If I look back at my new life with Jesus, the periods where my growth stagnated or I felt stuck almost always were periods where I was captive to bitterness in my heart toward others. I think all of us, if we are honest, can recall a time where we have experienced significant pain at the hands of our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we find ourselves in these situations, forgiveness seems far less gratifying than personal justice or writing relationships off.
The problem with personal justice and writing off relationships is that those options will stunt our growth and potentially act as a cancer to the community of God’s people. In Colossians 3 Paul talks about the essential nature of forgiveness in fulfilling our created purpose of magnifying Jesus as part of the community of God. In verse 9 Paul encourages believers take off their old self, their old identity and the attitudes and behavior associated with their old identity. He goes on in vv. 10-11 to say that we are to put on or assume our new identity in Jesus through an ongoing process of renewal or transformation as we grow in our knowledge of Jesus and the Spirit works to transform us internally. The former things that would identify one apart from Jesus such as nationality, religion, pedigree, and station in life are no longer who we are. We are now worth a Son to God and it is Jesus that is our identifier and our love for Him that units us.
Paul goes on to tell us in vv. 12-13 what new identity looks like in community – transformed hearts and attitudes. Among those attitudes is humility which, if Jesus is the center of the universe rather than ourselves, frees us up to bear with one another or endure patiently with one another. We endure through forgiveness. The basis for that forgiveness is the fact that we have been forgiven. What Paul is saying is, “How can we reflect the mercy and forgiveness of our Lord and Savior by withholding mercy and forgiveness from our brothers and sisters in Christ?”
We endure through forgiveness.
When we withhold forgiveness, a tacit arrogance must exist in our hearts. It would serve us well in those moments to remember the words of Paul in Eph. 2:8-9 that our salvation is a free gift from God. His forgiveness cannot be earned and it certainly is not deserved. We are not so holy that God is lucky to have us and we should not withhold forgiveness from those we foolishly deem less holy than ourselves. Our ability to forgive impacts the community’s ability to reflect Jesus.
When do we forgive?
We live in a culture that leaves its imprint on our hearts. In this culture, closure seems to be the prerequisite for forgiveness. Certainly, there are situations where we must forgive that afford more opportunity for forgiveness than others. For instance, in Luke 17:3-4 Jesus told us that we are to forgive and restore relationship with our brother when they repent or express sincere regret and a desire to change. Likewise, in 1 John 1:9 John writes that when we confess our sins or agree with God regarding our sin He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of our unrighteousness. We can be expected to do no less when our brother confesses or agrees with us regarding his sins against us.
These situations seem to be those that offer some closure and make it easier to forgive, but what about when those things are not present. What do we do then? In Matt. 18:21-22 Jesus responded to Peter’s question about how often we are to forgive our brother when they sin against us. His response is that we do not forgive seven times, but rather seventy times seven. In other words, we are to forgive as often as we are sinned against whether forgiveness is asked for or not. The key here is that when sincere regret and agreement exist, relationship can be restored. Where these things are absent, we must temper our forgiveness with wisdom. While we forgive in the same sense that God has forgiven us, we cannot restore relationship until repentance exists.
In truth, this is a reflection of our relationship with the Lord. We continue as believers to ask God for forgiveness on a daily basis. Is our standing before Him in jeopardy each day? The answer is no. However, if we are not in agreement with God regarding our sin and sincere in our desire to change direction, then our growth and our relationship with Him will stagnate. Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, said in the first of his 95 thesis that started the German Reformation that the whole of the Christian life is one of repentance.
How do we forgive?
Forgiveness is not a switch that we flip one time and our hearts are all set. It is a process that we continually work through. This process is a four-step process.
- 1 Peter 4:8 – The first step is to determine if love can cover the sin. In other words, can I overlook the offense and not have an affect on our relationship?
- Matt. 18:15 – The second step when we can’t cover sin with love or in order to love our brother we need to point out there sin so they can grow is to meet with them one on one and address the point of conflict in your relationship.
- Matt. 18:16 – The third step when our brother will not here what we have to say is to have one or two faithful and trustworthy believers accompany us so that they can agree with that sin and serve as witnesses to the attempt to restore your brother who has sinned against you.
- Matt. 18:17 – When all else fails, we ask church leadership to get involved.
The key to all this is not to receive justice or closure, but as Jesus said in Matt. 18:15 to gain a brother. Restoration of relationship should always be our goal. Going into this process of forgiveness, the first thing that we should ask the Lord is to change our hearts from a desire to get retribution to an attitude of love and a desire to restore relationship. The process of forgiveness is to allow ourselves to cover sins with love and love each other enough to be honest when it can’t.
Why does it matter if we forgive?
In Luke 7:36-50 Jesus is invited to dinner at a Pharisee’s house. While He is there, a woman of the city who has significant sin in her life comes to the house when she hears Jesus is there. She proceeds to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. She anointed his feet with expensive anointment and continually kisses the feet of Jesus. When the Pharisees see this, they are astounded that Jesus would let her even touch him.
Jesus responds to their attitudes with an account of a money lender that forgives the debt of two men, one owing 50 denarii and the other 500 denarii. Jesus asked them which they thought would love the moneylender more. Of course, they answered the one with the greater debt. Jesus affirmed their answer and called them out for not responding to Him the same way woman of the city had. Jesus said that her sins were many and she loved much and those whose sin were little loved little. Of course, the Pharisees were in as much need for forgiveness as the woman, but Jesus spoke of their hearts or the hearts of anyone that in truth doubts their need of forgiveness. When we struggle to forgive, what is at stake is the quality of our relationship with Jesus. If we allow ourselves to believe we are holier than others or in less need of forgiveness from Jesus, we will lack in love. We must be vigilant to remain as humble as that woman from the city. We must remain at the feet of Jesus broken over our sins in such a way that our love for Him overflows into every relationship God blesses us with. Our ability to love others exposes our true heart for Jesus.
- Are there relationships in your life right now where you have taken the position of the Pharisees and you have cut others off because they are not as holy as you?
- How can you assume the same disposition as the woman of the city toward Jesus?
- What will it look like for your love of Jesus to overflow and cover the sins of someone in your life?
- Where there are broken relationships in your life are you looking for justice or restoration?
Our Altamont campus is currently going through the series One Another: Magnifying Jesus in Community.
Join us for our Sunday services @ 10am at our Altamont campus in Livermore (6749 Southfront Rd. Livermore 94551)