September 24, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
HEART HABITS: FORGIVENESS
The third in a series of five.
We all understand anger. We’ve all been there.
We’ve all been like Mary, the little girl who was so angry at her younger brother, she couldn’t stand it. So she pulled his hair. That wasn’t enough to get all the anger out of her system. So she kicked him in the shins.
He tried to fight back, but he was pretty small. He was clearly outmatched, so he ran away in tears and told their mother what his big sister had done.
The mother was a very religious woman. She said to her daughter, “Mary, why have you let Satan put it into your heart to pull your brother’s hair and kick him in the shins?”
She said, “Well Mother, maybe Satan did put it into my heart to pull his hair, but as for kicking him in the shins – that was my idea.”
When anger gets into our hearts, it might feel like an outside, satanic power has taken control over our actions. In the heat of the moment, we might not feel responsible for what we do. But we are. Little Mary was right. We can’t say the devil made me do it. It was our idea. It was the result of a bad habit we let into our hearts.
Anger is the most obvious and most dangerous of the four bad heart habits we are looking at in this series. Sometimes we get it out of our system temporarily by lashing out at the person who made us angry. More often we hold it inside. We seethe. We nurse the hurt. We imagine bad things happening to the one who hurt us. We keep replaying that tape – in our own heads and out loud to anyone who will listen – about how unfairly we have been treated.
Guilt says, “I owe you.” Anger says, “You owe me.” And as long as, “You owe me”, I have no choice but to be miserable.
Anger turned outward is anti-social behavior. Anger turned inward is depression. Either way, it’s not good. It is a bad, bad heart habit. And one that’s hard to break. But the Bible is very clear about how to break it. It takes the good heart habit we are going to talk about today. Forgiveness.
Some of you are saying, “I’ve heard this sermon before. Preachers are always telling us to forgive.” Some of you are saying, “I’ve tried forgiveness, and it didn’t work.” Some of you are saying, “I know I ought to forgive, but I can’t.” Some of you are saying, “You have no idea what was done to me. It was so bad. It was unforgivable. Even if I could forgive, I don’t want to.”
There is a lot of confusion about forgiveness. But there are two passages in the Bible that clear things up. Beginning with the passage we read today from Ephesians.
First, it talks about anger. It tells us it’s OK to be angry. It says, “Be angry, but do not sin” (4:26). Anger is a normal, God-given emotion. If you aren’t angry once in a while, it means you’re not paying attention. Or you don’t have a pulse. There’s a lot to be angry about. Anger is not the sin, but anger can be the fuel that leads to the sin. So, “Be angry, but do not sin.”
A few verses later it tells us to get rid of our anger. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (4:31). It’s OK to be angry. It’s not OK to use your anger as an excuse for sin. And it’s not OK to stay angry. So it tells us to get rid of our anger. Easier said than done. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible, without doing what it tells in the very next verse to do: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” (4:32).
There’s that word again. Without forgiveness, the anger remains. It’s going to continue living rent free in your heart. It’s not going anywhere. Without forgiveness, nothing changes. It’s easier to stay the same and make excuses. And angry people are full of excuses.
“Look at how I’ve been treated! . . . It’s not my fault . . . You did this to me . . . I am a victim . . . I am helpless . . . I am powerless . . . I am at your mercy . . . My life has been ruined, and you are to blame!”
It’s easier to remain in the prison of our anger than to use the one key that can set us free. That key is forgiveness.
We can think of a million excuses about why we can’t or shouldn’t or don’t want to. But for those of us who say that we are Christians, all those excuses become really small when we read the rest of that verse from Ephesians.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (4:32).
God has forgiven our sins in the most costly way imaginable. Our sins died with Jesus on the cross. We have been forgiven so much. So how can we now refuse to forgive?
Jesus had a lot to say about forgiveness, and much of it is packed into Matthew, chapter 18. It begins with Peter’s question. It might also be your question. What about that person who keeps hurting us over and over again. Do we just keep forgiving the same person for the same thing endlessly? There has to be a limit. Peter suggests “seven times” might be a reasonable limit. If you’ve ever forgiven the same person for the same thing that many times, you probably would agree that is plenty.
But it’s a question based on a misunderstanding. Forgiveness is not for the other person. It’s for us. It’s not a favor we bestow on the one who hurt us. We’re doing ourselves the favor when we forgive. We’re setting ourselves free. So this whole idea that we need to be stingy with forgiveness makes no sense. Forgiveness is the key that sets us free from the prison of our anger. So why wouldn’t we use that key every chance we get?
Then Jesus tells a parable to help us understand. It’s called “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant”. It’s about a king who is settling accounts with his servants. One of his servants has this unbelievably huge debt. He couldn’t pay all that money back in a million years. Literally. So the king is about to foreclose on the debt. He wouldn’t get nearly what he was owed, but he would get something. He’s about to sell the servant, his family, and all he owned. The servant got on his knees and begged for mercy. And the king said, “Tell you what. I’m going to cancel your debt. You don’t owe me a dime.”
Jesus is giving us here his definition of forgiveness. It’s a simple definition. Forgiveness is the decision to cancel a debt. In fact, in the financial world, we use that very term. If your debt is forgiven it means you no longer owe the money.
Remember, anger says, “You owe me.” Forgiveness says, “Even though you owe me, have decided to cancel your debt.”
But there is more to the parable. The servant whose huge debt has just been forgiven decides it’s time to call for payment on a small loan he had made to another servant. This servant does the same thing the first servant had done. He gets on his knees and begs for mercy. But this time there is no mercy. The debt is not forgiven. Instead, the debtor is “thrown into prison until he could pay the debt” (Matthew 18:30).
News of this reaches the king, the king who had forgiven the huge debt in the first place. He couldn’t believe that someone who had been forgiven so much could refuse to forgive so little. He calls the unforgiving servant in and he says:
You wicked servant. I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had on you?
Of course he should have! Does anyone disagree with that? And then it dawns on us. That is exactly what we do every time we refuse to forgive others. God has forgiven us so much! How can we refuse to forgive others so little?
In the parable, the one who refuses to forgive gets thrown in prison. The one who demands to be paid is the one who ends up paying the price. And so do we when we hold onto our anger and refuse to forgive.
Here is one of the Buddha’s wisest sayings: “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned.”
And not just you. Unresolved anger can have multi-generational implications. Many examples could be given. One is Rwanda.
Here is Rwanda, a small country in the heart of Africa. If you’ve heard of this country, it’s probably because of what happened there in 1994. It’s referred to as the Rwandan holocaust. The Hutus and the Tutsi in that country had been fighting each other for generations. It was a classic case of multi-generational unresolved anger. And then in 1994, that anger exploded into something truly awful. Nearly one million Tutsi were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors.
I heard one of the survivors speak at an event last month called the Global Leadership Summit. Immaculée Ilibagiza hid in a 3′ x 4′ bathroom for 91 days along with seven other starving women. While in hiding, her parents and two of her three brothers were killed. She has written a book about all this called Left to Tell. It’s a first-hand account of the depths of human depravity. But it’s also the story of this amazing woman’s journey to forgiveness.
She told us in her talk how she would pray the Lord’s Prayer over and over to pass the time in that cramped bathroom. But she wouldn’t pray all of it. She couldn’t. She would leave out the part that says, “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. But eventually God brought her to the point where she could say these words and mean them. She shared with us her wisdom. She said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t try to edit the Lord’s Prayer.” She also said, “If I can forgive, anyone can forgive.”
Forgiving these murderers was not something she felt like doing. It was something she decided to do. She didn’t wait for her anger to go away first. That was never going to happen. She forgave first. Her anger was still there, but it was now no longer in control of her life. She had used the one and only key that could set her free. She forgave.
In the time we have left, I’m going to give you Andy Stanley’s four steps to forgiving someone. They are practical. They work. I will be interested in hearing your stories about how they worked for you.
1) Make a list. This is a list of the people with whom you are really angry. Sometimes anger dissipates with time. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it grows. Make a list of those whose hurtful words or actions still hurt. Even after all these years. Even though it might be the name of someone who is no longer part of your life. Even though it might be the name of someone who is dead. You can still forgive. Your list might be short or long, but it’s important to give this step sufficient time for you to purge your heart of anger you may not even realize is there.
2) Decide what the people on this list owe you. Don’t skip this step. They are all important, but this one especially. It’s important to be specific. This is not what these people did. It is what they took. It is what they would need to pay back to restore things to what they were before. This is the restitution we talked about last week. It might be money. It might be your job. It might be your marriage. It might be your reputation. It might be years of your life. Or it might be that all you really need is an apology. Figure out what it is specifically. Write it down. Why is this so important? Because you can’t cancel a debt unless you know what the debt is.
3) Cancel the debt. You aren’t owed it any more. It’s gone. It’s done. It’s forgiven. Just as your sins are forgiven because they died with Jesus on the cross. It’s helpful to do this in such a way that it’s more than just something you decide in your head. Maybe write it on a piece of paper and burn the paper. Something like that.
Andy Stanley suggests this format:
Heavenly Father, ____________ has taken
_____________ from me. I have held onto this
debt long enough. I choose to cancel this debt.
_____________ doesn’t owe me anymore. Just
as you forgave me, I forgive ___________.
You might be wondering if it’s a good idea to tell the person you have just forgiven. Probably not. It might do more harm than good. You will have people on that list in step 1 who are clueless that they did anything wrong. If you tell them you have just forgiven them, they might think that you have just accused them of something they aren’t willing to accept, and it will probably get uglier from that point on. The exception to this, of course, is when someone asks you to forgive them.
4) Dismiss the case. Just like in court. The gavel goes down and the judge declares, “Case dismissed!” This is important because our feelings seldom follow our decision to forgive. The anger tends to linger. It’s not like switching off a light. It’s more like draining the water out of a swimming pool. It’s going to take some time.
And complicating things is the simple fact that even when we forgive, we do not forget. The memory lives on. The memory will likely come back and make you wonder if you were kidding yourself when you decided to forgive.
At times like this, you don’t want to reopen the case. The case is closed. You simply say those words again. As often as you need to. “I have decided to cancel this debt.” Feelings come and go. Your decision remains.
Some of you are going to go home and today and nothing will change. It’s easier to stay the same and make excuses. Angry people are full of excuses.
But some of you are going to go home and take out a pad of paper, or sit down at your computer screen, and begin working your way through these four steps that will set you free from the anger that has been burning in your heart way too long.
Or in your hand. That hot coal you intended for someone else is only burning your own flesh. How dumb is that! It’s time. It’s way past time. Forgive.
Dear God, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Not because they deserve to be forgiven. Any more than we deserve to be forgiven. But because we need to let go, and move on, and get our lives back. And because we are not much use to you as long we are wallowing in our own victimhood. Set us free. In the name of Jesus, and for the work Jesus has for us to do. Amen.