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Let Bygones be Bygones

A Bible Study on Matt. 6:12


Tony Grant

I remember when my grandmother was around eighty-five years old. She was in the nursing home, and she told me a story about a mean thing my grandfather did to her sixty years earlier. Actually she had told me the story before, but she told me again when she was in the nursing home. Grandpa was working on the car one day. She thought she would be nice and see if she could help him, so she was asking him some questions about what was wrong with the vehicle. He said to her very calmly and seriously, "If you really want to help me, just hold this sparkplug wire right here on this sparkplug." So she held the wire and he sat down in the car, and started the engine. Now you know if you have ever had much to do with car engines that when you start the engine thousands of volts run through that sparkplug wire--so Grandma got a tremendous shock. It hit her so hard it almost knocked her down. Grandpa thought it was hilarious. As you can tell Grandpa was not a sensitive person. But sixty years later, when he had been dead about ten years, she still remembered that incident with anger and bitterness, and she said that the thing that made her most indignant was not just that he played that horrible practical joke on her but that he laughed so hard about it. Now as I mentioned, she told me that story a number of times, and so finally I asked, "Grandma, did you ever forgive him?" She said, "Yes I did, but I never forgot it, and I never will."

Let us talk about forgiveness. Suppose your business partner double-crosses you leaving you in bankruptcy court. Suppose your spouse is having an affair. Suppose you tell your best friend something in confidence, and your friend repeats it to the whole world. Can you ever forgive them? Perhaps the first question is: Do you want to forgive them? I have discovered that people are capable of forgiving even the most grievous offenses, if they choose to do so. It is a matter of choice.

If we do not believe something is forgivable, we are not even going to try to forgive, but the message of scripture is that we must always try. On the cross, Jesus forgave those who crucified him. Most of us never have to even think about forgiving anything that horrible. Jesus is our example. He shows us how forgiving we should be.

Body-Mind. We need to be a forgiving people because it is good for the body-mind. Any time we stew in a lot of hatred, it has a wide range of effects. It makes us into very angry and hostile people. Psychologists tell us that an unforgiving anger may keep us awake at night. We are so angry we cannot go to sleep. We are too angry to eat. Such anger may cause headaches, high blood pressure, and even fatigue. Being an angry person tires us out.

If we keep that unforgiving anger inside us, it can affect our productivity at work. It can affect our ability to concentrate. How can we concentrate when we are so mad at those people? It can affect our ability to make new friends. People do not want to be around angry people.

Our Need For Forgiveness. All that says that we need to learn to be a forgiving people, but before we can learn that, we must learn who needs forgiveness the most. I do. I am the sinner who needs forgiveness.

Before we can honestly pray the petition from the Lord's Prayer asking for forgiveness, we must realize our need to pray it. That is to say, we must have a sense of our personal sins. Sin, of course, is not a very popular concept today. People today resent being told that they are sinners who deserve to go to hell. Part of the problem is that we have the wrong concept of sin. We think of the sinner as the murderer, the adulterer, the burglar, the drug dealer. We think that if we live what society would call a decent, ordinary, respectable life, if we avoid going to jail, we are not sinners. But the NT defines sin as any failure to give to God what we ought to give him. Sin is any failure to be what we could be for God. Since God is holy and right, sin is any stepping across the line between right and wrong. It is any slip or any misstep whether we get caught or not.

This sort of reminds me of a story I heard about a man filing out an application for a job. One of the questions was: "Have you ever been arrested?" He put down "No." The next question was, "If so, Why?" He put down "Haven't been caught yet." A man that honest should have been hired on the spot.

Sin is a universal disease that has infected all of us. Outward respectability in the sight of man does not mean that we are free from inward sin. So when we pray, "Lord, forgive us our debts, forgive us our shortcomings, forgive us our sins," I am the one who needs to pray that. It is me, O Lord, that is the sinner.

Knowing that then, knowing how often I have transgressed against God, I am able to forgive those who transgress against me. This is the foundation for all our forgiving. If we are aware of how deeply we have sinned against God, and that we have been forgiven, then we are willing to forgive. It follows then that people who are unwilling to forgive are people who do not know how much they have sinned against God and how much they have been forgiven

Let us take an example: Dorothy Reid Lewis and her two children were abducted from a grocery store parking lot on January 30, 1993. She was raped, shot four times and left for dead. Both of her two children were shot and killed. Her abductors were Richard Henyard and Alfonza Smalls, two young black men, ages 18 and 14. They were caught and convicted of murder. One is now on death row; the other is serving eight consecutive life sentences.

Now Dorothy Reid Lewis is a black woman with a lot of faith. She says she has forgiven them. In an interview in The Orlando Sentinel in 1994, Lewis said that she does not hate Henyard and Smalls, and feels no anger toward them--because she has put herself in God's hands--because she knows a forgiving God, she is able to forgive what may seem to be unforgivable.

As We Forgive. Notice that the prayer in V12 is not just "Forgive us our sins," but "Forgive us our sins, in proportion as we forgive those who have sinned against us." And Jesus is so concerned that we might not get it that he tells us again in Vs 14 and 15: If we forgive others, God will forgive us. If we refuse to forgive others, God will refuse to forgive us.

It therefore follows that if we pray this petition with an unforgiving heart, then we are not forgiven. If we say, "I will never forgive so and so for what he or she did to me," and then pray for God to forgive as we forgive, then what we are asking is for God not to forgive us.

The only way to have forgiveness is to give it away. This the way of all spiritual gifts. We have spiritual gifts only in so far as we give them away. With regard to forgiveness, if we have it, we give it. If we do not give it, we do not have it. Our forgiveness of others and God's forgiveness of us cannot be separated. They are one and indivisable. Think of it this way. Forgiveness is part of a current of love that flows down to us from God. The current flows through Jesus to us and on to others. If we refuse to allow the current to flow through us to others, then we break the connection, and we no longer receive the forgiving love of God. Certainly, we want that love. That means then that we want to learn to be a forgiving people. Let me mention three things that will help us to forgive--understanding, forgetting, loving.

First, in order to forgive, we must understand. People do stupid evil things for a reason. If a person is impolite or cranky, perhaps that person is worried or in pain. My wife says that I am the most impolite, cranky person in the world, whenever I am sick. Perhaps so. Perhaps we should realize that the person who is making our life miserable is miserable.

If a person treats you with suspicion and dislike perhaps it is because she does not understand you, or she has misunderstood things you have said, or has been misinformed about things you have said. We have all had the experience where someone was angry at us because they heard that we said so and so, and we never even said it. What we need to do in that case is not to get angry at them because they are angry at us, but just make sure that they understand what we actually said or did. If someone is going to be mad at us, they ought to be mad at us for something real, not for something someone said we did or said we said.

Also, we need to understand that many people have come from situations and families where hostility, anger, and suspicion were the norm. This is the way they have been taught to behave.

I remember once, when someone treated my mother badly, she just sort of shook her head, and said with great kindness, "They just do not know any better." That was all she needed to say. Because she understood where they were coming from, she was able to ignore their meanness and go on with her life as if it never happened.

Again, if a person comes from a critical, harsh background, if they come from a family where they were faulted for a lot of things, they are likely to grow up to be critical and harsh and unforgiving people. Again, we need to understand where they are coming from.

Let us talk about fat. We have many words for fat--overweight, rotund, chubby, corpulent, obese. We have allthese words for a weight problem, but have you ever noticed that no one is more critical of a weight problem than someone who has lost weight. Because they have overcome their weight problem--tt least they have overcome it for the moment, though they may gain it all back next year--but because of that they think that they are justified in criticizing everyone else's weight, but they are not because no one has hired them to be a watcher of other people's weight. This is a lesson we all need to learn. We should be self-critical. That does not entitle us to be critical of others.

Also, as we grow up, we learn a certain temperament, and temperament plays a part in our willingness to forgive. Some people have very sensitive natures, so they are easily hurt, and forgiveness is a bigger issue to them than to others. On the other hand, some people have the psychic hide of an elephant. They are not easy to hurt. Things that offend others pass them right by without them even noticing, so they do not get hurt much and do not realize when they hurt others, and so they so not see much need for forgiveness.

Understanding these things then, understanding people, makes forgiveness easier. Of course, understanding is not easy. It takes effort to understand where others are coming from and many people are too lazy to make the effort, they find it easier to condemn. They find it easier to give up on people. They will give up on a relative, a friend, a spouse before they give up on their resentment.

This is an attitude of our time. We live in a throwaway age. We do not fix anything. We throw it away and buy a new one. That may be fine with technology. It may be true that if it costs a lot to repair a TV or an oven, then it makes more sense to get a new one. We faced that problem at the manse this week. The oven burned out, and the repairman said that it was going to cost half as much to repair it as it would to buy a new one. Faced with that kind of problem, it seemed the best stewardship of the Lord's money to buy a new one. But people are not appliances. People are not machines. People are not throwaway devices. We never give up on people.

The second thing to help us forgive is forgetfulness. Speaking of God's forgiveness, IS38:17 says, "You have cast all my sins behind your back." This does not mean that God has amnesia about our sins. God knows everything so he must know about our sins. He knows what our sins are, but he has cast all those sins behind him. That is to say, he has decided to treat us as if we have not sinned. Again PS32, "Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered." God knows our sins, but he has covered our sins with Christ, and is willing to act toward us as if we were as sinless as Christ.

That is the way that we should forget. In one sense, we do not forget. Some psychologists say that we never really forget anything. We just do not happen to remember it at the moment. But if we trigger the right associations, then any memory that we have ever had will suddenly come bouncing right back into our minds again--and for most people the easiest things to recall are those times when somebody did us wrong. We saw that same process in the story I told about my grandmother. The incident happened sixty years earlier, but when the right associations were triggered, it all came right back. And we may not be able to do much about that kind of memory. The human mind is a funny thing. Trying to forget something just brands it all the more deeply on our minds.

But if we can never entirely forget that someone did us wrong, we can stop letting the incident have power over our lives. That is what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is knowing that something happened that made us furious and then deciding to refuse to let what happened have any power or influence over us. That is what God does when God casts our sins behind his back. If we want God's forgiveness, that is what we must do. We let bygones be bygones.

The third thing we need to be a forgiving people is love. The Greek word for Christian love is agape. Agape is that undefeatable good-will, that will never seek anything but what is best for others, no matter what they do to us and no matter how they treat us. When we love like that, then we dwell in love and we are forgiven. In LK7, a woman anointed Jesus' feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, and the Pharisee was critical of Jesus for allowing her to do this because she was a woman of bad reputation. But Jesus said of her in V47, "Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little." He said her love proves that she has been forgiven, because people who do not love much have not much forgiveness. Forgiveness is a characteristic of love. A loving person is a forgiving person, and a loving person is a forgiven person.

Let us conclude then with the process of forgiveness. Forgiving happens in four stages: hurt, hate, healing, and reconciliation. When someone does us wrong, we are pushed into the first stage of forgiving--we hurt. In the second stage, we cannot shake the memory of how much we were hurt, and we cannot wish our enemy well--we hate. We want the person who hurt us to suffer. In the third stage, we remember how often we have hurt others and how often we have hurt God. We develop the ability to see the person who hurt us with new eyes. We see ourselves in them, and we see them as frail, fallible, human beings. By this insight, we are healed of our hate and hurt. Our insight into this person can then allow us to proceed to the final stage--reconciliation.

Now you might ask, What if there is no reconciliation? What if I forgive and the other person does not care whether I forgive them or not? That does not matter. If the other person does not accept our forgiveness, that is their problem with God not ours. Our part is to forgive. We need to forgive in order to heal the wound that their sin made in our psyche. When someone has done you wrong, they have dealt you a spiritual or psychic wound. The wound must be healed somehow. We heal that wound by being understanding, and forgetting, and loving. We let bygones be bygones and get on with our lives. Amen.

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