Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Healing Power of Forgiveness

Forgiveness and Bitterness are two opposite forces. They pull and fight and war against each other much like the war we see in Galatians 5 regarding the flesh and the Spirit and the war we see raging between pride and humility in James 4. Indeed, to forgive is to align oneself with the Spirit and to walk in humility, and to harbor bitterness is to align oneself with the flesh and to walk in pride. As we begin this short study on forgiveness, allow me to ask (then hopefully answer) a couple questions.

Why is forgiveness so difficult and bitterness so easy?
I believe the answer to this lies in war that rages between pride and humility and between the flesh and the Spirit. Most of us have lived the greater part of our lives for ourselves. We have allowed our flesh to dominate our lives. We have fed our pride constantly and have let it grow into an out-of-control monster that always seeks to get its way. So, in a sense, it is easier to hold bitterness than to offer forgiveness because our flesh has been fed and strengthened through our selfish choices and lifestyles. Bitterness follows the natural, sinful course of our lives.

At the same time, forgiveness is something that is unnatural to our sinful lives. Most of us have been saved for a relatively short time, and even if we have walked with the Lord for a number of years, growing in forgiveness isn’t something that many Christians even like to practice. Like bitterness, forgiveness needs to be fed in order to grow in strength and influence in our lives. And in order to feed forgiveness, we must practice it. To practice forgiveness means inner conflict to our lives. It means that we will have to fight a war with the ugly pride monster. It means that we will have to starve the flesh with all its passions and desires. It means that we feed and strengthen our spiritual muscles within us, yielding each moment to the control of the Holy Spirit.

Why is bitterness so attractive and forgiveness so unattractive?
Bitterness has some very real, short-term benefits (emphasis on short-term). It is these short-term benefits that come to us so easily that are attractive to our sinful hearts. Pride always looks for the shortest route to success. It doesn’t take much effort to get these ‘benefits.’ Paul Tripp gives a list of five things that bitterness will give to you, at least temporarily.
  1. Debt is power – There is power in having something to hold over another’s head. There is power in using a person’s weakness and failure against him or her. In moments when we want our own way, we pull some wrong against us as our relational trump card.
  2. Debt is identity – Holding onto another’s sin, weakness, and failure makes us feel superior to them. It allows us to believe that we are more righteous and mature than they are. We fall into the pattern of getting our sense of self not by the comfort and call of the gospel, but by comparing ourselves to another. This pattern plays into the self-righteousness that is the struggle of every sinner.
  3. Debt is entitlement – Because of all the other person’s wrongs against us, he or she owes us. Carrying these wrongs makes us feel deserving and therefore comfortable with being self-focused and demanding. “After all I have had to endure in relationship with you, don’t I deserve…?” 
  4. Debt is weaponry – The sins and failures that another has done against us become like a loaded gun that we carry around. It is very tempting to pull them out and use them when we are angry. When someone has hurt us in some way, it is very tempting to hurt them back by throwing in their face just how evil and immature they are. 
  5. Debt puts us in God’s position – It is the one place that we must never be, but it is also a position that all of us have put ourselves in. We are not the judge of others. We are not the one who should dispense consequences for other’s sin. It is not our job to make sure they feel the appropriate amount of guild for what they have done. But it is very tempting to ascend to God’s throne and to make ourselves judge. 
Posted by Paul Trip on desiringgod.org, July 6, 2011 

It is important to realize that each of these ‘benefits,’ though so attractive to our sinful hearts, each leads down the path of destruction. Bitterness can destroy a life. Bitterness can destroy a family. Bitterness can destroy a church. Bitterness leads to destruction. The once-attractive, sweet benefits of bitterness become to us a bitter poison in our hearts and minds.

On the other hand, forgiveness is so unattractive because it takes hard work. It is a long-term process that often doesn’t have any short-term benefits or results. But forgiveness is rewarding in the end. And it is rewarding beyond what we could even imagine. Paul Tripp encourages us also in this: It seems almost too obvious to say, but forgiveness is a much better way. The grace of our salvation is the ultimate argument for this truth. Forgiveness is the only way to live in an intimate, long-term relationship with another sinner. Forgiveness is the only way to negotiate through the weakness and failure that will daily mark your relationships. It is the only way to deal with hurt and disappointment. Forgiveness is the only way to have hope and confidence restored. It is the only way to protect your life and reinforce the unity that you have built. Forgiveness is the only way not to be kidnapped by the past. It is the only way to give your relationships the blessing of fresh starts and new beginnings.

What is God’s Forgiveness like?
     1.       God’s forgiveness is Unmerited

Daniel 9:9 – To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against Him.

We don’t deserve God’s forgiveness. In fact, all the sins we have ever committed have been in rebellion against our Maker. Think for a moment about King David in 2 Samuel 12. David had sinned with Bathsheba and had Uriah murdered so that David could cover his sinful tracks. God sent Nathan to confront David about this wickedness. When David acknowledged his sin against the Lord, Nathan declared, “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” That is unmerited forgiveness from God. I think it is important to note that the sin still had consequences, but God had forgiven David of his sin.
     2.       God’s forgiveness is Unending

Micah 7:18 – Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.

We sin every day. But God’s Word reminds us constantly that God’s forgiveness is unending. Psalm 100:5 – His mercy is everlasting. Lamentations 3:22-23 – God’s mercies and compassion is new every morning. Mercy is mentioned more than 360 times in the pages of Scripture. More than a third of those are in the Psalms. Even the greater theme of Redemption has in mind God’s plan to put His mercy and forgiveness into action.
     3.       God’s forgiveness is Unfathomable

Psalm 103:11-12 – For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgression from us.

God’s forgiveness is so wide that we can’t put an ending point on it. No matter how much we sin, God will still forgive us. No matter what the sin is, God will forgive us. This isn’t a justification to live however we want, but when we think about the depth of our sin problem, it helps us understand how great of a Savior our God really is. It is unfathomable.
     4.       God’s forgiveness is Unlimited

Romans 5:8-10 – But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

James 4:6 – But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

Reconciliation is part of forgiveness. It means that a relationship has been restored. The debt between two has been paid, the divider of two has been taken away. Through God’s forgiveness, we can have a fully restored relationship with God. We can have fellowship with God because of Christ’s work on the cross.

Reconciliation doesn’t always happen between people, but it is always possible. Even the most bitter and divided relationship can be restored. I say that with confidence because God’s forgiveness overcame the greatest relational divide that we could ever imagine.

How do we model God’s forgiveness to others?

We must practice the same principles of God’s forgiveness. We must have unmerited forgiveness. That means we forgive even when the other person might not deserve it. It also means that we forgive no matter what the sin was. We must have unending forgiveness. That means we forgive every time it is needed. We must have unfathomable forgiveness. That means that we forgive in a way that just won’t make sense to the offender. It means that we never bring up past sins to use them against others. We must have unlimited forgiveness. That means forgiveness takes practice, practice, practice. Forgiveness is a learning process. It is an unnatural muscle that we must work hard at to strengthen.

Forgiveness and Matthew 18:21-35

Peter must have thought he was doing well with the suggestion of forgiving seven times. The Pharisees taught to forgive three times. So what Peter did was double that, then add one just for good measure. Jesus knocked Peter's socks off with His response.

Not seven times, not even seventy times, but seventy times seven. This is an inconceivably high number to forgive someone. Many times I struggle even reaching the seven times. But Jesus desires that we forgive until we don't feel like it anymore, and then keep on forgiving. The number here isn't important. Jesus is not saying that we forgive 490 times and then we're free to do whatever we want to the offender. The person that can forgive 490 times is not really keeping track. The person that can forgive like this is modeling the forgiveness of God.

Think about it. How many times do you sin in a day? a week? a year? Yet every time we come to God and confess our sins to Him, He forgives us. He has even given us a promise that He will forgive us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness if we confess our sins to Him.

How forgiving are you?

Do you model God's forgiveness to your brothers and sisters in Christ? Do you model God's forgiveness to unbelievers? Do you have to think about it each time your brother asks for forgiveness? Or do you just forgive as soon as it is asked of you? "And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you." -Ephesians 4:32

If you are harboring bitterness and resentment towards a brother or sister in Christ or an unbeliever, you are grieving the Holy Spirit of God. Ephesians 4:30-32 – And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate one to another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

R. T. Kendall is the author of the book Total Forgiveness. In this book, he describes a time in his life where he was holding bitterness towards someone who had hurt him deeply. There came a time when he was explaining the situation to a close friend of his. R. T.’s friend gave him the greatest advice. The friend said, “R. T., you must release them, and you will be set free.” R. T. was in bondage and he didn’t even realize it.

We need to release the people that offend us. Only then can we be set free. Whatever the offense against you, you cannot hold the offender in bondage. All you end up doing is holding yourself in bondage. That is the destructive power of bitterness. Make your choice today; choose the peace and freedom that comes with the healing power of forgiveness.

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