Lewis Smeedes, who has authored several books on the subject of forgiveness, writes that “One of God’s better jokes on us was to give us the power to remember the past and leave us no power to undo it.”
Throughout this series on regrets, we have discovered that Smedes’ statement is not completely accurate. While we may regret choices we have made concerning our money, family, time, work, and other life areas, there are some positive steps we can take now to reverse the future consequences of those choices.
But how do we handle regrets over injustices committed by another person over whom we have no control?
- It’s one thing to attempt to rekindle your affection toward a mate for whom you have lost desire, but what can you do about a spouse who deserts you for another lover?
- You may be able to get your career back on track by exercising more diligence in your work, but how do you reverse the effects of; a boss who fires you unjustly?
- You might decide that you need to spend more time with your children, but how do you deal with a drunken driver who runs a red light and snuffs out their lives?
For the past few messages, we have dealt with self-inflicted regrets. But no series of regrets would be complete without discussing regrets in our lives that are inflicted by others. The theme of today’s message is very simple: Those who refuse to forgive the hurts of others will become prisoners of regret.
1. Forgiveness Versus Revenge
The word “forgiveness” comes from the word that means to release or to let go of. Admittedly, there is something appealing in that word picture of letting go of the vile venom that poisons our lives. But C.S. Lewis once observed that “Forgiveness is a beautiful word until you have something to forgive.”
Lewis was right. We find it easy to extol the virtues of forgiveness in general until we must apply them to people and situations in particular.
For example, how does forgiveness apply to:
- A woman whose husband continually abuses her verbally and maybe even physically in front of her small children.
- A retiree who is cheated out of his life savings by a fellow Christian.
- A pastor who is unfairly dismissed because of a jealous associate.
- A father whose teenage child is brutally murdered in a contest by rival gangs.
These are not hypothetical scenarios but real situations I have encountered in the past. In each case, these victims feel powerless to undo the injustices committed by others. Yet, in each case, they are doomed to remain prisoners of their regrets, unless they learn how to release those hurts.
2. Four Fallacies About Forgiveness
Most of us remember since childhood verses in the Bible we have learned about forgiveness. We know that turning the other cheek is preferred to breaking your opponent’s nose. Yet, even though we choose forgiveness over revenge in theory, we find it difficult to exercise that choice in practice. Why?
The easy answer is, “Those who find it impossible to forgive others have not experienced God’s forgiveness themselves. It is impossible to impart what you have not received.”
One key reason we may find it difficult to forgive others is our failure to accept God’s forgiveness. But it is not the ONLY reason. I believe there are several fallacies in our understanding of forgiveness that prevent many people from experiencing freedom from regrets caused by others.
- “Forgiveness Must be Earned”
Many people would love to release the bitterness they feel toward another person, but they feel to do so would be “letting them off the hook” too easily. “He needs to understand the seriousness of his offense so that he doesn’t hurt me or someone else again.” Thus, we believe that our bitterness can somehow be a motivation for our offender’s rehabilitation. But, there are several problems with that line of reasoning.
- Earning forgiveness is impossible.
- Earning forgiveness binds you to your offender.
- “Forgiveness Is a One-Time Act”
This is another common misunderstanding about forgiveness. We want to think that we can forgive a person once and be done with it. Yet, outside of our decision to become a Christian, I cannot think of any decisions in life that do not have to be made repeatedly.
For example, rarely does a person’s resolve to quit smoking extinguish his desire to occasionally light up. Every day for a period of time, even every hour of every day, he is confronted with the decision of whether or not to smoke.
What is true about our addictions, our relationships, and our spiritual lives is also true about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a one-time decision. We usually find ourselves having to forgive the same person or the same offense repeatedly.
- “Forgiveness Is Synonymous with Forgetting”
One thing I appreciate about God is His ability to forgive and forget the wrongs we have committed against Him. The Bible is filled with verses that remind us of God’s promise to completely erase the stain of our sins.
But I think we make a tremendous mistake when we link the word “forgive” with “forget.” When we require that people not only forgive their offender but also forget the offense, we are asking them to do something that is both impossible and potentially undesirable.
But not only is forgetting another person’s offense impossible, but it is also undesirable. To overlook or deny that we have been hurt by another person keeps us from truly forgiving that person. Let me show you how.
About two years after Amy and I were married, we decided to purchase a home. Since interest rates at that time were 18%, our real estate agent encouraged us to see if we could persuade a friend or relative to lend us the money for a second mortgage at a more favorable interest rate. My grandfather agreed to lend us the money at a rate of 10% a year. Every month for the next eight years, we dutifully sent him our monthly payment for our debt. But one day, my grandfather said, “Even though your debt is not completely paid, you can quit sending me any more money. I will forget the rest of the note.” We were elated and certainly relieved.
A few years later, my grandfather died. Shortly after his death, we decided to sell the house but encountered a major problem. Even though my grandfather had verbally agreed to overlook our debt, the title company had no record of his “forgiveness” of the loan and refused to grant title to the prospective purchaser of the property. Although my grandfather had been extremely generous in overlooking our obligation to him, he had failed to go through the necessary stages to effect a genuine forgiveness of that debt.
In the same way, many people think that by simply dismissing wrongs committed against them, they have indeed forgiven a person. But to truly forgive someone, there is a process we must go through.
How to Forgive Someone:
- You must admit that you have been wronged.
- You must acknowledge that your offender owes you for his transgression.
- You must decide to release your offender of his debt to you.
Any attempt to omit one of these steps will short-circuit the whole process of forgiveness.
- “Forgiveness Requires Reunion”
Does forgiveness require that a wife continue in a marriage with a husband who is physically abusing her? Does forgiveness require that a husband overlook the continued affairs of his wife? Does forgiveness require that a Christian employer allow an embezzling employee to keep his job?
One of the greatest barriers to forgiveness is confusing forgiveness reunion. Although you would like to forgive that person who has hurt you, you still are hesitant to be reunited with. . .
- A mate who has cheated on you
- That friend who has repeatedly slandered you
- The boss who has continually abused you
Forgiveness does not require a reunion. Lewis Smedes explains the difference between forgiveness and reunion this way:
- It takes one person to forgive.
- It takes two to be reunited.
- Forgiving happens inside the wounded person.
- Reunion happens in a relationship between people.
- We can forgive a person who never says he is sorry.
- We cannot be truly reunited unless he is honestly sorry.
- We can forgive even if we do not trust the person who wronged us once not to wrong us again.
- Reunion can happen only if we can trust the person who wronged us once not to wrong us again.
- Forgiving has no strings attached.
- Reunion has several strings attached.
I will admit that a distinction between forgiveness and reunion may appear to be a rationalization for refusing to really release someone of their obligation to you. Yet, the Bible supports such a distinction.
It takes one person to forgive. It takes two to be reunited.
3. Genuine Forgiveness Illustrated (Genesis 50:19-21)
What does it mean to forgive—really forgive—another person? We have already examined four common fallacies about forgiveness. Perhaps it would be helpful to look at a positive example of true forgiveness. I believe the clearest illustration of the process of forgiveness is found in the story of Joseph and his brothers.
Without rehashing all the details of that familiar story, let me set the stage for the climactic scene recorded in Genesis 50. Out of jealousy for their father’s affection, Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery many years earlier. Because of a severe famine in Israel, the brothers traveled to Egypt to beg Pharoah for grain. Little did they know that the person to whom they would be making their appeal was their own brother, Joseph. Once Joseph revealed himself, they knew their days were numbered.
But listen to Joseph’s remarkable response to their offense: I want you to notice the three principles of forgiveness that Joseph illustrates.
- Genuine Forgiveness Admits You Have Been Wronged
- Genuine Forgiveness Acknowledges a Debt Is Owed
- Genuine Forgiveness Releases Your Offender of Their Debt
Joseph was able to see the hand of God in every hurt he had experienced. Yes, his brothers had wronged him, but Joseph believed in a God who was bigger than his brothers. Joseph believed that God was able to take the wrong actions and evil motivations of his brothers and use them for his good and for God’s eternal plan. A firm belief in the sovereignty of God was a strong motivation for Joseph’s willingness to forgive. But it was not his only motivation.
Joseph also had a selfish reason for releasing his brothers of their obligation: He was tired of serving as a prisoner of regret. Years earlier, he had been imprisoned by the unjust accusation of Potiphar’s wife, and God had miraculously freed him. But even though he had ascended to the highest position in Pharaoh’s court, Joseph was still an emotional prisoner of his brothers’ mistreatment so many years ago. How do I know that? Look at how those pent-up emotions erupted when Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. Genesis 45:2 says, “He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard of it.”
Joseph could not stand the pain any longer. He needed to unshackle himself from the emotional chairs of past wrongs that enslaved him. And forgiveness was the only key that would work.
What about you? Are you tired of being emotionally bound to that person who hurt you so long ago? Do you long to be rid of that bitterness that is slowly destroying every part of your life? Do you regret the months or years you have already wasted by refusing to let go of your hurt?
Take a moment right now and admit to God that you have been hurt—deeply hurt. Acknowledge that the other person owes you big time for what they have done to you. Think about what a just punishment for their wrongs might be: separation, divorce, jail, death?
Finally, let me encourage you to say something like this to God and possibly to your offender:
“What ______ did to me was wrong, and he should pay for what he did to me. But today, I am voluntarily releasing _____ of any obligation he has to me. Not because he deserves to be released, but because YOU, Lord, have released ME of the debt I owe You.”
Whether your offender ever expresses remorse, your decision – your continual decision – to release him of his debt will also release YOU from the prison of bitterness.
Full Passage: Selected Scripture