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Impossible Forgiveness (Matthew 6:14-15)

Rev. Dr. William A. LewisRev. Dr. William A. Lewis, August 27, 2017

A woman was taking her time browsing through everything at a friend’s yard sale and said, “My husband is going to be very angry I stopped at a yard sale.” The friend said, “I’m sure he’ll understand when you tell him about all the bargains you found.” She replied, “Normally yes, but he just broke his leg and he’s waiting for me to take him to the hospital to have it set.” Today, we are going to talk about forgiveness and I’m going to argue extending forgiveness is something that requires urgency. When you allow someone’s sin to fester, you can work yourself up into a frenzy of hatred and anger. This is the opposite of what Jesus brings to us and wants for us.
Offering forgiveness to others is one of the most difficult and important aspects of the Christian life. The Bible commands us to forgive. We are most like God when we can model His love to a world with no concept of mercy. He wants us to offer grace and forgiveness to the undeserving just as we have been offered grace and forgiveness when we were undeserving.
Forgiveness start on a personal level. We must receive it in order to extent it. We’re often harder on ourselves than the Heavenly Father is. Brennan Manning in his book, “Abba’s Child,” describes the depth of God’s love: “We cannot assume He feels about us the way we feel about ourselves unless we love ourselves compassionately, intensely and freely.” Jesus revealed what God is like.
It takes a profound conversion to accept that God is relentlessly tender and compassionate toward us—just as we are, not in spite of our sins and faults because that would not be total acceptance. Though God does not condone evil, He does not withhold His love because there is evil in us. Jesus says in Matthew 7, “If you being evil, give good gifts to your children…”
Our Father loves us unconditionally. His grace will never run out. He is never surprised when we sin or fall short of the life to which we have been called because He knows our need for Him. He knows that without His help, we will never succeed in living His lifestyle. He knows without consistent encounters with His love, we will never be able to fully love others. He knows without being consistently filled with the Holy Spirit, we will never be empowered to be free from sin. Forgiveness requires supernatural assistance.
“My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous” (1 John 2:1). God does not condone our sin; but, He meets us in our place of brokenness and every time we fail. He offers us mercy every time we come to Him in confession and repentance. Nothing could ever cause Him to stop loving you, even for a moment. The Father wants you to receive His forgiveness and accept it. So, He can lead you into a lifestyle of loving yourself as He loves you. What mistakes or failures are you carrying around like a weight? Rest in His compassion. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8).
Recently, someone said, “Forgiveness is the greatest need of the human heart.” I pondered that statement and realized it’s true. Why? Sin is ruining us within, destroying our relationships, negatively affecting society. Therefore, the greatest need is having sin addressed. Sin can’t be managed, legislated, remedied through therapy, but only through God’s solution of His Son Jesus taking our sins upon Himself, exchanging our sin with His life.
In the Lord’s Prayer, the word “debt” in the original language means “that which is owed, legally due,” In reference to sin, it means a failure to pay my debts and do my duty to keep my responsibilities. Jesus paid the debt we could not.
Our passage implies that unforgiveness is a sin. Many people have been crushed by this Bible verse. How do I forgive the man who abused me or swindled my retirement? Jesus is not adding another burden to us; He is jarring us with the radical importance of this issue. This is one of the most important prayers we can offer: “Lord, help me to forgive.”
Forgiveness is a choice—maybe we will or maybe we won’t. A professor had the class write down “five things you cannot do” (ex. “I can’t cook.”) Then the class was instructed to replace the word can’t with won’t. Suddenly, this changed the meaning. Forgiveness is an act of the will.
Forgiveness is different than merely feeling sorry. Forgiveness is not about emotions. It doesn’t matter how you feel; it’s about getting serious with God. Tears and feeling sorry for your sins does not equate to forgiveness. We are forgiven based on what Christ has done, not how badly we feel. The Bible never uses the words, “I’m sorry” or says, “You should be sorry.” The words forgive, forgives, forgiven and forgiveness show up 119 times. “I’m sorry” does not require a response. But “forgive me” does illicit a response. I will or will not forgive you.
“Sorrow leads to repentance. Forgiveness leads to a changed mind and life: a clean slate, fresh start, never condemned” (2 Corinthians 7:10). No other religion in the world offers something that comforting; this is God’s personal offer to you. But why does Jesus say that if we do not forgive, the Father will not forgive us. This doesn’t mean God forgives on an exchange basis.
Our forgiveness of others is not a condition of God’s forgiveness of us. It is a condition of our ability to receive the forgiveness of God. A wrong spirit toward another may or may not hurt them, but it will certainly destroy our soul.
It is like the 4-year-old who prayed, “God, forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.” When we decide not to forgive, we set ourselves up as a higher judge than God, Himself. We cut others slack so we can give them the same gift of grace that we have received.
In Matthew 18, a king had a servant who owed him a lot of money. The man begged for more time, so the king took pity and just cancelled all his debt. Then that servant found another who owed him a small amount of money. When the man who owed a small amount asked for more time, the king’s servant threw him in debtor’s prison instead of showing mercy like he received. This matter was brought to the king’s attention and the king said, “You wicked servant, I cancelled all that debt just because you asked me to. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had on you?” Jesus concludes this is how it will go with you unless you forgive your brother from your heart. Forgiveness is a heart issue! Forgiveness reveals your spiritual maturity. In another story, Jesus says, “He who is forgiven much loves much…” Some think they only need a little forgiveness and minimize their need for God.
This is why God gets upset with us when we do not forgive. He forgave all our debts. Peter asked Jesus, “How often should I forgive, seven times?” Jesus said, “Seven times seventy.” This is not 490; this is celestial arithmetic. It means to live in a constant state of investing in other people’s spiritual lives. When God watches the people He has forgiven hold bitterness toward someone who sinned against them— no matter what that person has done to you – it pales in comparison to our sins against God.
Like Toby Mac said, “Don’t let what’s been done to you become bigger than what He did for you.”
In the Matthew 18 story, the unforgiving servant was handed over to the torturers. How often do we torture ourselves, replaying the event? Refusal to forgive hurts us. There are numerous scientific studies on unforgiveness and how those who harbor unforgiveness tend to be extremely unhappy, filled with resentment, burdened with stress, suffer from depression and mental illness.
They are prone to higher divorce rates and suffer from headaches, backaches and insomnia. Unforgiveness leads to a build-up in a chemical called cortisol. When you have too much cortisol in your body, it wears down the brain and leads to cell atrophy and memory loss. It raises blood pressure and blood sugar; it hardens the arteries and leads to heart disease. This is why Jesus makes it a command, a non-negotiable – Forgive them because I want you to be healthy… body, mind and soul…and live the abundant life.
If I don’t forgive someone, then I end up being ruled by that person. That person continues to have a hold upon me and I am eaten up inside by my own bitterness. I remember a parishioner telling me when he was a little boy, his father’s best friend took him on a trip to Colorado for two weeks where he raped the child multiple times a day. Fast forward two decades. One day the boy, now a man, made a house call for work and who opened the door? The man who did this to him. So, I asked, “What did you do?” He said, “Pastor I’m a Christian. I forgave him.”
Are you going to let a family member or work associate or anybody rule over your life? When someone comes to mind, make the choice to forgive and move on with your life. Forgiveness is contrary to our human nature. That is why it requires engagement with Jesus and His Spirit guiding our minds.
Clarification: Forgiveness is not excusing what they did. God never approves of sin. God kicked Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden, yet He still made garments to clothe them, an act of mercy demonstrating He forgives. When we forgive, we are inviting them to go and sin no more—engage our God, amend your life.
It is not ignoring what they did. Postmodernism redefines evil by claiming humans have no fixed identity and hence no fixed responsibility. You can’t just dismiss sin and explain it away. That is dehumanizing us with no moral accountability.
School books in England have been pressured by the politically correct agenda to state there was no Nazi Holocaust. Abuse victims block the sin out, but it shows up in other ways, destroying relationships and inner peace. It’s best to look at it and claim it for what it is: bad happened.
Some like to say, “I forgive, but never forget.” Forgiveness is not keeping a record of wrong so we can use it as ammunition at a later date. When we forgive, we don’t revisit it so the person is repeatedly punished for what they did against us. Forgiveness rids the root of bitterness. I asked someone, “What happened to your friendship with so and so?” “They said something about me, so I cut them off.” “But you were close friends?!”
A newly married husband came home from the office to find his young wife in tears. “What’s the matter?” he asked. She replied, “The most terrible thing happened. I cooked my first beef bourguignon for you and I got distracted when the phone rang. When I returned to the kitchen, the cat had eaten it.” The husband said, “Don’t worry. We can get a new cat.” You can’t always get time back in a relationship. You can heal it or you can hold on to the offense and be racked with bitterness. God forgives and forgets. “I remember your sins no more.”
Sometimes we need to forgive God. “I don’t like what you allowed to happen when you could have stopped this. Why God?” For Job, it was a theological lesson for humanity. It’s free will, not being interfered with. It is a growth moment or opportunity to see His redemption. “All things work together for good to them who love God, to them who are called according to His purposes” (Romans 8:28).
One teacher told her students to bring a bag of potatoes to school. They were instructed to call to mind every person they had a grudge against and label each potato with that person’s name. Then they were to carry the potato sack everywhere they went: to bed, on the car seat, on their desk in class, etc. In a few days, the potatoes began to stink and sprout eyes. It was a lesson in unforgiveness. Unforgiveness is inconvenient, irritating and eventually rots.
Who is your sack of potatoes that you carry around everywhere? You take it to bed and it affects your marriage. You carry it to your job and it impacts your work. You bring it to your family gatherings and plunk it down in the middle of the dining room table. We think we deserve to carry it because they hurt us and that person doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. But, neither did you. God is saying that we have to get used to handing out the forgiveness we receive.
Last week, Bill Vanderbush turned this passage around: give others the same grace you want to receive from God. “Forgive one another just as God has in Christ forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
When we forgive, we show others who God is. In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion erupted in China. Westerners gathered in provincial capitals to seek asylum. There were daily reports of missionaries and faithful Chinese Christians brutally murdered by the Boxers. Then came the blackest day; 100 missionaries sought refuge in the courtyard of the Shansi governor, not knowing he was the leader of the Boxer uprising. All were executed.
The question, “Why” trembled on the lips of more than one missionary. One missionary returned to his home 300 miles north. Soon a stranger visited him and asked, “Do you remember the foreigners who sought protection from the governor of Shansi province?” The missionary nodded. The stranger sat in silence a few minutes and then said, “I am the captain of the body guard. I was in charge. To me, it was nothing. I am accustomed to killing. The governor does not like foreigners. When they gathered at his door asking for protection, he put them in the prison. Then, he gave me the orders. We led them out into the prison courtyard and lined them up. The governor told them they were all to be killed.”
The captain said, “Then came the strangest sight I ever witnessed. Husbands and wives turned and kissed one another. The parents spoke to their children of Yesu and pointed toward heaven. There was no fear. They faced their executioners and began singing and singing, they died. When I saw how they faced death, I knew this Yesu of whom they spoke truly must be God. Can God forgive so great a sin? Is there nothing I might do to atone for my wrong?”
The missionary thought of his close friends who were killed as he reached for his Chinese Bible. Our God whom we serve is a merciful God. Your sin is great. But God’s mercy is greater. This Yesu is God’s Son. He came to earth to die for sinners like you and me. Because Jesus died for you, God can forgive you.
The captain listened closely and remarked, “Love, forgiveness, life. Strange words to a mind schooled to hate and kill.” The captain left and the missionary realized the hundreds of new graves strewn across China meant the harvest had begun.
Forgiveness is the only item in the Lord’s prayer Jesus circled back around to emphasize. Is there someone you need to forgive?

Sources: Craig Denison, Brian Bill, Don Crowson, Jeff Strite

About Rev. Dr. William A. Lewis: Rev. Dr. William Lewis has been the Senior Pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Celebration since 2009. Whether at a traditional service, praise service, or the more casual Thursday night service, you’ll find that Pastor William’s preaching brings the Word of God to life D.Min. McCormick Theological Seminary Th.M. Princeton Theological Seminary M.Div. Fuller Theological Seminary B.A. University Colorado
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