Forgive One Another

Matthew 18:21-22

A few years ago at the Pepperdine Lectureship I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Ruby Bridges and hear her story which has become a part of Americana.  Ruby was born in the Delta region of the Mississippi River in 1954, which was the same year the Supreme Court heard a case called Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. After the arguments were made, the high court ruled that separate but equal education for blacks and whites was separate it was in no way equal. Segregation ended officially the year Ruby was born, but in reality, it hung for a long time thereafter.

Six years later Ruby's mother got her ready for her first day of school. She wore a white dress and a white bonnet on her head. She had all the fears and hopes of any first grader, plus the weight of the State of Louisiana on her shoulders. At only six years old Ruby was escorted to her first day of school by well-armed federal marshals who drove Ruby five blocks to her new school. While in the car, one of the men explained that when they arrived at the school, two marshals would walk in front of Ruby and two would be behind her. The image of this small girl being escorted to school by four large white men inspired Norman Rockwell to create the painting "The Problem We All Must Live With," which graced the cover of Look magazine in 1964.

When Ruby and the federal marshals arrived at the school, large crowds of people were gathered in front yelling and throwing objects. Ruby, in her innocence, thought it was a Mardi Gras parade. It wasn’t until she got out of the car that she realized it wasn’t. When she enrolled all the other students withdrew, but their parents were there to greet Ruby that first day of school. Hundreds of people lined the sidewalk leading to the school entrance. As she passed, they screamed hateful words, spiteful slurs, and racial slang’s. Someone in the crowd threatened to poison her and another woman held a black doll in a wooden coffin.

Not only did all the other students withdraw, but almost every teacher resigned in protest. The chaos outside, and the fact that nearly all the white parents at the school had kept their children home, meant classes weren't going to be held. She spent her whole first day in the principal's office.

But one teacher was willing to teach, Barbara Henry. For a whole year Mrs. Henry taught Ruby like she was teaching a whole class. They studied in class together and ate lunch together, Mrs. Henry welcomed Ruby with open arms.

One day Mrs. Henry called the court appointed therapist who was monitoring Ruby’s mental state, and reported a deviation in Ruby's daily routine. From the school window the teacher saw Ruby stop and apparently talk to the angry crowd that continued to greet her each day. She had asked Ruby about the confrontation, but Ruby said she hadn't spoken to the crowd. The therapist agreed to visit with her that evening.

"Your teacher tells me that she saw you stop in front of the school today and talk to those people."

"No sir," Ruby said. "I didn't talk to them."

"Did you stop in front of them?" Mr. Coles asked.

"Yes sir, but I didn't talk to them. I prayed for them." She said.

"You prayed for them. Why did you pray for them, Ruby?" He asked.

She answered the question with a question. "Don't you think they need praying for?"

"I suppose,” he replied “But why were you praying for them?"

"Because I'm the one who hears what they are saying." Ruby said.

Mr. Coles tried a different approach. "What did you pray?"

She replied "I prayed, 'Dear God, please forgive them; they don't know what they are doing.”

Mr. Coles, would later write in his memoire about his time with Ruby, "Her words were strangely familiar to me, as if I'd heard them somewhere before."

In the text that was read for us this morning we see Jesus pointing us back to this idea that if we are going to truly love one another we must be willing to forgive. I am sure that you have heard that the Jewish rabbis taught that you should forgive someone three times, and after that there was no forgiveness. Peter thought he was being compassionate by going beyond the normal bounds of forgiveness, so he was probably shocked when Jesus said, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Or your version might say seventy times seven times.

If we can be honest we are just as shocked that Jesus demands this kind of forgiveness, so instead of dealing with the depth of forgiveness that is expected of His followers we would rather fight over whether Jesus actually said 77 times or 70 times 7. The greek can be a bit fuzzy at times, but we are not actually arguing about the greek. We are trying to ignore the fact that we often withhold forgiveness after just one offense, much less do what Jesus is requiring in this teaching. It’s helpful to remember that Jesus was not alone in talking about the correlation between love and forgiveness. Let’s look at two more passages of Scripture.

Ephesians 4:30-5:2 It’s time to stop bringing grief to God’s Holy Spirit; you have been sealed with the Spirit, marked as His own for the day of rescue. Banish bitterness, rage and anger, shouting and slander, and any and all malicious thoughts—these are poison. Instead, be kind and compassionate. Graciously forgive one another just as God has forgiven you through the Anointed, our Liberating King. So imitate God. Follow Him like adored children, and live in love as the Anointed One loved you

Colossians 3:12-14 Since you are all set apart by God, made holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a holy way of life: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Put up with one another. Forgive. Pardon any offenses against one another, as the Lord has pardoned you, because you should act in kind. But above all these, put on love! Love is the perfect tie to bind these together.

This morning I want us to explore what it actually means to forgive one another. In his wonderful book, Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes identifies four stages of forgiveness.

First, we hurt.

Someone, usually someone very close to us, wounds us. They say something mean. They do something hateful. A friend betrays a confidence. An employer treats us unfairly. A business partner cheats us. A family member abuses us verbally, sexually, emotionally, or physically.

We usually try to rush too quickly over this first stage or we try to downplay the truth that we have been wounded. It’s not that big of a deal we reason, but the truth is that some of us in this room have been terribly wounded. The wounds may still be fresh and bleeding. Or they may be decades old. But they still hurt. We have almost unlimited potential for inflicting pain on one another and we make the hurt deeper when we say, that didn’t hurt, or it’s ridiculous for you to have your feelings hurt. When the reality is that we have been wounded, and we are hurt. If we have any hope of healing we must acknowledge the pain.   

In his autobiography, Lee Iacocca, remembered how Henry Ford III fired him and later ignored him at a social function. The first offense Iacocca said he could explain if not understand. Of the second, he wrote, "For that I will never forgive him." Even when other people tell you that the offense is small or insignificant, like being snubbed at a social function, the pain you feel is yours and it is real. And for some of us in this room, the hurt comes not from merely being snubbed, but from being violated in some very painful, personal ways. We hurt. And that pain has become not just a part of us, we have taken it as our identity.

Second, Smede says we hate.

After the initial shock of the hurt we begin to respond emotionally. We want to see the offender suffer as much as we have. We hate what they did to us. We hate the person who did it and we want to see the same or worse done to them. We might even ask God to hurt them, even to hate them for us.

We can talk all we want about loving the sinner and hating the sin, but we're human. If the imprecatory psalms teach us anything, they tell the truth about our human nature and how we can wish some pretty awful things to happen in the lives of those who have caused us harm. There is no way to explain away Psalm 137 and the request to smash the Babylon babies against the rocks.    

In this stage we are no more able to separate sin from sinner than we are to separate skin from bone, though we'd like to give it try. It is in this stage that we either get stuck, as Iacocca did, or we start the road to forgiveness. If we get stuck, then the wound continues to fester. It becomes infected with bitterness and malice and anger.

In both of our texts, Paul speaks of things we have to put away if our relationships are going to be healthy. Before he ever commands us to forgive, he says we must root out the bitterness, rage, malice and anger. He's writing to people who are stuck in this stage. They've been hurt. Now they hate.

I have a friend who’s mother had yellow skin due to her liver failure. The doctors did this amazing thing, they overlooked the color of her skin and treated her liver. Her problem was not what we could see, but it went much deeper. That's sort of how it is with a failure to forgive. We imagine that the pain we feel is because of the wound we received. But after awhile, it isn't the words the offender spoke which hurt us. It isn't the actions she took. The source of the pain is somewhere else. It is in the bitterness and rage, the anger and malice that have taken root in our hearts. When we fail to forgive we think we are punishing the person who hurt us. And we may be. But it is a particularly bitter punishment, because we are not only killing them. We are killing ourselves. We must deal with our unforgiveness if we are ever going to move to the third stage.

We heal

Smedes writes: As we forgive people, we gradually come to see the deeper truth about them, a truth our hate blinds us to, a truth we can see only when we separate them from what they did to us. When we heal our memories, we are not playing games, we are not making believe. We see the truth again. For the truth about those who hurt is that they are weak, needy, fallible human beings. They were people before they hurt us and they are people after they hurt us. They were needy and weak before they hurt us and they are weak and needy after they hurt us. They needed our help, our support, our comfort before they did us wrong; and they need it still.

I'm not telling you that you have to feel all warm and fuzzy to forgive. Forgiveness doesn't have much to do with feelings, warm and fuzzy or other. I'm telling you that when you begin to begin to heal forgiveness becomes a possibility. It might take a while depending on the depth of the pain; I can forgive you in an instant if you step on my foot accidentally or spill some coffee on me. But forgiveness is not always like turning on a light switch, sometimes it’s just a refusal to hate anymore. You might not be able to put all the pieces back together, but you can stop stomping them in the ground.

The last stage Smedes mentions is this; we come together again.

I fully understand that it is not always possible to come together again. The offender may never accept our forgiveness. The damage to other relationships may be too great. The consequences of their actions may be too severe and permanent. God chose to reconcile with the world, but not everyone in the world is willing to be reconciled. If we refuse to be reconciled with God then it’s understandable that there are times we will refuse to be reconciled with one another. 

Paul says in Romans 12:8, Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Living in peace with everyone is your goal. Maybe the best you can do to come together again is to decide you want to be at peace, to live in peace. While I cannot control others, I can control me. I will not have to answer for others, but I will have to answer for me. So if I am going to be serious about forgiving I have to make sure that I am at a place when I am ready and willing to come together again. 

This might be a good place for us to take a moment and define what forgiveness actually is and what it is not. First, forgiving is not the same thing as excusing.

Excusing is how we justify behavior. We excuse expectant fathers for driving fast because they are trying to get to the hospital. We excuse five year old boys for making bodily noises because they're five year old boys.

Forgiveness is that point when there is no good rationale to explain why someone did what they did. Forgiving does not mean tolerating bad behavior or pretending that what someone did was not so bad. Excusing is an end run around the crisis of forgiving. When an action is excusable, it doesn't require forgiveness.

Second, Forgiving is not forgetting.

All that forgetting requires is a really bad memory. I forget where I parked my car or put my keys. This doesn’t mean I have an advanced soul, just some badly misfiring neurons. Sometimes, if a hurt is severe enough, it can be buried away out of fear or trauma. It is in some sense forgotten, but it hasn't been forgiven. Scripture writers sometimes use the language of forgetting to describe how God deals with our sin, but this doesn't mean that God has a memory problem. It means that our past sins become irrelevant to His dealings with us. Forgiving is required when we can't forget.

Finally, Forgiving is not the same thing as reconciling.

I have had people tell me that forgiving someone means we must put the relationship back how it was; they believe that a wife must move back in with a man who cheated on her, or you must allow your business partner to take back over the check book after he embezzled money from the company. Forgiveness and reconciliation are two separate things.

I can forgive you, even before there is a change in your life. But if true reconciliation is to ever take place there must tangible change in your life. We can forgive before we rebuild trust, but I cannot reconcile with someone until we have rebuilt trust and that only happens through good faith on the part of both parties.

If we are going to be serious about forgiving one another we must decide that we are going to respond in love rather than hate to someone who hurt you.

We are going to give people what they need, rather than what they deserve. We make the decision that we will not allow ourselves or our future to be controlled by the past. We don't have to feel warm and tender to forgive. Forgiveness is what we do despite what we feel. Forgiveness is an action, not emotion.

That’s why I want to suggest that if you are truly interested in living a life of forgiveness that you would follow Ruby's lead. Pray for them. Remember what she said when the therapist asked why she was praying for the people in the crowd? Because I'm the one who hears what they say. It is hard thing to do, to pray for people who are hateful and ugly because we don't feel like praying for them. We feel like hurting them. But who appointed our emotions the sentry at the gate of our actions?

Do we have to feel like doing something before we do it? There are some things that ought to be done whether we feel like it or not. Our emotions can be a terrible task master. In fact, that's what wounded you to begin with. Someone felt like hurting you. They let their emotions over rule their judgment and they said or did something despicable. If you and I continue to give in to our feelings, we fuel a bitter cycle of runaway emotion.

It's hard to hate people you pray for. It's hard to envy their success or wish for their failure. The more we mention them in prayer, the more human they seem, and the less monstrous. Prayer is the key that opens the door to forgiveness. And that door must be opened. Because despite what we feel, it isn't the offender that has been locked in the dungeon. It is you.

Today you need to ask yourselves two questions

1. Who do I need to forgive?

2. Who do I need to ask for forgiveness?

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