“Our Father in heaven . . . forgive us our debts,
as we also forgive our debtors.”
Matthew 6:9, 12
Forgiveness is such a sticky word. We all know it, and we know that we are supposed to practice it. But knowing and doing are two separate things. We would like to put our limits on forgiveness. As in, I can forgive that offense, but when you did that you went too far. Or, I will forgive you this time, but if it keeps happening, I’m done. I wonder if Peter had someone in mind when he asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times” (Matthew 18:21)? I’m not sure if Peter was happy with Jesus’ answer that day (see verse 22), but I bet he was glad of Christ’s relentless passion for mercy and grace when he was the one standing in need. That’s another thing about forgiveness. We all need it, but no one likes asking for it. It takes a great deal of humility.
I have experienced both the act of forgiving and being forgiven. Here is my story . . .
* * *
Back when Tony and I had only been dating a few months, we got in a terrible argument one night. I wasn’t happy with his plans for that evening and my insecurities were at an all-time high. The next morning, things got even worse, and I felt like I had been betrayed. Tony did his best to reassure me, and we moved on. Only five months later, we were married and starting a family. But I never forgot that night and would repeatedly bring it up, fishing for another answer. It caused many angry words, tears and sleepless nights. Finally, it came to a point where I was ready to give it over to the Lord. I prayed, Lord, help me to know the truth, and let me hear it when I am ready. Give me peace, and help me to forgive.
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly,
since love covers a multitude of sins.”
1 Peter 4:8
One Sunday night, my cousin came to speak at our church. His message was about the messes we make of our lives and how God can clean them up. Tony went to the altar that night, but we didn’t really discuss it because as soon as church was over, we were headed out of town to visit family. After hours of driving, we settled the kids down to sleep and got ready to lay down ourselves. We had been married for six years now and just had our third child. It had been a long time since I brought up that “one night,” but then I saw something that jogged my memory. So, gathering my courage and a full dose of God’s mercy and grace, I said, “Tony, I want to ask you something one more time. After tonight, I won’t ask you again. Before you say anything, I want you to know that I have already forgiven you.” “What made you ask that tonight?” After telling him what had sparked the memory, Tony told me, “Tonight when I went down to the altar, I told that God that the next time you asked me, I would tell you the truth.” That’s exactly what he did. Then he asked for my forgiveness and I gave it to him again. We cried. We embraced. It was the most freeing moment of our marriage. I honestly feel like our marriage truly began at that moment.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another,
that you may be healed.”
It would be nice to tell you that I have never needed to confess my own faults and seek someone’s forgiveness, but that wouldn’t even be close to true. My words have gotten me into trouble so many times, and there are some days that I feel like I need to ask for forgiveness multiple times. I also struggle a great deal with harboring bitterness and letting it grow in my heart. One such instance happened several years ago and had the potential to ruin a lifelong friendship.
“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God;
that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble.”
Something about the way a particular circumstance was handled bothered me, and I assumed wrongful motives. But this was someone I looked up to and respected, who was not only my pastor, but also a very close family friend. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t a big deal, and I wasn’t seeing things correctly. I tried to ignore it. But I mishandled it terribly, and something that should have been nothing (or at the very least discussed openly) began to fester in my heart. I started believing the worst instead of choosing to believe the best. Though neither of us knew its cause, a division arose between me and my best friend, the pastor’s wife. I was standoffish at church functions and bristled at the slightest thing.
I didn’t recognize it as bitterness at first. Until one evening, a group of us went to see a movie. It ended up being a pretty terrible movie, and certainly not anything that should cause tears. Yet, right there in the middle of the movie theater, I had a rather embarrassing break down and ended up sobbing in my friend’s arms. The drive home was silent as my brain and heart raced with confusion. What was wrong? Grabbing my Bible off the shelf at home, I searched the scriptures until I found the answer. There it was. A “root of bitterness” had been growing in my soul for weeks. I knew what I had to do, and I both dreaded it and sought it—hoping it would bring relief.
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”
The next day, Tony sat with me at their kitchen table, as I confessed. I told them what had bothered me all those months ago and how I had let it upset me to the point that it had interfered with our friendship. I told them I was wrong and asked for their forgiveness. Without a moment’s hesitation, they did. My love for them grew that day and our friendship was strengthened. They have seen the ugly parts of me and loved me anyway. They are the closest we can get to family without actually being related.
* * *
There were more tears that day, and I have learned that forgiveness costs something. It cost my Savior His very life.
“Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD . . . who forgives all [my] iniquity” (Psalm 103:1-3). The greatest forgiveness I ever received came from the loving hands of my Heavenly Father. He forgive me before I asked for it and without me ever being deserving of it!
Yes, forgiveness is sticky. It can be painful and awkward. It sometimes takes a process more than a moment. It may not go as we planned or hoped. But not forgiving or refusing to seek forgiveness will become a stumbling block for any of us. However, if we let Christ work in us, forgiveness is a tool for healing and a gateway to freedom and restoration. Lest we ever become prideful believing that our sin doesn’t equate to the wrong done to us, remember what the psalmist said: “LORD, if you kept record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive” (Psalm 130:3 NLT)?
Please don’t mistake me for saying forgiveness is easy. It’s neither easy nor a way to give someone a pass to hurt you. (There are still consequences for our actions.) In fact, forgiveness is impossible without the Lord. In a fictional tale, C.S. Lewis wrote about a disagreement between two sisters in which the older sister, Susan, had been almost cruel to her younger sister. Lucy, the younger sister, forced herself to hold back all things she thought of saying in retaliation. “But she forgot them when she fixed her eyes on Aslan.”* Might we also be like that? Fixing our eyes on Christ, forgetting our vendettas and resting in the assurance of His justice?
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
January 13, 2016
Part 1: Shriner’s Waiting Room
Part 2: Hiding in My Bedroom
Playlist: Chris Tomlin Love Ran Red Mix
*Lewis, C.S. Prince Caspian. C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd., 1951.