|Great Themes of the Bible (#29-Forgiving Others)
"Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
Don't you pray for God to transform your heart, purify your behaviors, and make you more like Christ? I pray for these things in my life. And in order to answer our prayers, God has created the church and put us in it with the full awareness that it would be a world of offense — where we could deal with hurt feelings, slights, and wrongs from one another in the Spirit-empowered world of forgiveness.
Bill Hybels pastors a dynamic church in South Barrington, Illinois. I'm guessing it is at least ten times as large as this church by now. I take comfort in an interview he gave a few years back.
Unity isn't the word we use to describe relationships at Willow Creek. The popular concept of unity is a fantasy land where disagreements never surface and contrary opinions are never stated with force. We expect disagreement. So instead of unity, we use the word community.It isn't just one church's leadership team but the total Body of Christ that needs to know, keep in consciousness, and strive to live the community principle. All of us get offended at times. All of us give offense. But we are the family of God and must learn to live together in true biblical unity, in authentic regard for one another, in community.
We say, "Let's not pretend we never disagree. We're dealing with the lives of [thousands of] people. The stakes are high. Let's not have people hiding their concerns to protect a false notion of unity. Let's face the disagreement and deal with it in a godly way."
The mark of community — true biblical unity — is not the absence of conflict. It's the presence of a reconciling spirit. I can have a rough-and-tumble leadership meeting with someone, but because we're committed to community, we can still leave, slapping each other on the back, saying, "I'm glad we're still brothers." We know no one's bailing out just because of a conflicting position. Community is bigger than that. 
We will need to help one another to remember our commitment to oneness in Christ. For example, with my too-frequent tactlessness, I stepped all over the feelings of one of my long-term associates and brothers in this church a few months back. I don't know if I thought we knew each other well enough to talk candidly or if I was just short-fused on a bad night after a long day. All I do know is that it was my fault — and that I was oblivious to having wounded him. Terry came to me the next morning and said, "Rubel, I think you hurt that brother's feelings by what you said to him." First, I didn't want to think I had wronged someone who had been a friend for so many years. Second, I had to be reminded of what I had said. Third, I didn't believe Terry had read him right and I had read him wrong. So I immediately phoned him, learned that Terry was right, and asked him to have lunch with me so I could apologize to him face to face. We did eat together — with Terry getting a free lunch off me to boot!
Community is too valuable in the church to let careless words on a bad night rupture a relationship. And the same is true for our families and friendships, for classroom and workplace. This means that we have to learn to take responsibility for our actions and to forgive one another. If the church can't model forgiveness, who can?
One philosopher compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter's night. The colder it gets, the more we huddle together for warmth. But the closer we get to one another, the more we prick, stab, and hurt one another with our sharp quills. Then, in the lonely nights of life's winter, we eventually begin to draft apart and wander out on our own. There we freeze to death in our loneliness.
Those Challenging Texts
The Word of God calls the church to an option the world cannot receive. Christ challenges us to forgive one another for the stings and punctures we inflict on one another. Then we can stay together and share the warmth of God's presence.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the multitude:
You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matt. 5:43-46).To reinforce the same theme, he came back to the matter of how people should treat one another with respect and forgiveness. Still in that same sermon, he told his disciples to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" Matt. 6:12). At the end of the model for our prayers that includes this petition about forgiven people practicing forgiveness, he added, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matt. 6:14-15).
One day Peter asked Jesus about this matter of forgiving others and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?" Trying to be like his Master, Peter doubled the teaching of certain rabbis to the effect that three times was the limit to forgiveness — then added one more for good measure. "Up to seven times?" he offered. He must have been shocked by Jesus' reply: "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times" (Matt. 18:21-22). Then he gave one of his memorable parables.
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents [footnote: millions of dollars] was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.Finally among these challenging texts, read the words of the Apostle to the Gentiles: "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Eph. 4:32).
The servant fell on his knees before him. "Be patient with me," he begged, "and I will pay back everything." The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [footnote: a few dollars]. He grabbed him and began to choke him. "Pay back what you owe me!" he demanded.
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, "Be patient with me, and I will pay you back."
But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
Then the master called the servant in. "You wicked servant," he said, "I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matt. 18:23-35).
What These Verses Mean
To understand the meaning of these texts, it is probably necessary to say first what they don't mean. They certainly don't mean that evil should be minimized or that both it and its aftermath are less than terribly, terribly painful. Child molestation, physical abuse, or verbal-emotional assault leaves scars that have to be dealt with in an adult's life. Addiction to alcohol, sex, drugs, gambling, and the like are behaviors that can be treated under a disease model; they are also sins that devastate not only their perpetrators but innocent people as well.
These texts don't mean that the victims of evil need to understand or justify why someone acted as he or she did. They don't mean you should not grieve, be angry, or feel betrayed by your victimizer. They don't mean you should just stuff down what has happened, try to forget about it, and wait for time to heal your wounds. And they certainly don't mean you should feel guilty about the offense you have taken about an evil that has been done to you. A glib "I'm over it!" or a quick "You're forgiven!" is sometimes both a lie and an affront to the process that is true forgiveness.
Yes, forgiveness is a process — "a journey of many steps," as one friend of mine puts it. And she knows the meaning of forgiveness because she has walked a long, tedious path to overcome a series of abusive behaviors in her family of origin. Her pain and anger are not diminished if yours is worse. Neither is yours any easier to confront for being far less than she endured.
These biblical texts do mean at least the following:
First, the seriousness of what has happened must be named, accepted for its true nature as an offense against holiness, and brought to God for help in confronting. No more denial. No sweeping it under the rug. No pretending it didn't happen. Just honesty in bringing it into the light of God's healing power. Write down in journal or letter form what happened; writing seems to be therapeutic to many who have undergone severe trials. Find a trusted counselor or mature Christian friend with whom to share your story in confidence.
Second, grieve the things you have lost because of what has happened on account of someone's sin against you. Innocence. Trust. Family. Money. Respect. Self-respect. Name and lament what has been stolen from you by someone's prejudice, lie, or unjust treatment. Weep over it; tears are even more therapeutic than writing. But stop short of throwing a pity party for yourself. That's not helpful and only delays healing.
Third, remember that you are a forgiven person. God was once offended by your trespasses against him, and he grieved both your behaviors and the condition of your heart that permitted you to persist in them for a time. A man was called to his employer's office. She played surveillance tapes to him that showed he had put money from the cash drawer into his pocket. The least he could expect was a blistering dismissal and knew it was possible that the police were on the way. She asked him to explain what they had just witnessed on a TV screen. "I stole from you," he mumbled as he looked down at the floor. She told him she was not going to press charges and then asked, "If I take you back, can I trust you?" The shocked-and-conscience-stricken man assured her that he could be trusted but said, "There's no reason you should give me a second chance. Why would you?" "You're the second person who has messed up and then received pardon in this company," she said. "I was the first, and I'm showing you mercy because it made all the difference in my life."
Fourth, decide to forgive the person or persons who have hurt you. Forgiving another is ultimately a unilateral action. You don't forgive because the person has stopped doing wrong or undone the harm done to you. You don't forgive because you either have or ever will blot out the painful memories of what happened. You don't forgive because the person has been penitent or asked to be forgiven. You forgive in order to honor the will of God and his Spirit-presence in your life. And you forgive in order to take back the control of your life that someone still has because of their evil and your ongoing absorption with its aftermath. One person recommends sitting in front of an empty chair, visualizing the person who has done the evil, and saying aloud, "I forgive you, [name of the person], for [identify the specific things that have hurt you] and take back the control of my life that has been yielded to you since those things happened — so I can give everything in my life to God's redemptive and healing love."
Fifth, pray the matter to closure. Maybe you pray something like this: "Holy God, because I am forgiven and accepted in Christ, I want to live in obedience to you and to follow my Lord's example of forgiving others. By the power of your Spirit-presence at work in me, I choose now to forgive [the person] and to close the book on the sins [the person] committed against me. More than that, I ask you to bless him/her with whatever will draw him/her close to your heart. Bless [the person] with the love you have shown to me through your Holy Son. I take back the ground Satan has had in my life because of hatred or the desire for revenge against [the person] and surrender it to Jesus. Take away bitterness, and give me peace. Take away emotional and spiritual torment over these things, and let me live in forgiven-ness and forgiving-ness. In Jesus' name. Amen." You can't pray this prayer at the beginning of the process of forgiveness, only at the end.
Sixth, because you mean what you have done at that point, put it behind you. If the person or persons who did the wrong to you are still in your life or still among those with whom you must interact at work or church, accept them by the mercies of God and without expecting or attempting to change them. Get on with your life, and keep no souvenirs of your past bitterness. You've broken the cycle of sin leading to thoughts of revenge resulting in more sinful actions. It has been broken with forgiveness.
On a Saturday afternoon last spring, 13-year-old Michael Hirschbeck put on his Cleveland Indians batboy uniform and went looking for his hero. His hero is Roberto Alomar, the All-Star second baseman who made a lot of us baseball fans angry in the fall of 1996 by spitting in the face of an umpire who had just called him out on strikes. When Michael found him, he threw his arms around him in a big hug.
The most startling thing about this episode is that Michael is the son of John Hirschbeck — the umpire Alomar spat upon in that ugly incident. Alomar apologized for what he did, and Hirschbeck publicly forgave him and committed himself to a process of healing and restoration. The baseball player has since worked to support the umpire's foundation to find a cure for a rare disease of the brain (adrenoleukodystrophy or ALD) that took the life of Hirschbeck's 8-year-old son John Drew in 1993. Michael has the same genetic disorder.
"Maybe God put us in this world to help somebody beat this disease," says Alomar of the ironic reconciliation. Maybe he did. Or maybe he put them in this world to remind us of the grace that touches all who witness it in seeing the offended embrace the offender. And maybe their story will affirm one more time what Bill Hybels says he has discovered about the church: "The mark of community — true biblical unity — is not the absence of conflict. It's the presence of a reconciling spirit."
You can't walk with Christ while carrying a grudge. Lay it down. Put a reconciling spirit of forgiveness in its place. Let offended and offender embrace — and know they are on the same team now for the sake of defeating Satan's schemes.
 "Standing in the Crossfire: An interview with Bill Hybels," Leadership 14 (Winter 1993): 14.
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