The wonderful gift of forgiveness

Leroy Lawson, formerly of Central Christian, Mesa, tells of the great athlete Bill Russell, "a couple of years he was an all American basketball player with the University of San Francisco, then he played basketball for thirteen years with the Boston Celtics, eleven of those years were championship years, five times he was the most valuable player, he became coach and manager of the Sonics for four years, one of our supreme athletes but I want to tell you about his banana pudding. When he was a boy he loved banana pudding, and his mother made banana pudding for him ever now and then. And when she did there was a kind of ritual they would go through, she would make the banana pudding, then put it out to cool and she and Mr. Charlie, Bill’s father, would go out to do a little visiting. She always had the same speech to make to Bill. “Don’t you eat none of the banana pudding, its for supper,” and they would leave. Then Bill said he would pace around the house, but mostly he would pace around the banana pudding, “I wonder what it tasted like.” Now he knew what banana pudding tasted like in general, but he wondered what this particular banana pudding tasted like. He would debate about it for a while and then he would give in and get a little helping of banana pudding. Then he would go outside and play to remove himself from temptation. But it is amazing how temptation follows you. After playing outside for a little while he would come back in and have a little more banana pudding. And after a while, try as he might to put it out of his mind he noticed that the banana pudding was still there. At this point He began to blame his parents. It was their fault for staying away so long leaving him there with temptation so he would have a little more banana pudding. . And then he said that by the time he had got half done, or a little bit more, his reasoning went something like this “Hey, I gonna get a whipping anyway so I might as well eat the whole batch.” Then while he sat there , stuffed and sated and not able to think too well, in that condition, he had to plan his strategy against the moment the parents would arrive.
He said he never got much further than locking the door. They would arrive and try to get in and they couldn’t get in, and his mother would yell, “Open up! You been in that pudding again, ain’t you?”
That’s how sin works in our lives. It starts out so innocently, and then it gets a hold on us, then we become accusers, it always somebody else’s fault, I am talking about banana pudding, sexual impurity, lying, stealing, disobedience, cheating, I am talking about sin.”

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”( 1 John 1:8 ) If we reject this self-deception and admit there we have sinned then there is hope for us. The next verse describes our hope:

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1John 1:9)

Ah, forgiveness, what a sweet word. What does it mean for me?

There are many contexts for the word forgiveness in the Bible. We can look at some of the words in the context of the culture much as we would do today. But there are more important ideas attached to the word in our relationship to God as well as others.

The story about Abraham in his petition to God for the safety of his nephew, Lot, is an example. The Lord appears to Abraham telling him that he has come to bring judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins. Abraham knows that Lot lives in Sodom and is concerned for his safety. The Lord tells Abraham what is about to happen and Abraham is quick to be concerned for his nephew. He questions God about judging the just with the wicked, and indicated that perhaps 50 righteous people could be found in Sodom. Then Abraham starts backing off from 50 to 45, then 40, 30,20 and even 10.

Abraham is aware of his lack of evidence for any righteous people there and apologizes in this manner: "Please forgive my boldness in continuing to speak to you, Lord. I am only a man and have no right to say anything.” Abraham has not done anything wrong in pleading for Lot’s life but he felt the need of saying this because he stands before someone who is great and awesome.

We may use such an expression sometimes when we are in inferior position to someone in authority. This kind of forgiveness is not morally an issue, it is a response to someone in a polite manner. We have expressions like “forgive me for asking this questions,” or Please excuse me for bringing this up.” We are trying to be polite without insulting.

The second kind of forgiveness is related to human relations and is seen in the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob deceived his father and stole Esau’s birthright among other things. He fled from the family and went to his relatives where he could hide out for a while. After a long time he returned to his family in Canaan. He was now wealthy and had a large family. But he still has to face Esau. When he learned that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men panic set in. He divided up his animals in two groups so that perhaps one of them would survive. Out of the animals he took “two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty she-asses and ten he-asses.” and sent them ahead for Esau for Jacob was thinking Jacob was thinking, "I will win him over with the gifts, and when I meet him, perhaps he will forgive me." (Genesis 32:14-15)

This kind of action is common. Maybe we can buy forgiveness from someone we have offended. It is also common among people thinking that God can be bought off. We may imagine that God will forgive me because I have been so good in relating to people, giving alms, saying prayers, and many other things people do in hopes of buying off God. It does not work with God. In the case of Esau, he took all of the stuff offered, but these two brothers were never really reconciled.

A third episode of forgiveness is seen in the story of Joseph’s brothers. When their father died the brothers began to worry that Joseph would seek revenge for all the terrible things they had done to him. Selling him into slavery was a despicable act. Their consciences had bothered them for many years, but they did nothing about it. Now Joseph is suspected because they had done so much evil to him. Now Joseph is powerful, they are powerless. Their safety and lives depends on Joseph. So the brothers reported to Joseph, "Your father gave this command before he died, 'Say to Joseph, Forgive, I pray you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.' And now, we pray you, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him.”(Gen.50.17)

One might wonder if Jacob really did send the message or whether they made up the story for forgiveness. Forgiveness in this story is important for Joseph had the power to do lots of things to his brothers, but he did nothing. . He had an awareness that God had worked in his life to deliver not only him but also his father’s family during a severe famine.

A fourth example of forgiveness being sought relates to the Pharaoh in the book of Exodus when he was suffering from the plagues brought on him by God. The plague of locusts left the land devastated and “Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron in haste, and said, "I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. Now therefore, forgive my sin, I pray you, only this once, and entreat the LORD your God only to remove this death from me." (Exod. 10:16-17)

However, as soon as the plague was gone, the Pharaoh reverted to his stubborn ways. He really did not want forgiveness as such, but wanted the land to be cleared of the plague of locusts. Since the time of Pharaoh many people have made pleas that their trials and struggles be ended, but then turn away from God to their own pet schemes. In the history of the Old Testament stories abound in which the people repented for a short time only to return to their sinful, rebellious ways a short time later. We humans continue this terrible practice of repenting for a short time only to return to our beloved sins quickly.

Fifth, the most awesome context of the word “forgive” comes in the fact that humans sin against God and he is willing to forgive.

What have humans done? Isaiah speaks of their disregard of Yahweh. They worshiped a man made idol, they rebelled in disobedience to God, they broke his Law, profaned his Sabbath, “forgot” the great things he had done for them. In spite of all this the promise is given, “I am the God who forgives your sins, and I do this because of whom I am. I will not hold your sins against you.” (Isaiah 43:25)

Sadly, the problem is people do not want or seek God’s forgiveness. There is the importance of repenting of sin and turning to God to be forgiven. The prophets of the Old Testament denounced the people’s acceptance of sin and their forsaking God’s Law in their living.
Remember David’s sin with Bath-Sheba? The prophet Nathan exposed David’s sin of adultery and murder of her husband and the words came: "I have sinned against the LORD," David said. Nathan replied, "The LORD forgives you; you will not die.”(2 Sam.12:13)

In the Psalms we have this wonderful word: “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our sins from us.”(Psalms 103:12)

Forgiveness is something that not only relates to God but to humans as well. It is commanded that people forgive one another. The model prayer, often called the Lord’s Prayer, has this phrase in it: “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us.” (Matt.6:12) Moreover, Jesus warned about the lack of forgiveness on our part. “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done.” (Matt. 6:15) Forgiveness is necessary for lots of reasons.

Once I knew a lady who would not come to church because someone had said something that offended her. I heard her complaint but then I read the words of Jesus about forgiveness. I told her that if she did not forgive then she would not be forgiven. This created a change in her life and she forgave and began coming to church.

A. Forgiveness rules out revenge. The thought of trying to get even is tempting but never ending. A little boy came running into the house crying, saying, his playmate hit him. The Father asked, why did you not hit him back. The little boy blubbered out, “then, it would be his turn again.” Revenge can only escalate and peace can not be achieved by revenge. Moreover, the Scripture declares, “Never take revenge, my friends, but instead let God's anger do it. For the scripture says, "I will take revenge, I will pay back, says the Lord. (Romans 12:19) Revenge is an attempt to get justice, but only God can do that.

B. Forgiveness is healing. If you do not forgive people who have offended you, you will continue to have their control in your life even when they have died and are no longer around you. A father who molested his daughter, even though he died a long time ago, will still influence her life if she does not forgive and seek God’s healing of that terrible memory. If we don’t forgive we will be haunted for life by the thought of revenge to others.

C. Being forgiven mellows our hearts toward those who need our forgiveness. Consider the story of Peter wondering if there was a limit to forgiveness. “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?" "No, not seven times," answered Jesus, "but seventy times seven, because the Kingdom of heaven is like this. “Once there was a king who decided to check on his servants' accounts. He had just begun to do so when one of them was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. The servant did not have enough to pay his debt, so the king ordered him to be sold as a slave, with his wife and his children and all that he had, in order to pay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before the king. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay you everything!' The king felt sorry for him, so he forgave him the debt and let him go. "Then the man went out and met one of his fellow servants who owed him a few dollars. He grabbed him and started choking him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he said. His fellow servant fell down and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!' But he refused; instead, he had him thrown into jail until he should pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were very upset and went to the king and told him everything. So he called the servant in. 'You worthless slave!' he said. 'I forgave you the whole amount you owed me, just because you asked me to. You should have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you.' The king was very angry, and he sent the servant to jail to be punished until he should pay back the whole amount." And Jesus concluded, "That is how my Father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." (Matt. 18:21-35)

The implication of the story is that we want unlimited forgiveness over and over again when we are talking with God, but we are wanting to be limited in the forgiveness we offer others. Because we have been forgiven much we must learn to forgive much.

D. Forgiveness is God’s way of healing us, and his command to forgive others who offend us is part of the healing process. The words of Scripture are healing to us. For example, “ But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing.” (I John 1:9) In our confession of sin to God we are sure that He forgives based on these words. If we confess to the person we have offended they are able to pronounce forgiveness to us and restoration of the relationship is possible. Forgiveness means that my offensive act will not be held against me. In a sense we are made clean and new in the relationship. If I have offended my wife, or whoever, and confess my guilt to her or others, their forgiveness means we can have a continuing relationship without the baggage of the past. We can go forward in our relationship without guilt. Forgiveness does away with guilt.

E. Forgiveness should be considered before drastic actions. There are many people who adopt the position, my wife/husband cheated on me and I am going to divorce her/him. The hurt is so deep that forgiveness is never considered. One must ask the question of oneself: God has forgiven me so much can I bring myself to forgive the unfaithful partner? Forgiveness is a means of transformation and forgiveness can bind two people deeper than they ever thought possible in their relationship. Forgiveness means a new beginning.

We have made distinctions between the sins of the flesh and the sins of the spirit. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “People's desires make them give in to immoral ways, filthy thoughts, and shameful deeds. They worship idols, practice witchcraft, hate others, and are hard to get along with. People become jealous, angry, and selfish. They not only argue and cause trouble, but they are envious. They get drunk, carry on at wild parties, and do other evil things as well. I told you before, and I am telling you again: No one who does these things will share in the blessings of God's kingdom. (Gal. 5:19-21)

There is an intermingling of the sins of the flesh and the sins of the spirit. People are inclined to be soft on the sins of the spirit, jealousy, angry, selfishness, hatred, envious, difficult to get along, cause trouble, and argue. At the same time the sins of the flesh are denounced often intently. C. S. Lewis observed that the sins of the flesh “burn” out with age, but the sins of the spirit grow deeper and are more possessive.

In contrast here we have the fruit of the Spirit. “God's Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. There is no law against behaving in any of these ways.” (Gal. 5:22-23.) Because of our humanness, we need forgiveness one of another as well as the forgiveness that comes from God.

Forgiveness is greatly needed in the world today, but it is not found in many cultures. If you live in a culture in which karma is believed in, there is no forgiveness. You have to work to accomplish a surplus of your good deeds over the bad deeds you have done. One never knows when this is accomplished. Karma is like an impersonal judge which weighs your deeds.

If you are raised in a “works” oriented religion there is a similar situation in which your good deeds are to outweigh your bad deeds. This is a way of working your way to paradise.
Again, you never know when your good deeds outweigh the bad deeds. When can a finite deed meet the demands of an Infinite being. You need an Infinite deed to warrant the respect of an Infinite Being.

Many people from religious cultures are caught up in this. I recently heard the story of a woman who attended church for 50 years thinking that she was a Christian because she went to church and was a good person. Finally, she came into contact with some people who read the Bible and involved her in a Bible study and she became aware that she was not a Christian and did not have a relationship with Jesus. There is a huge difference between having a religion and having a relationship with Jesus. She prayed for Jesus to come into her life and the difference was remarkable.

If you live in a Muslim culture there seems to be a sense of forgiveness in which Allah forgives the obedient but not the disobedient. However, the obedient is contrasted with the need for forgiveness. If you need forgiveness you have not been obedient. The problem of shame is so powerful that forgiveness seems impossible. If a young girl is found in some Muslim areas with a boy’s phone number on her cell phone she may be killed for the family honor. Actions regarded as shame seem to supercede the role of forgiveness. Many terrible things have been done to “save honor” when forgiveness was ignored and a person’s life has been taken. “Honor” seems to make forgiveness impossible. Tribes fight one another rather than forgive. Families fight one another rather than forgive.

Wives who are thought to be unfaithful can be killed when forgiveness is really needed. The double standard prevails in Muslim culture in which the man can do lots of sinful things without problems, but a woman is different. Honor societies seem to create a standard of acting to deal with the presumed shame before the facts are in. A young girl was killed because she was suspected of having sex outside of marriage. After she was dead it was medically proven that she did not have sex with anyone. A Saudi man saw his wife accept a piece of paper from a man and went to the PA system and announced his divorce to the wife with her children in the mall. The honor culture seems to create a great deal of suspicion in which actions take place without evidence or conversation. This seems particularly true when the suspect is a female.

The result of forgiveness is reconciliation. This may not always be the case with humans, but with God it is wonderful. God has done some unbelievable things to reach us in our sin. “ Real love isn't our love for God, but his love for us. God sent his Son to be the sacrifice by which our sins are forgiven.” (1 John 4:10) God’s love means he wants a relationship with us. We can’t earn it, work for it, or anything else but receive and welcome it.

“ God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them! No one who has faith in God's Son will be condemned. But everyone who doesn't have faith in him has already been condemned for not having faith in God's only Son.” (John 3:16-18)