On Sunday morning Paul Sharkey was preaching on the theme of forgiveness. For those of you who would like to read what Paul was saying on the subject, please read below.
Our sins forgiven
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. Think of a child told not to play in a certain area of a garden or play park. They might not be told why not, but simply given the instruction, "Don't!"
They don't understand why they are being restricted and see their parent as merely limiting their activities for some unknown reason: some meaningless, adult restriction meant to spoil their fun and their day. And, human nature being what it is, from then on, the child is only interested in playing in the forbidden region of the garden than in any of the permitted areas (adults too, have the same approach to forbidden things, I regret to say. It seems to be part of our fallen human nature).
The child won't see the hidden danger that the parent sees: the hidden gully, the lair of thepoisonous snake or the cliff just out of sight. Nor will the child understand that behind the parent's don't is a parent's heart saying, "I love you and I will do anything to protect and save you, even if it means giving my life!"
God says to us, "Don't steal, don't lie, don't use My name wrongly, don't live immoral lives..." and we see Him as the restrictive, joy-stealing God, who doesn't understand our desires, our needs and our wants. Yet, could it be that He is our loving heavenly parent who is really saying, "I love you more than you will ever know and I would die for you to save you and protect you!"? It's just that we don't hear that part. We're so busy doing our own thing and after all, doesn't He understand that that is the only part of the garden we want to play in?
So then, like the child who disobeys the parent and falls into the gully, or is bitten by a snake and cries out, "Help! I'm lost! I'm hurting! I can't find the way out!", we get trapped in our sin and our cries are just the same: "Help, I'm lost! I'm trapped! I didn't mean to end up here!"
The parent then throws all thought of their own safety to the wind and rushes to where the child is and lifts them up, holding them close to their breast and carries them to safety. They would rather face danger, injury, or even death to protect their beloved child, even when that child has been blatantly disobedient and defiant. They love their child. That love is all that matters, now.
So it is with our Heavenly Father. We have become entangled, wounded and entrapped in something much worse than an earthly danger: sin has entrapped us. Sin has eternally entrapped us.
But see, our Father in heaven has set in motion a rescue plan: He has sent us His Son to save us from the sin we have fallen into. But this time, there is no other way to rescue us than by His Songiving His own life on the Cross in place of our lives: an innocent life for a guilty one. We will never fully understand this, but the Good Shepherd seeks out the lost sheep, lifts them up and carries them home on His shoulders, rejoicing as He goes. Saved from eternal destruction!
The child rescued from the gully is forgiven, but may still have the scars to remind them of their foolish and disobedient choices and, so it is with us. Though we have called out in our need for the Good Shepherd to seek us out and carry us home, we may have to bear some of the scars of our folly for a while, maybe even a lifetime. But oh, the Love we've discovered in our God! We only saw the God of the Don't, before, but now, we see something of the true heart of our loving Father, sending His Son, to seek and to save that which was lost! (Luke 19:10). What a God we have!
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see!
(John Newton, slave trader)
If God has forgiven you, forgive yourself. How we torture ourselves with our past sins and failures before and after we became Christians. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “If God forgives us we must forgive ourselves otherwise it's like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”
A powerful and very helpful part of scripture to memorise is Philippians 3:13, “But, this one thing I do, forgetting that which is past, I press on…”. Forgetting that which is past! Draw a line under it and put it behind you. Don’t think of it again. He has forgiven you!
Forgiving others is more practical than is initially obvious. There's a lot we can do to make this process easier. Firstly, let's look at the problem:
Someone does something or says something that has offended us, or perhaps offended someone we love. We are angry, furious, and indignant. We might equally feel wounded, betrayed, or ignored and passed over. No matter how we look at the issue, we cannot explain it away or find a rational reason that would let us understand what has been said or done. Our thoughts become occupied with the offence. Perhaps for days. Perhaps for years. The light-heartedness and carefree temperament we once enjoyed is now shadowed, if it still exists at all. It's as if the sky has gone dark above us and chill winds have captured our attention instead of the sunshine. We find it impossible to let the thoughts go. The negative thoughts of annoyance, irritation and anger consume us. We try again and again to work through it, to work it all out, but without success. The reality is that we're feeding on negativity and it's slowly but steadily poisoning us one thought at a time.
We can't find answers because there aren't any. Chaos and destruction don't have meaningful and logical reasons behind them. Evil in all its forms, comes through a twisted heart. No ordered reasoning or thinking there. No peace there. That includes selfishness, bitterness, malice and a whole host of other strands of evil. So, the first thing we must do is to discipline our minds not to go there. Not ever. This is very difficult for us, but prayer makes it much easier. But, be careful how you pray. If we just use prayer to focus on the same issues that have been consuming us they will just keep growing. No, the way to pray about anything negative is to lay it before God as a bundle, an unopened package, "Lord, You know what's in there, I'm not going over it again, but Lord, breathe Your overcoming strength into me that I might be freed from this once and for all!" Lift your eyes to God, that's where you'll find help.
In that moment, you've stopped the poison flowing into your spirit. A huge and fundamental step has been taken and each time the same issues threaten your mind do the same thing again and again. It will eventually stop, but you will probably have to fight for this victory.
Now come some very practical and necessary steps. Choices, really. These are the things we can do:
1. Say out loud, “I forgive (name the person).” Even if you’re speaking out the intention to forgive and you don’t yet feel that you’ve forgiven them in your heart.*
2. Renounce the right to think about the issues (as discussed above).
3. Renounce the right to retribution, to get your own back, in word or in action.
4. Renounce your right to be offended. This is a tough one for anyone, even a Christian, but being offended is actually a choice, so choosing not to be offended is the possible, though often most difficult, alternative. Change your attitude towards that person from seeing their wrongs to seeing and praying for their needs. See a soul loved by God.
5. See the offence as it is. Don't try to tell yourself it wasn't all that bad after all. If it was wicked and wrong call it that. Things only fall into place when you face the truth in the clear light of honesty.
Then comes the last and most wonderful part of this process: the miraculous part.
You see, the truth of the matter is that we can't forgive anyone at all. It takes a miraculous action of God to do that for us and the steps outlined above put us in the position where we are ready for that miracle to take place. Think about it: all evil is only cancelled out when it is brought to the Cross at Calvary. There is no other way. So, we empty ourselves, through prayer, of the negativity and spiritual poison which has come in through turning the issues over and over in our minds. We bring ourselves into the presence of God that He may heal our wounded souls. He may do this swiftly, or we might have to linger for a time. If we have to wait, He will have a reason in delaying the miracle. We must trust Him. We must wait. Even when we think that the wound has gone so deeply within us that we can never change, please know this - the love of God goes deeper still. The wounds in our spirit can be totally healed, the pain and darkness totally gone. Forever.
The strange and wonderful thing is that all of this can happen without the person who initially caused the wound knowing anything about what's been going on in your heart, thoughts and life. In fact, they might have innocently or unintentionally caused the offence, but on the contrary, it might have been wicked and totally intentional. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that our relationship to them and to God is restored in love. That is the secret, the true nature and the purpose of forgiveness.
Forgiveness – the highest way
Some final thoughts on forgiveness: the demands Jesus puts upon His Church are of the highest standard. This might seem difficult, or even impossible for us but, we can take wonderful comfort and reassurance from the obvious inference in all of this: that God‘s standard of forgiveness is just as high. What this means to us is this, that we can come to Him with any and all of our past sins and He is ready and willing to forgive us. No matter how dark or how wicked and intentional our sins are, He is now waiting for us to come.
I said forgiveness “might seem difficult, or even impossible” for us but, God makes it possible for us to forgive ourselves, forgive others and to receive forgiveness for our own sins from Him.
“What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27).
When the disciples asked Jesus how many times we should forgive our brother, He replied, “Seventy times seven” (Matt 18:21). In other words, forgiveness should be a way of life for the Christian. There is no limit in how many times we forgive others; we must live in an attitude of forgiveness: no grudges, no long-term fallouts, no giving-the-silent-treatment, etc. This is wonderful news for us as it reflects God’s attitude to us whenever we fall yet again into that so-familiar sin and weakness. We now know that we can get back to Jesus quickly and He is ready and willing to forgive us, no matter how often we fall. Not that we should be casual about sin! We must do everything in thought, word and deed to avoid temptation and sin. This is not easy as we’re swimming against the tide of the times, but we must win through with prayer and the help of the Holy Spirit. We must always treat God's forgiveness with immense respect and value.
Another of Christ's demands on us is when Jesus says “unless you forgive your brother you will not be forgiven”. Phew! That's so hard. Think of the teenager who's gone through years of abuse of one sort or another and think of the Jews who lost beloved families in the gas chambers. Yes, the demands Jesus places on us to forgive others are as high as the demands He asks of Himself in forgiving us. We must forgive. We are commanded to forgive. Worth pondering.
“Love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor 4:8) God is love, so let’s replace the word ‘love’ with ‘God’, the verse now reads, ‘God keeps no record of wrongs‘. What a wonderful thought and what a wonderful standard for us to echo and aim for in our own lives: keep no record of other people’s wrongs! A high calling indeed.
Paul J. Sharkey
(* added by Alison Speirs)