Forgive as the Lord forgave
How are we doing?
Perhaps it is because of recent efforts to reconcile my understanding of forgiveness with its practice as observed among brethren that I have been so impressed by articles in the October and November issues of this paper (The Gospel Herald). In the October issue, under the title "Not an Option," Randy Morritt defines forgiveness as, "to pardon, remit, absolve, acquit, excuse, cancel, release, overlook, clear, free" and stresses that doing so is not an option and, for the Christian, knows no limit to its frequency. Most of us already know these teachings even though we may not have done well in their application.
In the November issue, under the title, "To Forgive or Not to Forgive, The Heart Choice," Aziz Sarah describes his struggle in an effort to apply the teaching and example of Jesus to his real life bitterness towards those responsible for his brother's death. He tells us how he, for a time, deceived himself, "I thought I had forgiven, but only deceived myself and justified my sin." Yes, failure to forgive is a sin just as surely as we are convinced that whatever might have been done against us was a sin.
Being seriously concerned to correctly understand, accept and practise God's will on this subject, I have, besides searching the scriptures and meditating on my findings, reread these articles and found them to be quite helpful. I recommend them to all who are concerned about practising God's will on this matter.
Not long ago, in a confrontation involving strained relationships, Christians were shamed by being unfavourably compared to sports participants and their coaches, who, we were told, although often guilty of offences, quickly forgave and got on with the game in goodwill. (Some recent sports happenings aired on TV might cause us to question this.) Surely, this gives us cause for reflection and self-examination.
We are "God's chosen" and as such instructed to "clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" and to "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col.3:12, 13). Surely, with the example of the Lord and these instructions, we, as Christians, should be putting all others to shame in the matter of forgiveness. Our failure to forgive each other "just as in Christ God forgave you" grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph.4:30-32).
The Gospel of Luke tells us that the disciples asked Jesus to "teach us to pray". This resulted in what is frequently called the Lord's Prayer, perhaps more appropriately called the Model Prayer (Lk.11:2, 3; Mt.6:9-13). Forgiveness and prayer are frequently linked in the scriptures. Each time that we, as frail human beings, approach our Holy God there is a consciousness of our need for forgiveness.
It being apparently assumed that we will be humbly requesting God's forgiveness when we "stand praying", Jesus instructed, "if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins" (Mk.11:25). Again and again we are reminded that God's forgiveness is not available to those who do not practise forgiveness. Considering our human hang-ups, this is serious indeed.
It might come as a surprise that in the Model Prayer (Mt.6:9-13), 28 words deal with other matters and the remaining 26 relate to forgiveness. In verse 12, God's forgiveness is requested with the qualification, "as also we have forgiven". What can we hope to receive from God if His forgiveness is like ours? Verse 13, in this context, seems to be recognizing that the "evil one" will tempt us to be unforgiving. The next two verses, with their conditional clauses, emphasize both positively and negatively that forgiving AS God forgave is a MUST and should precede our even requesting God's forgiveness which is urgently needed.
Let us not deceive ourselves into thinking we have forgiven, as God forgives, when we have fallen far short of doing so.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you!
Our previous study noted the absolute necessity of forgiving others if we are to have any hope for God's forgiveness and warned of the very real danger of deceiving ourselves into thinking that we have forgiven when, in reality, we have not done so. In this study we purpose to consider the 'AS' in "as the Lord forgave you" (Col.3:13). We are to forgive "in the same manner" as God forgives. Just what is the way that God forgives and has forgiven?
First, God obviously wanted to forgive those who offended against Him. The entire Bible, the history of God's dealings with man and the revelation of His desire for a relationship with man, is about the ways in which He has forgiven and has shown His desire to forgive. Just as the father of the prodigal son longed for the opportunity to forgive and have restored relationship, so God wants to forgive and welcome those who will return to Him. His provision of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb provides both an encouragement to seek forgiveness and a means of obtaining it. The great price that God paid in sending His only begotten son to suffer so cruelly is the ultimate proof of the greatness of His desire to forgive.
Please note that God took steps toward our forgiveness while we were yet sinners, "while we were enemies" (Rom.5:8-10). By contrast, we humans, like the older brother of the prodigal, all too often, seem reluctant to forgive and behave as if we really do not wish it to occur. Are there those whom I would rather not even be asked to forgive; whom I hope will not even ask forgiveness; whom I would accuse of insincerity if they did ask? If true, this shows that I do not really want to forgive.
Second, God did not wait for man to come begging but rather took the initiative. Forgiveness was in His overall plan as it should be in ours. Both observation and personal experience tell us that offences are sure to occur. Have we planned ahead how we will deal with such? This is what God did. Have we determined that, whatever the circumstances, we will be forgiving?
This is being written just before the annual "giving day" and I cannot help but be reminded that to forgive is to give by the very nature of the word. God "gave" (Jno.3:16) in order to "forgive". There is no better, more meaningful and satisfying gift that we can give than forgiveness. Let's give it!
When strained situations develop and estrangement occurs, those who do not have the desire to forgive show this by arguing that the offended must make the first move. They say, "If he comes to me, I might forgive him. It is up to him to come to me." Is this "AS" God functioned in forgiveness?
Jesus instructs us to "go and show him his fault just between the two of you" (Mt.18:15). Who takes the initiative here? This does not, however, take the offender off of the proverbial "hook". If we remember that a brother has something against us, we are to "First go and be reconciled to your brother" before coming to worship God (Mt.5:23,24). Who takes the initiative here? The resolution of such offences is so desirable and so important that, ideally, all parties involved will be so concerned that, without delay, they meet each other halfway. Neither can justify waiting for the other. The offended who wishes to forgive, "AS God forgives", will not delay, but will, rather than waiting for the offender to move, go all the way. So also with the offender who wishes forgiveness.
Third, God wanted and initiated the forgiveness process at great cost to himself. He willingly gave "His only begotten Son" to suffer and die on the cross that offenders might be forgiven.
How much inconvenience, embarrassment, sacrifice are you willing to make towards the forgiveness of a brother who has offended you? Is your pride in the way? Are you unwilling to endure any humiliation that might be involved? There are usually faults on both sides. Think of the humiliation Jesus voluntarily submitted to.
Fourth, in reading the Bible, we frequently note God's great joy when forgiveness has been accomplished. The forgiver and the forgiven rejoice together. Both are happy. Picture the celebration when the prodigal came and was forgiven by his father who was more than ready to forgive him.
If we forgive AS God forgives, we will happily celebrate the accomplishment together with the forgiven. Sometimes forgiveness seems to be given grudgingly and reluctantly, perhaps because God commands it rather than because we wanted to give it. In such a case, what is there to celebrate? This is not AS God forgives.
Fifth, as implied above, God welcomes the offender back into the former relationship. Sometimes the experience results in an even closer and more dedicated relationship with stronger bonds. This is often the case when estranged spouses forgive each other. This should certainly be the case when one falls away and is restored to God's fellowship. The very experience has a positive effect. Is this the way we practise forgiveness?
The scriptures on forgiveness seem to focus on "winning our brother" (Mt.18:15; I Cor.5:1-5; II Cor.2:5-8; Col. 3:12,13; Gal.6:1). Does this not imply that a renewed "brotherly relationship" is the desired and intended result?
Have I forgiven AS God forgives? Scripture is clear: the unforgiving will remain unforgiven!
What? No limit?
When I seriously consider my relationships with others and with God I must face the fact that my sins, offences and estrangements are usually the result of my own characteristics, attitudes and weaknesses. With this knowledge, both myself and those whom I have offended necessarily anticipate the real possibility of repetitions. What if such occur? Again? Such being true, why bother trying to reconcile?
The offender, humbly aware of the weakness and truly penitent, will take measures to avoid a repeat performance. Although these certainly involve personal resolve and determined effort, such is not usually enough for success. These can be supplemented by guidance and encouragement from fellow Christians, help from professionals, the influence of the Word and the Spirit and prayer to the Father that our hearts night be moulded in the likeness of the heart of Jesus.
The offended, perhaps because of personal experience, realizes that the offence could very well be repeated. Why forgive? Why leave myself open to further pain? How many times should I be expected to forgive? Surely there should be a limit!
The startling truth is that there can be no limit.
Matthew chapter 18 begins with a question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus' response calls on each disciple to become the greatest by humbling himself. He then deals with our responsibilities towards others. It is a serious thing to cause others spiritual harm. We must by all means avoid being the cause of such. The self renunciation involved to avoid offending others is likened to the amputation of a hand or foot or the gouging out of an eye. Pretty serious business! This whole section is about relationships among brethren and especially warns us to avoid causing others to sin, to wander away or to be lost. It ends with, "In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost (v.14).
Obviously, Jesus understood that the way we treat each other could have very adverse, long-term results. God is very much concerned and seeks after "those that wander off". Am I concerned? Do I seek after them? What about you?
Offences have, do and will happen even (sometimes it appears more so) among brethren. Jesus next addresses the procedures for correcting such. Although it is likely that most of us can list the steps and procedures involved, I fear that very few manage to do them. Therefore we will examine them once more.
The first step is a private one, evidently to avoid magnifying the problem by making it public. Such can be embarrassing to the parties involved, a blot on the church and cause resolution to be even more difficult. Although Jesus' instruction is to go to the offender we tend to go in another direction. We go to others and share our hurt with one, or two or several. The matter becomes public and thus more complicated and difficult. Much harm is done. We thus, perhaps inadvertently, commit a serious offence against the offender. Jesus says to "go" to him and "show" him not someone else. It may be difficult but it is so much better to do it Jesus' way.
The onus here is on the offended, the person who has been hurt. In hindsight most of us can look back on situations where failure to quickly take this first step has seriously worsened a situation.
If step one is successful "you have won your brother over" (v.15). In the context I believe that this means more than that you have regained your relationship with him. But, disappointingly, this first step is not always successful. He may not be convinced by your effort to "show" him his fault. Jesus teaches that one or two others now be involved. The story is now to be shared but only in a limited way. It is still contained.
Perhaps the one or two will help you to see the offence differently, perhaps less seriously. These should be people who are respected, especially by the offender, and who have shown wisdom. Hopefully, together you will be able to convince him and he will be "won".
If, however, this also fails, Jesus instructs us to "tell it to the congregation" (v.17). It sounds simple. Just make a public statement. As in Paul's instruction for the treatment of the immoral brother at Corinth, the brethren are to be "assembled in the name of Jesus" (I Cor.5:7) to take the necessary action. Hopefully, the whole congregation being in agreement, this will suffice to bring about repentance and reconciliation. If not, OUT! (V.17).
The disciples, having heard all this teaching about our responsibilities and the actions to be taken when relationship problems occur, evidently wonder about reoccurrences. Peter, their spokesman, asks how patient we should be in such cases. Surely there must be a limit. Three times was evidently considered generous. Three times and out does not just apply to baseball. Trying to be magnanimous, Peter suggests seven times. The response must have been a startling surprise. Not seven but "unto seventy times seven". Phew! What does this mean? Should Evelyn and I have kept records (We have been married 58 years) so that when we had checked off the 491st time we would be justified in separating?
No! Even the most legalistic of us know that Jesus was not teaching us to keep records (count) of offences. It seems obvious that Jesus was teachings us that rather than keeping records we should be prepared to forgive without limit.
If, perchance, this seems to be too much to ask, think. How many times have you needed God's forgiveness? Is it possible that you might need God to forgive you several times more? What if He is counting and has a limit?
These studies are about the requirement that we forgive AS God has forgiven us.
The chapter closes with a very easily understood parable about a king who forgave his servant an impossible debt and then discovered that the servant, afterwards, refused to forgive his brother servant a very small debt. The result illustrates the attitude and action we can expect from God if we refuse to forgive anyone anything. The king delivered the unforgiving servant "to the jailor to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed" (v.34). This, of course was impossible as it is for us.
"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart" (v.35).
Forgive, comfort and love him
In our last study we found that when an offence occurs there are prescribed procedures that the offended is to initiate for the stated purpose of winning the offending brother. It was noted that, because of human weakness, this process might well need to be repeated an unlimited number of times. If the offender repeats, the offended is to be prepared to forgive again and again "as God has forgiven us".
The instructions given in Mathew chapter 18 are in accord with Galatians 6:1, "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted."
The stated purpose is to "restore him". This is to be done by those who are "spiritual". Could it be that frequent failures in such situations are the result of the shortage of such persons? The brother is to be approached "gently" rather than in an arrogant, demanding, self righteous, judgemental attitude. In fact the attitude is to be that of understanding brought about by practising the "Golden Rule" (Mt.7:12). The "spiritual" brother realizes that he also could be tempted, "caught in a sin". He therefore approaches the offender as he would wish to be approached.
The word "restore" as used here by Paul was used of the mending of torn nets or the setting of broken bones. Thus we are to work towards the restoration of full usefulness.
This is not always successful. If the offender refuses to "listen" he is to be excluded from the fellowship, treated as a "pagan or a tax collector". Since the people of Christ are to imitate Him in love and forgiveness, this "goes against the grain". It is a drastic action done with sadness and regret. As Christians, our desire is to include rather than exclude. Even then, there should be positive encouragement towards repentance and full restoration.
Unfortunately, the type of action, now commonly called "church discipline" or "disfellowshipping" is sometimes abused. Wrongly motivated, it represents a, sometimes not so subtle, tactic to "get rid of" some brother who seems not to "fit in". In the extreme, it may be carried out even when the offender has requested to be forgiven. Thus motivated, such an action smacks of the tactics of the Pharisees and chief priests in their efforts to get rid of Jesus. Such is diametrically opposite to the loving fellowship and sacrificial helpfulness pictured as characteristic of the Lord's spiritual family.
Is it possible that church leadership in our enlightened time, concerned about a member whose attitude does not please them, might be waiting and watching for a "legitimate" way of excluding rather than prayerfully seeking a loving effective way of including?
As a point of interest we note a rather interesting method of excluding practiced by a religious group almost 200 years ago. Joseph Ash records, "When the bad cases for discipline accumulated, they would disband the church, form a new church and then receive into the new church the good ones, leaving the bad out." (Reminiscences, Joseph Ash, p. 19).
It is recognized that there are a number of possible reasons for the exclusion of an offending person. It might be to protect other Christians from harmful influences (the leaven of immorality or false doctrine), to enable the church to glorify God in the eyes of the world or to cause others to "shape up" (I Tim.5:20). However, a careful study of the New Testament teachings on the subject clearly shows that a main purpose is the salvation of the individual offender. The immoral brother at Corinth was to be handed "over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord" (I Cor.5:4,5). Hymenaeus and Alexander were "handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme" (I Tim.1:19,20). The disorderly among the Thessalonians were to be disfellowshipped that they "may feel ashamed" (II Thess.3:14). These cases all seem to point toward changes resulting in restoration.
We quote, "If this purpose is not kept in view, it is only too likely that discipline will descend to the level of revenge or a 'putting down' of offenders. The purpose of discipline in the life of the offender is restoration." (Life in His Body, Gary Inrig, p.145).
On this subject, Albert Barnes, in his commentary on I Corinthians, page 93, wrote, "It is not revenge, hatred, malice or mere exercise of power that is to lead to it: it is the good of the individual that is to be pursued and sought: while the church endeavours to remain pure, its aim and object should be mainly to correct and reform the offender, that his spirit may be saved. When discipline is undertaken from any other motive than this; when it is pursued from private pique, or rivalship, or ambition, or the love of power; when it seeks to overthrow the influence or standing of another, it is wrong. The salvation of the offender and the glory of God should prompt to all the measures which should be taken in the case."
W. E. Vine on page 91 in The Church and the Churches, wrote, "Godly discipline ever has restoration in view ... that complete restoration may be established."
It is unfortunate that the word discipline, which in today's usage is usually understood to mean punishment, has been applied to this action. In its original meaning and in the way it is usually used in the Bible the word often denoted the concept of nurturing or teaching. Its exercise was not to cause hurt but to bring growth and benefit to the object of the action. The motive must not be to inflict deserved punishment but to lovingly encourage correction and restoration.
The discipline described in II Corinthians chapter 2, inflicted "by the majority" was described as "sufficient". The Corinthians are here instructed to "forgive him and comfort him" "so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow" and to "reaffirm your love for him" (vs.7,8). The sorrow would indicate that he regrets and has repented of his offences.
It seems that failure to forgive, comfort and reaffirm love towards the offender would enable Satan to "outwit us". An unforgiving, uncomforting, unloving, unrestoring church is succumbing to the "schemes" of Satan (v.11).
Thus, as might well be expected, the church as the body of Christ, is to be ready to be inconvenienced, to make the sacrifices and perform the services needful for the salvation of the offender. To fail to forgive, comfort and reaffirm love for the sorrowing offender is to be "outwitted" by the "schemes" of Satan.
The more excellent way
To love means to care for, to want to comfort, heal, help and protect even when suffering and sacrifice might be involved. In the process of restoring an offending brother, the Corinthian Christians (church) were instructed to forgive and comfort him and "to re-affirm your love for him" (II Cor.2:7,8). A closer look at the place of love in our relationships as Christians should help us to forgive more successfully and restore more completely.
The instruction to re-affirm our love for the offending brother assumes the reality of a previous love and that the disciplinary treatment he received was done in love and not motivated by selfishness, malice or to "get even". This re-affirming of love towards the sorrowing brother provides the encouragement that will ease him back into a supportive situation where he can again feel accepted as a part of the "team" and join in meaningful service.
There is sometimes a tendency to criticize preachers and their messages. I remember hearing a complaint that "All he preaches about is love". Surprising, since love is the sum of the law and the prophets (Mt.22:40); love is the greatest commandment (Mt.22:36); love is the old/new commandment (I Jno.2:7-10); love is the ID of the Christian (Jno.13:34,35); and the practice of love of our enemies means that we "may be sons of your Father in heaven" and that we are thus "perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect". Love enables God to claim us as sons (We are in the same business with God. It is a family project.). Love makes us "perfect" (useful to God as he intended us to be) (Mt.5:48,49).
Just as we are to forgive as God has forgiven and continues to forgive, we are to imitate God's love. To love as God loves will result in forgiving as God forgives. He so loved that he gave His precious son to suffer and die as a provision for our forgiveness, while we were enemies. Surely, even a small effort to love as God loves will enable, yes even compel us, to forgive our brothers who offend.
Acknowledging that there is often much talk about love, we at the same time, must admit that there seems to be a poor understanding of what it is like in practice in people relationships. Those who preach and teach it may not show it as well as they tell it. There is, perhaps, not too much preaching on the subject but rather too little demonstration. Where this is the case, we must look to Jesus himself as the ideal model and mentor.
Love is the first in the list of items that make up the fruit of the Spirit (Gal.5:22) and it climaxes the list of items to be diligently added in order to be fruitful and to be richly supplied an entrance into the eternal kingdom (II Pet.1:5-11).
As with forgiveness, we can very easily convince ourselves that we love a brother who has offended when in fact we are deceiving ourselves. Yet, these are not options. We must, as God's people, love as He loves and forgive as He forgives. We need to be aware of how easy it is to tell ourselves that we are complying even though, in fact, we are not really practicing the kind of love and forgiveness that God has so bountifully demonstrated.
Members of the Corinthian church were, apparently, seeking prestige, competing with one another (a rather strange behaviour for followers of Jesus, don't you think) about who was able to exercise the greatest gift. Tongue speaking (a very public and dramatic happening) was thought to exalt the speaker a tad or more above the comparatively low-key presenter of prophecy. After pointing out that both these and other gifts were provided and exercised for the benefit of others rather than the exaltation of the person being gifted by God, Paul climaxed this teaching by naming and describing in detail the greatest of all gifts - the one that would replace the others and be much more effective (I Cor.13).
Supernatural gifts of tongues, prophecy and knowledge exercised by a chosen few would, in the absence of the "written testimony", contribute to faith, but love, practiced by all believers was intended to be a much more powerful, convincing and attracting evidence for the faith (Jon.13:35). What did this love look like? Are we exercising this "most excellent way"?
As desirable as these gifts appeared to be, Paul tells us that the great gift of love is greater, more enduring and necessary. Without it, neither the excitement of tongues, the mystery of prophecy, the depths of knowledge, the power of faith, the benefits of generosity nor the greatest of physical suffering and sacrifice is of any significance. All of these useful, beneficial and commendable activities are meaningless before God if not motivated by LOVE. Such involves going through the motions for the wrong reasons. This is serious. We could be serving, giving, suffering and sacrificing and deceiving ourselves into thinking of these as proof of our love. We must examine our hearts.
A study of Paul's description of this "greatest gift" will help to determine whether we really love as God loves. The passage (I Cor.13:4-7) lists the characteristics of Christian love and they demand of us a careful self-examination. Readers are urged to study these verses in several different translations.
This love does not retaliate when wronged but reacts with the kind of patience that God has exercised towards us. It strives not to hurt even when correction is necessary. Rather than begrudging the good things received by others it is genuinely happy for them. Conscious of weakness and unworthiness, it behaves in a humble and lowly manner. It is gracious, always striving to be kind and polite even when responding to bluntness, mistreatment and negativity. Not selfish, it is more concerned with duties than with rights, with what it owes than with what is owed.
It is "not easily angered" - does not become exasperated with people. To do so is a sign of weakness and an admission of defeat. It is not a bookkeeper of wrongs - "does not store up the memory of any wrong it has received" (Wm Barclay translation). We can decide to forget or to nurse and nurture wrongs. Love does not enjoy or delight in talking about the mistakes of others or spreading bad news but rather is saddened by such and enjoys discussing the truth, the good news.
It "protects" (NIV) others by not making public their faults or "beareth all things" (ASV), bears any insult injury or disappointment. It provides encouragement by showing confidence in, believing the best about others. People often live up to our expectations or, conversely, down to our doubts. Love is positive and hopeful. It does not give up.
Love is a powerful means of accomplishing God's purposes and one which we, all too often, fail to recognize and utilize. The old fable about the contest between the sun and the wind to get a man to remove his coat illustrates this power.
Katie Kirkpatrick Godwin, a Rochester University student who succumbed to cancer on January 20, 2005 included a very significant statement in her valedictory address at Lapeer East High School in 2001. "If there could be only one thing in life to learn, it would be to learn love. There is no difficulty that enough love will not conquer, no door that enough love will not open, no gulf that enough love will not bridge and no sin that enough love will not redeem. It makes no difference how deeply seated may be the trouble, how hopeless the outlook or how great the mistake, a sufficient realization of love will redeem. If only you can love enough, you will be the happiest and most powerful person in the world. . ." (from the "North Star", Spring 2005, page 16).
It is for us to choose whether to "serve one another in love" or to "keep on biting and devouring each other" (Gal.5:13,15).
It is easy to greet and love those who agree with us and support us and consequently this tends to be the area in which we socialize. But, to really be "sons" of God we must also turn our efforts and attention towards those who are or seem to be less kindly disposed towards us. Do we find ourselves neglecting and avoiding this area of relationships? Jesus asks, "... what are you doing more than others?" Disciples of Jesus are expected to DO MORE THAN OTHERS in the matter of LOVE.
Forgive and reconcile
As noted throughout this series of studies, there is the very real possibility and danger that we might deceive ourselves - convince ourselves that we have forgiven an offending brother when, in reality, we have not done so. When I say to my brother who has offended me, "You are forgiven," what does this mean? Does it involve any change in our relationship?
These questions lead us to consider the meanings of the two words, "forgive" and "reconcile". Does forgiveness occur without reconciliation? Does the first require the second? If I make it known that I have forgiven my wife, my neighbour, my brother, does this signify a relationship improvement or is no change expected?
Some of the bitterest estrangements occur in families between those with close ties. Sadly this also seems to be the case among brethren in the family of God, the Church. Sometimes through prayer, mediation and/or humble discussion an estranged couple, who have hurled very hurtful words at each other, are led to apologize and forgive. The experience, although extremely painful, has led to a new openness and humility that results in a closer, more intimate, open, trusting relationship than existed before. They now know each other better and realize that in sharing their weaknesses they become closer and stronger.
In the Church, having been forgiven by God, we, as individuals, sometimes succumb to pressures and temptations resulting in a loss of meaningful fellowship with Him - we "fall away". Again, humble acknowledgement of the wrongs in repentance should and often does lead to closer, more intimate and stronger relationships than previously existed. It becomes a building and growing experience.
These observations lead us to ask whether there are generally similar results when estranged brethren announce that forgiveness has occurred. Does the experience result in a warmer, more understanding and trusting fellowship or in a continuance of suspicion, distrust and avoidance?
According to Webster, to forgive means: "1) to give up all resentment against or desire to punish; stop being angry with; pardon. 2) to give up all claim to punish or exact penalty for (an offence); overlook. 3) to cancel or remit (a debt)." It would thus seem that forgiveness means deciding to treat the situation as if the offence never happened. It may not be easy for us, as humans, but we are to forgive AS God has forgiven and God assures us, "I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more" (Isa. 43:25). We must not hold forgiven behaviour against a brother.
The dictionary defines "reconcile": "to restore to friendship or harmony, to settle or resolve." Basically, this is about estranged parties, individuals, husband/wife, father/son, sinner/God getting back together, a restoration of a former relationship.
In the matter of the relationship between man and God, the entire Bible, indeed, the ultimate sacrifice of God's Son, is all about reconciliation. God obviously wanted reconciliation - a restored relationship (fellowship) with man. God made this possible by arranging for the removal of the cause of estrangement. (See Eph. 2:12,13, Rom. 5:8-10, 2 Cor. 5:18-20, Col. 1:20-22.) The sacrifice of Christ on the cross accomplishes this when we, in penitent faith submit to baptism wherein our sins are "washed away" (Acts 22:16). The preaching of the gospel (the "word of reconciliation") is spoken of as the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18). Thus the message of the good news of forgiveness through the death of Christ is called the "word of reconciliation." The above scriptures tell us that when God forgives our sins, the barrier that separated us from Him is removed resulting in a restoration of fellowship. The reconciliation cannot occur without or before the forgiveness. Conversely, it would seem, real forgiveness can hardly be considered to have occurred if it does not result in reconciliation. These two words, although not synonymous, are very closely related. It is difficult to conceive of one occurring without the other.
The ministry of reconciliation is about persuading men to accept God's offer of forgiveness resulting in the restoration of fellowship with God. Prior to the preaching of the "word of reconciliation," not only were both Jew and Gentile alienated from God; they were also very much alienated from each other. However, both were reconciled to God in one body, the Church (Eph, 1:22,23; Col. 1:18) and at the same time the enmity between them was destroyed. It is sad that men who seek and claim reconciliation with God through Christ are so prone to being estranged from one another. Can one be in fellowship with God and not with his brethren who are in the same body?
Since we are to be involved in the ministry of reconciliation how can it be that we sometimes seem to do better as ministers of estrangement?
Reconciliation, although it might be difficult, can be very beautiful and rewarding. Considering all of the "one another" scriptures in the New Testament, the tendency to go separate ways, to avoid, to not fellowship at the least provocation is surprising indeed. Christianity is supposed to be about forgiveness, reconciliation, unity, love, grace and fellowship.
Peacemakers - Sons of God
Canadians have a worldwide reputation as "peacekeepers". This is something in which we tend to take some justifiable pride. In a world full of tensions, hatred and wars, peacekeepers are much needed and provide a valuable service to their fellow men.
Christians, by contrast, are not only to function as peacekeepers but, more so, as peacemakers. Jesus, in his classic Sermon on the Mount, early in his ministry, pronounced a blessing on "peacemakers" stating that such "will be called sons of God" (Mt.5:9) and in the same lesson and chapter instructed the hearers to love and pray for their enemies "that you may be sons of your Father in heaven" (vs. 44,45). In both cases being considered as sons of God is tied to aspects of human relationships. How well do I relate to others? Do peace and love prevail in my relationships (Rom.12:18)?
There is a common saying, "Like father, like son." Again, "A chip off of the old block." Family resemblances are not just physical but usually include character traits. Thus, if we are truly children of God the likeness will show. Originally, God made man "in His own image, in the image of God he created him" (Ge.1:27). The loss of that likeness was a great disappointment to God and He has taken exceptional measures over the centuries to restore it.
His son, the "Prince of Peace" (Isa.9:6), was sent to the earth to be "Emmanuel", which means "God with us" (Mt.1:23). At His arrival the angels sang "on earth peace to men on whom His favour rests." (Lk.2:14). His sacrifice provides for the forgiveness of our sins (peace with God); His example leads us to be loving, forgiving, peacemakers (peace with our fellow man) and our reconciliation with God and man provides us peace within - the peace that "transcends all understanding" (Phil.4:7) and secures for us an eternal relationship with our Father.
God in his love for us and willingness to forgive us has made it possible for us "to become children of God" (Jno.1:12), "and that is what we are" (I Jno.3:1). The sons of God are identified as being "led by the Spirit of God" (Rom.8:14) resulting in their becoming "blameless and pure children of God without fault ... shining like stars in the universe" (Phil.2:14,15).
As sons grow up they often follow in their father's footsteps vocationally or professionally. This often results in them working together and advertising their services as --- and sons. In this very same way we, as children of God, are in the 'God and sons peacemaking business' working together to reconcile people with one another and with God.
Unfortunately, history and current experience, all too often, fail to show "peacemaking" or "love of enemies," let alone of one another, as dominant characteristics of those presenting themselves as children of God. We seem not to be as involved in God's business as our relationship to Him should cause us to be. We continue to have relationship problems. Quarrels, selfishness, strife, jealousy, envy, divisions, estrangements and hurts are all too common.
A Buddhist college student, who lived in a "Christian home" for four years, wrote a letter to a Christian friend who was trying to convert him. In it he explained why he could never consider such. He described the Buddhist home as peaceful and happy: "no fussing, quarrelling, fighting or shouting" in contrast to the "confusion", quarrelling, yelling, nastiness and hypocrisy he experienced in the "Christian home". Where's the PEACE?
Christian wars (an oxymoron), religious divisions, personal estrangements, the whole spectrum of dysfunctional relationships, continue to characterize "Christianity" and may well be more dominant in the eyes of the beholder than any evidence of "peacemaking" or peaceful relationships (peacekeeping). The children of God are identified in His word as peacemakers, who love all men (even their enemies) and who forgive AS they have been forgiven.
There is a story going around of a woman who, having been overheard by a police officer shouting impatient obscenities at fellow motorists, was taken to the police station. The officer later apologized to her, explaining that he had concluded that she had stolen the car since her language and attitude were so inconsistent with the Christian slogan on the bumper sticker.
Then there is the challenge: If it were a crime to be a Christian (It is a crime to convert to Christ in a number of countries) would there be sufficient evidence to prove me guilty or would my life style enable the court to acquit me?
Some months ago, after reading a newspaper column, I scribbled the thoughts quoted below. Unfortunately, I did not take note of the author, name of the paper or its date. I quote it here with my apology for failing to credit the author or publication.
We sometimes hear people speak of nominal Christians in contrast to the real thing. There may be a variety of ways of detecting which group an individual or even a congregation belong in but this is a test which should properly be applied by God and by each of us to ourselves personally. This is true because the determination factors, although they should be observed in actions and attitudes, are found deep in the heart. It would seem that a forgiving heart might be the ultimate determinator as to whether a disciple of Jesus is for real or not. Have we mastered this aspect of following the One who forgave us? Would we pass this test?
The problem is identified as a heart problem. Why do we not relate to one another in peace? Are we tender-hearted towards God and man? When we cause problems are we sorry? Do we care?
Loving, peacemaking, forgiving can only be effective if they result from a genuine, tender, caring heart.
Here is another anonymous thought-provoking quotation: "Forgiveness is a door. It's the way to peace and joy. But it's a small door and can't be entered without stooping or kneeling. And sometimes it is very hard to find."
I conclude this series, fully aware of the fact that much more could be written in a much better way. It has been my humble effort to address a widespread problem and a very vital aspect of our lives as disciples of Jesus. It is an area in which each of us needs to do intensive, deep-hearted self-examination. As mentioned in the beginning, it is all too easy to deceive ourselves in this matter and thus fail others, ourselves and God.
He who forgives another accomplishes much:
- The restoration of a loving relationship with another.
- The relief and happiness that comes with the removal of very self-destructive vengeful feelings of resentment and ill-will towards another.
- The possibility of being forgiven by God. Without it God will not forgive us (Mt. 6:15; 18:35).
We should not delay our forgiveness. There is an urgency - the same day. "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent' forgive him" (Lk.17:3,4).
Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Col.3:13).
Eugene C. Perry
Published in The Old Paths Archive