Several years ago I did some volunteer work at a nursing home, or “retirement community,” as they call it now. I and some others came in once a week, spent some time talking with some residents, and led a worship service with them. I remember distinctly having conversations with two women there, and the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. One lady was as sweet as sugar, always greeting me with a smile and a warm hug, extremely grateful that we were there. Another woman was bitter and I don’t think I ever saw her smile. One time I saw a clue as to her attitude. With absolutely no prompting from me, she complained to me about a so-called “friend” of hers who had gossiped about her--over 50 years ago! She had held onto that grudge for that long, and it had acted like battery acid within her soul, eating her up from the inside-out. Maybe that wasn’t the sum total of the cause of her lousy attitude, but if she was willing to hold onto a grudge that long, then I think that’s a window revealing what type of person she was in general.
I think of her often, and I hope that the Lord broke through to her before she passed on, but nevertheless she performed a valuable service for me. I promised myself and the Lord that I would hold onto grudges like water in my hand.
That’s the virtue we’re going to briefly examine: Forgiveness. Of course, as C.S. Lewis put it, "We all agree that forgiveness is a beautiful idea until we have to practice it." I guess the Lord Jesus thought it pretty important, since he mentioned it so often in his teachings. I count at least five times he brings it up in his Sermon on the Mount alone.
And there’s a distinct pattern you can find as you look at those passages in the Sermon. Each and every time he directly links 1) our relationship with other people with 2) our relationship with the Lord. Specifically he makes it clear that there’s no way for us to have the latter without taking care of the former. If you have an unresolved problem with someone, especially a sibling in Christ, then your relationship with the Lord will suffer. If you refuse to forgive someone, then your Heavenly Father won't forgive you either.
OK, let’s answer some common questions:
1) Does this mean that if I don’t forgive someone, then I lose my salvation? No. Your salvation in Christ is based on who he is and what’s he’s done. It has nothing to do with what you do. But our fellowship with him can be broken, and we’ll be miserable and suffer terrible consequences if we persist in disobedience. I’ve talked about this before.
2) You don’t know what that person did to me. How can I forgive someone who abused me or cheated on me or done X to me? You’re right, I don’t know. But God does. There are two answers to that question, and they need to be handled separately.
On a theological level, you need to realize something: You'll never be asked to forgive someone nearly as much as he's forgiven you. That’s the whole point of Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant. If you’re focusing on the wrongs done to you, then you’ve obviously forgotten the times you've broken your Father's heart.
On a practical level, I fully realize that you’ve been hurt, and I know that it’s extremely tough to forgive someone who’s really wounded you. But do you really want to hold on to that anger? It might be tempting. But I promise you that the anger will do the same thing to you that it did to that lady in the retirement center. She had no joy, no peace, and was wrapped up in her own little private hell—all because of her decision she made a long time ago not to let something go.
If you want to let it go and forgive, then the first step I would suggest is to pray for that person. Never mind if you feel any love towards them or not. As you pray for God to bless them and to do good for them, you’ll find the Lord is changing your heart towards them. Do what you’ve been told to do, and the feelings will follow.
But it all starts with a decision.
Father, I could never ever ever be called to forgive someone nearly as much as you’ve forgiven me. Please change me, please make me more like you: slow to anger, quick to forgive.