Common Misconceptions about Forgiveness
Read Galatians 5:13-26
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
A few years ago my husband worked with a man whose wife had left him in hopes of restoring the marriage. To keep a long story short, he had acknowledged that he was responsible for many of their problems through his own pride and selfishness, and was committed to doing his part in reconciling. Over several months, it became apparent to all that his entire demeanor and way of living was changing… for the better. Even his estranged wife commented to me how impressed she was with his progress and indicated that she would be willing to meet with both of us to discuss reconciliation.
To be entirely fair, he was not responsible for all of their problems; not by a long shot! She also had problems with selfishness and pride, along with a great need to be “right” in every situation.
When we got together, the session went long; our hour together grew into 3 plus. Finally, they came to the part where both parties agreed that they would forgive one another and wipe the slates clean while looking for constructive ways to resolve their remaining issues the following week. As we were all getting up to leave, she stopped suddenly and turned to her husband and said, “I hope you understand that even though I have forgiven you and wiped the slate clean, that does not mean that there still won’t be repercussions.”
As it worked out, she was willing to give lip service to forgiveness, but she had no real intention of ever forgiving him for anything. As a result, their marriage ended in divorce.
I Must be able to Forget
This is a common misconception about forgiveness. How can I forgive someone when I can’t forget what they did? We’ve seen quite a few verses on this notion of forgiveness in the last few weeks. Can you recall a single one that said anything about forgetting what happened? The human mind just doesn’t work that way, and let’s be honest about something here: If you actually have forgotten about an event, you haven’t forgiven the person, you forgot the whole thing. Most likely if someone reminded you, you’d be back to not forgiving.
There are some things that are unwise to forget, especially those that involve abusive behavior. There is a big difference between forgiving and putting yourself or your loved ones in harm’s way. Forgiving means that you are no longer going to hold something against a person, and that you are not going to let yourself hold on to rage, anger and resentment, nor will you seek to impose punishment on the person. It does not mean that you will let them repeat the instance again.
After you forgive a person, the memory will still come back to you, but when it does, you will remind yourself that the incident is over, that you have forgiven the person and that you will let God deal with them as He sees fit, and in time, the wound will heal and the recollections will be less and less of an issue for you.
I can speak from my own experience. In my elementary school, 6th grade teacher verbally and emotionally abused me. I was to the point of desperation and developed an ulcer and had a nervous breakdown. I wasn’t able to function. I couldn’t sleep, I cried uncontrollably and was unable to face school some days.
I have forgiven her and I for the most part have forgotten the terrible days of torment, but if I spend time thinking about it… I find bad feelings coming to the surface again. So you see I have made the choice to forgive her and understand she was going through a rough time too. But if I dwell on the feelings they do come back. I just have to remind myself the debt is paid. Remember we are only human. The next session we’ll talk about the feelings of getting away with it.
They can’t be allowed to get away with it!
Forgiveness really has nothing to do with whether or not a person gets away with something. Everyone will answer to God for their actions; God is the Judge of all. We are the judges on no one, and God is very particular on that point. If we seek to judge others, we will be required to answer to God for our sin. In some instances, the person who has wronged us may have consequences with the law of society, and your forgiveness doesn’t get anyone out of that consequence either. What factors are really behind this misconception? Here are some possibilities you might consider:
Pride, revenge, jealousy, resentment, anger, rage, control issues, embarrassment and the like. Jesus taught us that we are not to judge others, lest we be judged. Don’t these kinds of feeling really just seek to justify our appointing ourselves to take God’s place and hand down our own judgments and punishments to those who have wronged us? Certainly this is offensive to God.
The role of feelings and emotions
In most cases, our feelings and emotions don’t help us to make the right choices when we have been wronged. In such cases anger, outrage and hurt are normal and sensible reactions, but as experience teaches us, these fade with the passing of time, and we begin to heal. We may not always be ready to forgive a wrong at the moment of its occurrence, but within a reasonable time frame, we come to the place where we can make the choice to forgive, and we should do so. If you consider our opening verses from Galatians, I think this point should be clear, after all, does unforgiveness belong in the category of acts of the flesh, or as one of the fruits of the Spirit? Again, fully healing is a process and may take time, but it is sped up considerably after we make the choice to forgive.
“Hold on a minute, what if the person doesn’t ask for forgiveness?”
“If your brother or sister [sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” Luke 17:4-5
Some might quote this verse as “proof” that they needn’t forgive if there is no repentance… and even to justify “letting them have it.” Unfortunately they would have a contextual problem, however. In Luke’s account, this falls into a section on the duty of a servant, you might find the full context of interest: Luke 17:1-10. I think you’ll discover that Jesus didn’t give you an “out” He gave you a command involving maximum humility. Matthew writes on the same question in Matthew 18:21-33 and follows with the parable of the unfaithful servant, the bottom line of which is forgive or you won’t be forgiven.
I have no doubt that you are familiar with this text; it is one of the most often quoted in Scripture. No doubt you’ve studied it in studies, classes and sermons many times, but have you ever consider who is the one who is not blessed? In this final lesson on forgiveness, let’s take a look at this “other side” of the Beatitudes and see where forgiveness is and where unforgiveness is. After that, let’s examine a question about forgiveness: Could God expect us to forgive because it is better for us and our own well-being than not forgiving would be?
Before we jump in, let’s all be on the same about the term “blessed”. The Greek word rendered “blessed” in the English is makareos which means “happy.” So, where the text says “Blessed are…” it means “Happy are…” in common English.
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
For a person to be called “poor in spirit” they must be humble, loving and gentle. Those who are not poor in spirit would include those who are proud, boastful and arrogant. If you think about it, being proud and arrogant requires a great deal of effort. You must always be right, you must always meet a challenge head-on, and you can never endure an insult or slight.
This is difficult for any of us who deal with people. We always feel like I do not have to take this or how dare them, but truthfully we should be turning the other cheek and endure it. Humble, Loving and Gentle.
5:4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
People who mourn are capable of forming relationships. They love other people and can allow themselves to grieve their loss when those people are gone, but someone who does not mourn has no such relationships. They have set themselves apart from loving human interactions and cannot mourn for they do not feel warmth. These must be lonely and miserable people.
I sometimes think I can be alone – I can handle anything – I even think that I am supposed to be able to go it alone. Especially during my first year in DC area – my husband was back in Illinois and I was here. It was a lonely existence. I was lonely and I was miserable – until I allowed others to be in my life.
5:5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
The meek are very much like the poor in spirit. They are gentle and humble and they do not strive for fame and fortune, they don’t need to be the center of attention enforcing their will on other people. Yet those who are not meek must do all of these things. Imagine the burden they must carry! At a social guttering, they feel the pressure to impress, to entertain, and to know all. They can never let their guard down, lest someone should outshine them. If someone were to wrong them, what you would get is drama that lasts weeks if not months.
I struggle with this because in my battle to be better – I want to force myself to be in front of the camera or on the radio. I need to center less on myself and more on others.
5:6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Those who hunger and thirst with righteousness will be filled with it, but what about those who don’t? They will not find righteousness, they will not find God’s way nor will they receive mercy. Once again, they have cut themselves off from that which is right, pure and good and do not follow God’s ways. What a miserable lot they have chosen for themselves!
5:7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
The merciful show mercy to others; they forgive those who wrong them, but those who are not merciful hold grudges. They can’t bring themselves to forgive even a small slight, for they are much too self-important for that. Try to imagine the load they force themselves to bear in holding on to their anger, resentment and pain as they struggle through life. Imagine the pressure and energy it would take to exact revenge for anyone who might offend them.
Showing Mercy is what we all should do… reminds me over and over again about the unmerciful servant.
5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
The pure in heart are people who have no guile; they are innocent and do not carry with them intrigue and manipulative desires to control other people. Now imagine the opposite, those people who are always scheming. They are always on the lookout for someone to take advantage of; they are conspiratorial and manipulating and must always carry of the burden of possibly being found out for what they really are. I wonder if they sleep well at night.
5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Peacemakers are pretty obvious, and so are their opposites. They are ultra-confrontational, looking for trouble, discord and controversy. They care nothing for other people, for they are only interested in having their way in all situations. They can never be wrong, they can’t admit a mistake and they can’t even relax without abusing someone. They make enemies where ever they go, and must always be looking over their shoulder; what a life!
5:10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In order to be persecuted for righteousness, one must be righteous, and also possess the courage to do what is right even if it isn’t popular. On the other side of the coin, we have those who neither do what is right nor possess the courage to stand up for it. These live in fear, tossed to and fro with the winds of popular opinion, going along with the crowd and hoping they don’t have any problems. They must worry quite a lot, for they know they do wrong, but what would others think if they didn’t go along?
5:11-12 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The one persecuted for Christ is a follower of Jesus who has a bright future, and a present that is full of His power and grace, but what of his oppressors? They have no hope, they do serious wrong and await their doom. They are so filled with foreboding that they must silence the Truth, killing and injuring as they go, only increasing their guilt.
Let’s stop to think: Of the nine “blessed” people mentioned here, which one is the one that refuses to forgive others who wrong them? Of the nine not blessed ones, which would be the kind of person who forgives freely? Let’s face it, it’s hard to conceive of people that Jesus would call meek, poor in spirit, peacemakers and righteous as being people who would refuse to forgive, don’t you think?
With that in mind, which group of people carry the emotional baggage around with them through their lives? Which group sleeps at night? Which group has the higher stress levels and which has the lower? Finally, which group has the joy of life and the eternal rewards to go with it, and which has no joy and is destined for destruction?
Could it be that God expects us to love and forgive one another because that is better for our own health and peace of mind? Is it possible, even likely, that God has given these commands because He knows that the only one who will be punished or hurt by our unforgiveness is the person holding the grudge?
How do you suppose that carrying the burden of unforgiveness will help to grow and mature your relationship with Jesus Christ?
OK, these things are all obvious, and I’m sure I haven’t told you much of anything that you didn’t know already, so maybe now is the time to simply commit ourselves to forgiving those who have wronged us in the past, to go before our Lord in prayer and ask his forgiveness and for His help in taking away our rage, anger and guilt from the past. Maybe we also need to remind ourselves that when these old emotional patterns try to come back that we will repeat that they are over, done and gone and return to Jesus’ feet in prayer. Yes, maybe it’s time to really live like the new creation that we are in Christ!