THE CHOICE TO FORGIVE

by Malcolm Smith




     The meeting was over, and I had gone back stage to refresh myself before going home. The curtains of the stage parted and one of the ushers brought in a short swarthy man who, they explained, had driven seven hundred miles to be at the meeting and receive prayer. Introducing himself, he said he was sick with what seemed to be an ulcer in his stomach. He had come expecting God to heal his condition and to have me lay hands on him that he might receive the experience of the baptism with the Holy Spirit.

     As he shared his need, I realized he was desperately hungry to receive his requests; no man would drive seven hundred miles without an expectancy of receiving. Yet, I felt in my spirit that something was blocking the satisfying of that great hunger. We visited for a while about his walk with God and his background. As we did so, he casually mentioned the fact that he hated his employer. I immediately questioned the statement and found that for the last year he had harbored bitterness and was almost on a non-speaking relationship with his boss. I knew we had found the block to his enjoying all that was his in Christ.

     During the next half an hour I shared with him the absolute necessity of forgiving those who have wronged us. Finally, he understood what I was saying and back stage in the presence of God forgave his employer. Hardly had he done so when he experienced the baptism with the Spirit. He wrote me three weeks later to say that he had no symptoms of a stomach ulcer since that night.

     The Scripture joins as one to say that there is nothing more important than forgiveness in the life of the new born person. Without forgiving, love becomes a shallow act that borders on hypocrisy. The Christians in Corinth were athletes in their pursuit of spiritual gifts and the manifestation of Godís power. Tragically, they were cripples in their understanding and practice of Godís love. Their fellowship was characterized by cliques, envies, jealousy, gossip and division (1 Corinthians 1:10-12). In counseling them Paul did not tell them to stop pursuing spiritual gifts, but rather to recognize the preeminence of love (1 Corinthians 12:31 - 13:3).

     Love without power is frustrated, but power without love is empty noise and positively dangerous. The current renewal movement is in grave danger of going down the Corinthian path, ending up as a sounding gong or clanging cymbal. It is imperative that we learn to express the love of God as it is revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

     The Scripture continually calls us to love and forgive others, even as we have received from God.

And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children (Ephesians 4:32-5:1).
And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity (Colossians 3:12-14).

     The born again person can love with Godís love, for God who is love has united Himself with us as we have trusted in the finished work of Christ. Romans 5:5 states that the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We are lovers for we are born into the family of love Himself. We are forgiven to be forgivers. While we struggle and try to forgive in our own strength, we will always dismally fail; but to rest in Him who is love within us will cause us to have a lifestyle characterized by Godís love.

     If that is so, why is the Church full of bitterness, envies, backbiters and foul gossip?

     We know the new life is Christ within, urging us to love and forgive. The reason we stumble in the moment of crisis is we do not have a solid foundation in our understanding upon which to forgive.

     When we are hurt or offended we have a moral sense of justice that demands payment for the hurt inflicted. The Old Testament Law expressed this when it stated An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Until the offender paid, we did not feel free to forgive.

     We wrestle with our sense of justice to handle our own sins, as well as the sins of others. It is a known fact that many accident prone people subconsciously cause their misfortunes in an effort to atone for their sins. Many more feel that they are being punished for their sins when a tragedy strikes them.

     The Pharisee with his religious rules and regulations struggled to do good in order to satisfy the gnawing voice within that demanded just payment for sin. I have met priests, ministers, missionaries and lay folk who involve themselves in religious activity as a way of paying their debts to God and so being accepted by Him.

     This way of seeking to pay for our sins we carry over to the way we treat the one who sins against us. Nursing our inner wounds we agree with our innate sense of justice and demand that payment is made. We take it upon ourselves to execute that judgment whether in word, action or rage-filled fantasies in our imagination.

     We need a foundation by which we can accept and forgive our enemies and not violate our sense of justice. That foundation is the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. In those three days of time-space history an infinite and eternal act was accomplished -- God legally achieved forgiveness for his rebellious creature man.

     In Jesus Christ we have the perfect Savior of man. He is the eternal God, yet at the same time the true man of our race. As sinless man, He can take the place of man; and because He is God, He can represent all men. This He freely chose to do, accepting manís sin, and as man going to the cross where the Father dealt with Him as if He was every sinner of all time rolled into one person. His sacrifice was enough, and God demonstrated that justice had been satisfied by raising Him from the dead.

He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification (Romans 4:25).

     When we accept what God accomplished for us, He declares us righteous, releasing us from the burden of our sin. This is the Gospel: Another has taken our sin and satisfied the claim of Godís justice against us, leaving nothing for man to pay, only total pardon to accept.

     In His death Christ has paid for all sin. Not only mine, but also that of the whole world - and that included the sin that was committed against me by my neighbor. The Gospel gives me a solid foundation not only for receiving forgiveness but also for giving it. We can now forgive, knowing that our sense of justice has not been muzzled but rather vindicated in the finished work of Christ.

     Forgiveness is the choice to agree with God concerning what is due the one who has sinned against me. In the finished work of Christ I hear God say, It has been paid for. To refuse to forgive is to choose to disagree with God saying that the cross was not enough to deal with all sin.

     In Matthew 18:15-35 Jesus is teaching concerning our interpersonal relationships. One of the key verses to understanding the chapter is Verse 18:

Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

     To bind an individual is later shown to constitute the withholding of forgiveness from a brother, i.e. we chain them to the sin they have committed, demanding full payment. In so binding them we refuse to see any other aspect of their character, remembering only the action or word that hurt us. Our attitude makes it impossible for any restitution or reconciliation to take place for we see everything they do through the old hurt.

     On the other hand to loose a person is to release them from the payment of their sin, forgiving them on the basis of what Christ has done for all of us. Loosing is the choice to release the offender into the hands of God the only Judge and Redeemer that He might work in their lives. In so doing we become part of Godís activity in changing them. Jesus illustrated this with a parable (Vs. 23-35). A king releases his slave from a monumental debt equivalent in todayís money to ten million dollars. The king paid for the debt, absorbing the loss.

     The forgiven slave, arrogant in his new found freedom, finds a fellow servant who owed him approximately twenty dollars and violently demanded that the debt be paid at once. But he had forgotten something. In owing the king ten million dollars, all that was owing to the slave rightly belonged to the king until the debt be paid off. In wiping out the slaveís debt to him, he was in a sense wiping out all that was owed to the slave too, including the twenty dollars he was now demanding.

     Refusing to listen to his cries for mercy, the released slave bound his neighbor and threw him into jail until the debt should be paid. Of course, once the poor wretch was in the jail he was bound to the status of a debtor, with no hope of changing it. Upon hearing of this, the king ordered the man he had recently forgiven to be thrown to the tormentors. All who refuse to forgive discover the inner tormentors.

     The parable teaches us that the way we treat our fellow man is the way we understand our relationship to God. To demand that our fellows earn our forgiveness is to state that we believe we must earn our position in Godís family - and such an attitude places us in a continuing state of unforgiveness.

     This explains the attitude of the elder brother in Luke 15:28-30. He could not forgive his brother because of his understanding of his own relationship to his father. He felt that he had worked hard and paid heavily for his fatherís acceptance. It actually helped his sense of security to have a prodigal brother to compare himself to! He is angered when that brother returned and was accepted by the fatherís love without having to pay. He could not forgive or accept him -- to do so would be to admit that he did not understand the basis for being in the family.

     The person who will not forgive announces loudly that he has not seen or received Godís grace, for both receiving forgiveness and giving it are from the same source.

     A lady spoke to me at a meeting the other day. She and one of her friends had a misunderstanding, a sharp exchange of words and now a no talking sign was outside their lives. Bitterness smoldered in her heart.

     The answer is quite simple, I told her. First of all, you must confess you sin of unlove to the Lord and receive forgiveness. Then you must go to your friend and ask her forgiveness.

     Wait a moment, she interrupted angrily, She was the one who hurt me. And anyway, I donít feel like forgiving her, if I did it without feeling love, I would be a hypocrite.

     Letís get one or two things in perspective, I said. Whatever her sin is against you is her problem! You are obviously harboring real bitterness, and that is what you are asking forgiveness for. You must give Godís love for whatever she did to you.

     She looked at me helplessly, But I canít - I donít feel any love for her at all.

     It is never hypocrisy to obey God, I said. Christ lives in you, the love of God Himself. Go now and nakedly obey God with Christ your love within.

     The following night she was back to testify that as soon as she had taken the action of forgiveness the feeling followed. She now glowed, the bitterness gone.

     Others look at these commands to forgive and cringe before them. They feel that they could never forgive unless God worked some special miracle within them. These people are constantly asking for prayer that God might give them more faith so that they can obey Him in this area. But however much they ask, nothing happens. Every born again person can forgive without any mighty gift of faith.

     In Luke 17:4 Jesus told the disciples the extent of the forgiveness they were to give offending brothers. Their response was as current as last nightís prayer meeting! Lord increase our faith, i.e. Jesus, do something to that we can forgive like this.

     Jesus responded, If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ĎBe uprooted and be planted in the seaí; and it would obey you (Luke 17:6).

     He was saying in effect, there is no increase in faith to be had. If you have the smallest amount of faith - even if it is as small as the tiny mustard seed; it is enough. If we have only just seen the finished work of Christ and understood He paid for all, it is enough. If we have faith enough to continually receive Godís forgiveness, we have faith enough to give it.

     They were to give their forgiveness by words, You would say..... Our words are our will in action. As we choose to forgive the ugly root of bitterness is torn up and removed. Note, we do not forgive because we feel like it, but because of what we see in Christ. Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling.

     Stephen certainly did not feel like forgiving as the stones rained on him (Acts 7:58); but he saw the ascended Jesus who had paid for all sin. As he sunk into death he prayed that the sin would not be laid to their charge. His prayer came from the understanding that their sin had already been laid to the charge of Jesus. Stephen chooses to agree with God and so is able to forgive regardless of how he feels.

     When Jesus told the disciples to use the mustard seed faith to forgive they had the look on their faces that may have suggested that anyone who could forgive like that must be in the category of a saint. Jesus responded to their unspoken attitude with a parable.

     But which of you having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ĎCome immediately and sit down to eat? But will he not say to him, ĎPrepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me until I have eaten and drunk; and afterward you will eat and drink'? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ĎWe are unworthy slaves, we have done only that which we ought to have doneí (Luke 17:7-10). He was saying that when you have forgiven to the nth degree, do not think you have attained a high state of spirituality. You have only acted in the fashion that is expected of every child of God.

     Recently while sharing some of these truths, I was interrupted by a lady who announced that she can forgive but never forget. She was saying, How can we ever forget the hurt inflicted to us even if we choose to forgive?

     The answer is that when we forgive with Godís forgiveness, we will forget as God forgets! When we say that He forgets our sin, we do not mean that it is no longer known to Him. He does not suffer from amnesia or senility! His forgetting is His choice not to bring the matter to His attention again.

     The parable of Luke 15:11-32 illustrates how God forgives and forgets. When the younger brother left home the father forgave him; his returning home was to receive it. The embrace of the father was the giving and receiving of that forgiveness. But then the father took certain steps to insure that a forgetting would take place.

     The first step to forgive and forget is to promise yourself that the matter will not be brought up to anyone else, the hurts and forgiveness remain the exclusive property of the two parties.

     The Father sent a servant to return to the farm and bring back the best robe and put it on his son. He could have waited until they got home, but he wanted to dispense with the rags that told the story of where the son had been before anyone else saw him. No one must know what the son had been forgiven of -- it was between the two of them only.

     The second step to forgiving and forgetting is to promise yourself that the matter will never be raised again to the given person to make him remember and hurt over his action.

     The boy had prepared a speech in which he asked for the privilege of becoming one of his fatherís hired servants. The father could have accepted the offer and so bound the boy. As a slave in the house his state would constantly remind him of his sin and the place he had forfeited in the family. Instead, the father reinstated him to his position as his son and gave him his ring. In those days a ring with engraved initials was used as a credit card. The father refused to make the son face his sin for the rest of his life, and took steps to help him actually forget what had happened.

     The final step to forgiving and forgetting is to promise ourselves we will not gloat over the matter to ourselves but consider it a dead issue.

     They arrive home and a feast is spread. The elder brother sulks outside. The father urges him to come in and welcome his brother. Angrily, the eldest son rehearsed all that the younger brother had done, intimating that the father was a fool to have forgiven him. All that the boy said was true! The fatherís act of forgiveness suddenly looks all the more magnificent, and he could have taken the opportunity to agree with his son and gloat over his great act of forgiveness. Instead he refuses to talk about it, dismisses the younger sonís actions as a dead issue.

     We will remember the hurt as an item of history, but it will have lost all its pain.

     Understand that when we forgive someone it does not mean that they become our best friends, or indeed our friends at all. Stephen forgave his murderers, but they did not become his bosom friends - they continued to destroy him. There is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. There are some people who will probably never be our friends. Until after the resurrection some personalities will always clash, but continually forgive we must.

     We must immediately implement what we know and forgive. There may be persons in your past, maybe long removed or even dead, who are still the ghostly objects of our resentment and unforgiveness. Name them and what they did, and forgive them in the presence of God and apply all that we have shared.

     There are many persons that we hold resentments against, but the individual does not know it. We must receive Godís forgiveness for holding the bitterness, and forgive them for whatever they have done against us in Godís presence alone.

     Others we have argued with, and a cold war exists between us. These we must go to, asking forgiveness, having already forgiven them in the presence of God.

     While the Spirit speaks to you, take time and deliberately forgive your enemies, and let the love of God be the health of your spirit.



"The Choice To Forgive" has been reproduced by permission of Malcolm Smith.


Malcolm Smith

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