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The Power of Forgiveness

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Scriptural Text:  ". . .Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" (Luke 12:56)

    Christianity is a power religion.

 At the dawn of the universe God Almighty exerted His power to create by the spoken word. In the first chapter of Genesis we read that God said "Let there be light," for example, and there was light. Things came into existence as He spoke them into being.

 We are told in the first chapter of John's Gospel that the Son of God, the Word (or Logos in Greek), who has always existed with the Father was the co-Creator of all things. Indeed, "all things were made through Him." As the Incarnate Christ, Jesus of Nazareth continued to create by the spoken word, speaking healings into existence and commanding resurrections from the dead by calling the persons back into life: "Little girl, I say to you, arise!" and "Lazarus, come forth!"

 A day or two after Easter Sunday I had a rather startling revelation, brought about by some things I read. It was this: By far the most powerful act of creation ever spoken by the Son of God was delivered from Calvary's Cross, when He spoke the words that forever changed the history of the universe: "Father, forgive them." No human being ever uttered anything more powerful, for with those brief words Jesus actually re-ordered the entire creation, overcoming the original sin of Adam and Eve and re-setting the course of human history to end in victory over all the penalties incurred by that sin.

 Crucified by the soldiers of Imperial Rome at the instigation of the Jewish priests (the Sanhedrin), to all outward appearances Jesus was dying on the Cross in helpless impotence. Yet in reality His plea for forgiveness for mankind unleashed the most radical and powerful force since the dawn of creation itself. Those words of forgiveness have more power than the greatest thermonuclear explosion man can ever produce, for nuclear explosions can only destroy matter, whereas forgiveness can bring into being things that never were. Forgiveness can actually create new life.

In the summer of 1994, one million Rwandan Tutsis were systematically slaughtered by Hutu tribesmen in a bloodbath of ethnic hatred. Not only was the African nation of Rwanda laid waste physically, and a large percentage of its citizens killed, but every human institution was decimated. Trust -- an essential ingredient in the functioning of all societies -- was totally destroyed. Over 100,000 prisoners were jailed, awaiting trial for their crimes, an impossibly large number to deal with. It was estimated it would take 110 years to process them. How could the nation ever move forward and rebuild, if it could not become free from the satanic destruction of its past? Rwanda's future was very much in doubt.

Then came the miracle. The Christian Church produced a radical solution to the crisis: a program called restorative justice. Instead of using the courts, tribunals of elders were set up in the villages. The criminals appeared before them to voluntarily confess their crimes, and then threw themselves on the mercy of those whose relatives they had killed. Large billboards were erected along the roads: "Tell what you know. Admit what you have done. The truth will heal the land." This system has worked beyond anyone's hopes. God has had mercy on Rwanda, and His forgiveness has begun to seep through the people. Slowly, slowly, the land has begun to heal.

The extraordinary power of forgiveness in Rwanda is graphically illustrated by the story of Deborah Niyakabirika. Some months after her son was murdered in the ethnic genocide, a young man came to her. "I killed your son," he confessed. "Take me to the authorities and let them deal with me as they will. I have not slept since I shot him. Every time I lie down I see you praying, and I know you are praying for me."

Deborah responded: "You are no longer an animal but a man taking responsibility for your actions. I do not want to add death to death." That in itself was a miracle of forgiveness. But Deborah wasn't through. "I want you to restore justice by replacing the son you killed," she told the killer. "I am asking you to become my son. When you visit me, I will care for you." That young man has become an adopted member of her household.

Her words were straight from the throne of God. For you see, that is exactly what God has done for each one of us. He has forgiven us and adopted us -- we who were criminals against His lordship and executors of His Son by our sins -- as His own sons.

Another of the most famous and most powerful stories of forgiveness in modern times is the story of Corrie ten Boom. After World War II, the Lord sent Corrie errands of mercy to many European cities, where she would relate how she had come to forgive the Naziis, at whose hands her father and sister had died in a concentration camp. Corrie had been released through a providential fluke of prison mis-management, but had to wrestle with her hatred and bitterness, until she had finally come through into an attitude of forgiveness. "If I can forgive, so can you" she would tell her audiences.

The acid test of her forgiveness came one night after a meeting, when a man she instantly recognized came down the church aisle to speak with her. He had been a notoriously sadistic guard in her concentration camp. Sticking out his hand to her, he asked for her forgiveness. In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie says that the bitterness rose up in her heart again. Flashback images of all the atrocities, as well as her sister dying in her arms raced through her mind. His hand was still held out toward her, but she was utterly unable to respond to the man. All she could do was silently plead with Jesus to give her His grace, and change her heart. After what seemed like an eternity the hardness in her heart began to crumble. By exerting her will to choose the love of God over her emotions, the power of God's forgiveness came flooding into her heart, and she was able to reach out and take the man's hand and tell him that she forgave him.

There is no physical power in all of creation that can change the human heart. But the spiritual power loosed at Calvary's Cross by the words of our Lord Jesus Christ is a force that can change even the hardest of hearts. There is no greater power.

I think all of us react to stories like the above by wondering whether we could ever forgive like Deborah and Corrie did. What we must remember is that forgiveness is a miracle of God's grace which takes place in us when we choose to have it happen. The trigger is an act of will on our part; our choice for God's way over our way. Of course, even the act of asking God to work His miracle of forgiveness in our hearts is a miracle of grace.

When we Christians are faced with the need to forgive, there are always a number of arguments against it that come to the surface. "That person doesn't deserve forgiveness," we blurt out. Well, of course not! Neither did we, when Jesus died for us. Isn't that the whole point? After all, arguing that someone deserves forgiveness is really claiming that what they did wasn't all that heinous in the first place.

And then there is the "Maybe I could forgive, but I could never forget" objection. In fact, those are two separate things. We are not required to forget that the incident or situation ever took place; what we must do is to no longer hold the other person in judgment, just as God Himself has taken the writ of indictment against us and written across it "cancelled." We must never again bring up our judgments against someone we have forgiven -- even in our own minds -- just as God will never again bring up to us our confessed and forgiven sins. When the Psalmist says that God will remember our misdeeds no more, he doesn't mean that an omniscient God is literally going to forget them. What he means is that God will never again mention them to us. When we have truly forgiven someone, we may recollect the words or deeds that caused our bitterness, but the emotions of bitterness, anger, resentment, hatred, etc. are gone -- washed away by the shed blood of Christ. And, in truth, it is even possible to have the very memories themselves erased from our "memory bank" by the Lord, so that we forget all about the incident. 

But, let me add two words of caveat here: First, sometimes people think that they need to hold on to the memories of being wronged as a safeguard against having it happen to them again. They think that if they retain the memories, this will protect them against further injury at the hands of that person. However, a far better protection for us is the "keeping" power of God ("The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore" -- Psalm 121:8). Second, I am not talking about situations of recurrent abuse. For a Christian, forgiveness is always in order, but at the same time people may need to take steps to protect themselves or their loved ones from situations where abuse has become normative.

We sometimes argue against forgiving someone because we think that our forgiveness will let them off the hook for their misdeeds. Not at all. Our forgiveness of someone removes the poison from our own hearts, and actually puts the situation of the other person into God's hands. No longer are we binding the other person with our unforgiveness. When we choose forgiveness, God is freed (so to speak) to deal with the other person. And He will. The universe is basically just -- no one gets away with things forever.

Lastly, there are times when we think that our feelings are just too strong - that we could never forgive because of the depth of our anger or bitterness. Yet we underestimate the power of forgiveness loosed at Calvary when we think that way. God is able to change the hardest of hearts -- nothing is too difficult for Him.

Remember that any and every impossibility of our forgiving others can be overcome by the power of Jesus at work in us. Because he has won our forgiveness by His sacrifice, we are able to forgive -- He has created the possibility of our forgiving others by winning forgiveness for us at the cost of His blood. We can be quite sure about our own forgiveness on the basis of God's Word. 1 John 1:9 assures us: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." In addition, when we take Jesus' Spirit into us, when we receive Him as our Savior and Lord, we then have all the power of His finished work available to us within. Our ability to forgive, then, rests on His accomplished work, not our efforts. That power is laid up for us in the bank vaults of heaven, to be drawn upon whenever we ask Him to connect us to it.

For us Christians, forgiveness is not an option we can either choose or reject. We have been born again into a new life, into a new reality characterized by forgiveness. Forgiveness is at the core of the Kingdom of God -- in fact the Kingdom of God is established only by forgiveness. It is the daily currency of the Kingdom. Thus, having received it, we have no right to refuse to extend it to others. In Colossians 3:13, the Apostle Paul writes: "As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive." And again, in Ephesians 4:31-32, the Apostle exhorts us: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." Once more, forgiveness is required of us on the basis of the grace of God's forgiveness having been extended to us.

Jesus put the Kingdom normalcy of forgiveness across to Simon Peter when the big fisherman asked him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Peter thought he was being generous by offering to forgive seven times, but what he was really asking was when it was "legal" for him to stop forgiving. When could he retaliate? At what point was his obligation to forgive over and done?

Jesus' answer was hardly what Peter was expecting. "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven!" Jesus is saying to Peter: "Stop counting." His point is that forgiving others must become a way of life for us Christians, not a rare currency that we dole out reluctantly.

In 1987, the United States Navy frigate Starke was hit by two Exocet missiles fired from an Iraqi fighter plane. The wife of one of the 37 American sailors killed that day was later deeply touched by the Spirit of God at some meetings in Jacksonville, Florida. "God has shown me this week that I need to make the greatest investment where I have the greatest potential for bitterness," she testified, "which is toward the Iraqi people, because they killed my husband." Her investment? She sold her house, and with her son moved to Iraq to minister the love of Jesus to the Iraqis.

One of the strongest incentives on our part for extending forgiveness is the realization that the refusal to forgive on our part can actually hinder our own relationship with God. Jesus was clear: "And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses" (Mark 11:25). "Anything against anyone" is rather inclusive! That means that the Lord is quite serious about our being completely cleaned out from any judgments against others. The words "so that" in the verse make it clear that there is a definite cause and effect relationship between our forgiveness of others and our receiving God's forgiveness for our own trespasses.

Jesus is even more blunt on this point in Matthew 6:14-15: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Does this last phrase mean that a refusal to forgive on our part is jeopardizing our salvation? I don't think so. What I believe this means is that will be handicapped in our ability to live as Christians, and subject to God's disciplinary dealings until we come to the point of forgiving others. To me, that is the proper conclusion we need to reach upon reading Jesus' parable of the servant with the ten thousand talent debt (Matthew 18: 23-35). The story is that a servant could not pay his debt, so his master commanded him to be sold along with his family and possessions, to raise the money to pay the debt. When the servant begged for mercy, his master released him from the debt, but the servant went out and demanded payment from someone who owed him a tiny amount of money. Hearing what his servant had done, the Lord summoned him and said to him, "You wicked servant!I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?" Jesus tells us that in anger, the master handed him over to "the jailers" until the servant should repay his debt. And then our Lord adds: "So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." That says to me that we are in for some very severe dealing at the hands of God if we refuse to extend forgiveness.

John Wesley puts it in stark terms: "While we do not from our hearts forgive our neighbor his trespasses, what manner of prayer are we offering to God whenever we utter these words ("forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors")? We are indeed setting God at open defiance; we are daring him to do his worst. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us." That is, in plain terms, "Do not forgive us at all. We desire no favor at your hands. We pray that you will keep our sins in remembrance, and that your wrath may abide upon us." But can you seriously offer such a prayer to God? ... Now, even now by his grace, forgive as you would be forgiven."

As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has observed: "Failure to forgive ... wasn't a matter of failing to live up to a new bit of moral teaching. It was cutting off the branch you were sitting on. The only reason for being Kingdom-people, for being Jesus' people, was that the forgiveness of sins was happening; so if you didn't live forgiveness, you were denying the very basis of your own new existence."

May we all truly live more and more as Kingdom people.

Source: Magazine Name, January 1, 2006

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