Forgive One Another
Readings: 2Kings 6:8-23 Mt.18:21-35
Eph.4:32 "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."
Col.3:13 "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."
A couple of weeks ago we began to look at some of the many one another texts that are found in the NT. We began by seeing that Christians are never meant to live in splendid isolation never having contact with other believers – there will be perhaps times and circumstances when such contact is impossible but that will be the exception and not the rule. No Christian ought deliberately to cut himself/herself off from others.
The Christian belongs to Jesus and this means being part of his body along with other believers – we are members one of another as Paul explained when he wrote to the church in Rome:
Rom.12:4-5 "For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another."
With this being the case questions naturally arise as to how we are to live out these new relationships, what is to be the characteristic, distinguishing mark of the disciple of Jesus Christ? And last week we turned our attention to answering just that question as we considered a number of verses that encouraged Christians to love one another.
According to our Lord the love expressed in our relationships has a strong evangelistic effect because it would be seen by others who would be able to recognise us as belonging to Jesus. Whenever churches are characterised by such love God is present! The church is to demonstrate how good it is to be restored to a right relationship with God. Being in such a relationship with God ought also to exercise a strong and determining influence upon the way we relate to each other.
Given the importance of this divine project in the life of the church we should not be surprised to find that we encounter obstacles and difficulties along the way. Church life is not all plain sailing. Satan does not want Christ’s church to be the bright shining light it is called to be and neither does he want her to function as that city set upon a hill which cannot be hidden. Therefore he opposes us and tries to put such a strain upon our relationships that they break down and love fails. And one of the reasons love is likely to fail is where genuine forgiveness is absent from church life.
The Need of Forgiveness
So, this evening, we are going to consider one of the principle ways in which Satan works against us trying to disrupt the peace of Christ’s church.
Satan knows that love will flourish in a church which not only recognises the importance of mutual forgiveness but which practises it as well. Consequently he will do what he can to drive such genuine forgiveness out of the church. We must then, as those who are not ignorant of Satan’s devices, take steps to nip an unforgiving spirit in the bud before it has time to wreak its havoc. When a forgiving spirit departs from a church it is important that it soon move back in again!
Back in the late 1970s, if you can remember that far back, you might have seen a badge or a t-shirt with PBPGINFWMY written on it. It wasn’t a word but an acrostic and it meant Please Be Patient, God Is Not Finished With Me Yet. The truth referred to is one I guess we would all recognise. We are sinners saved by grace but the work of sanctification hasn’t been completed in any of us yet. No-one in the church is perfect; there is room for improvement and for growth in all of us; we remain a work in progress.
While we might readily agree with that it is surprising just how easily we can forget the truth of it in our interpersonal relationships.
What do I mean by that? Well, what I have in mind is that we can easily slip into expecting others to be in practice more perfect than they actually are. When we do that how easy it is for us to start to judge one another with a harsh and critical spirit! Something goes wrong and we find it ourselves being hard on everyone else but soft on ourselves! We make allowances for ourselves: I was tired, I was stressed, I was overworked, I didn’t mean it? But it takes effort to make similar allowances for others.
The early church wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t immune from this sort of problem as a careful reading of the NT will show us. So we are in good company and we can learn much from their experience. Peter, for example, in speaking to Jesus one day, thought he was being so very generous in being prepared to forgive a brother seven times over but Jesus moved that generosity of spirit onto a whole new level:
Mt.18:22 "Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.""
And I hope you realise he didn’t mean by that 490 either!
This is an important matter for the peace and happiness of a church will depend in no small measure upon the willingness of its members to follow the instructions of their Lord and Master. Extending forgiveness to one another is no luxury but a duty that is demanded of the Christian and it is a duty that cannot be overdone.
Writing to two different church congregations the apostle Paul made it clear that forgiveness had an important role to play in church life. We will look at these two verses in particular and consider what is said and what is implied.
Paul’s Instructions to the Churches in Colosse and in Ephesus
Let’s take Paul’s words to the Colossians first:
Col.3:12-13 "Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, 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."
When you think about it Paul’s list of instructions here is all about attitudes and behaviour that have a direct bearing upon relations within the local church. In words that are simple to understand Paul tells the Colossians how they are to behave to each other. I’m sure you would want to be treated in this way so you too must be prepared to treat others in the same way. This is a practical example of how the principle that Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount can be applied in church life:
Mt.7:12 "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."
Underlying Paul’s instructions to the Colossians was an acknowledgment that other Christians in the church would act at times in ways which were less than perfect. They would act in ways that were a pain to others. There are maybe others in the church here who you find to be a pain to you too. Aware of this Paul calls Christians to "bear with one another".
On occasion one believer might have legitimate grounds for complaining about a fellow believer. These things do happen in church life. For much of the time offence will be caused accidentally without any intent to cause harm or hurt and we should not be too quick to suggest we can read the real motives and intent of the other person. The apostle calls for forgiveness to be readily granted.
But what about those occasions when the hurt has been intentionally caused or when a member refuses to recognise hurtful effects their behaviour has had on others? This is entirely possible because church members are not yet perfect, remember. The details may be different but Paul has no other advice to offer – forgiveness is still the name of the game! And that forgiveness must not be extended in a grudging reluctant or cold manner. In context the forgiveness Paul commends must be of a particular kind. It must flow from a life where compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience are all highly valued not as theoretical ideas but as very practical expressions of the love of God poured into the heart of the believer.
Forgiveness is not about making a point or of determining who was right and who was wrong – but it is all about the restoration of good and wholesome relationships.
The importance this truth is underlined for us by the fact that Paul also shared it with the Christians in Ephesus:
Eph.4:32 "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted..."
The forgiveness that is to characterise relations within the Christian community must never be allowed to become a cold or formal business. Forgiveness is designed to restore broken or fractured relationships and this will never be achieved by a heartless following of rules. True Christian forgiveness can never be content with a:
"Yes, I forgive you but I don’t want to have any more to do with you."
True Christian forgiveness will recognise the reality of hurt and pain felt but will take the risky step of seeking renewed and restored relationships in which the danger of being hurt all over again exists.
Christian forgiveness like this will prove costly and must not to be determined by what we might consider to be reasonable or generous in a Peter-like fashion. Nor is Christian forgiveness to be guided by what others might consider as reasonable. No, our forgiveness is to but built upon the pattern and example of divine forgiveness:
Eph.4:32 "forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."
Col.3:13 "as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."
Paul didn’t teach anything innovative in writing what he did, he was simply building upon the truths that Jesus had already made known in his parable about the unforgiving servant that we read earlier. In that parable Jesus taught that it is incumbent upon those who have been forgiven to forgive others in turn:
Mt.18:33 "And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?"
Here "having mercy" means "forgiving" as the context makes clear.
If this is to be our guide we will need to think about the nature of God’s forgiveness and how he forgave. We turn to that now.
How God Forgave Us
If God’s manner of forgiving gives us the pattern for us to follow then consider the following:
God’s anger towards us was legitimate and totally justified – we have all sinned against him and none of us can pretend otherwise:
Yet he forgave us.
It was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us!
Because this is true we can’t say that because the offence we suffered at the hands of another Christian was real therefore we are entitled to withhold our forgiveness.
We had stoked God’s anger towards us by our being repeat offenders, serial sinners. One sin would be sufficient to condemn us to a lost eternity and even then would any of us dare to claim to have only ever offended by one sin, by one act of defiance, by one act of rebellion, by one harsh, unkind or untrue word, by one inappropriate thought, by one act of selfishness, by one act of lovelessness?
Yet he forgave us.
Because of this we can’t we can’t say that because a brother/sister has offended us several times that we are entitled to withhold our forgiveness.
We offended in many ways – although "God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes" Eccl.7:29.
Yet God forgave us.
We were guilty as charged but he did not condemn us nor did he give us a suspended sentence! He didn’t say "I forgive" but then store up our failures to use against us at some future date. His forgiveness was comprehensive and complete. Listen to how he dealt with our sins and offences when he forgave us:
Ps.103:12 "as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us."
Mic.7:18-19 "Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea."
Jer.31:34 "For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more."
This last verse is picked up and quoted with appreciation by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews in the NT.
Listen to how an old brethren hymn-writer expressed the reality of God’s forgiving forgetfulness
"Well may the Accuser roar
Of ills that I have done:
I know them all, and thousands more:
Jehovah knoweth none!"
God dealt not just with some of our sins in this comprehensive manner but with all of them – what a wonderful delight our salvation is!
Because this is how God dealt with us and our faults we can’t, we mustn’t hold onto our hurts and use them again against our brother or sister at a later date.
Was God reluctant or hesitant to pardon and forgive your sins? Do we really have a picture in our minds of God wishing he didn’t have to forgive us our sins? Don’t we far more have a picture of a loving Father running to meet the returning prodigal? Do we really think of a God insisting that we crawl in utter humiliation before he will lift us? Do we not far rather think of a father who doesn’t insist on long, carefully rehearsed speeches but who interrupts to replace our filthy rags with his finest clothing and who puts valuable jewels upon our unworthy fingers?
Because this is how God dealt with us and our faults surely we should not be reluctant to forgive or suspicious. Because our God is a forgiving God and freely forgave us so we too must ready and willing to forgive others too!
We find it hard sometimes to forgive others and a major factor in this is our failure to consider just how extraordinarily generous God has been to us in his grace. The more we take our eyes off him the more we will think about ourselves and we will lose sight of our unworthiness. With inflated opinions of how nice we are we will want others to somehow deserve our forgiveness.
When we withhold forgiveness from our fellow believers we are imitating Satan the accuser of the brethren rather than our Heavenly Father who delights to forgive!
Neh.9:17 "you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love..."