provoke you again. Your sibling may slice you up with his words. Your child may turn her back on you. But forgiveness is how you stop the pain.
- I have to heal first—then I’ll be able to forgive. Research shows that forgiveness brings healing, not the other way around.
- I can’t forgive if I can’t forget.
- But I want revenge! We have to trust God to even the score.
- Why should I let him (or her) off the hook? If you don’t forgive, you’re still on the hook.
- Time will heal it. Friends, time heals nothing. You can be walking through Wal-Mart and see the person and all the pain comes roaring back.
- Where’s the justice? It’s on the cross. Jesus released you from the debt of your sins, and the sins of your family members.
I can’t imagine the pain and brokenness and hurt and betrayal some of you have experienced. But I do know that the only way to be free is to release people from ever having to pay you back for the wrong they did to you. C.S. Lewis was right when he said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”
- Ring Bell
That leads to a question. Are you more interested in being “right” than in being reconciled? Colossians 3:13 makes it clear that forgiveness is not an option: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive others.” Nancy Leigh DeMoss, in her excellent book, “Choosing Forgiveness,” writes this: “Whatever sin has been committed against you, the choice not to forgive is itself a serious sin. In fact, failing to forgive can often bring about problems in your life far worse and more long term than the pain of the original offense.”
Forgiveness does not mean we somehow wipe out of our mind the record of what happened. Forgiveness means we release the debt. It’s a deliberate decision to let it go. If you’re having a hard time forgiving maybe it’s because you’re still dwelling on the deeds that have been done to you. In short, it’s time to stop getting “historical” by bringing up the past.
Corrie Ten Boom, who survived the holocaust, received some helpful advice from a pastor when she was bitter over what some Christian friends had done to her. After two sleepless weeks, her pastor told her, “Up in the church tower is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. When the rope is pulled the bell sounds out ‘ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong.’ But if the rope is not pulled the sound slowly fades away. Forgiveness is like that. When we forgive someone, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for awhile. They are just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.” Friend, are you still yanking on the rope? Or have you truly let it go?
- Ring Bell
You have two choices. You can keep ringing the bell or you can let it go. What are you going to do?
You were given a little bell when you came in today. I’d like you to hold it up right now. This bell represents a wrong that has been done to you. You now have a choice to make. You can keep ringing the bell or you can take your hand off the rope. You can let it go. The time to forgive is now. It’s time to let it go. It all starts with a decision. Forgiveness is an action, not an emotion.
Who do you need to forgive in your family? A parent? A child? A sibling? A grandparent? An uncle? An aunt? A cousin? Who else comes to mind? Stop ringing the bell. Maybe you need to pick up the phone or write a letter. Who do you need to ask forgiveness from? Families that forgive know how to live. If you’re going to grow, you must let it go.
Putting Forgiveness into Practice
Here are some ideas that may help you give the gift of forgiveness, or to ask for release from the wrongs you have committed against a family member. Remember this: Forgiveness is not optional in the Christian life. Its part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian.
1. Stop playing the “gotcha game.”
Love, according to 1 Corinthians 13:5: “keeps no record of wrongs.” I remember watching a video of a husband and wife literally walking around the house with ledger books in which they recorded every wrong that the other person did. It wasn’t until they threw these accounts out that they were able to move toward intimacy.
2. Create a culture of forgiveness in your home.
Instead of saying, “I’m sorry” say, “I was wrong. Please forgive me.” There’s a world of difference between the two. When you wrong your spouse ask him or her for forgiveness; don’t just feel bad about what you did or offer an easy “I’m sorry.” Apologizing is the world’s substitute for forgiving because there is not a single reference to apologizing in the Bible. Jay Adams argues that an apology allows the wrongdoer to tell you how he feels (I’m sorry) without acknowledging his sin and it does not ask the one sinned against for forgiveness.
Teach your kids to say, “I was wrong. I sinned against you. Will you forgive me?” Then, the one wronged must not say, “It’s no big deal” or “Don’t worry about it.” It is a big deal. Don’t dismiss the price. As Tim Keller says, “Pay the price.” The biblical response is, “I forgive you.”
3. If someone has sinned against you, release him or her from ever having to pay you back.
Here’s a practical assignment. On a piece of paper, write down the names of those who have sinned against you. Next to their name write down what they’ve done. In the third column, write out how you’re going to respond and then forgive them. And then throw the paper away. Remember, you don’t have to feel like it and you don’t even have to want to. Just do it. Stop ringing the bell. Let it go. You must forgive the past in order to live in the present.
Related to this, if you hear yourself saying, “I can’t forgive…” it may be better to say what you really mean which is something like this: “I won’t forgive…” Just hearing the sound of that makes us uncomfortable but it might be more accurate. The issue ultimately is obedience and the wrestling match takes place with our wills.
Also, if you find yourself praying something like this, “Lord, help me forgive so and so” and you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere, instead of praying for yourself try praying for the person who has wronged you.
4. Memorize Ephesians 4:32 and tell your family that you’re going to put this passage into practice.
Maybe you could even work on this assignment together. Someone has said that marriage involves the union of two sinners. I’d like to add that a good family is made up of forgivers.
5. Practice the four promises of forgiveness.
This excellent material comes from the practical book, “The Peacemaker” by Ken Sande.
- “I will not dwell on this incident.”
- “I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.”
- “I will not talk to others about this incident.”
- “I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.”
This is exactly what God does for us, and it is what He calls us to do for others. In the companion curriculum for children found in the “Young Peacemaker,” kids are encouraged to learn this poem:
Hurt you not.
6. Make sure that you’ve experienced forgiveness from God.
Listen to what I’m about to say very carefully: We will forgive to the extent that we appreciate how much we’ve been forgiven. Jesus said it this way in Luke 7:47: “He who has been forgiven little loves little.”
Until you have a saving relationship with God so that your own sins can be forgiven, you won’t be able to fully forgive and your family will be fractured by unforgiveness. If you want to fortify your family then focus on forgiveness. Families that forgive know how to live. If you’re going to grow, you must let it go. Receive the gift of forgiveness right now through faith in Christ. Have you ever been forgiven by God or are you still carrying the heavy burden of your own sin? Jesus has taken your side of the ledger, crumpled up all your sins, and thrown them away. And He has stopped pulling the rope. If you’d like to be assured of that forgiveness right now, you can pray this prayer with me.
“Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life. I admit that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. I repent of my sins by changing my mind about the way I’ve been living. I desperately need to be forgiven. By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth. With all my heart I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life. I believe your words are true. I accept you into my heart. Be my Savior and Lord. I surrender to your leadership in my life. Make me into the person you want me to be. Amen.”
Because forgiveness is so difficult, we want to give you one more opportunity this morning to extend forgiveness. Please take the bell again and hold it in your hand as we watch this closing video called, “7 x 70.” This song was written by Chris August. As he reflected on his childhood, his mind was filled with memories of parents screaming, promises broken and heavy hurt. Watch and listen as he works through forgiveness. Don’t leave here today without doing the same.