After teaching the disciples how to pray--including the petition, “...forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”--Jesus says in Matthew 6:14-15: “... 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.”
The God we know in Jesus is in the forgiving business. That’s why John the Baptist said of Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus is the ultimate sacrificial lamb. He offered Himself to take away the power of sin over our lives “once and for all.” Jesus’ self-sacrifice and our faith in Jesus ensures that we’re set free to live with God for eternity, even now in the messiness of this life. The forgiveness of God offered in Jesus is great news. But Jesus says that in order to claim the Father’s forgiveness, we need to be forgiving. If we don’t forgive, Jesus tells us, “your Father will not forgive your sins.”
The word that Jesus uses that we translate as forgive is, in the Greek in which Matthew rendered the Lord’s Prayer, a form of the word aphiemi. It’s a verb that literally means to send away from, or release, even divorce or separate from. Psalm 103:12 conveys the picture of forgiveness as God sending our sins far from us, when it says: “...as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” When Jesus brings God’s forgiveness to the repentant believer, we are released, set free, and our sins are sent packing! “The wages of sin is death,” Romans 6:23 says, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
When we’re forgiven through Christ, the boulder of sin that prevents us from claiming the life Jesus died and rose to give us is removed from our path. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” [Jesus asked the woman caught in adultery.] “No one, sir,” she said.“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” That woman was released from the debt she owed to God for her sin and her sins were sent away. She could walk with God. That’s what forgiveness lets us do.
But forgiveness is hard. The first thing that makes forgiveness hard is that we have to admit that, whether in our thinking or in our actions, we’re in the wrong. Yet, if we’re to receive forgiveness, we have to be open to confessing our sin. One of the most courageous prayers in the Bible is Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
When I listened to the first drafts of Georgeann’s, Nancy’s, and Dawn’s presentations for this weekend, I urged them to be unafraid to share what they felt comfortable in sharing as they spoke with you. It’s when we see each others’ hearts and lives honestly and appropriately shared, that the message of Christ can be best transmitted between people. So, I’m going to follow my own advice and make a complete fool of myself on this subject of forgiveness.
I write songs...or more accurately, mostly I write parts of songs, most of them never getting completely finished. I started writing songs when I was eight years old after I'd watched The Al Jolson Story and realized for the first time that songs didn't just appear. People actually wrote them. I thought, "That's a good job." So, I went to my bed room, sprawled out on the floor, and wrote my first song. It was only later that I realized that it was written to the tune of The Daring Man on the Flying Trapeze. But it got the ball rolling. I can't not write songs, probably coming up with an average of three song ideas a day. They come to me as I experience life and as I observe the lives of others.
A few years back, I became conscious of a sin into which I’d fallen (it’s amazing how long we can live in denial about our sins, isn’t it?). I confessed. And then, a song came to me. Here's the first verse. (And the embarrassing and vulnerable part.):
What I did was wrongI once sat through an evening with an agnostic man. We talked late into the night. He unfolded a lifetime of regrets, exposing his sins to me.
And there isn’t any way I can make it seem that it was right
Which is why I try avoiding detection in Your light.
It’s a foolish game that I try to play
Running from You see me anyway.
What I did was wrong.
As I was getting ready to leave, he smiled and told me, “They say that confession is good for the soul. I guess it is.” I told him that yes, confession can be cleansing. But unless we let Jesus take away the garbage, our sin will always be with us.
Forgiveness comes when we let Jesus take our sins away. That’s when we’re released. Many people realize that they’ve sinned; but they’re never forgiven because they don’t give it to the Savior Who wants to nail our sins to the cross and kill off their power over us forever.
And that leads to another song fragment. A friend committed a damaging sin and had no sense of regret for it. On the night we learned of it, I drove to lead a Bible study, thinking about what I would say to my friend had he not cut off contact with all us. This song started to come to me:
Everybody falls off their pedestals and tumbles to the ground
And there’s no point in feigning strength when we all have fallen down
But when I’m made weak
By the things that I seek
I know someone who’s strong
I lift up a prayer
And I know that He’s there
And somehow I can carry on.
Through the joy and through the painWhat I wanted to tell my friend is, “Don’t run from God! Don’t run from those who come to you in the name of God. There may be some hard words that need to be heard. There may be some repentance and an honest dealing with your faults. But Jesus shows that God wants what’s best for you. God wants to forgive you and give you a fresh start.” I never got to tell him any of that.
Through all the driving rain
In the deep heart of a bleak night
I know my Lord is there
Through the laughter and the tears
Through all the raging years
When all my hope has left sight
I know my Lord is there.
So, forgiveness is hard, first of all because we have to admit that we’re wrong (we have to be vulnerable) and secondly, because it entails surrender to God, the only way we’re to experience the truth that God loves us and is always there for us!
But to me above all, it’s Jesus’ implacable demand that we forgive, that we lay down our demands that others pay up on the debts that they owe to us in order to receive God’s forgiveness, is what makes forgiveness so hard.
When we hear or read about this demand, we seem to automatically think of our need to forgive other people: the people who have wronged us, hurt us, or harmed us. But I think that there are two others apart from other people we must forgive in order to be set free by God’s forgiveness.
The first is this. We must forgive God.
The truth, of course, is that God never wrongs us. Even when He disciplines us or refuses to give us what we want, God doesn’t wrong us.
In Hebrews 12:7-8, we’re told to, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.”
In other words, whatever bad we experience in this world doesn’t come from God’s hand, but if we will go through it clutching God’s hand, our faith will grow, our character will grow. We will be transformed into the image of the Savior Who died and rose for us.
Besides, as someone has said, when we see that God is all we have, we come to realize that God is all we need.
When Paul asked God to remove that mysterious thorn in his flesh, God turned him down three times and finally told Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) When we’re weak enough to lay our sins at the foot of the cross, God fills with the strength to live forever!
The other person we need to forgive is, for me, the most difficult one of all to forgive: myself.
Three years ago, I came to be the pastor of Living Water. I believe that it was God’s call to come here and I love this church.
But I have also found it hard to forgive myself these past three years because of how I handled my leaving Saint Matthew, the church we served before.
There were people who had gone to battle on our sides in defense of the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of God’s Word. They were people to whom we’d grown close. They’d endured nastiness, recrimination, and shunning from others. And though I’d intimated that it might be best for me to leave and eliminate a lightning rod of controversy as the congregation moved to the North American Lutheran Church, I caught people off guard when I announced that we were coming to Living Water. Four people in particular, all of whom had firmly stood with Christ and the Bible, felt betrayed by me. They felt lied to and I’ve carried guilt for that ever since. People in whom I've confided have tried to counsel me to receive grace and forgiveness for my repented sin, but mostly, I've insisted on holding onto my guilt, even after Saint Matthew folks have expressed their forgiveness.
I did this even though I’ve long known that there’s a certain egotism associated with refusing to accept forgiveness that’s been offered by God and by others. It’s as if I was saying, “I know that God forgives me and I know that others forgive me, but my standards are higher.” That’s egotistical!
And it’s probably also needy.
I needed to be reminded by God’s Word and by other disciples that even when I don’t feel forgiven or forgivable, Jesus died and rose to make it possible for me to be released--set free, divorced--from my sins. To be forgiven!
Maybe that’s why I often remind people of the promise in God’s Word: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!”
That includes you. Don’t withhold from yourself what God freely gives to all who call on Him with repentance and belief, forgiveness.
All of which leads me to one more humiliating self-disclosure in the form of a song that is completed and which I even shared with the congregation last year. It’s called Confession and Absolution Song and it’s about forgiveness. There’s a part for you, if you care to join in:
Father, forgive us for all of our sin
Come, Holy Spirit, make us clean within
Through Jesus Christ, we know You're our Friend
A Friend indeed, but also our KingForgiveness is God’s sweetest gift and it’s ours through faith Jesus, Who died and rose for us. Alleluia!
The One to Whom all creation sings
Our needy selves are all we can bring
Now all who call on the name of the Lord
The One Who saints and angels adore
You have new life and life evermore
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]