Foolishness to Relationships That Are Perishing

This past Friday (Sept. 10), my wife posted a blog that talked about the tremendous damage our marriages suffer whenever we find ourselves locked into unforgiveness. Foolishly thinking that we are exacting some sort of overdue “payment” from the imperfect spouse who has long since become the primary object of our wrath, we are in fact engaging in defiant, open rebellion against the God we say we love and, in the process, chaining ourselves to sin…not to mention relational strain, sleepless nights, digestion problems, headaches, wrecked marriages, alienated kids and much, much more. (If interested, you can find her original post here.)

In that post, Shelly also mentioned an excellent audio series on forgiveness by pastor and author John MacArthur. We both agree that this series (“Forgiveness: The Freedom of Letting Go”) should be required listening for any Christian – including ourselves – who is complacent about his or her responsibility to forgive another. Those of us who feel a lingering desire to rehash old wrongs, remain focused on the trespasses committed by another, and/or engage in destructive gossip and slander can put the authenticity of our faith into question by choosing to hate someone who – like it or not – also bears the image of our Creator God (Genesis 1:27). Whenever we find ourselves refusing to forgive, we must see it as dangerous to our very souls and battle back, especially when we don’t really feel like doing so.

To that end, I have listened to the MacArthur series on forgiveness more than once because I, too, suffer under the self-imposed slavery of being unable to forgive certain people in my life for their offenses, whether real or imagined. (When it comes to obvious, sinful resentment, the validity of our case against another scarcely matters.)

One of MacArthur’s main ideas that has been so very helpful to me as I struggle to throw off the yoke of self-pity that grips my heart – and results in an inability to forgive others – is both simple and profound: “You are never more like God than when you forgive someone, especially someone who does not deserve it. Conversely, you are never less like God than when you withhold forgiveness from a fellow human being.”

Let’s face it…we all want to be like God, but most of us would much rather be like God in terms of handing out what we think of as justice to those who have sinned against us. We’re far more intrigued by the notion of hurling thunderbolts at the wicked than we are by the prospect of passively lying down as Roman soldiers drive metal spikes through our feet and hands. We instinctively understand and approve the power associated with divine justice; our hearts are less able to understand and less willing to accept the raw power that is found in divine mercy.

As fallen human beings, we tend to worry ourselves beyond distraction with the completely unbiblical notion that forgiving others “willy-nilly” will invariably result in our being taken advantage of, that applying the gospel of grace where the rubber meets the road may very well cost us dearly…perhaps in ways that we do not fully anticipate and therefore fear. There is, of course, a very sensible realism attached to this concern; after all, we know full well what human beings are capable of whenever they “smell” weakness. Look what happened to Jesus after He was arrested and declined to call down twelve legions of angels on His behalf (Matthew 26:52-53). The world interprets unqualified forgiveness as weakness and therefore, rather than imitating His forgiveness, we find it much easier to seek to imitate God by assuming His vengeance in order that we might visit our “righteous” fury upon another.

When we’ve been wronged, we want to act. We simply do not accept the idea that we must routinely absorb the sins of others just to function in this life, and trust that God is Who He says He is – that while He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, He also promises to execute justice (Exodus 34:6-7).

Therein lies the problem; the simple truth is that we tend not to believe God. We don’t trust Him to settle accounts, as He has promised (Matthew 25:31-46). We think we need to broadcast to our friends and relatives the slights that have been visited upon us because while we believe that God really does see what is done in secret (Matthew 6:17-18), both good and evil, we struggle to trust He will handle the matter to our satisfaction. So we administer a little justice upon those who have hurt us by sharing what they’ve done with others.

We also don’t naturally trust God’s timing. God may very well say that vengeance belongs to Him (Deuteronomy 32:35), but between now and the time we meet Him face-to-face we will attempt to settle some of those accounts for Him. Maybe, we rationalize, we’re actually doing God’s work; He’ll actually be grateful that we got some of His backlogged cases out of the way for Him before we entered into eternity! The lies we like to tell ourselves pile up one after the next, all in service of the idea that those who have wronged us and/or our loved ones need to pay for it, pay for it dearly, and pay for it within our preferred timeframe.

I think MacArthur is absolutely right when he says that we are never more like God than when we forgive one another, and this is particularly true when the person receiving forgiveness very clearly, by the world’s standards, does not deserve it. But then, not one of us deserves the forgiveness that we have been offered in Christ (Romans 5:6-8), but we will happily accept that costly sacrifice for ourselves without hesitation. While we should be motivated by God’s unspeakable and scandalous largesse into doing likewise, we tend to balk at doing so, forgetting all that we have been forgiven in Christ. To get some idea of how God views this kind of self-serving exchange, it’s probably worth reading The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) several times before we go after someone we are convinced “has it coming.”

There is real, tangible gospel power unleashed whenever a Christian chooses to allow Jesus to invade the warehouse of unforgiveness stored up in his soul and free him from the slavery associated with frustration, anger and self-pity. Will we as believers actually take this seemingly-risky promise at face value? Or will we instead contribute to a never-ending cycle of evil by seeking at all times to take matters into our own hands? I think it goes without saying that I am definitely not putting myself forward as someone who has mastered the art of Christian forgiveness. (Far from it!) I just know for certain that if I do not diligently co-labor with God’s Holy Spirit to cut the ropes of unforgiveness that tie me to various people, to times both recent and long-ago, to places near and far, my soul will ultimately die of asphyxiation, crushed under the weight of a load that my frail human heart manufactured, but was never intended to bear.

Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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