“In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.” 

Matthew 6:14-15 (The Message)

One of the continuing lessons that God teaches me is that my need for forgiveness is connected with my need to forgive others. Forgiveness is at the heart and center of the Christian message. Show me a person who refuses to forgive, and I will show you a truly bitter and miserable human being. Unfortunately, religion can sometimes actually become a reinforcement for resentment. The story is told about the woman who got up in a church meeting and testified how her life had been changed through her conversion experience. “I’m so glad I got religion,” she declared. “I have an uncle I used to hate so much I vowed I’d never go to his funeral. But now, why, I’d be happy to go to it any time.” That’s the problem with religion. It changes the surface exterior, but leaves our heart unchanged, and when it comes to resentment, our heart is the heart of the problem.

As we reflect upon forgiveness, we need to recognize that forgiving others does not come naturally or easily. The painful truth is that we are not inclined to forgive. There is some truth in the old bromide, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Forgiveness always begins with God. If we would forgive, we ourselves must receive the power to forgive through God’s grace. God’s grace in Christ is like that. As we experience forgiveness, we are given the power which enables us to forgive. God is the first place to go when we seem unable to forgive others. Jesus said, “Pray for your enemies.”  

Last January 1 was the 42nd anniversary of the death of my only brother Kevin. He was murdered by a handgun fired by a man who had too much to drink. I was in the middle of my seminary education when this tragic event occurred. As difficult as the grief of my loss was to bear, far more threatening was the hatred and anger that I harbored for the man who shot my brother. I was consumed with hatred and revenge. I began to struggle with my call and how I could prepare for the ministry while wanting to kill another human being. 

Even though I was blinded with so much hatred, I could still see enough to realize that these feelings were threatening to destroy my life. But I felt powerless to deal with them. How could I possibly forgive the murderer of my only brother? Then I remembered some words that Jesus once spoke to his followers, “…Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; (Matt. 6:44-45).” After I began to pray for this man, I gradually gained the power to forgive him. Equally important, my own life was gradually freed from the oppression of hatred and revenge. 

When Jesus said, “Pray for your enemies,” he didn’t mean what the Country Artist, Jason and the Long Road to Love suggests in his song “I’ll Pray for You”

“I pray your brakes go out runnin’ down a hill
I pray a flowerpot falls from a window sill and knocks you in the head like I’d like to
I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls
I pray you’re flyin’ high when your engine stalls
I pray all your dreams never come true
Just know whereever you are honey, I pray for you.”

While that might be the way we’re inclined to interpret Jesus’ words, to pray for the other person’s misfortune, that’s certainly not what Christ meant. Instead Jesus is suggesting that we pray for the other person’s good.

Praying for the good of someone who has wronged us is the quickest way to dissolve resentment. We can’t intercede for someone’s good without feeling a kinship, a connection with that person.

A second condition of being able to forgive, comes in seeing our offender in the same light as ourselves. You see, we’re no different than the person who has wronged us. People wrong us, and we wrong others. Perhaps that’s why Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We’re all in the same boat, in need of forgiveness. When we forgive others, we open ourselves to receive more of God’s grace and forgiveness. But when we cut off the free-flowing channel of God’s forgiveness by refusing to forgive others, our own lives become dead and stagnant. It’s a basic spiritual principle. Only by giving do we receive. Only by forgiving others are we able to open ourselves to God and be forgiven.

Finally, forgiveness and forgetting go together. A lot of people tell me, “Darrell, I can forgive, I just can’t forget.” If you can’t forget, chances are you haven’t forgiven. You see, when we keep ruminating on an injury we’ve suffered from someone, we simply add coals to the fire of resentment and bitterness. As we are seeking to forgive someone, it’s best to strike the offense from our memory. Charles Bracelen Flood, in his book Lee: The Last Years, tells of a time after the Civil War when Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky woman who took him to the remains of a magnificent old tree which had once stood in front of her home. She cried bitterly because its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by union artillery fire. She waited for Lee to condemn the North or at least sympathize with her loss. Lee paused, and then said, “Cut it down, my dear madam, and forget it.” That’s sage advice concerning what we do with our resentments and memories of wrongs. Cut them down and forget them. May forgiveness be a daily practice in our lives and may we forgive one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven us. See you in church!

Ever forgiving God, strengthen us through your Son Jesus to forgive others even as you forgive us through Jesus. Amen.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why do we find it so difficult to forgive?
  2. How can praying for the people who have hurt or betrayed us empower us to forgive them?
  3. People often say, “I can forgive, but I just can’t forget.” Would you agree with that sentiment? What is the danger of continuing to ruminate on an old injury caused by another?
  4. Forgiveness does not mean making yourself a doormat for the future abuse of another. It means letting go of the resentment, setting boundaries and moving forward with your life. Is it possible to forgive another person while at the same time setting boundaries so that you are not abused again?