Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Power of Forgiveness

One by one, the families made their way across the hardwood floors of the courtroom to the accusation podium. There they sought to unload all their retribution on the man that had taken their loved ones away. They were given this opportunity by the judge, setting the killer before them one last time before he was shut away in a prison for life. A fire hose of vileness and anger sprayed forth from the people that had been wronged, yet throughout the ordeal, the criminal sat with a wiry smile on his face, almost as if to say “your words are meaningless.” Near the end of the indictments, one man approached the stand with noticeably less anger on his face than those who had gone before him. He came to his place before the microphone, paused to collect himself, and said, “I want you to know, I forgive you for the things you’ve done to my family.” The hardened criminal that had taken such delight in the pain of so many could no longer hold his composure – he was reduced to a puddle of tears.

The power of forgiveness in relationships is an amazing thing. We come to expect retribution and anger when someone is wronged, but forgiveness is so unnatural that many can’t help but stand in awe when it is experienced. This happens time and again at FamilyLife’s marriage conferences – where learning to forgive your spouse is often the first step towards healing years of stored hurts.

Ruth Graham said, “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” It seems that this one concept has helped Julie and I more than any other in marriage, but it plays out a little different in that we try to have a forgiving attitude before an offense has been committed. We try to assume the best about one another’s intentions, trusting that even when one of us is hurt, the other probably did not intend to cause pain. We also try to keep short accounts, so that the little bumps in the road do not build an insurmountable mountain.

Of course, there are many other areas where forgiveness applies than just marriage. I often pray that one of the things I will do well as a parent is to be quick to seek and grant forgiveness. I want my son to know that Dad does not hold grudges, nor am I too proud to admit wrong and ask him to forgive me.

Forgiveness also extends to people you do not know or have never met – for instance, many people carry around bitterness towards political figures all of their lives. And of course, the ultimate application of this is in our relationship with God: Matthew 6.14-15, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Luke 6.37 says “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” I preached on this verse a few weeks ago and talked about the meaning of that word forgive – which expresses the idea of release, of letting go or setting free. Thus a simple definition of forgiveness is an act of releasing a person from debt of their offense. By forgiving you are giving up the right to continue to punish them for their offense. After that sermon a man approached me and shared about his relationship with his mother – how he had received years of emotional and spiritual abuse from her and has forgiven her time and time again. Hearing sermons on forgiveness always causes him to pause and ask “Have I really forgiven her? Or am I hanging on to something else?”

Take some time this week to think through the concept of forgiveness. Is there someone you need to grant forgiveness? Or maybe someone from whom you need to seek forgiveness? It could be a parent that you have neglected, a child you have exasperated, a family member you’ve offended. Maybe you need to forgive a politician for spending too much of your hard earned money (unless you think they have not spent enough.) Maybe you even need to think about forgiving yourself for past mistakes and missed opportunities.

Forgiveness may seem impossible in your situation. You may say “you have no idea what I’ve been through” and you would be right – I have no concept of the pain you have experienced. However I know that Jesus, when he was hanging on the cross, prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” in Luke 23:34. If Jesus, one who was reviled without reason, can forgive, then there is hope that all of us can as well.

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