#6 Forgiveness (shortened)
(For full version of this Bible study "lesson," click here.)
As humans, we all hurt others and are hurt by others. And the world’s way to deal with this is to hold grudges or to punish others. But God has a lot to say about forgiveness – His forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. And these have major impacts on our relationship with Him and our standing before Him.
Mark 11:25: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Psalm 66:18: “. . . If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened”
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened! By holding onto our sins, we are blocking God from hearing our prayers and answering them. And if God requires that we forgive others, then “unforgiveness” is a sin. A sin that ends up hurting our relationship with the Lord.
Now, I don’t believe that these verses are saying that we will lose our salvation. I believe there are two levels of forgiveness. One relates to the moment we chose Jesus as our Savior and we were forgiven of our sins, as a whole, so that we could attain salvation. This is a permanent forgiveness. And we can’t lose that by any sin we commit. Because if we could lose it by our sins then Jesus’ death was not enough. (Although not all Christians see it this way.)
Now, the other level of forgiveness, though, relates to the condition of our relationship with the Lord and our daily walk with Him. When we sin, we break fellowship with Him and we prevent ourselves from attaining the abundant, God-glorifying life that we should have. Like in any relationship, a sin doesn’t necessarily mean that you dump the friendship, but it does interfere with the condition of your relationship, with the level of closeness you feel with the other person.
We need to take it seriously when God says that He forgives our sins as we forgive others. But how many of us just consider this poetic?
But it’s not just poetry. Being unforgiving to others - holding grudges and being bitter - puts up a wall between us and the Lord. And we cannot have the kind of relationship with Him that we were meant to have if we have unforgiveness in our hearts. Being unforgiving doesn’t just hurt the other person; it hurts us and our health (stress hurts our body) and, most importantly, it destroys our fellowship with the Lord. And we need to confess these sins as we become aware of them in order to restore proper fellowship.
Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
We should regularly be asking for God’s help in searching our hearts for anything that gets in the way of our fellowship with Him, anything that grieves the Spirit, because we need that intimate fellowship in order to have the best, most rewarding, most God-glorifying life possible. (And if we need it, we should ask for His help in forgiving others. He will help us do what we cannot do on our own.)
I have a theory. All of us who decide to passionately pursue God (and not everyone chooses to do this, many just coast in their relationship with Him) will eventually find ourselves in a painful struggle with our deepest fears, doubts, sins, “needs,” etc. We may be struggling with an illness, a wayward child, a difficult or drifting spouse, an unfulfilling role, an entrenched sin or doubt, a misconception we cling to. Or maybe it’s our fears about being insignificant, unappreciated, unloved, alone, about pain, about loss, about death.
Somewhere along the path to a whole, humble, genuine, trusting relationship with Him, all serious God-seekers will be forced to face and struggle with “our issue” until we make a decision: hold onto the fear/”need”/sin/doubt/misconception/desire/resentment/difficult situation (etc.) and try to maintain control over it ... or place it fully into God’s hands and grab onto Him instead.
He will not allow us to hold onto both. We cannot hold onto control, fear, “our right to have our needs met,” resentment, sin, selfish desires, etc., and yet still hold onto Him, too. He knows that it’s not best for us to carry those burdens ourselves.
These “decision times” are usually incredibly hard and painful because they often hit upon the scars and wounds and broken parts of our hearts that we have tried to keep wrapped up, hidden, and safe for so long. And they often involve learning to be vulnerable and to trust God, whereas we prefer self-preservation and having control.
But God is after complete healing and growth and wholeness for us. And so we are asked to eventually face, work through, and let go of the self-reliant, self-protective, self-sabotaging, self-focused thoughts and behaviors that hinder our relationship with Him, with ourselves, and with others.
If we have an unforgiving, bitter spirit, God will eventually force us to face it and deal with it, to decide if we will choose to be obedient to Him by forgiving the other person ... or if we will hold on to our resentment and our "right to be angry, to punish," which will eventually destroy us and our relationship with Him. (If you are sinking into a pit of self-destructive anger or fear, ask yourself if there is anyone you are holding a grudge against.)
And to correct a common misconception: You don’t have to be "happy" about being obedient in order to be obedient. You don't have to enjoy giving control to God, letting go of your "rights," forgiving others, letting go of bitterness, etc., in order to do these things. You don’t have to “feel like it.”
But you do have to do it.
Even if you are still heart-sick and sad and angry and scared, you can still humbly submit your life to the Lord, obeying Him by forgiving others from your heart. Because He has forgiven us. Because we know He will right all wrongs in the end and that He alone has the right to avenge all wrongs.
Forgiveness and Other People
Not too long ago, I was bothered for days because someone was sharing something about me with others that was a misrepresentation, and they were delighting in this misrepresentation. But they would not listen to me when I tried to correct them.
I was really bothered by this, but I had no recourse. So I complained in my head about it for days. And it was eating me up inside, making me bitter and miserable.
But what finally put a stop to it is when I realized that, in God’s eyes, my thoughts and critical attitude were probably “more” sinful than what this person was guilty of. And I found myself saying, “Yes, Lord, what they did wasn’t right, but I am guilty of pride, unforgiveness, and a harsh, critical attitude. And this is a sin against You. Forgive me!”
It helps us keep a soft, forgiving, repentant heart when we look at ourselves instead of at others.
Of course, it is a great thing when we move from saying “Look at the wrongs they have done to me” to saying “Lord, forgive them for they don’t know what they’ve been doing.”
But it is an equally great thing to move from “Lord, forgive them for they don’t know what they’ve been doing” to “Lord, forgive me for I don’t know what I have been doing.”
God will deal with the sins of others. He is the one who will avenge wrongs. We just need to be concerned with the plank in our eye and with our own sins. And all sins, whether they are actions or thoughts or attitudes, are really sins against God. He alone really has the right to avenge them. And He will right all wrongs in the end. If we keep this in mind, it will help us to put bitterness, criticalness, and indignation aside. (These things just kill us slowly on the inside anyway.)
Not only do we have the responsibility to forgive others and to seek forgiveness from God, but we are to ask for forgiveness from others for any offenses we have made against them.
Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
Being reconciled to others is so important to God that we are not even supposed to offer our gifts at the altar until we do. But how many of us sing God’s praises at church while we have unfinished business in a relationship with someone else? How many of us won’t seek reconciliation because we don’t think that we should have to? (After all, "We didn’t do anything wrong, did we? It was all them! Besides, it’s history now!")
Forgiveness is not so much about the other person; it’s about our relationship with God. And even worse than just blocking God from hearing our prayers, unforgiveness towards others (or any resistance to confessing any sin in our lives, for that matter) shows hard-heartedness, which is diametrically opposed to a healthy, open relationship with God. And we will further block ourselves off from being sensitive to the Holy Spirit. And the longer we resist, the more we will entrench ourselves behind the wall that we have put up between us and the Lord. And the more numb and desensitized - and self-justified - we will feel.
It’s all about our heart and if we humble ourselves before a holy God. But how many of our prayers go unheard because of our heart’s condition and our attitude towards others? Pride, bitterness, envy, gossip, idol worship, unforgiveness, ungodly speech, getting drunk, cheating, giving into temptations, lust, affairs, sex outside of marriage, acting out in anger, worry, etc., are all sins that need to be confessed and repented of, if we want God to hear our prayers, to be close to Him, and to have the most effective life for Christ.
Forgiving Ourselves and Forgiving God
There is another aspect to forgiveness that we might struggle with. And that is forgiving ourselves and “forgiving” God. Sometimes it is easier to forgive others than it is to forgive ourselves for the wrongs we have done. Some of us live our whole lives punishing ourselves or keeping our distance from God and others because we feel too guilty for things we have done. We do not feel that we deserve to be forgiven, and so we do not accept the forgiveness that God is so ready to give us. Like knowing and accepting that His love is a free gift, we have a hard time knowing and accepting His free gift of forgiveness. And for some people, His free gift of salvation.
Maybe we have never experienced true mercy and grace from other people in our lives? Maybe we have never been given anything and we are used to earning everything we have?
But we cannot earn forgiveness and grace and mercy. The only way to truly be forgiven is to accept it with a grateful, humble heart. And when this happens, we find God’s love and healing. And we begin to want to live a life that honors Him, out of thankfulness for the unearnable gifts that He gives us.
If we are still trying to earn anything from God (or if we feel that God owes us anything) then we don’t have a correct understanding of Him.
I want to look for a moment at the woman caught in adultery in John 8. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. (I wonder how they knew it would be happening at that exact time? And why did they not bring the man who was just as guilty? Sounds like a set-up to me. Just speculating.)
They are trying to trap Jesus, “in order to have a basis for accusing him.” And instead of answering their question about if she should be stoned, Jesus writes on the ground. We don’t know what he wrote, but we do know that it is enough to make them all leave after He says, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (Verse 7) (I think it’s interesting to note that the older ones left first. I think as we age, we lose some of that dogmatic, self-righteousness that we might have had when we were young, and we begin to see that we are just as human as the next person.)
What I want to specifically note here are two things.
1. Jesus was more disturbed by the unforgiving, self-righteous attitudes of the “spiritual elite” than He was by the humiliated, shamed, guilty woman. And this should be sobering to those of us who are more bothered by what everyone else is doing wrong than by what we are doing wrong and to those of us who are so eager to accept forgiveness that we don’t deserve but who are unwilling to give it to others.
2. And Jesus wasn’t nearly as concerned with where the woman was coming from. He was much more concerned with where she was going. “‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’” (John 8:11)
I point this out because I think too many people do not realize how ready and willing God is to forgive them. They hold onto their guilt as a sort of punishment, too full of shame to accept God’s forgiveness and love and healing. But God is much more concerned with where you are going than where you’ve been. Accept His forgiveness, let it make you free. And forgive yourself and “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
And then there are those of us who struggle with “forgiving” God. Maybe our own sins and shortcomings don’t bother us, but God’s “shortcomings” or the ways He lets us down bother us immensely. This is a whole different kind of heart attitude. This is one where we feel like life should be the way we expect it to be, and it really upsets us when God doesn’t make it so.
Some of us have lost health, loved ones, jobs, homes, etc. And we struggle with wondering how a good, loving God could allow this to happen to us. And we become unforgiving toward Him, living as though He failed us or owes us some explanation.
But at some point, we have to decide if we will still trust God even when things don’t go the way we want ... or if we will harden our hearts toward Him because He isn’t the kind of God we thought He should be.
If this is where we are at in life right now, I believe that we need to look at our expectations of God, of faith. Because I’m going to guess that we do not truly see Him the way that He is, the way the Bible says He is. When we try to smoosh Him up into a little box that we made or to define Him according to our faulty or unreasonable expectations, it is easy to lose hope and faith and trust when things go wrong. He isn’t the God we thought He was.
But it isn’t God who is failing us; it is our own ideas of God and life that are the problems to begin with. And we need to sort these out if we are going to be able to see the situation clearly, to “forgive” Him, and to humbly trust Him and seek His comfort when things go wrong. Life is hard enough without holding grudges against God. Or against others or ourselves, too.
Forgiveness (of others and ourselves) becomes easier when we remember that we all wear a construction sign on our souls that says: “Work in progress. Please be patient and pardon my dust.”
10. What are some misconceptions that people have about forgiveness? How do these misconceptions affect people?
12. When and why is it hard to forgive others? And what are some ways that we avoid doing it? Any examples from your own life? Do you think Christians in general do a good job of forgiving others?
13. Does a person have to be deserving of forgiveness in order to be forgiven, by God and by others? Do they have to ask for it and be sorry before we can forgive them?
14. Can we forgive someone even if we never get the chance to tell them? What about if they are not around anymore? If so, how can we do this?
16. What kinds of things do we do when we are bitter? What effect does unforgiveness have on us, our relationships, and our faith? What does it reveal about the condition of our heart and our view of our own fallenness and need for grace and mercy?
19. When and why is it hard to seek forgiveness from others (and from God) for our own offenses? And instead of just asking for it and accepting it, what are some ways that we might try to earn it? Any examples from your own life? Do you think Christians in general are doing a good job of seeking and accepting forgiveness?
21. How does failing to seek forgiveness affect us and our relationship with God? With others? With ourselves? What if the person we need to seek forgiveness from isn’t around anymore? What can we do in this situation?
22. What do you think about the following idea?
“It helps us keep a soft, forgiving, repentant heart when we look at ourselves instead of others. Of course, it is a great thing when we move from saying ‘Look at the wrongs they have done to me’ to saying ‘Lord, forgive them for they don’t know what they’ve been doing.’ But it is an equally great thing to move from ‘Lord, forgive them for they don’t know what they’ve been doing’ to ‘Lord, forgive me for I don’t know what I have been doing.’”
23. What things are hard for us to forgive ourselves for? What are some reasons we might have a hard time accepting forgiveness or forgiving ourselves? What effect might this have on our lives and our relationship with God? Have you ever felt this way? (And what are some biblical truths that might help us forgive ourselves?)
24. What are some faulty expectations/assumptions that we have about God, about ourselves, about others, and about life? How might these lead to problems? How might they hurt our relationship with God? (Expectations such as “God said that if I had faith, I would always get what I asked for in prayer” and “God just wants us to be happy” and “We can’t really forgive others or obey God unless we ‘feel like it.’”)
27. I said that “all sins, whether they are actions or thoughts or attitudes, are really sins against God. He alone really has the right to avenge them. And He will right all wrongs in the end. If we keep this in mind, it will help us to put bitterness, criticalness, and indignation aside.” What do you think of this idea? What does it mean for our lives?
28. Is there anyone that you need to forgive? What effect has unforgiveness and bitterness had on your life?
29. Is there anyone you need to ask for forgiveness from? What has your relationship been like because of your resistance to doing it? How can you make amends? (What if they are not around anymore?)
30. Is there any unconfessed sin that you need to ask God’s forgiveness for? Or any sin that you know you know you are forgiven for but that you need to forgive yourself for? How might finally doing this change your life and your relationship with God? (If it’s too personal, keep it between yourself and God.)
32. What do you think of my theory? Have you experienced this?
“All of us who decide to passionately pursue God . . . will eventually find ourselves in a painful struggle with our deepest fears, doubts, sins, “needs,” etc. . . . Somewhere along the path to a whole, humble, genuine, trusting relationship with Him, all serious God-seekers will be forced to face and struggle with “our issue” until we make a decision: hold onto the fear/”need”/sin/doubt/misconception/desire/resentment/difficult situation (etc.) and try to maintain control over it, or place it fully into God’s hands and grab onto Him instead. He will not allow us to hold onto both.”
33. What do you think about the idea of needing to “forgive God”? What are some things that we might have a hard time “forgiving” God for? What might help cause this unforgiving attitude?
34. Is there anything that you need to “forgive” God for? Anything that you have been holding against Him, that has been interfering with your relationship with Him? How can you go about doing this and finally letting it go?
35. How can we bear with the tragedies of life without becoming bitter: the lost loved ones, the loss of health, the accidents, the betrayals, etc.?
36. “Forgiveness (of others and ourselves) becomes easier when we remember that we all wear a construction sign on our souls that says: ‘Work in progress. Please be patient and pardon my dust.’” Discuss this sentence.
The posts in this Bible study:
(And I didn't repost the last "lesson" because it's not really a lesson. It's meant to be a conversation-starter if you are doing this Bible study with others: 22. Gray Areas)