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The road to forgiveness

On finding fresh grace

“Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come” (Luke 17:1). No matter who you are, you are going to sin, says Jesus. When we sin, we separate from God and experience guilt. Thankfully, Jesus also says that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). God is a Father who desires to forgive his children. It is a major component of his very character. He makes himself available and accessible to everyone who comes with an honest confession, which says, “God, I agree with what you said I am and what I did. I messed up and I damaged my relationship with you; I am sorry.” We confess; he forgives, non-negotiable. Done, without fail! That’s how the Book reads.

But there’s a rub
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “Forgive us our sins as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12), and a few sentences later adds this footnote: “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (14-15). To get forgiveness you need to give forgiveness. The Scriptures are blunt with this. In them we hear God describing what he does and what we are to do now. “Yes, though you wronged me,” he tells us, “I choose not to hold that against you. I hurl it away and I promise I will not bring it up again. I erase it out of my perfect memory bank.”

Then follows the hard part. “Because you are made in my image, you must likewise forgive others who sinned and hurt you.”

How often? “As often as I have forgiven you.” We confess; he forgives. Jesus, in answering the “how many times” question, said, “seven times a day” (Luke 17:4) – indicating that forgiving becomes a way of life. This is essential to experiencing your own forgiveness. To refuse to forgive another is to burn the very bridge over which we ourselves must pass. The biblical pattern is clear: as God forgives us, so we forgive others.

A three-part promise
This pattern has three aspects for us. Like God, we must promise never to bring up the past sin again. First, not with the person involved (which is hard!); secondly, not with anyone else (even harder); and third, not with myself by dwelling on it (hardest of all). Without being intentional about all three parts, it will be difficult to release the past and make a new start. It calls for ruthless honesty with oneself and the utmost of humility to seek and grant forgiveness. Too often, pride holds us back.

Part three, in which I promise to stop myself from dwelling on past sins or hurts, is especially difficult. I remember instances where this took several years. In the past, when I thought I had finished an issue, something would happen and jar me. I might see the person across the street and anger and bitterness would pop right up like a new dandelion in a fresh, moist lawn. I’d tell myself, “Stop that! Leave the old garbage buried instead of fishing it up.” Easier said than done. The good news is that God promises his presence and the infilling of the Holy Spirit to help “those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for these gifts,” (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 116).

Forgive myself?
“Now if I could just forgive myself . . .” is a common refrain that effectively slows down the forgiveness journey. Discouragement and guilt puts downers on all of us. The concept of “forgiving oneself” is stated so often among us that it has acquired biblical status. However, the Bible doesn’t speak about forgiving oneself. It repeatedly tells us to believe God about what Jesus has done and walk by faith in the joy of his forgiveness. It does speak about loving oneself, but only after loving God above all, and then only incidentally after being told to love our neighbour as we already love ourselves. There is a need for healthy self-love. But the forgiveness of self, well-intentioned, is a misdirected effort to give God a helping hand in forgiving us. He doesn’t need it. Really!? If God has perfectly forgiven us, what is left to forgive? He asks for thanks for his gift of grace and he looks for our prayers that ask him to help us to forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts. It is arrogant to think that my self-forgiving, whatever that is, in any way adds to or completes the perfect work of Christ for me. When he said, “It is finished!” it was!

Forgiveness is the essential glue that renews relationships and heals broken ones in our communities. God meets us with grace, love and forgiveness at exactly our deepest places and times of failure, hurt or loneliness. His love to us creates his love in us. His forgiveness experienced becomes forgiveness shared. The attributes of his character such as love, grace, mercy, truth and compassion become more inscribed in the essence of our very characters. The fruit of his Spirit becomes his very character in us. A big part of that is our desire and willingness to forgive the way he does. Christ expects us to act like him. We mirror his spirit of forgiveness, contentment and peace, portraying to others that something good is happening in us! 

Read Part Two
From common law to in-law

Author

  • Henry Wildeboer

    Rev. Henry Wildeboer served as a pastor in three CRC churches. Now retired, he mentors young pastors and leaders. He’s also the author of When God Shows Up: A Pastor’s Journey. This is part one of a three-part series on rich, fresh grace.

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