Why is forgiving so hard?
I have been contemplating that question this week. In our weekly men’s group called “Iron Men” we’ve been studying the lives of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We’ve moved to chapter 45 in Genesis and it’s the familiar account of where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. It’s powerful!
1 Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, “Make everyone go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence.
4 So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Genesis 45 is in my opinion one of the most beautiful pictures of forgiveness outside of the story of Jesus, as any found anywhere in the Bible. It ranks up there with the prodigal son and Hosea’s buying back Gomer. I have come to the conclusion that perhaps the most significant issue in the Christian life is FORGIVENESS. Bold statement, huh? But, think about it. Aren’t we almost constantly confronted with the need to forgive? If you are married, you know this is true. 🙂 If you have children, you now this is true! If you work with difficult people (who aren’t like you), you know this is true!
I believe forgiveness must be the norm for our lives or we will not grow in Christ. But, we know this already don’t we? We know we are to walk the second mile and turn the other cheek and to forgive 70 x 7. But are we?
You are either a forgiving person or a bitter and resentful person.
You see I’m absolutely convinced that forgiveness is the nucleus of the Gospel. If you don’t forgive, then you really don’t understand the Gospel. The Gospel is all about forgiveness. There is no Gospel without forgiveness.
Can I make another bold statement? If you store up bitterness and won’t forgive, then you CAN NOT be right with God. For you are either storing up bitterness every day or you are constantly learning how to forgive. There is no in between. Yes, you may have learned to hide unforgiveness and bury it, but eventually it will come out and before it does, it’s probably going to make you sick. Bitterness will eat you up!
For many people, and this might include you, they have found themselves at the end of their relationship quota. They just can’t let anyone else “in” to their life because they simply can’t store up any more bitterness. There is no more room in their soul for another broken relationship, so they just push people away and they are much like this guy…
See that tortoise? He’s tucked his head in and he ain’t comin’ out! Is that you? Are you closing down on people? You just don’t let anybody else in because you can make no more room in your soul for anymore bitterness. Don’t go there! It’s a trap of Satan! Forgiveness is not optional. It’s commanded in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Jesus said if you will not forgive, then your father in heaven will not forgive you. (Matt. 6:14-15)
But, why is it so hard?
Let me share three myths that make it hard.
Myth #1 Forgiveness requires forgetting.
Some say, “Yeah, since I can’t forget, then I guess I haven’t forgiven.” Can you tell me where that’s found in the Word of God? Is that 2 Hesitations? 🙂
Joseph remembered what his brothers had done to him, but he simply chose not to hold it against them. He said: “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” You see he remembered. But, then he said: “…And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here.”
Folks, we can’t forget. Don’t you know when humans start forgetting stuff that they’re malfunctioning? We were not created to forget. We can’t do what the Creator created us NOT to do. We all have memories. John Calvin says, “Forgiveness is a gift of sheer liberality that has nothing to do with forgetting.” Forgiveness is simply the canceling of a debt.
Suppose you and I went to a meeting together and as you are leaving the parking lot, you hit my car. I come out and look at it and I say, “Don’t worry about it. I forgive you.” But, what if three days later, I sent you a bill in the mail? That’s not forgiveness is it? Forgiveness is when you remove your right to payment. It’s when you remove your right to make the other person pay for what they did to you. You write “Cancel” on the bill.
Who do you need to forgive? Could you write their name on a piece of paper and then write: “Cancel” on top of their name? You see, I meet people all the time in my counseling who are being controlled by people who are not even around. They’re dead. Are you allowing someone from the grave to control you because you haven’t forgiven them? Maybe they’re not dead…but, they live three states away. You’ve got to forgive. Why?
Holding on to unforgiveness is like you drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.
Did you know that person who hurt you deeply is not even thinking about you? I remember a man who said to me: “My Dad was bad to me, so I’m not going to send him a birthday card.” I said, “Well, he probably wasn’t expecting one anyway!” He smiled and said, “You’re right.” It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy not to forgive, you know that don’t you? It will wear you out! Yet, many are simply using up a ton of mental energy and that person who hurt you is not even thinking about you. They might not even know the fullness of what they’ve done. And it doesn’t matter.
Joseph hadn’t forgotten what his brothers had done to him when they sold him into slavery and faked his death, but he’s not bitter. How is this possible? Verse 5 says it:
5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.
See those four words in italics? “For God sent me…
Joseph sees the hand of our sovereign God! When you understand the sovereignty of God, you can forgive. He said, “God sent me here.” God allowed that hurt and pain to happen to you. It’s part of the process He’s allowing to sanctify you. Joseph saw that God had sent him to Egypt, not his brothers.
Let’s look at what happens when we don’t forgive a “Believer” in Christ and an “Unbeliever” in Christ.
Not forgiving a BELIEVER:
If you and I don’t forgive a believer, then we are basically making them pay for what they did. But, remember, their sins have already been paid for on the cross. So for you not to forgive a believer is to mock what Jesus did on the cross and say to Him that His death may have been enough to forgive YOU, but you require just a little bit more to forgive your brother or sister in Christ. Yikes!
Not forgiving an UNBELIEVER?
What happens to the unbeliever when they die? They will go to hell and pay for their sin forever, right? So if you don’t forgive the unbeliever who has hurt you, then you are requiring hell plus something else. It’s called the “Hell Plus” method. Maybe hell plus a few weeks of the silent treatment will warrant you to forgive? That’s ridiculous. But, that’s how we think sometimes.
But, remember, God allowed that hurt…that pain…that sorrow in your life. He allowed it. He’s sovereign.
You see if we don’t forgive, we are hypocrites. We can come to church and praise God for forgiving us and we can sing about His forgiveness and how we just can’t believe He could “save a wretch like me.” But, hold your horses…if you sin against me…well that’s another thing entirely. I can’t forgive that!
But, wait a minute, weren’t you a sinner too? Didn’t Christ forgive you even while you were still a sinner (Romans 5:8). So for YOU, the sinner, forgiveness IS available, but not for the person who hurt you? Are your sins somehow in a different category? You deserve forgiveness, but people who sin against you don’t? Is that how it works? Of course that’s not biblical at all.
Here’s another myth about forgiveness…
Myth #2 They’ve Got to be Sorry!
You say, “I deserve forgiveness because I’m sorry! They’re not sorry! They need to be sorry! They hurt me so terribly! They don’t deserve to be forgiven until they’re sorry and they tell me they’re sorry!!”
That’s a marriage killer, right there! So many couples come to my office and one spouse says to the other: “If you were really, really sorry you wouldn’t keep doing it!” Well, let’s analyze this one. You sin against me and keep sinning over and over against me and it seems that it’s just undoable. But this is what life is, isn’t it. Those we are close to in a relationship will sin against over and over again. And you say, “They’re not really sorry.” Can I ask a question? Just how much “sorry” does it take? You and I can never be SORRY enough to stop sinning. The process of stopping sinning is called sanctification. It’s a process.
Do you believe that a person can be “sanctified by sorry.” You and I can’t make a sin stop because we are sorry enough. If that were the case Jesus died for nothing. We might say that we are sorry and that the sin in our lives will stop, but most of our sins aren’t new. Have you committed a “new sin” today? I doubt it. We commit the same sins over and over against God, and yet you expect forgiveness from Him don’t you?
Only God’s Spirit can stop us from sinning…
Myth #3 Forgiveness Can Only Happen If They Ask For It
Can I remind you that Joseph’s brothers didn’t even know it was Joseph. They hadn’t seen him since he was 17 and he’s now 32 years old. He’s got a shaved head and he’s speaking Egyptian. They didn’t ask Joseph for forgiveness, yet he forgave them anyway.
Does a person have to ask you for forgiveness to receive it from you? If that’s the case, I guess that means it’s okay for you to punish them until they ask for forgiveness…until they get enough “sorry” to ask you for forgiveness. Because after all, if you are not punishing them then that’s forgiving them, right?
Joseph forgave and his brothers didn’t ask. Jesus forgave and He cried out on the cross, “Father forgive them…they don’t know what they’re doing.”
So in the world do we do this? How do we forgive? By the grace of God dear friend! It’s the supernatural work of God in the believer. Joseph understood that the greater story is being written by God. You see, God poured out his wrath on his son because he wants you near to Him. You spit on Him and hated Him in your sin and He came anyway. How could He do that? THAT’S THE GOSPEL! That’s LOVE! Love=Forgiveness.
Get it? We can forgive because we’ve be forgiven. But you say, “They don’t deserve it! They don’t deserve to be forgiven!” Dear one, don’t you understand that we deserve worse than anything that person who hurt you could do to you. Why? Because you and I deserve Hell. God forgave you because the debt was paid by His Son, Jesus. He paid it all…all to Him I owe…sin had left a crimson stain…He washed it white as snow. God wrapped Himself in flesh crushed your sin so you could be set free. This is your hope! This is your confidence.
This is the Gospel and it’s called: FORGIVENESS.