You Can Learn to Forgive: God’s Answer to Resentment
June 14, 2020
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They called him “Daddy King.”
When Martin Luther King Sr. died in 1984, one black leader said, “If we started our own country, he would be our George Washington.” In his eighty-four years he endured more than his share of suffering and hatred. During his childhood in Georgia, he witnessed lynchings. When he tried to register to vote in Atlanta, he discovered that the registrar’s office was on the second floor of city hall—but the elevator was marked Whites Only, the stairwell was closed, and the elevator for blacks was out of order.
He is mostly remembered for the accomplishments of his son, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement, cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1968. But that was not the end of his pain. During a church service in 1974, as his wife played “The Lord’s Prayer,” a young man rose in the congregation and began shooting. Mrs. King collapsed in a hail of gunfire while Daddy King watched in horror from the pulpit.
There is no time to hate, and no reason either
Near the end of his life, he spoke about the policy of nonviolence he had come to embrace. “There are two men I am supposed to hate. One is a white man, the other is black, and both are serving time for having committed murder. I don’t hate either one. There is no time for that, and no reason either. Nothing that a man does takes him lower than when he allows himself to fall so low as to hate anyone.”
But how can a man not hate when his wife and oldest son have been murdered? It seems natural and even proper to hate killers, doesn’t it? The answer comes back, “There is no time for that.”
To hate is to live in the past, to dwell on deeds already done. Hatred is the most damaging emotion, for it gives the person you hate a double victory—once in the past, once in the present. No time to hate? Not if you have learned how to forgive. Forgiving does not mean whitewashing the past, but it does mean refusing to live there. Forgiveness breaks the chain of bitterness and the insidious desire for revenge. As costly as it is to forgive, unforgiveness costs far more.
We’re in a series called Big Promises: God Says You Are, You Can, You Have, You Will. So far we have covered four big promises from the Lord:
You are Forgiven: God’s Answer to Guilt
You are Never Alone: God’s Answer to Fear
You Have a Way Out: God’s Answer to Temptation
You Have a Great Future: God’s Answer to Failure
Now we come to the fifth promise: You can Forgive: God’s Answer to Resentment. Let’s begin with these words from the Apostle Paul:
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 (Ephesians. 4:29).
Whenever I read that verse, my mind goes back to a public speaking course I took in college. On the first day of class, the teacher said we were going to take a verse of Scripture as our theme for the semester. He picked Ephesians 4:29, which we repeated every time we met.
No trash talk!
Back then everything we learned came from the King James Version, so that’s how I remember it: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” What the NIV translates as “unwholesome talk,” the King James translates as “corrupt communication.” The underlying Greek word means “rotten.” It was used for decaying flesh or rotten fish. The meaning is, “Don’t let any putrid words come out of your mouth.” We might say in street lingo, “No trash talk!”
What qualifies as rotten speech? Here are a few examples:
Vulgarity, obscenity, indecent language.
Racial or ethnic insults.
Gossip, rumors, false accusations.
Public criticism of your spouse or children.
Yelling and screaming.
Exaggerating the faults of others.
Excusing unkind words by saying, “I was only joking.”
Why is this so important? Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Every time you open your mouth, either life or death comes out. The Bible speaks of the throat as an “open grave” (Romans 3:13). When there is death on the inside, it will eventually show up in your words.
Every time you speak, either life or death comes out
Ephesians 4:29 offers a Christian alternative: First, we are to speak good words that build up instead of tearing down. Second, we are to speak words that minister grace to those who hear them. Here is the teaching of this verse put very simply:
Every word . . . all good . . . all grace . . . all the time.
Sometimes we need a friend to remind us to watch what we say. Gordon MacDonald tells the story of a trip to Japan he took as a young man. One day, while walking the streets of Yokohama with an older pastor, he made a sarcastic comment about a mutual friend. The older pastor stopped, looked him in the face, and said, “A man who truly loves God would not talk about a friend like that.” Gordon MacDonald said it was as if a knife had been plunged between his ribs. The pain was so great he didn’t know how to respond. Reflecting on that experience twenty years later, he remarked that the memory of those searing words had helped him ten thousand times when he was tempted to make a critical comment about a family member, a friend, a colleague, or someone he knew casually.
We all have our excuses for what we say, don’t we? We’re tired or we’re provoked or we weren’t thinking or we didn’t mean it or it’s true so we said it. On and on we go, justifying our verbal diarrhea. But our excuses don’t excuse us at all.
What is God saying to us? No more stinking speech!
Paul mentions the sad consequence of our unkind words in Ephesians 4:30:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Did you know you can grieve the Holy Spirit who lives within you? You can only grieve a close friend or a loved one. You can’t grieve a stranger you meet on the street. You can irritate a stranger and you can offend a casual acquaintance, but you can only grieve someone close to you. Paul’s advice is both practical and profound. We tend to talk a lot about interpersonal problems, as if the greatest issue in life is how we relate to other people. But verse 30 reminds us that our primary relationship is always with God. You can make the Spirit weep because of your thoughtless words.
Evil speech destroys Christian unity
Here’s the reason: The Holy Spirit not only lives in you. He also lives in the Christian brother or sister you just slandered. Evil speech destroys Christian unity. D. L. Moody said he had never known God to bless a church where the Lord’s people were divided. This is a word we need to hear today. We tolerate and sometimes even encourage thoughtless attitudes in the way we speak to each other.
This does not mean we will never say anything hard or difficult for others to hear. Proverbs 27:6 reminds us, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (KJV). Sometimes friends “wound” each other to bring healing. Just as a doctor must sometimes cut us surgically to remove what is killing us, friends sometimes say things that aren’t easy to hear. But in those cases, friends first remove the telephone pole from their own eye before they remove the speck of sawdust from someone else’s eye.
We grieve the Spirit first by rotten speech (Ephesians 4:29) and second by evil attitudes (v. 31). But these two things are not separate. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Whatever is in the heart must eventually come out in the words we say. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (v. 31 NASB). These wrong attitudes corrode the soul from the inside out. The corrosion starts with bitterness, a word meaning “pointed” or “sharp,” referring to the pain we feel when someone mistreats us. It speaks to a deep emotional reaction that keeps us from thinking clearly. If we dwell in bitterness long enough, it produces a wounded spirit.
Bitterness leads to a wounded spirit
Bitterness leads to wrath, a word that originally meant “to snort.” It has the idea of the nostrils being flared in anger. We use the same image when we speak of someone being all steamed up, with smoke coming out of their ears.
Anger, the third word, speaks of a settled condition of the heart. Some people get up angry, shower angry, eat breakfast angry, go to work angry, come home angry, watch TV angry, and go to bed angry. Nothing pleases a person like that. Anger leads to jealousy, harsh words, and it can even lead to murder. Angry people usually express themselves in clamor, the fourth word, which means raising your voice and shouting.
The fifth word, slander, means to make false accusations against someone or to attack them through vague insinuations. We can slander with our words, with a lifted eyebrow, with an unfinished sentence, or by quoting others but taking their words and twisting them into something sinister.
Slander was one of the sins of those who crucified Jesus. They mocked him and lied about him and falsely accused him. When you slander someone, you join with those who crucified our Lord.
Malice, the final word, describes an underlying attitude of ill will. We could call it congealed hatred. A malicious person can’t get along with anyone. What starts in the heart ends up on the lips. We think, we feel, and then we speak. What starts as a grievance becomes an outburst of wrath that hardens into anger that leads to clamor and slander. Malice marks such a person through and through. Stop it early and you won’t have to stop it later. That’s why Proverbs 4:23 reminds us to “guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
The Bible tells us to get rid of all these wrong attitudes:
No root of bitterness.
No symptoms of wrath.
No trace of anger.
No echo of clamor.
No slime of slander.
No dregs of malice.
When we harbor these things, the Holy Spirit weeps inside us.
We must replace those rotten attitudes with something much better.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Ephesians 4:32).
Kindness speaks of gentleness in the face of provocation. It reaches out to the unworthy and withholds punishment even when it is deserved. It is “the oil that lubricates the machinery of life.” Compassion says, “I will care for you, and I will not shut you out.”
Guard your heart!
Forgiveness starts with God, comes down to us, and then goes out to other people. We forgive as God has forgiven us. We are to extend grace to others as God has extended grace to us. We, the undeserving, having been showered with God’s grace in Christ, give to other undeserving sinners (who have sinned against us) the same outpouring of grace.
From God to us to others.
Grace to us, grace to others.
From God to us to others
We do for others what God has done for us.
He has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west.
He has put our sins behind his back.
He throws them into the depth of the ocean.
He remembers them no more.
He blots them out.
He cancels the debt we owe.
He declares us not guilty.
Forgiven people forgive people
We have “the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7). He forgave us freely, instantly, totally. Can we not do the same for those who have hurt us so deeply?
The message is simple and clear: Go and do for others what Christ has done for you. This is the Big Promise for today. Forgiven people forgive people.
But it is not always easy.
Years ago, I spoke at a Bible conference in northern Wisconsin on the topic of forgiveness. During each session, a tall woman sat directly in front of me. After one message she introduced herself and told me a bit of her story, which included her struggles with forgiveness. A few days later I received the following letter:
Dear Pastor Pritchard,
I left camp with a full heart yesterday. Thank you for your ministry among us. I am the tall woman who sat pretty much front and center to you. Your last message challenged me to go beyond just forgiving to the point of neutrality. Since Christ commanded that we be proactive in this matter, it can only be done by his power. Humanly speaking, I am bankrupt. Just where he wants me.
Then she added a little smiley face in the text and continued, “I carried the enclosed article around in my Bible for several years. I can’t tell you how many times I have read and reread it. I want you to have a copy for your illustration file.” She enclosed a photocopy of an article by Richard Wurmbrand published in the December 1998 issue of Voice of the Martyrs.
“Humanly speaking, I am bankrupt”
Wurmbrand tells the story of a man named Demitri who was in prison in Romania. He was beaten with a hammer, paralyzing him, making him a quadriplegic. The other prisoners cared for him as best they could without access to running water or good facilities, but they were on work duties all day long. Demitri lay in his own filth, in pain and alone until the evening. Eventually he was freed from prison and returned home to his family. Let’s pick up the story from there.
One day someone knocked at his door. It was the Communist who had crippled him. He said, “Sir, don’t believe that I have come to ask forgiveness from you. For what I have done, there is no forgiveness, not on earth or in heaven. You are not the only one I have tortured like this. You cannot forgive me; nobody can forgive me. Not even God. My crime is much too great. I have come only to tell you that I am sorry about what I have done. From you I go to hang myself. That is all.” He turned to leave.
The paralyzed brother Demitri said to him, “Sir, in all these years I have not been so sorry as I am now, that I cannot move my arms. I would like to stretch them out to you and embrace you. For years I have prayed for you every day. I love you with all my heart. You are forgiven.”
At some point, our faith will be put to the test. We must then ask the question, “How much do we want to be like Jesus?” He was a forgiving man who came to create a race of forgiving men and women. 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.
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? What if God were as unkind and unmerciful as you are? What if he kept a record of your sins? You’d never get within a million miles of heaven.
Go and do for others what God has done for you
“I’m going to trash him like he trashed me.” What if God said that about you?
Perhaps you need to have a heart-to-heart talk with the Lord and then with others close to you. A woman came to me in tears and said, “I’ve been so hard on my children. I’m going to go home, get them all together, and ask for their forgiveness.” That’s the path of true spiritual liberation.
Whatever God tells you to do, do it. Stop making the Holy Spirit weep because of your unkind words and your inner ugliness. Cry out to God for his help. Pray for a fresh vision of Jesus dying for you.
You can forgive because you have been forgiven. This is the Word of the Lord.
Father, some of us desperately need this message right now. We’re all going to need it soon because we live in a broken world.
Deliver us from anger.
Baptize our lips.
Cleanse us from resentment.
Free us from malice.
May the river of grace wash away every trace of bitterness. Lord Jesus, make us agents of forgiveness and missionaries of your grace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.