In the previous lesson we looked at five myths about forgiveness that many people, sadly, embrace as truth. We now need to look at what forgiveness actually is. What does it mean and how do we do it?
The apostle Paul said in our text that we are to forgive “as” the Lord has forgiven us (Col. 3:13b; cf. Eph. 4:32). The word “as” points to two things. We are to forgive “because” God forgave us. But we are also to forgive “as” or “like” or “in the same manner” that he forgave us. So, how did God in Christ forgive us? This leads us to the five truths about forgiveness.
(1) God in Christ forgave us by absorbing in himself the destructive and painful consequences of our sin against him.
Jackie Pullinger is a missionary and church-planter in Hong Kong whose remarkable life story is told in her autobiography, “Chasing the Dragon” (Get it! Read it!). One particular incident occurred in the early years of Jackie’s ministry that illustrates the point I’m making here. A young man named Ah Ping had joined the Triads (gangs that controlled crime in Hong Kong) when he was only twelve years old. He soon came to be supported financially by a fourteen-year-old prostitute. When Jackie showed up and began to reach out in mercy and kindness to Ah Ping and his associates, he told her in no uncertain terms: “You’d better go. Just get out of here. We’re no good. Go find some people who will appreciate what you’re doing and be grateful for your kindness. We will only hurt you and exploit you and kick you around. Why do you stay? Why do you care?” Said Jackie, “I stay because that’s what Jesus did for me. I didn’t want him either. But he didn’t wait until I got good and wanted him. He died for me while I was his hateful enemy. He loved me and forgave me. He loves you, too.”
“No way,” shouted Ah Ping. “Nobody could love us like that. We rape and fight and steal and stab. Nobody could love us.” She explained how Jesus didn’t love what they did, but that he still loved sinners and was willing to forgive them. Ah Ping was shattered. He sat down on the street corner and received Christ as his savior. Not long after his conversion, Ah Ping was attacked by a gang of youths and was beaten mercilessly with bats. When his friends vowed revenge, Ah Ping said “No. I’m a Christian now and I don’t want you to fight back.”
What transformed Ah Ping? What accounted for his readiness to forgive his enemies? It was his realization that Jesus Christ had absorbed in himself the consequences of Ah Ping’s sins.
So what is forgiveness? It is deciding to live with the painful consequences of another person’s sin. You are going to have to live with it anyway, so you might as well do it without the bitterness and rancor and hatred that threaten to destroy your soul.
(2) God forgave us in Christ by canceling the debt we owed him. That is to say, we are no longer held liable for our sins or in any way made to pay for them.
The way we cancel the debt of one who has sinned against us is by promising not to bring it up to the offender, to others, or to ourselves. We joyfully resolve never to throw the sin back into the face of the one who committed it. We promise never to hold it over their head, using it to manipulate and shame them. And we promise never to bring it up to others in an attempt to justify ourselves or to undermine their reputation. And lastly, we promise never to bring it up to ourselves as grounds for self-pity or to justify our resentment of the person who hurt us.
(3) Forgiving others as God has forgiven us means we resolve to revoke revenge.
As noted earlier, this doesn’t mean you cease desiring that justice be served. It does mean you refuse, by God’s grace, to let the anger and pain energize an agenda to exact payment from that person, whether that payment be emotional, relational, physical, or financial. It also means you refuse to use your past suffering to justify present sin.
(4) Forgiving others as God has forgiven us means that we determine to do good to them rather than evil. Read especially Romans 12:17-21.
This may entail doing simple acts of kindness, like greeting them warmly, from the heart, or providing a meal when they are sick, or other routine acts of compassion or mercy. What will it accomplish? It will both surprise and shame them (in a redemptive way).
Usually a person deliberately sins against you with the expectation that you will respond in like fashion. If you do, it justifies in their mind their initial sin against you. The last thing they expect is sustained kindness and strength. Thus when evil is met with goodness it disarms them; they are stunned with incredulity. “Goodness,” writes Dan Allender, “breaks the spell the enemy tries to cast and renders him powerless” (“Bold Love”). Hopefully, this will open a door in your relationship that will lead to a genuine life change.
Responding this way also shames him. I’m not talking about a bad sense of shame, as if you are seeking to humiliate him. Rather, your hope is to expose his heart’s condition, to lay bare his motivation, and to enable him to see the wickedness of his deed. Responding to evil with good compels the offender to look at himself rather than at you. When the light of your kindness shines back in the face of his darkness, the latter is exposed for being what it really is. The shame he feels on being “found out” will either harden or soften his heart (depending on how he/she chooses to respond). [I highly recommend Allender’s book, “Bold Love,” for insights on this theme.]
(5) God forgave us in Christ by reconciling us to himself, by restoring the relationship that our sin had shattered.
Often we avoid forgiveness because we want to avoid conflict. Going to the offender and saying, “I forgive you,” carries the potential for an explosion. They may even deny having sinned against us. But true forgiveness pursues relationship and restoration. True forgiveness is not satisfied with simply canceling the debt. It longs to love again.
It’s important to remember two things here. First, the offending person may refuse your overtures of kindness and resist any efforts on your part to reconcile. But that’s ultimately out of your control. As Paul said in Romans 12:18, your responsibility is to do whatever you can within your power to be at peace. If they refuse to be at peace with you, the fault is theirs. You will at least have fulfilled your responsibility before God.
Second, often times when the reconciliation or restoration is successful, the relationship never fully returns to what it was before the offense was committed. Trust and confidence and delight in another person take a long time to fully recover from a serious sin, and sometimes never fully recover at all. But even if it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean you haven’t fully forgiven them.
In conclusion, none of this will make sense to someone who has not experienced and received and tasted the joy of the forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus. If we do not forgive as the Scriptures command, perhaps the problem is with our ignorance of what God has done for us in Christ. That is why the key to forgiveness is the cross.
Forgiven, therefore forgiving,