Forgive One Another

Ephesians 4:30- 5:1 

Ruby Bridges was born in the Delta region of the Mississippi River in 1954. That same year the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal education for blacks and whites while it was separate it was in no way equal. Segregation ended officially the year Ruby was born, but in reality, it hung around for a long time after.

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.

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. Not only did all the other students withdraw, but almost every teacher resigned in protest.

But one teacher was willing to teach, Barbara Henry. For a whole year Mrs. Henry taught Ruby like she was teaching a whole class. The judge who had ordered that Ruby be allowed to attend the school had also assigned a therapist, Robert Coles, to monitor Ruby's mental health and that of her family.

One day Mrs. Henry called Mr. Coles to report a change 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. Mr. Coles agreed to visit with her. "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, who has written a book about his experiences, recalled the incident. "Her words were strangely familiar to me," he said, "as if I'd heard them somewhere before."

Our first two one-another passages were pretty easy on the soul. Greet one-another, and encourage one-another. I hope you'll make a habit of both. By the way thank you for the cards that I received and I want you to send another card this week. Let’s not allow encouragement to become a one-Sunday phenomenon.

Today I want to go a little deeper, today we need to look at one of the most difficult one another passages and that is the call to Forgive One Another. As we start this morning I want us to look at two very important passages of Scripture. The first one, Ephesians 4:30 - 5:1, was already read for us this morning, so I would like for us to read the second in Colossians 3:12-14 (Read Text)

That's what we're called to do. But forgiving people who have hurt us may be the hardest command in the Bible. In his book, Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes identifies three 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 unfairly treats us. A business partner cheats us. A colleague undermines us. A family member abuses us verbally, sexually, emotionally, physically.

I don't want to rush too quickly over this first stage. 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. Human beings have almost unlimited potential for inflicting pain on one another.

In his autobiography, Lee Iacocca, remembered how Henry Ford II 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 if to others it seems as small and insignificant as 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, it has become 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. In this stage we can no more separate sin from sinner than we are able to separate their skin from their muscle, though we'd like to give it try. It is in this stage that we either get stuck, as Iacocca did, or get started growing. If we get stuck, then the wound continues to fester. It becomes infected with bitterness and malice and anger.

In both the passages we read a moment ago, 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 of our lives all bitterness, rage, malice and anger. He's writing to people who are stuck in stage two. They've been hurt and now they hate.

Have you ever been to a chiropractor? I love them, but am still a little confused by them.  While in Nashville we had a young man in our Youth Group whose dad was a chiropractor and he offered Trista and I free adjustments. I had never been to one before but you know how I feel about free things.

I didn't understand the chiropractic healing art at first. I'd go and tell him that my head hurt or that I was slicing the Golf Ball. But he wouldn't do a thing to my head or my hands. He started manipulating my back and neck. Now why would he do that? That's not where the pain was? He explained to me that my head hurt and my golf ball sliced not because there were problems in my head or hands, but because there were problems in my back. 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. You see we are not only killing them; we are killing ourselves. It’s like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die.

If we begin to grow, then we move on to the third stage where Smedes says 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 do it right now, that you have to feel all warm and fuzzy and forgiving this moment. Forgiveness doesn't have much to do with warm and fuzzy. I'm telling you that when you begin to grow, when you begin to heal, forgiveness becomes a possibility.

I offer Smedes stages as a way of helping you find out where you are in the process: Hurting, hating, or healing. So, let me remind you today a few things that forgiveness isn't. Then we'll talk about what it is and how to get there.

I think maybe the most important thing we can say about what forgiveness is not has to do with memory.

First, 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.

I don't know of a passage that commands us to forget. God is not in the habit of ordering the impossible. In fact, if we could forget, forgiveness would not be the act of love it is intended to be. It would be a mechanical function.

Second, forgiving is not the same thing as excusing. Excusing is what we do when we consider extenuating circumstances for our behavior. We excuse expectant fathers for driving fast because they are taxiing a woman in labor. We excuse clumsy skiers for bumping into us when we find out they’re beginners. We excuse eight year old boys for making bodily noises because they’re eight year old boys.

Forgiveness comes when there is no good rationale to explain away 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.

Finally, Forgiving is not the same thing as reconciling. People sometimes think that forgiving someone means we must reunite with them no matter what, that a wife must move back in with a man who cheated on her, or a businessman must take back a dishonest partner as many times as requested. Forgiveness and reconciliation are two separate things.

Forgiveness takes place within the heart of one human being. It can be granted even if the other person does not ask for it or deserve it. Reconciliation requires that the offender be sincerely repentant for the wrong he or she committed. Reconciliation requires the rebuilding of trust, and that means good faith on the part of both parties.

So what is forgiveness intended to be?

Forgiveness is a decision to respond in love rather than hate to someone who hurt you.

To give what they need, rather than what they deserve. It is 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. It is action, not emotion.

If we can't erase that from the movie in our mind we can at least stop watching it all the time. Our tendency, when someone hurts us, is to replay that mental video over and over, memorizing every word, every inflection, and every gesture. It becomes not just one chapter in the story of our lives, but the story itself. We allow it to define who we are and who the offender is. It becomes the script of our lives.

So the first thing I would council you to do is to stop replaying that moment in your mind.

Every time you run it, you're just opening up old wounds. You may need to get some council from someone who knows these matters better than I do to figure out how to do that, but one way or another; you've got to stop reliving it.

Second, I would suggest you follow Ruby's lead. Pray for them.

Remember what she said when Mr. Coles asked, "Why did you pray for them?" "Because I'm the one who hears what they say." It is hard thing to do, to pray for those who despitefully use you. I think it's hard 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.

One last suggestion for learning how to forgive. And it isn't really a suggestion at all. In both the passages we noticed earlier, Paul reminded these folks stuck in stage three, to forgive, just as in Christ, God forgave you.

This is where memory can be a useful tool in the process of forgiving. But it isn't our pain we remember, it is His. We use the tool of memory to conjure an image of the cross. And when we see the cross, we see are forced to recall our own sin. And the forgiveness God has given to us.

Psalm 103:12 explains the depth of God’s forgiveness, " He has taken our sins away from us as far as the east is from west."


Questions To Consider

What kind of offense do you find most difficult to forgive?

Is forgiveness a conscious choice, or an emotional state?

How do you find it in yourself to let go of past offenses even though you "deserve" to hang onto them?

How do we forgive when we don't feel like it? How do we translate the decision to forgive into a change of heart?

How can I forgive when there's a pattern of repeat offenses?

What do I do if I think a person's "repentance" is a sham?

Does forgiving someone mean that the offense is forgotten and has no further consequences?

Do you ever feel that you a prisoner of unforgiveness? When? Why?

How will we know if we have truly forgiven?

Is there someone that you say you’ve “forgiven”, but you won’t have anything to do with them?

Is there someone you say you forgive, but you can’t stand their fellowship and company?

What is so amazing about the prayer of Jesus on the Cross and God’s forgiveness? “Father, forgive them,. They know not what they do!”

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