The dream was perfect. I was at a party and as I moved through the crowd I was really enjoying some sweet revenge by telling stories about someone who had seriously hurt me. Everyone was enjoying the ridicule I was creating and I knew I was changing their attitudes toward this person. And then I woke up. Nothing I did in my dream had been real, but my desire to hurt this person and turn others against him had been very real. When I woke up I realized the depth of my anger and the reality of my need to get rid of this festering bitterness that was now even robbing me of sleep. I don’t know if any of you have ever had a vengeful nightmare, but unfortunately, this was not the first time I have dreamed about someone I needed to forgive. I am not the most self-aware person you will ever meet, so God often speaks to me through my dreams. This doesn’t make me a Daniel or a Joseph. When I get hurt I have a bad habit of wanting to bury the pain, so far down that it makes me sick. I tell this story not to find pity. I tell this story because struggling to forgive someone is a common temptation.
Today I want to write about forgiveness. What it is and what it is not. Specifically I want to talk about how we forgive when we can’t forget what someone has done.
- Forgiveness is not forgetting.
If we have to fight our feelings to forgive we are normal. If we can’t forget what someone has done this is a very common problem. To begin with I want to make it clear I am not interested in judging anyone. God knows I could never do that in good conscience because I have wrestled with my emotions to forgive many times. Struggling to forgive is quite ordinary. But, somethings cannot be forgotten and somethings should not be forgotten. So, forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is letting someone off our hook, but our acts of mercy and forgiveness will never let someone off God’s hook. This is between them and God. We can’t control other people or their behavior. All of us have to repent to receive God’s forgiveness.
As we go through life some behaviors will need to be remembered and some people will need to be held accountable for their behavior. Sometimes we have to go to the police because of what has happened and sometimes we have to separate and get the divorce because a spouse will not give up their infidelity. So, it is possible to forgive and not be able to forget.
Jesus knows how hard it is to forgive. In Hebrews 2:14-18 the writer to the Hebrews wrote this about Jesus.
14) Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—15) and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. 16) For it is clear that he does not reach out to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring. 17) Therefore he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in matters pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For since he himself has suffered when he was tempted he is able to help those who are tempted. CSB
Jesus genuinely suffered when he was tempted. This savior who wants to strengthen us in our hour of need knows exactly how tempting it is to hold on to feelings of bitterness and anger because of someone else’s sinful choices. Another helpful passage to remember when we need to know Jesus is always on our side is Hebrews 4:14-16.
14) Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus the Son of God—let us hold fast to our confession. 15) For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. 16) Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need. CSB
Not only was Jesus genuinely tempted to not forgive people who hurt him, he is able to sympathize with us. To be tempted by sin is not the same as sinning. Jesus was tempted in every way that we are tempted yet was without sin. Jesus knows how costly our forgiveness will be to us. He suffered when he was tempted to not forgive just like we do. Remember the prayer Jesus prayed from the cross? It is found in Luke 23:34…”Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” ESV This prayer is still one of the most relevant prayers we can pray for those we are struggling to forgive. Most of the people who hurt us have no idea what their evil actions have unleashed in our lives. This doesn’t mean their actions weren’t premeditated it means they hadn’t counted the cost of their behavior. Certainly, the people who crucified Jesus had no idea what they were doing and who was using their willful choices. When we pray this prayer, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” we will look like Jesus. Forgiveness then is a spiritual exercise we do to obey God.
- Forgiveness is something we do for God.
We don’t forgive because someone has changed. The person who traumatized us may never change. They may never ask for forgiveness or acknowledge the hurt they have caused. We forgive to have a better relationship with God. But we can’t forgive in our strength. We must rely on God’s Holy Spirit that lives inside of us to truly forgive. In Matthew 6:9-15 Jesus teaches us how to pray and in the last part of this prayer we see the need to forgive those who have hurt us.
9) Pray like this:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
10) Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
11) Give us this day our daily bread,
12) and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
13) And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
(For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen)
14) For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15) But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. ESV
Jesus desires that we forgive, and he even ties our ability to receive his forgiveness, to us practicing forgiving others. I say practicing, because sometimes forgiveness can be a process. So, forgiveness is not forgetting and it is something we do for God.
- Forgiveness is something we do to protect ourselves.
In Matthew 18:21-35 we have another important passage on forgiveness. God is diligent about growing within us a heart of mercy. Look at Matthew 18:21-35.
21) Then Peter approached him and asked, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times? CSB
Do you think that Peter thought he was being generous when he asked Jesus if he should forgive his brother or sister seven times? Maybe. Jesus’ next words are going to expose Peter’s rule keeping heart. Like Peter, we are often looking for a rule, or a spiritual principle, while God is looking for our complete transformation.
22) I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven. CSB
Why does Jesus give him such a large number? Did he believe Peter really had a heart of contrition? This enormous number was, so Peter would know he should never keep a record of the wrongs that had been done to him. Look at this parable that comes next in Matthew 18:23-35.
23) “For this reason the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24) When he began to settle accounts, one who owed ten thousand talents, was brought before him. 25) Since he did not have the money to pay it back, his master commanded that he, his wife, his children and everything he had be sold to pay the debt.”
26) “At this, the servant fell facedown before him and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27) Then the master of that servant had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan.
28) “That servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’
29) “At this, his fellow servant fell down and began begging him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30) But he wasn’t willing. Instead he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed. 31) When the other servants saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened. 32) Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him. ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33) Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? 34) And because he was angry, his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed. 35) So also my heavenly Father will do to you unless every one of you forgives his brother or sister from your heart.” CSB
Again from this passage we see how critical forgiveness is to God. A talent and a denarii were coinage used by the ancient Romans. A talent was worth about six thousand denarii and a denarii was how much money a day laborer would make after one day working in the fields. So the first servant in this parable owed about sixty million denarii. Do you think he had the means to pay back a loan of this size? Probably not. But, his fellow servant only owed him one hundred denarii, which was about one third his yearly salary. This amount would be hard to pay back, but not impossible.
The contrast in this parable between the two servants is supposed to awaken us to how foolish our bitterness is. Within this passage Jesus is trying to grow the frequency with which we forgive and the amount we are willing to forgive. The most important character trait he is looking for on this earth is his mercy. He wants our mercy to mirror his heart of mercy. Parables can be hard to interpret, but Jesus seems to be saying with this parable in Matthew that those who don’t forgive invite a special kind of torture into their lives. Christians who refuse to forgive have literally chosen to walk in darkness and not in the light that Jesus’ teaching brings.
If we have experienced an extreme hurt forgiveness will be a challenge, but not impossible. We will probably need to see a professional counselor to get there. If we are having nightmares like I was and other troubling thoughts we need to talk to a counselor about our trauma. We need to pay attention to what our minds are dwelling on and talk to someone. No class, writing or speaker should be a substitute for professional counseling.
We also need to learn to listen to our bodies, the effects of trauma are often first manifested in physical symptoms. Modern medicine is important, but don’t rule out that some symptoms you are experiencing maybe aggravated by emotional and spiritual issues.
Forgiveness is not forgetting, it is something we do for God, and forgiveness is something we do to protect ourselves.