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TEXT: Romans 12:17-21
SUBJECT: A Lesson in Forgiveness #7: How To
For the last couple of months we have been working our way through a series called, A Lesson in Forgiveness. The sermons-I believe-have been pretty thorough on the what and the why.
What you're to do is forgive everyone everything every time. The duty, if hard to implement, is easy to understand: forgive all wrongs and hold no grudges of any kind for any reason.
Why are you to forgive the people who have done you wrong? Many things can be said here, but the 'big ones' are (1) the Lord commands you to forgive them, (2) you cannot be saved unless you forgive them, and (3) God has forgiven you.
On this last point The Heidelberg Catechism is most helpful. Its 127 questions are divided up into three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude. You need to remember that you too are guilty when it comes to wronging others, that God (and others) have forgiven you, and that there's no better way of thanking them for what they've done for you than by doing the same for others-
Freely you have received,
I think our study has been fairly strong on the what and the why of forgiveness. It has been very weak, though, on the how.
How do you become a forgiving person? How do you keep hurt feelings from turning into grudges? How do you make the resentment go away-and not come back?
Before I offer any advice for living without bitterness, let me remind you: Living without bitterness does not depend on advice. It depends on union with Christ! Christians don't forgive better than others do because we are smarter or more motivated than they are, but because we are alive in Christ, while others are dead in their trespasses and sin.
This explains a couple of otherwise mystifying facts.
The first is why so many Christians don't forgive. They don't forgive for the simple reason: they are not Christians. Maybe they are in the church, but they are not 'in Christ' because if they were 'in Christ' they would forgive as they themselves want to be forgiven.
The second is why so many ignorant Christians do forgive. Think of the Early Church. Very few of its members owned a Bible, and the preaching they heard (for the most part) was polluted with allegories and other man-made interpretations. Yet these dear saints-so little read and so poorly taught-deeply impressed their worst critics, all of whom said-
These Christians, behold how they love one another!
What made them so famously loving and so willing to forgive each other? It wasn't hard study, great teaching, or 12-step programs. It was union with Christ, and what comes with it, the gift and leading of the Holy Spirit.
There is a place for 'helpful hints' in making us more forgiving persons, but the central place belongs-not to them-but to Christ. The stubbornly unforgiving person, therefore, does not better advice or more of it. What he needs is life. And remember-
He who has the Son has life,
He who does not have the Son,
Does not have life,
But the wrath of God abides on him.
Nothing I say, then, should be taken as a substitute for spiritual life, as a way of learning forgiveness without Christ.
It is Jesus Christ, therefore, who will make you a forgiving person-not my sermons, your efforts, or the prayers of the church. But, in His sovereignty and wisdom, the Lord will use these things to conform you to His image.
What, then, are the practical steps you can take to become a forgiver?
DO NOT RETALIATE
In the first place, when wronged, do not retaliate, v.17a-
Do not repay evil with evil.
The moment you strike back at the one who hurts you, you compound the problem and make repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation far harder than they need to be. For example:
If you call me stupid, making up will be fairly easy. All you've got to do is apologize and all I've got to do is forgive. When stupid is the only bad word spoken, making up is easy.
But what if stupid is not the only bad word spoken? What if I say, I may be stupid, but you're a fool!
Now to fix things between us, you have to apologize to me and I have to forgive you, then I have to apologize to you and you have to forgive me. The effort is already doubled. And more, because who wants to apologize to a man who just called him a fool, and as long as you don't say 'sorry' to me, I'm not going to say 'sorry' to you.
Suppose then you answer my fool by calling me a pervert? And then I hit back by calling your mother a tramp? Then you punch me in the nose and I knee you in the groin? The more we sin against each other, the hard it is to make things right.
Especially if we bring in other people by tattling! Then my five friends have to forgive you, your seven friends have to forgive me, my five have to forgive your seven, your seven have to forgive my five, on and on it goes! All because I had to get back at you for calling me stupid!
We are not angels. It is hard for sinners to forgive any sin. Why make it harder by sinning yourself and provoking others to sin in return? This is what revenge does: it enlarges and multiplies sin. If you want to be a forgiving person, therefore, keep the offenses as small and few as possible-and you don't do that by repaying evil with evil.
How do you become a forgiving person? By not retaliating. Is it possible to not hit back when you're hit hard? I point you to our Lord Jesus Christ of whom-Peter says-
When He was reviled,
He did not revile;
When He suffered,
He did not threaten.
Some people have so 'explained' the Sermon on the Mount that they have 'explained it away'. But our Lord took it quite literally-
Whoever slaps you on the right cheek,
Turn the other to him also.
He did this! With Almighty power at His fingertips, He did not retaliate. He was like a lamb led to the slaughter, and as a sheep is silent before its shearers, so He opened not His mouth.
Some people took Him for a weak and cowardly man, a man without self-respect or personal dignity. But is this how you Him? Was He a doormat? Or was He the Servant of the Lord?
A few seconds or minutes of self-control will make you a more forgiving person. Don't do or say things when you're hurt that will be hard to undo or unsay. Do not retaliate-this is the first step in walking the way of forgiveness.
SET A GOOD EXAMPLE
In the second place, if you want to become a forgiving person, set a good example (whether you feel like it or not), v.17b-
Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.
The King James and the New King James Version are a bit fuzzy here. What Paul is saying is, 'People are watching you when you're treated badly, and even then you have to represent Jesus Christ to them.'
How does a disciple of Christ respond to mistreatment? Does he yell and scream, sulk and pout, feel sorry for himself and tattle? If he does, I can't see any difference between one who follows Christ and one who doesn't. Disciples suffer, of course: disappointment disappoints them, betrayal crushes them. But when they suffer, they try not to sin, and when they do sin, they confess their sins, and try to make things right.
When unbelievers see Christians suffer with grace and pardon the ones who did them wrong, they wonder how they do it, and then they find out-
I can do all things through Christ.
If we go back to the Early Church, we'll find the most effective soul-winners were not missionaries or scholars or preachers: they were the martyrs, ordinary people who felt the flames and forgave the ones who lit them.
You are not your own! You belong to Jesus Christ, and as His servant, you are required to make Him look good to the world. Your feelings don't matter nearly as much as His reputation.
If you want to become a forgiving person, set a good example. If you feel like screaming, say no to your feelings; if you feel like walking out of your marriage, stay in it; if you feel like quitting the church because nobody said 'Good morning' to you last week, you become the one who says, 'Good morning'.
You're being watched. If only your good name were on the line, it wouldn't be so bad to lose it. But it is not your good name that will be dirtied if you don't forgive. It is the Lord's reputation that will take a beating. Even if you're otherwise a good person.
David was a fine man, who mostly feared and obeyed the Lord. But one afternoon, under the power of laziness and lust, he committed adultery. Then, hoping to get away with it, he had the woman's husband killed, and married the widow. He thought nobody knew what he did. But the Lord knew, and not only the Lord. Secret sins have a way of going public. When word got out what David did, what did people do? Make fun of him? Call for his impeachment? No. Nathan said to the king-
You have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme.
Not bad mouth David, but bad mouth the Lord. This is not what he intended, but it's what he did. And so do you when you flare up or pull back or otherwise behave badly when you're offended. And so, if you want to become a more forgiving person, set a good example, and remember you are setting an example. One way or the other.
DON'T BE PART OF THE PROBLEM
In the third place, if you want to be a forgiving person, don't be part of the problem, v.18-
As much as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men.
Some people cannot be forgiven because they won't let you forgive them. They're too proud to take responsibility for the wrong they've done or too pig-headed to apologize for it. When you try to make things right with them, they either start up the fight again or blow you off. While you mustn't hate or mistreat them, neither can you make things right with them-as long as they're in that state of mind. Some break-ups are this way: one person is totally guilty and the other is perfectly innocent. The innocent has done everything he can to make things right, but to no avail.
While some quarrels are one-sided, the great majority are not. Most of the time, there is plenty of blame to go around. Maybe one person is guiltier than the other, but 'guiltier' means the other person is guilty too. He didn't cause the problem, but he contributed to its cause and, when it happened, he only made it worse.
The 'innocent' person in a quarrel is not innocent until he has done everything he can to make up. This means, if you want to be a forgiving person, you've got to do.everything you can. You cannot make a person repent of his sins, but you can make it easier instead of harder.
How do you do that, make it easy to repent? I thought of nine things in no particular order: In the first place, you correct him gently and humbly, instead of harshly and proudly. In the second place, you give him time to see his sin instead of wringing an apology out of him. In the third place, you accept his apology, even if you're not sure he means it. In the fourth place, you're normal and warm to him instead of awkward and cold. In the fifth place, you're generous to him-if you're his wife you go to bed with him; if you're his friend you take him out to lunch. In the sixth place, if appropriate you admit your part in the quarrel. In the seventh place, you don't hold it over his head. In the eighth place, you're not suspicious and quick to think he's up to no good again. Finally, you don't act like a martyr or remind him of how loving and forgiving you are and how much he doesn't deserve you!
When you start doing these things (and more), you will be part of the solution and not part of the problem. When you are, you'll be the forgiving person God wants you to be.
LEAVE JUSTICE TO GOD
Up to now, I have not had one good word for revenge. This, however, is not entirely fair, for revenge-like other bad things-comes from a good thing. What it comes from is the Image of God which includes a desire for justice. If you hit me, I want to hit you back, not just because I'm mad, but because it was wrong of you to hit me and wrongdoers deserve to be punished.
The problem with taking justice into our own hands, however, is that.we are not just. What would you think of a judge who tried a man for hit-and-run driving when.it was the judge's own car that was hit? You would say it's not just because the judge is against the driver before the trial begins.
The same thing is true of us when we've been done wrong. Hurt and anger cloud our judgment. This means we're not qualified to punish the ones who sin against us, and the punishment we mete out to them is sure to be excessive.
So, what do we do, nothing? No, we do something, and what we do is leave it to God whose judgment is never wrong, never too lenient, and never too harsh, v.19-
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay', says the Lord.
One reason people don't forgive is because, if they do, the offender will 'get away with it'. This kind of thinking, though very common, is inexcusable. To say it is sub-Christian is too flattering. It's nothing short of atheism, for even the pagans believe the gods will judge the world!
If you believed in the Final Judgment, you could forgive the guilty, and let God sort things out in the end! If you want to be a more forgiving person, leave justice to God.
LOVE YOUR ENEMIES
The last thing the Apostle calls us to do is also the hardest. He is not satisfied with not retaliating, not making things worse, and not demanding justice now. He wants us to do something for the people who hurt us, v.20 tells us what-
If your enemy hungers,
If he thirsts, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heal coals
Of fire on his head.
Some people cannot leave their enemies alone, always brooding over their evil ways or lashing out at them. Others can leave them alone, writing them off as friends and not caring if they live or die.
Neither option is open to disciples of Christ. We're not permitted to mistreat the people who do us wrong or to ignore them. When possible, we have to stay in their lives, and do them good.
The enemy Paul has in mind is not a well-meaning friend who hurt your feelings with an inappropriate joke. If you go back to v.14, you'll see he's a persecutor, which context, probably means someone who has (1) excluded you from the family, (2) cost you your job, (3) kicked you out of the synagogue, and (4) called the cops on you.
He's not an imperfect friend; he's a real enemy.
When he's in need, you don't smirk and say, He's finally getting what he deserves. You help him. And you don't help him in a showy way, striking a saintly pose, calling attention to yourself and how undeserving he is of your rich and tender mercies! You help him as if he were not your enemy.
If this sounds extreme, it is. But so is the love of God, which reaches down-not only to good and just-but also to the evil, the unjust, and the unthankful.
Someone will say, 'How can I be so good to a person I do not love?' I answer: Be good to him until you do love him. If this takes till the Second Coming of Christ, your time will be well-spent.
SUMMARY AND HOPE
How do you become a more forgiving person? You don't retaliate, you set a good example, you become part of the solution, you leave justice to God, and you love and serve the people who did you wrong.
Will these things be easy to do? No they won't be easy. In fact, they'll feel something like a cross. But this is our calling and our privilege, to do the work of Christ after Him, and to do it in hope.
Your godliness will not help everyone; some will be hardened by it, in fact. But others will be blessed. Paul says so near the end of the chapter, first in v.20, and then in v.21.
By loving your enemies, you will-
Heap coals of fire on their heads.
This means your good deeds will make them feel ashamed of themselves, and by God's grace, repent. Peter puts a particular spin on this, writing to believing women whose husband don't know the Lord. It would be easy to leave the man and find a good Christian husband, or to pummel the man with Bible verses, or proudly defy his every wish because, I ought to obey God rather than man! But Peter doesn't tell the dear ladies to do these things. Instead, he says-
Likewise you wives, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they without the word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct coupled with [respect].
The way to win your husband to Christ, or if he's a Christian, to a closer walk with Christ, is not to pick him apart or sick the pastor on him or blackmail him into doing what you want, but to live a godly life, which includes respecting and obeying your husband.
Paul sums up his teaching in v.21, which speaks for itself-
Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.
Do you need to forgive someone? If you haven't forgiven someone who did you wrong, you need to, even if what he did was really bad, and hurt your more deeply than words can say.
I sympathize with you-I really do. For I, too, have been hurt deeply by people whom I thought loved me. The hurt hurts. But it must not be used to justify a grudge. Grudges cannot be justified. By anyone for anything.
So why don't you let go of it? Why don't you give it to Christ? He will take it away from you. And then He will heal you of its hurt. Maybe not in a day, but in His own good time. You don't have to live this way; there is a way out. But it's not your way or my way or the way you read in books or hear on TV. It is God's way out! It is the way of forgiveness.
Please take it. Please.
For Christ's sake. Amen.
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