Resolving to Run Hard After Romans 12:18

As Christians seeking to live in faithful community, one of the greatest gifts we can offer each other is to help “open up” the truths of the Bible, to strengthen and encourage one another as we seek to transcend the differences in time, language, culture and geography that separate us from the original authors of both the Old and the New Testaments.

Of course, the ability to offer this service to our loved ones presupposes that we have actually read – and properly understood – the Bible ourselves.

Along these same lines, I find that I am always deeply indebted to learned biblical scholars – faith-filled folks who have been studying God’s Word far longer than I have – whenever they are able to plant within me a “memorable hook” of sorts such that I am forever changed by their work. Within the last couple of years, for example, pastor and author John MacArthur helpfully changed my outlook on the subject of forgiveness with two simple sentences: “You are never more like Christ than when you forgive an undeserving person. Conversely, you are never less like Christ than when you choose not to forgive.”

The cost of being conformed to the image of Christ can oftentimes feel like more than we can reasonably be expected to bear. Speaking for myself, I can think of no more difficult task than forgiving those who have inflicted pain on me and/or my loved ones. But I am nevertheless certain that MacArthur is right: Regardless of how much we pray, read the Bible or practice any other Christian discipline, one’s faithfulness to Christ can be measured based largely on how well we forgive others.

In those moments when we are tempted to hold on to unforgiveness, then, we must lean hard into the promise God has given us in 1 Corinthians 10:13 and trust that we will receive the strength we need to forgive others even when we might well prefer to stay locked into hatred and bitterness. I am also greatly comforted by the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:21-35 wherein He makes it very clear that forgiveness is costly, that a decision to forgive someone who “owes us” entails absorbing a very real loss; in modern terms, “100 denarii” would be roughly equivalent to three months wages!

The point Jesus makes with this parable could not possibly have been lost on His original audience. True forgiveness does not come “on the cheap,” though perhaps our modern American culture might easily lead you to believe otherwise.

Back in October, for example, Nathan Tiemeyer posted a short piece here on ESI (“Robert Downey Jr. Urges Forgiveness for Mel Gibson“) that included pointers to a video of Robert Downey Jr. asking the filmmaking industry to grant forgiveness to Mel Gibson, an actor whose public drunkenness, anti-Semitic slurs and out-of-control sexual exploits (accompanied by violent outbursts of anger) had reduced his credibility to ashes.

While I believe Nathan was right to point out that there is much in Downey’s speech to be applauded and emulated, I nevertheless came away from the Downey video with a nagging sense that “something was not quite right.” I wondered how Downey’s speech and warm embrace of Gibson played out in the minds of Robyn Denise Moore, Gibson’s soon-to-be ex-wife of 31 years, and Oksana Grigorieva, the Russian pianist, Gibson’s former mistress and mother of their illegitimate daughter. One has to wonder if their presence on the stage at the American Cinematheque Awards that evening would have “spoiled” the warm moment for all involved.

The idea of a room full of well-dressed Hollywood types responding favorably to Downey’s appeal is…well, appealing, I suppose. However, a true pursuit of the kind of forgiveness that Christ expects of us is messy, difficult work, painfully awkward at times, and must involve all affected parties whenever possible.

For my part, I can think of no better primer on the subject of true, deep forgiveness than Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds by Chris Brauns. This easy-to-read volume should, in my estimation, be required reading for anyone who struggles with unforgiveness and/or has been deeply hurt by another, i.e. all of us. Brauns has so clearly been at this business of applying the truths of the Bible to the topic of forgiveness that the words appear to flow effortlessly from his pen.

What I so greatly appreciated about this book is that Brauns has packed a ton of truth into his copy. Consider, for example, this excerpt from his chapter entitled “How Can I Stop Thinking About It?” As you read these sentences, you’ll no doubt note that while Brauns has given us several citations, he has by no means cited all of the thoroughly-biblical thinking in this section:

Burn into your mind what the Bible teaches about forgiveness. If you have stuck with this book, you should understand an outline of what the Bible teaches about forgiveness. Make it a goal for these truths and principles to be burned into your mind.

  • The most basic forgiveness principle is that Christians should forgive others as God forgave them. (See Matthew 6:12; 7:2; Ephesians 4:32.)
  • Christians should have an attitude or disposition of grace toward all people even as God offers forgiveness to all who receive it. God does not forgive all people, but he does offer grace and forgiveness to all. (See John 1:12; 3:16; Ephesians 2:8-9.)
  • Therefore, Christians must be willing to forgive all who ask for forgiveness. (See Luke 17:3-4.) Remember: whatever anyone has done to offend you will always pale in comparison to what you have done to offend God.
  • Christians can conquer bitterness by trusting in the justice and providence of God. God is just. Vengeance belongs to him. He will repay. God providentially works all things together for good for those who know him. This includes the acts of people who intend to harm us. You are not ultimately a victim. (See Romans 12:19; 8:28; Genesis 45:5-7.)
  • Never excuse bitterness or an unwillingness to forgive. Those unable or unwilling to forgive should question their salvation. Read this sentence aloud: Saying “I cannot or will not forgive” is another way of saying “I am thinking about going to hell.” (See Matthew 6:14-15; 18:21-25.)

See what I mean? On my first pass through Brauns’ book, I did not even bother to highlight or make notes as I could tell right from the start that I would be reading and re-reading this book several times over.

There is much in my life that requires the deep cleansing that only Christ can provide, and I am convinced that there is no more revealing window into our relationship with Jesus than to consider the names and faces of people who have wronged us, or those whom we have wronged. If the entrance of certain people into a room causes us to immediately feel uncomfortable, this is the clearest-possible signal that we have not yet applied the truth of Romans 12:18 to that relationship: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

The dawn of a new year is traditionally a time when we pause, if only for a while, to consider ways in which we can and should change the way we are living our lives. For me, I do not think it is any coincidence that I finally got around to reading this book this past month. Forget about losing weight, watching my spending and/or scaling back on various indulgences of one kind or another. Sure, those are all commendable goals, but as Christians, I can think of no better resolution than to honestly pursue the deep, difficult and – quite frankly – frustrating work of pursuing forgiveness with others.

Jesus stepped down from eternal glory and came into the world to offer us the riches of Heaven, and yet we find ourselves relentlessly fighting each other over the lesser-glories of our earthly lives. Living out a lifestyle of unforgiveness can quite reasonably be compared to a couple of ignorant children fighting over a moldy crust of bread, all the while standing at the entrance to a never-ending banquet of the richest, most satisfying foods.

What I so deeply appreciate about Romans 12:18 is that Paul is acknowledging that it will not always be possible to be reconciled with others, but he nonetheless makes it clear that this in no way relieves us of the pursuit.

Matthew 18:21-35 (ESV)
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

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