Why should I forgive?

A girl who’d been sexually abused by her uncle said later, “I forgive him for what he did to me.” Likewise a husband and father who forgave a drunk driver for killing his wife and children. And likewise again a church congregation that forgave a man who shot their pastor and several others at church. And when a man drove his truck over my newly landscaped garden I forgave him, but all he said was, “I didn’t do it on purpose,” and off he drove with no apology or offer to restore or pay for the damage. In none of these cases did the perpetrator of the damage or the killings show any remorse in response to forgiveness.

So why forgive them? And why did I forgive the truck driver too? Because God forgave me first, right? Or is it the other way round in Matthew 6:14, that if I forgive first then God forgives me? Either way, God’s forgiveness of me is attached directly to my forgiving others. But isn’t my forgiveness of others a bit pointless if they’re not sorry for the damage and hurt they’ve caused? Or worse still, isn’t it a bit risky forgiving people if they “turn grace into license” (Jude 4) to carry on being abusive, stupid and careless?

But in God’s dealings with us, isn’t it his forgiveness for all our ignorant, stupid, hurtful, uncaring thoughts, words and actions that leads us to remorse, repentance, and the desire to change our behaviour? Yes. That’s what forgiveness when understood is supposed to do. As Paul wrote in Acts 17:30, “God overlooked our ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” God, amazingly, can put aside all the hurt we’ve caused by our ignorance and stupidity and he forgives us for all of it – but – having forgiven us he now expects us to turn that amazing grace of his into remorse and change on our part.

So God doesn’t stop with forgiveness. That’s just the first step, because in verse 31 God also “set a day when he will judge the world with justice.” So God forgives, yes, but he also makes sure justice will be done for those who’ve been hurt by the stupid, ignorant, uncaring words and actions of others. It’s a clear reminder that God expects us to stop causing any more hurt by our ignorance and stupidity.

So why should I forgive? Because it’s the first essential step to creating change in a person. It may not happen immediately, but God can use my forgiveness to reach that person at any time, with a clear reminder that forgiveness is given to create repentance.

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Is forgiveness really that important?

in Luke 24:47, Jesus tells his disciples “forgiveness of sins must be preached among all the nations.” Jesus wants the whole world woken up to God’s forgiveness through his disciples relentlessly preaching the message of forgiveness publicly.

Jesus goes one step further, though, because in John 20:22-23 Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples and tells them, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Jesus wants his disciples forgiving people personally too, so that people learn about God’s forgiveness through our forgiveness, and they get to experience what being forgiven is like too.

If I don’t forgive a person on the other hand, he won’t learn about God’s forgiveness, and he won’t get to experience what being forgiven is like. So my forgiving someone personally – and letting the whole world know about forgiveness publicly – are hugely important to Jesus in showing people that their sins truly are forgiven. And that’s why he breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples, to enable us to preach forgiveness publicly and to practice it privately.

And why is that important? Because if people don’t believe their sins are forgiven they’re stuck with all the mental and emotional damage their unforgiven shame, regrets and guilt are doing to them.

The one gigantic wall holding people back from knowing God loves them – and being able to love him in return – is their guilt, because (as one author asked), “What do you do about the things you did yesterday that you are sorry for? What do you do about that sharp word, that loveless deed, that selfish attitude, that malicious lie you told? These things stack up in our lives and build a residue of guilt that haunts us from the subconscious. How do you relieve this guilt? Here is the good news: There is forgiveness of sins. Every morning, every day, a dozen times a day you can claim again this wonderful sense of the forgiveness of sin, because ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,’ 1 John 1:9.”

Our great cry as Christians to the world is, “Your sins are forgiven,” and not to hold back on preaching it publicly and practicing it privately, because we know what being unforgiven feels like. Without forgiveness the mess in our heads continues to haunt us, causing us all sorts of stress and anguish, and even serious mental illness, NONE of which is necessary because “every one who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name,” Acts 10:43.

So, yes, forgiveness really is that important.

“You’re forgiven, you’re forgiven”

I wonder how many kids grow up in homes (and schools) where they’re constantly yelled at and punished for making mistakes. I wonder how it affects them in later life too.

I know how it affected me, because much of my childhood was spent in a British Boarding school and I have vivid memories of how I was treated. I remember being locked in a room for bad behaviour and being left in total isolation, and many times being hauled out of bed at midnight to stand outside in the corridor, shivering with cold for hours. And during my teenage years I was constantly being punished, the punishment sometimes extending for weeks.

I learnt that the only way adults could deal with my lapses and stupidity was by punishment. They weren’t the least bit interested in my apologies or explanations for my behaviour, and there was never a hint of forgiveness. The only time I remember an adult even mildly accepting my apology and reason for my behaviour, the punishment was meted out anyway. So I assumed that even if I was forgiven I’d still be punished.

Not surprisingly then, when I became a Dad, I thought this was the way I should deal with my own children. I based my relationship with them on their behaviour. I didn’t forgive easily, if at all, until I realized how God operates. It was an eye-opener. All I could hear from God’s word was, “You’re forgiven, you’re forgiven.” Every stupid mistake I’d made, every lousy action I’d done, every rotten mood I’d ever been in, all of them had been erased by Christ’s death and wiped from God’s memory forever, Hebrews 8:12.

Years of guilt and self-loathing evaporated in seconds. My head was clear of it. It was so freeing that when I heard a crash in the kitchen and found my granddaughter cowering in the corner, crying her eyes out because she’d broken one of our dishes, I knew exactly what to do. I grabbed her by the shoulders and I yelled at her, “You’re forgiven, you’re forgiven.”

The effect was electric. She looked up at me, stopped crying, and said, “OK,” and off she went as happy as can be. It was amazing. I’d never experienced the power of forgiveness on someone else like that before. Her mind was completely cleared of all guilt and self-loathing and off she scampered as if the incident had never happened.

“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven,” Jesus said in Matthew 9:2 – or – “Cheer up, kiddo, it’s already forgotten.” Imagine growing up in a home (and a school, and a church) like that.

The power of love

What do you do about a teenager who has no ambition, skips school, doesn’t want to earn money, has few friends and plays video games all day? What hope is there for a kid like that?

Life, however, contains a wonderful secret, that people, including teenagers, make amazing changes when they know someone cares.

It was my history teacher who cared for me when my behaviour deteriorated rapidly after my parents split up. He pushed me to excel in athletics, took me to task if I slacked off, and he praised me far more than I deserved when I did well. For the rest of that year I held steady because of him. Without his care in later years, however, my behaviour took another downturn, and at age 16 I was expelled.

For years I floundered around until, one day, I discovered that Jesus died on the Cross knowing full well what I was like. He loved me “while I was yet a sinner,” the Bible said. I was loved, not based on my behaviour, but simply because I existed.

I wish a teenager I met recently knew that too. We met by chance when he stepped off the curb in front of my car and walked across the road so slowly I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting him. He didn’t change his pace, however. He was teenage at its worst: sullen, insolent and uncaring. I wanted to yell at him.

But I’d just read a book about High School kids whose lives took a huge turn for the better when teachers and parents stopped yelling at them and started caring for them instead. The evidence in the book was overwhelming that simply taking an interest in a teenager can start an amazing ball rolling.

Perhaps that’s why teenagers act up so much; it’s to see if their parents and teachers only value them if they’re behaving and doing well, or are they loved as teenagers even at their worst? But that’s when the shock value of not treating a child as he deserves has its greatest effect. It’s when the child knows full well his behaviour is lacking but he’s still loved anyway.

There’s a powerful force at work here. Looking back, then, I wish I’d asked the boy I nearly ran over, “Are you OK?” – because, poor kid, he isn’t OK, he’s a mess. A small expression of concern may have had a huge impact on him, or at least got the ball rolling in the right direction. Who knows? But I do know that even hopeless cases can change when they know someone cares – because I was one.

The damage done to relationships by expectations

Why do so many marriages end in divorce? One common factor is that couples enter marriage with high expectations, and when expectations aren’t met, that’s when the relationship starts to crumble.

In one marriage, for instance, the wife expected her husband to provide her with a better life than she had as a child. In another the husband expected his wife to be sexy at all times. When those expectations weren’t met, the wife punished her husband by refusing sex, and the husband punished his wife by comparing her to other women.

And think of the damage done to children too, by the high expectations of their parents and teachers. At Graduation, for instance, it’s clear to anyone watching that the awards and the loudest applause are given to the top students in academics, sports and community service. Engrained into every child’s head by age eighteen, therefore, is the clear message that your value as a person is directly connected to how well you do.

So where does this nonsense come from? It comes from a culture of magazines and talk shows that bully us into thinking we’re never quite good enough in what we look like, or how we eat, think, play and live. The expectations they put on us are enormous, and the standards they set are unattainable by ordinary mortals, but we expect our mates and children to live up to them anyway because, we’ve been led to believe, only the brightest and the best are truly happy.

Is it any surprise, then, that young people are depressed, many of them to the point of wanting to end it all, because the pressure to be perfect by parents, teachers, coaches and peers is overwhelming? And is it any surprise that forty per cent of marriages collapse, because neither partner feels valued for who they simply are?

But what if a child or a mate knows they’re loved no matter what?

I love the story of one married couple that proved you could ignore cultural pressure and still be happy. They played in bridge tournaments as partners. At one major tournament the wife made a stupid mistake in the first round and blew the game for them, but they were so at ease in their relationship together that they went on to win the tournament despite the rocky start.

The secret? Neither of them based their relationship on never making mistakes. So even if they’d lost the tournament they could still drive home happily together. No angry blaming, no stony silence, no demand for apologies, and no damage done to their relationship because of expectations not met.

What does God put first, our behaviour or relationship?

Unique to Christianity is the belief that humans can have an affectionate relationship with God. God is “Abba, Father” in Galatians 4:6, which is like calling God ‘Papa’, or ‘Pops.’

Calling God Papa, however, would be close to blasphemous for some people because God, to them, is not like a Dad who enjoys his kids. God expects his children to behave. Proper respect and submission, they say, are what God requires if one hopes to gain his favour.

I used to think that too, so it was surprising to read in Romans 5:8 that God loved us “while we were yet sinners.” So it isn’t behaviour that comes first in God’s dealings with us, it’s relationship.

With that in mind I wondered what would happen if I put relationship first in dealing with my own children. It would mean loving them no matter how they behaved, or how badly they messed up. But what if they caught on that they’re loved – even at their worst – and they exploited it to slack off, or as the Bible says, they turned “grace into license?”

Well, yes, that’s the risk I’d have to take, but isn’t that the risk God took with me? He loved me while I was yet a sinner, when my behaviour was at its worst.

Which faced me with the question, “What do I really want from my children?” Is it their best behaviour I’m after, or a relationship? Is it children I can feel proud of, or children who call me ‘Dad’ with affection?

If it’s an affectionate relationship I’m after, then I know how God won my affection. He did it by loving me to death for nothing more than being me. It was strange getting used to a God like that, because religion had taught me that God only loves and favours those who behave. But if love worked on me, why not on my children?

So I made it obvious to my children that they don’t have to live up to my expectations to be loved. There is no need for them to impress me, no demands they must fulfill to win my favour, no hoping for 100% on a report card to make me “really” happy with them, no pressure to make me feel proud of them, and no condemnation when they messed up. I wanted them to feel free to strike out on life knowing they were loved no matter what.

And twenty years later, sitting on our front deck with all my children and their extras around me having a great time together, I thank our Abba Father for teaching me it’s relationship that comes first, not behaviour.

Why no peace yet, and no end to evil?

So how come pain, suffering and evil still exist when Christ in his death “condemned sin in sinful man” (Romans 8:3), and in his resurrected state he’s now at God’s “right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion…not only in the present age but also in the age to come“ (Ephesians 1:20-21)?

Anyone suffering surely has the right to ask that question, that if Jesus really is fully in charge of what happens on this planet right now, then why isn’t he putting a stop to terrorism, serial killers, corruption in high places, and all the other awful things happening to people? And if it’s true in Colossians 1:20 that he’s “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross,” then why aren’t we seeing peace spreading throughout the Earth as well?

Paul answers both questions in verses 21-23, that Jesus IS creating peace and he is putting a stop to the awful things happening to us – by getting at WHY we have so much pain, suffering and evil still, and why we don’t have peace. And the simple reason why is because “You were God’s enemies. You hated him, and you were separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions” (21).

The reason we don’t have peace and why pain, suffering and evil continue, is because our minds have been so twisted against God that we can’t stop the evil thoughts and actions that wreck our relationship with him, and with each other.

But that’s why Jesus died. He died, as Paul phrases it, to “reconcile” us to God (verse 22). Jesus’ dealt a death blow to our hatred for God, so that the process of healing our twisted up minds could begin. And the process begins with the dawning in our minds that we are all now “holy in God’s sight, without blemish and free from accusation” because of Jesus’ death (22).

That’s “the hope held out in the gospel” (23), that in Jesus’ death we have a fresh start. None of our past evil thoughts and actions are held against us. We all stand in God’s presence with a completely clean slate. But that’s just the beginning, because the hope that’s ALSO held out in the gospel is that “if we continue in our faith, established and firm” (23) God will complete what he started.

We now enter a lifetime of healing, where the evil thoughts and actions that are the cause of all our pain, suffering and lack of peace are brought to the surface and dealt with. And there we have God’s solution, which is happening right now in the minds of those who believe it and trust him.