The Power of Forgiveness

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32 ESV)

Take a deep breath and travel back in time with me.  Imagine that you have been brought up in a family that loves Jehovah, the God of the Hebrews.  Often your parents brought you to the temple, and they made sure that you received the strictest upbringing and best education regarding the law.  You were even trained under one of the best rabbis – the Harvard of your day.  You were so zealous for God that when a new faith arose that you were convinced was a cult, you did everything you could to destroy those who followed it.  They were an insult to your Maker.  You dragged men and women away to prison, separated families, and killed these followers of Jesus.  Then one day while you were traveling to another city to continue wreaking havoc, you met Him.  You met Jesus, the One Whose followers you were killing.

That is Paul’s story, and His encounter with Jesus changed everything.  He knew God was merciful and gracious.  That’s how God had described Himself to Moses, and it was echoed throughout the Old Testament Scriptures.  That week though, as Christ forgave Paul’s sin and made him a child of God, he finally began to grasp just how great a characteristic of God this is.

“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty,”
(Exodus 24:6-7a ESV)

So several years later, while he was in prison for his faith and preaching, he wrote to a church he had pastored:

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32 ESV)

As he wrote this, he was looking to the salvation that believers have in Christ.  We find this verse in a section that teaches how, through Christ, we put off our ‘old self’ and put on our ‘new self’.  We are no longer bound by the same patterns of life we had before we trusted Christ, but our minds are renewed and we are able to choose holiness and righteousness over sin, just like Jesus!  In the verses immediately following this instruction to forgive, Paul points us to the way Christ forgave us.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2 ESV)

When Christ forgave us, it wasn’t easy.  He suffered not only the excruciating physical pain of being nailed to a cross and left to die, but He also bore the unbearable wrath that God holds against our sin.  Since God is just, sin must be punished.  So in order for Him to forgive us, He had to bear the punishment so that we did not have to. He loved us enough that He did just that.  Do not miss this.  Without this nothing else matters.  Christ died to forgive you if you will trust Him.  That is the core of our faith.  And that is the basis for the way we live.

So when Paul tells us to imitate God and to love like Jesus, that means that forgiveness becomes a key part of our lifestyle.  We can forgive because we know the truth of the gospel, and we are made ‘new men’ who are being transformed to be just like Jesus.  God’s love motivates us to love sacrificially, and that means forgiving even when it costs us dearly.

Not only does Paul provide positive reasons to forgive, but he also points to the foolishness of not forgiving.  Seeing as this is in the context of putting off the ‘old man’ and putting on the ‘new man’, unforgiveness is characteristic of the sinful nature belonging to the ‘old man’.  Paul describes this as being characteristic of a futile mind, a darkened understanding, separation from God, ignorance, hard-heartedness, corruption, and being dominated by deceitful desires.  Our desires whisper to our hearts how much easier it is to hold a grudge and how much more important it is that we receive justice. But when we harbor unforgiveness in our sinful desires, we are ‘giving the devil an opportunity’.  He delights in the bitterness we have toward other Christians, and even towards unbelievers because he knows that will keep us and others from enjoying the love, forgiveness, and fellowship that we have in Christ.

“Wait a minute…” you might say, “I thought justice was important.”  Well, yeah, but think about it.  If God had shown you all justice but no mercy, you would still be doomed to hell.  That is not a meant as a joke or offense but as simple truth from scripture.  Instead, He chose to show you His great mercy, which empowers you to show others mercy too.  Jesus told a story to illustrate this in Matthew 18:23-35.  God has empowered us to forgive, and He expects us to forgive.  When we do, it shows those around us just how powerful forgiveness, especially God’s kind of forgiveness, really is.

As far as justice goes, God has that part under control.  Back in Genesis 50:17-21, Joseph is talking with his brothers (the ones that made his life miserable and sold him into slavery) and tells them that God made something good out of what they intended for harm.  He acknowledged that it was not his place to cling to bitterness and that not only would he not punish them, but he would take care of their families.  I would love for you to go read this whole section, but so that you can at least begin to understand Joseph’s heart when asked for forgiveness, I want you to see this part now:

““Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you…”  Joseph wept when they spoke to him.” (Genesis 20:17 ESV)

Joseph cried because his forgiveness came completely from his heart.  He trusted God, and since He knew God was in control, he could forgive his brothers.  We have these two simple but incredibly powerful reasons to forgive those who have wronged us: Christ forgave us, and God is in control.

And forgiveness brings healing.  Jesus brings healing.  There are things that are hard to forgive.  To forgive things like rape, murder, abuse, rejection, and betrayal would be impossible to forgive if we didn’t have this hope from God.  It remains hard to forgive them even with His hope.  Ultimately our healing will come from Christ, not from those who hurt us, and one day He will bring us to be with Him forever.  Because of this, we can forgive those who have wronged us even without their apology.

There is one more thing I want to tell you about the kind of forgiveness Paul talks about.  Usually, the words for forgiveness used in the Greek of the New Testament paint this picture: Someone owes a debt. Forgiveness is the conscious act on the part of the person to whom the debt is owed of ‘giving that which is owed’ back to the debtor – releasing the debt.  We get our word ‘forgive’ from this idea of ‘giving back’.  The specific word Paul uses here is built on the Greek word for ‘grace’.  When we forgive someone like Jesus forgave us, we are giving back to them that which we perceived they owed us in a conscious act of grace.

Forgiveness is the foundation of our relationship with God, and it is the foundation of our relationships with other people.  Grab a pen and paper quickly.  We may live in the twenty-first century, not the first century, but these truths of forgiveness remain true and applicable.  Take a moment to think about those who you need to forgive and those who you need to ask for forgiveness.  Write these names down on that piece of paper.  Spend some time in prayer talking to God about the strength you need from Him to be able to forgive and to be able to ask for forgiveness.  Then go forgive and seek forgiveness.  Bitterness does not have to keep eating at your relationships.  While healing may still take some time, today you can consciously, graciously release some debts and be glad for the fellowship Christ’s forgiveness makes possible.

“In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us … to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
(Ephesians 1:7-10 ESV)

~Guest Author: CJ Page~

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