May 2, 2011

Urban Legends: Forgiveness Myths

Forgiveness is a tricky and difficult subject. We love a good story about forgiveness. We know the importance of forgiving others. We know a lack of forgiveness only hurts us. But knowing these things doesn’t make forgiveness any easier to do. And it forgiveness isn’t difficult enough, when we start adding a few of today’s forgiveness myths it becomes even more difficult; maybe even impossible!

C.S. Lewis recognizes the difficulty of forgiveness when he writes, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”

This morning we are going to bust a few myths about forgiveness, but I am probably not going to make it any easier for us to forgive others. We are just going to realign our understanding of forgiveness so that forgiving others is only extremely difficult and not totally impossible.

Before we can get to the myths it is important for us to too look at one very important concept:

Forgiveness is important because our lack of forgiveness shuts us off from God’s forgiveness.

Following the Lord’s Prayer and the prayer that God forgive us as we forgive others, Jesus feels it necessary to pay special attention to the part on forgiveness. Matthew 6:14-15 says, “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.”

For most of us this is a difficult passage. “What do you mean my being forgiven is predicated on my willingness to forgive others? What do you mean God CAN’T forgive us?” If we can’t forgive then we cannot understand and receive forgiveness.

Everybody take your right hand and ball it up into a fist. Now turn to your neighbor, and with your fist still balled up, attempt to shake their hand. It can’t be done. When we close our hands to our neighbors and refuse to forgive...they do not magically open to receive God’s forgiveness when we turn to Him.

When we experience the loving forgiveness of God...when we really experience it...we understand forgiveness and are then able to forgive others. When we close ourselves off and refuse to forgive others...we can’t be open to receive God’s forgiveness.

This verse isn’t a threat. It is a statement on the relational position of our hearts. When we stand in a defensive position, unwilling to forgive others, then we have neither received nor understood God’s forgiveness. But when we rightly understand what God has forgiven in us and what causes hateful, mean actions in others, then we realize that forgiving others is necessary to our receiving God’s forgiveness.

Forgiveness, like many things, is an act of the will and an act of obedience. We can’t wait to forgive until we feel like forgiving. There may be a cooling period...some time to let the anger and hurt subside, but if we wait until we “feel” like forgiving we will never forgive anyone. No, instead we must forgive until we have forgiven.

Anne Lamott says, “...not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” (Traveling Mercies). Failure to forgive is like a cancer to our souls; slowly eating at us until our humanity dies. God’s call to forgive is not meant as impossible command for us to labor under, but rather as a life-giving opportunity to rediscover genuine humanity and relationships. Forgiving means we let go...and each of the following myths helps us better forgiveness.

So with that in mind let’s look at our first myth:

Myth: Forgiving means excusing the person’s behavior.

Forgiveness is anything but excusing a person’s behavior. If forgiving meant we excused the person’s behavior, then forgiveness would be meaningless. It would reduce the offence to nothing of consequence. So when someone says, “Just let it go!” We know they don’t really understand the purpose or power of forgiveness...because true forgiveness costs something. Something has to be sacrificed in order for forgiveness to take place. If we can just let it go then the wrongful action wasn’t really all that wrong.

But for real forgiveness to take place, we must name the sin and then make the necessary sacrifice. God’s forgiveness is the model we use. God doesn’t let us off the hook. He doesn’t simply wave a magic wand and all our sins, it cost Him something. And it costs Him while we were still wrapped up in our sinfulness.

Romans 5:6-8, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

We were ungodly, alienated from Him...we didn’t want His salvation, and He came anyway. His sacrifice was the ultimate sacrifice that paid a debt so we could receive salvation. It didn’t let us off the hook. It didn’t excuse our actions or say they didn’t really they mattered because they required a sacrifice that cost Jesus His life.

When people hurt us, use us, abuse us...we don’t just let it go. Forgiveness does not mean we are letting them off the hook or excusing their means we are naming their wrong as wrong and then making the sacrifice to forgive them anyway.

And this myth is very closely related to our next one...

Myth: Forgiving means not holding them accountable.

Part of what we are sacrificing is our right to exact the revenge this person’s actions deserve. It is giving up our right to be that person that gets to get even, but it does not mean they will not be held accountable for their actions.

That is hard...letting go. We like the idea of revenge. I like the part of the movie Man on Fire where Denzel Washington says, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Because I know that He is about to make all those bad guys pay for what they did. We think that getting even will somehow make the pain go away or at least make us feel better...but ultimately it won’t because we cannot bring the revenge, the punishment that their sin actually deserves; only God can do that.

Romans 12:17-21 says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

When we release our perceived rights to get even, we are saying, “God, I trust you to take care of the situation. I trust that you will either punish the wicked or redeem the situation.” But as long as you and I are try to be the agent of vengeance...we are actually standing in the way of God’s work both in our life and in that person’s life.

There is another important idea in that passage though. Tucked away in that passage is this wonderful and difficult thought that through our acts of forgiveness and kindness even our enemies can be brought to redemption. It says that we can overcome evil with good! We want to overcome evil with force, or retaliation, or anything other than kindness, but God’s Kingdom calls us to another way of living.

Matthew 5:39 says, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” For the longest time I took this to mean that you kept allowing them to do it. If they hit you on one cheek, you passively turned the other cheek to allow them to strike you again. But this isn’t something passive...I have come to call this aggressive reconciliation. In this culture friends greeted friends with a kiss. They would lean in and kiss the side of the cheek. Turning your cheek toward someone was an act of friendship. When one friend offended another most would turn their cheek away. Jesus is saying that even after an offence, continue to offer the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In our culture we shake hands as a greeting. If Jesus were speaking to us he would probably say, “If someone slaps you, keep extending you hand in forgiveness.” What happens if they keep doing it? We are going to talk about that in two ways here in just a moment.

One important side note must be made before we move on...freeing someone from our desire for vengeance and turning them over to God’s judgment does not mean their actions should go unpunished in a system of law. There are some who mistakenly believe that turning vengeance over to God means they must not press charges, but there are abuses and sins that are so egregious they must be punish according to the law. But even in stating this, we recognize that the law is not enough...only God’s vengeance will suffice and bring the true judgment the sin deserves.

Only when we give the situation into God’s hands can the wrong be truly judged, forgiven, and redeemed.

Our next myth is another popular one...

Myth: Forgiving means allowing the offender back into our lives.

Forgiveness often means reconciling with the person who has offended us, and should result in our being able to have them in our lives, but not always. We are called...even commanded to forgive, but there comes a point when a person’s offence is so bad or they will do it so frequently that we must not allow them back into our lives.

Proverbs 26:11, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.” And there are some people who’s pain is so bad and their behaviors so ingrained they can not or will not break free...and like a dog returning to it’s vomit this person will return time and again to their hurtful actions. They will inflict harm on those around them over and over and over again.

This isn’t to say they are unsavable or there is no hope for God to intervene and transform their hearts...but there is no real hope for you to be that redeeming agent in their lives because you are too close. You have become the object of their hurtful behavior. It will take someone else from the outside.

Our sins have consequences, and sometimes the offence, even after forgiveness, is so bad that it has lifelong consequences. Matthew 10:16 says we should be as “innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents.” And sometimes after you have forgiven the person, being “as shrewd as serpents,” you know they will continue their offenses against you and you no longer allow them in your life.

Forgiveness is not a carte blanche right for that person to continue doing wrong to you. When we forgive we are acknowledging the serious nature of the offence against us, but then we are releasing our rights to vengeance and calling God to hold them responsible and to redeem the situation. We are not allowing their actions to hold us in bondage, and sometimes that means not allowing the action to happen to us again.

This leads us to the most popular of the forgiveness myths...

Myth: Forgiving means forgetting.

This idea possibly comes from verses like Hebrews 10:17 in which God says, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” and again in Jeremiah 31:34 where God says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Because these verses says that God will “remember our sins no more” many have made the assumption that our forgiveness is only complete when we “forgive and forget.”

The major problem here is an interpretation issue between the Hebraic use of the word “remember” and our modern-day usage of the word.

The word “remember” is used with God as the subject 73 times in the Old Testament alone. God “remembers” Noah in the ark, He remembers his promise to Abraham, He remembers the Israelite people in Egypt, and then the verse in Jeremiah where God will “remember their sins no more.” None of these instances of remembering have anything to do with God having forgotten and then suddenly, poof, they come into his mind.

The word we translate as “remember” does not mean that God has forgotten them and then they suddenly enter His mind one day. He is God. God does not forget. He is not some kind of Divine amnesiac like Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates forgetting what is in the past. God remembers everything.

So what does this idea of God “remembering” our sin no more mean? The word would better be translated as “to be mindful of” or “to take action toward.” What this means is that when God “forgets” our sins He no longer uses them as evidence of our rebellion. When we stand before Him in judgment He will not call our lay them on the evidence table in order to condemn us.

This is a much more powerful statement than God just forgetting them as though wiped from His memory. This means that God knows we are fallen and sinful, and yet does not hold our past failure against us. He has the evidence in His briefcase that could put us away forever, and because of what Jesus has done on our behalf He will act mercifully toward us.

For us, forgiving does not mean we forget. It means we remember what the person has done and release them anyway. Forgetting is not a requirement of forgiveness. In fact, remembering may be God’s way of helping us to learn forgiveness...

Because forgiveness is not a “one and done” experience.

Matthew 18:21-22, "Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Jesus has just finished telling His disciples how to handle things when someone sins against them, and Peter comes to Jesus with a valid question. “How many times am I expected to forgive this person who has wronged me?” Peter wants to clarify to what extent Jesus is asking them to forgive. In the Hebraic culture, the number 7 represented the ultimate amount; the number of wholeness and completeness. Peter says, “I’m willing to go to the ultimate in forgiveness of my neighbor!” And Jesus responds by saying, “Your ultimate is no where close to my ultimate!”

Some translations say “seventy times seven.” The point being that Jesus is calling us to over-abundance of forgiveness toward those who wrong us.

Why seventy-times seven? Why such a great amount of forgiveness? Does Jesus really expect me to let this person keep sinning against me? No. We are not expected to be someones whipping post and we are not expected to allow them to keep wronging us.

In the passage right before this Jesus tells the disciples how to handle things when people sin against them, and then in Verse 17 He says, “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Jesus still expects forgiveness, but that certainly doesn’t mean we continue to endure that person’s actions.

Jesus says to forgive seventy-seven times because each time the memory of that person’s actions come to mind...we must forgive all over again. Each time you relive those offense, when they come to mind, you must forgive them again.


So forgiving means being free. Free from bitterness, free from the need to bring vengeance, freedom from the burdens we carry, and the freedom to not experience that offence from that person again.

We are not under some false idea that it is easy. True forgiveness is never easy because the offences are never trivial. But we serve a wonderful and merciful God that leads the way in showing forgiveness. He makes the bold claim that no matter how much you have been offended by others...He has been far more offended by your sin and rebellion to Him...and in response to His great forgiveness you can forgive others.

We joke about using the exercise equipment in the back for penance. And some people who have a Roman Catholic background have either bad memories of penance or see them as nonsensical. Say this many “Hail Marys” and this many “Our Fathers.” But penance, as originally intended was meant to do something else in the life of the person doing it.

In the movie The Mission, Robert De Niro plays slave-trader Rodrigo Medoza who undergoes an amazing transformation of the heart. The movie begins with Mendoza fighting a battle against Jesuit priests who are seeking to care for the people of a South America and protect them from Medoza’s slave trade expeditions. Along the way Mendoza has a conversion experience, and struggles to find forgiveness. Father Gabriel assigns him an act of penance having Mendoza drag his armor, symbolizing his old life, up and down the cliffs he used to enter and exit the area. He does this day after day after day until he discovers forgiveness. This scene is a powerful symbol of what it means to forgive and be forgiven.

This morning some of us may have someone to forgive. I know this week, I was given a strong reminder of forgiveness by a person that has been painful for me to deal with. Over and over again...whether in their personality or what it is...I am always being hurt by this person, and each time I have to work through the anger and pain and get to a place where I forgive them and let it go.

There are people in your life whom you need to forgive. Stop carrying that burden around. Stop allowing them to hurt you over and over again...the way to stop that hurt is to forgive and allow God to assume the responsibility for judgment and vengeance and redemption in that person.

You, however, are invited to forgive. Close your eyes for a moment. If you need to forgive someone this morning I want you to visualize that person in your mind. Now imaging laying a backpack down at their feet with all the hurts and pains they have caused you through the years. Say to them, “I forgive you. These hurts are yours!”

Forgiveness is extremely difficult as it is without the lies and half-truths. Help us to forgive others out of the forgiveness you have given us. Give us the strength to forgive when we feel we can’t, and give us your forgiveness because we need it. We need your grace and strength in order to forgive. Help us to forgive those who have offended and hurt us. This morning we say, “I forgive them! I release them into your hands.” Bring you judgement and your redemption; vengeance is yours not mind. I release them to you.

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