Over the past few months, as we've been traveling around North America and meeting with hundreds of people, I've noticed a great hunger in people's hearts to know more about the subject of forgiveness. This is the topic of my next book. Rather than hoarding this information to myself until I'm ready to publish, I've now decided to share some excerpts from my current work with you. I plan to make available a series of blog posts on this subject, and hope it will be helpful in your own spiritual journey.
When I have been hurt, sometimes I just want to curl up into a ball with my pain. It's one thing to be hurt unintentionally, or by someone with a mental illness. In some ways, those hurts are easier to forgive. We can understand the "why" more easily, and this helps us to step out of our own pain and into the other person's shoes.
But what about intentional, malevolent hurts? What about hurts that are founded on others' pride and ambitions? What if we've been hurt—betrayed—by people who should have known better? Friends? Family? Christians we've opened our hearts to?
What about those hurts that are so deep and traitorous that our worlds are rocked to their very foundations? What about those hurts that shatter our dreams, our identities? They mean our world will never be the same. What do we do when pure evil leaves only destruction and desolation in its path?
There are points in our lives when we come to a crossroads; when our next decision will determine the course of the rest of our life. I've had several of those in my life. Most of them have come during painful seasons.
Make no mistake: when we encounter deep wounds like these, we are more often than not at a crossroads. We have a choice to make: between forgiveness and justice, vengeance and reconciliation.
The Bible talks about all of these topics. In fact, in different places it recommends each of these courses of action. I'm sure that each of us have heard preachers and politicians advocating for these different approaches. But they are, in some ways, contradictory. What should we Christians do, when we deeply desire to follow Jesus, no matter where He leads?
The Bible is divided into two parts, as is human history: before and after Christ. That's because the world changed when Jesus entered it. Before Him, the only way humans could approach God was through a bloody and complex sacrificial system. After Him, often children can understand the kingdom of God better than adults.
Jesus' teachings turned the world upside down, stood "common sense" on its head, and flushed out hypocrisy.
So, followers of Jesus must always keep in mind His teachings, and the world-change that they brought, when looking to the scriptures for guidance in living our lives for Him. Jesus is the One who ties it all together: the old and the new covenant, the law and the prophets, the kingdom of God that is both coming and now here.
Jesus Himself said, "All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” (Matthew 11:27)
What does this mean?
We, as humans, make mistakes in expressing ourselves all the time. We can sometimes have a lot of trouble communicating with one another, and misunderstandings are unfortunately common. Humans have trouble interacting with, and understanding, other humans. How much more easy it is for us to misinterpret and misunderstand Someone who is not human—whose thoughts are so far beyond ours that He says,
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways...
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts."
How can we possibly understand—and not misinterpret—God? The answer is Jesus. As the Son of God, He intimately knows the Father in a way that we never can.
In His ministry, Jesus taught His disciples many things about how to lead lives that please and honour God. One of the things He taught them was how to pray. Matthew 6:9-13 (NIV) records the sample prayer that Jesus gave His disciples.
“This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’"
What does this have to do with forgiveness?
Well, in this prayer we're asking God to forgive us for our sins. That seems pretty simple and self-explanatory. Asking God to forgive our sins is a staple of every Christian's life. But there's something else here—something that isn't a staple of every Christian's life. It isn't, but it should be.
Let's read verse 12 again. Remember, this is the prayer that we should be praying to God.
"And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors."
Did Jesus really just say that?
In case we're in any doubt, Jesus continues teaching after He's finished the sample prayer: "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 6:14-15)
Jesus makes the situation abundantly clear: our forgiveness of others is linked to God's forgiveness of us.
Let that sink in for a moment. We cannot afford to misunderstand this. The repercussions are too huge.
If we are unwilling to forgive others, God will not forgive us.
In the words of Charles Spurgeon, “Unless you have forgiven others, you read your own death-warrant when you repeat the Lord’s Prayer.” *
Now that we’ve set the stage for the importance of forgiveness, next time we’ll examine what forgiveness actually is, and what it is not.
* Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 24 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1969).