Making Peace With Your PastErwin W. Lutzer | November 17, 2002
Selected highlights from this sermon
Forgiveness is not easy. But we must forgive, even if the offender doesn’t ask for forgiveness and even if we don’t feel like it.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer lists six misconceptions about forgiveness—misconceptions we may have been taught or simply believe because of the circumstances or culture that we live in. As Pastor goes through each one, he explains, from a biblical viewpoint, why the misconception is wrong.
For those not convinced of the need of forgiving someone, consider this: what could be more unfair than a sinless, spotless Son of God—having laid upon Him iniquities that He never committed, to die for people who are rebellious, to pay their price so that you and I could freely believe and be acquitted by God?
Having been forgiven by God, we must forgive.
Louis Smedes wrote that one of God’s better jokes on us is to give us the power to remember the past, but give us no power to undo it. We’ve all wished, have we not, for a magic cloth to wipe the past away? We think that we remember the past very accurately, and it happened as we remembered it, but if only the past had been different.
For many of you the past is an open wound, very sensitive and very raw.
How does a woman put her past behind her if, in point of fact, she comes home one day, as happened, and discovers that her husband is in bed with her daughter? What happens when a young boy is lured by a priest into a sexual relationship and a part of the childhood of that boy is forever missing? What about the grown boy who is not a man, but inside still a boy, still longing for the acceptance that was denied him by an abusive father? And what about the girl who was date raped? How do you put your past behind you?
I have a solution today. It’s the only solution. It’s not an easy solution, but it is the only one that is out there.
The Bible says that the spirit of a man can endure his illness, “but a wounded spirit, who can bear?” What we need to keep in mind is that the deepest wounds that people face are not physical wounds. They are the wounds done by others that just seem to not go away. But if we live with bitterness and anger, bitterness and anger have a lot of relatives that they always bring into our souls once they are there. Some of those relatives are depression, hard-heartedness and rage, and are oftentimes directed toward God or the people of God. And people say, you know, “I hate them, so I hate their God.”
I’m sure I’ve used the illustration before of Nancy Reagan who said that her father, as a boy in Sunday school, memorized verses, but he was denied the Bible that was available. It was given to the pastor’s son, who didn’t memorize the verses as well, but he was the pastor’s boy, and so he got it. Nancy said that her father never darkened the door of a church again until he died in his eighties. Wow! “One root of bitterness,” the Bible says, “springing up, defiling many.”
As you know, this is a series of messages on Restoring the Soul, and last week I told you I was going to speak on the topic of breaking the cycle. What I did not realize is that in my mind the sequence of these messages was just a little bit confusing, so you’re going to get that next week. This week the issue is that having been forgiven by God, we must forgive.
Now I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to let you know upfront what my agenda is so that you don’t have to be listening to the message trying to figure it out. When it comes to this matter of hurt and bitterness and an unforgiving spirit, what we do in our minds is we build fortifications around our wounds. These are fortifications that are built for years oftentimes of rationalization, of self-justifications and of the fantasies of revenge. And these fortifications are there, and then when a message like this is preached, antennas go up all over the place, saying “Danger, danger, danger! Someone is encroaching unto my wound.”
Well, I’ll tell you what I want to do. I want to go under your radar. I want to smash those fortifications by the power of God’s Word and His blessed Holy Spirit, and I want to get right to your heart, and I want to break down all of the denial and the defenses, and get right to your wound. That’s what I’m aiming for. Is everyone clear as to where we’re going in the next few moments?
So what I’d like to do, God helping me, is based on Matthew 18, though I am only going to be referring to the passage incidentally. I preached on this before many years ago, and went through the whole passage, but I’m going to assume you know the story that Jesus told about the need for forgiveness. But what I’d like to do is to give you six misconceptions that people have, misconceptions that keep people from freedom in Christ and a whole heart. What are those misconceptions?
The first misconception is that we should forgive only when asked! You know when Jesus said there in Matthew 18 that we should forgive seventy times seven, or some translations say seventy-seven, either way, when Jesus said we should forgive I don’t think that He assumed that each time the offender came and asked for forgiveness. There is such a thing as unilateral forgiveness.
Now in this message I’m going to be mentioning a lot of first names, and I want you to know that these first names are completely disconnected from the stories that I will tell you. The stories are essentially true, but the names obviously have been changed, so if you think that you know whom I’m talking about, I can tell you with apodictic certainty that you are wrong.
But let’s talk about Jennifer. She was told that she should forgive her alcoholic father, who abused her, who came into the room at night and whipped her, and was even sexually involved with her. And she is supposed to forgive. And he has not asked for forgiveness. And she’s saying, “Why should I forgive in light of the fact that he hasn’t even requested it?”
Now listen to this carefully. If we tell Jennifer, “Jennifer, you don’t have to forgive until your dad asks for forgiveness,” do you know what we’re saying? We’re saying that Jennifer has to be imprisoned in her bitterness until her father unlocks the key to her heart and lets her free. I think that’s putting a whole lot of responsibility in the hands of an abuser. The simple fact is that Jennifer can have freedom in Jesus Christ quite apart from whether or not her father asks. Now even if her father were to ask for forgiveness, I’m not sure that Jennifer knows exactly whether she would forgive him or not, but she knows that that’s not a possibility because her father will not even acknowledge the wrong.
I know that there are some Bible teachers who teach that we should not forgive, or we do not have to until we have been asked to, and I understand what they are saying. I understand the passages that they base this on, but I want you to know today that looking at forgiveness the way I do, I disagree with that, because it means that someone cannot have a whole heart until the offender cooperates. And I want you to know today that there is a sense in which forgiveness can be offered even if it is not received, even if it is not welcomed, even if it is not asked for. There is a freedom to what I sometimes call one-sided forgiveness.
There are some of you here today who have been waiting for that father, that mother, that relative, that brother or sister or friend to ask for forgiveness. Don’t keep waiting. It may not come. But today there is a freedom that Jesus can give you.
Let me give you a second misconception – that forgiveness means reconciliation. Let’s talk about Linda, the woman I mentioned a moment ago who comes home and finds her husband in bed with their daughter. (sighs) Linda said that it was as if the world in which she lived suddenly disappeared. And there was no world except a world of unbelievable betrayal and hurt, a world in which everything that she believed and trusted was shattered. And because her husband was in a vulnerable moment, she confronted him with other things that she thought were in his life. He confessed that yes, he had had a number of liaisons at work as well.
And now suddenly Linda, in her despair, talks to a friend. The friend says, “Linda, you’re a Christian. What you have to do is you have to forgive and forget, and you have to be reconciled to your husband, and move on as if it never happened.” And Linda is saying, “I can’t do that. I can’t pretend as if it never happened. I can’t just go on from here as if everything is supposed to be the same.”
And dare I say that it is important for Linda to know that she can forgive even though reconciliation is a separate question. You see, Jesus, there in the same passage in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, talks about reconciliation. He said, “If you have something against your brother (if something has happened) you go. If it can’t be reconciled you take others with you, and so forth. And then Jesus says, “If he will not hear you, then there’s nothing further that you can do, but that person has to be looked at as an unbeliever. Even Jesus knew that reconciliation is sometimes not possible. It’s not possible for a number of different reasons. It’s not possible because the person (the offender) might not acknowledge the sin or the crime. Secondly, he may acknowledge it but consider it minor. This happens in marriage counseling all the time. The woman is greatly hurt and the man is saying, “Well, look – okay, I messed up, but let’s move on from here. It’s really no big deal. Okay, okay!” But it’s not okay with the wife because she has been more deeply hurt and more deeply grieved, and she’s not prepared to think that reconciliation is possible. Or it is possible that he acknowledges it but there’s the whole issue of trust. How do you trust a man who has done all these things, a man in whom you put your confidence, a man in whom you essentially believed was honest? How do you trust him? All kinds of issues have to be dealt with.
I have frequently recommended the book written by Dave Carter entitled Torn Asunder because one of the ministries that he has in his church in California, where he is on staff, is to have seminars for couples where there has been adultery, working through the situation in the rebuilding of trust, and the rebuilding of confidence, because while there can be forgiveness (and there should be forgiveness), reconciliation often takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, and even then sometimes it fails.
Now we should work toward reconciliation obviously. So let me put it to you very clearly. It only takes one person to forgive, but it takes two people to be reconciled. Some of you think that if you forgive, you have to go back to where you were. Not necessarily!
Let’s go on to a third misconception, and that is that forgiveness minimizes the offense. So let’s talk about Susan. She’s part of a family. The family has lots of money. The mother died years ago. The father dies. One of her brothers chisels her out of her inheritance. She’s got a lot of money coming but because he manipulated the father before the father died, he was able to get a sharp attorney, and so basically he ends up with all the money. Susan is a single mother who could use a few hundred thousand dollars, but her brother has it all. And she doesn’t really have enough money to fight it because it was done in such a way that legally it can’t really be changed. And so now Susan is told, “Well, forgive and move on.” And she’s saying, “Forgive? Are you serious? Don’t you understand? I mean to somebody else it may not be that big of a thing, but to me it is a huge thing. And my brother – my younger brother – did it, and you’re thinking I should just say, ‘Okay, forgive and move on as if nothing serious happened?’” What we need to say to Susan is, “Susan, we’re not minimizing the evil (and I want to call it that) that your brother did, but you must forgive and move on.”
Now let’s get to the parable of Jesus. Do you remember that Jesus said that there was a king who had a servant who owed him ten thousand talents? Each talent is about a thousand dollars. Multiply it - ten million dollars! And this man owed that much money, and the king was going to throw him in debtors’ prison. And do you know what happened? The Bible says that that servant who owed so much money fell at the feet of the king and said, “Have patience with me and I’ll pay you everything.” And the king had mercy upon him and forgave him the debt – ten million dollars.
You know what Jesus wants us to see in the parable? He wants us to see ourselves. He wants us to recognize that the ten million dollars is what we owe God. In fact, it’s even greater than that because theoretically that man could have somehow worked it off. Maybe he could have won the lottery or something and gotten ten million dollars. But you and I can never work it off.
Could my tears forever flow?
Could my zeal no respite know?
All for sin could not atone.
Thou must save, and thou alone.
We cannot pay our debt. Jesus had to pay it for us.
Now here’s the question. Is forgiveness free? Well, it depends on how you look at it. It is free to the person who received it, and if the person who received it somehow minimizes it, that’s just the reality of it. But it’s very expensive to the one who gave it because at the end of the fiscal year that king was out by ten million dollars and had to absorb the loss. And Susan is going to have to absorb the loss, and let her brother go free.
“Oh,” you say, “Pastor Lutzer, you are missing it. You don’t understand. Don’t you understand (I can imagine somebody saying it) how unfair forgiveness really is?” And I say to you today that if you say that forgiveness is unfair, I thank God because at last you are beginning to understand it. It is grossly unfair. What could be more unfair than a spotless, sinless Son of God, having laid upon Him iniquities that He never committed, to die for people who were rebellious, to pay their price so that you and I could freely believe and be acquitted by God? Can you think of anything more unfair than that?
And I want you to know today that after this message is over I’m to give an invitation, and I’m going to invite many of you to come and to do something that is incredibly unfair. I’m going to ask you to forgive those who have wronged you. Some of you couples who are sitting together ought to come down together in a few moments and do something that is horrendously unfair, and that is to forgive.
Let’s go on to a fourth misconception, and that is that forgiveness surrenders justice. You know I used to always have this in counseling. Where is justice? And now I’m talking about Bert who married Mabel. For sure, in my opinion, it was not a great idea. Mabel was deeply hurt by men because of a dysfunctional family. She had a deep wound in her soul, but during the dating period Bert couldn’t see it because she was so beautiful. So they got married. They had two children. Mabel was always unhappy, always unfulfilled. There was nothing that Bert could possibly do to please her. She runs off and finds another man who is going to give her the happiness that she’s always wanted. And then in the process she doesn’t even want custody of their children because they’re just messing up her life. Finally she’s finding happiness and the kids are in the way. She also finds a very good attorney. She looks at her husband, Bert, as a gold mine. She gets the gold. He gets the shaft. As a result of that now Bert is left with two kids and basically no money, and Mabel is off, God knows where, fulfilling her dreams. And now Bert comes and says, “Okay, I’m supposed to forgive so that I am free. Okay, but the problem is, where is justice in all of this?”
As you know, for years when people said that, I didn’t have an answer, but as I told you before, I’ve got an answer now. 1 Peter 2! Here’s the point. “Jesus, when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten.” He didn’t say to the people around Him, “You know, I’m going to vaporize you folks. I’m going to send the angels on you.” No, He took it, and what does the Bible say? “He continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Jesus said, “I do not have to bring justice to this situation. I’m going to let My Father do it. I’m going to let God, the Father, even the score.” The score is still not even. People who persecuted Jesus and told lies about Him have not yet been finally judged. But Jesus said, “I’m willing to wait as I take My case and I give it to the supreme court of the universe.” You see that’s why we, as Christians, can forgive. It’s because we believe in a just God. We believe that some day at the Great White Throne Judgment all of the deeds of the unsaved are going to be brought before God, and meticulous justice administered. And then at the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ, Christians who have been out of sorts, and Christians who have wronged one another will be brought together very clearly at the Judgment Seat. And Jesus is going to adjudicate the situation, and bring justice. And the truth is going to come out. And if you knew what Christians sometimes do to one another, you understand why there has to be a Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ where the truth is going to come out.
So when you forgive it’s not as if justice just evaporates. You say, “Father, I cannot handle it. Your Word says very clearly, ‘Brother, do not avenge yourselves. I will recompense,’ says the Lord.” And you say, “God, You need to take care of this. It’s beyond me.” We bring justice to as many situations as we can in this world, but at the end of the day, it is God who is the final judge. So you can forgive without surrendering justice.
We’ve mentioned that we should forgive only when asked. That’s a misconception. The second misconception is that forgiveness means reconciliation, or that forgiveness minimizes the offense, that forgiveness means surrendering justice.
We come now to a fifth misunderstanding – that we must wait until we feel like it. Remember the man in the parable, the forgiven servant? In Matthew 18 he leaves the presence of the king, forgiven ten million dollars, and he finds somebody who owes him twenty bucks. That’s 20 denarii. He grabs him by the throat and says, “Pay up.” And I’ll tell you, the king was not happy when he found out about that. But why did he say, “Pay up?” Why didn’t he forgive…? “Well, I didn’t feel like it.”
And so there are people today… In fact, there are Christian counselors who tell people, “You know, you don’t have to forgive until you feel like it,” so there are people who live with bitterness for most of their lives because – guess what! They never feel like it.
Now what do you feel like doing? Well, revenge! And what does revenge say? Revenge says, “I want him to suffer as much as I have suffered. In fact, I want him to suffer a whole lot more.” Homer, the Greek poet, says that we take revenge and it is as sweet as honey, and we drool it in our mouth, and we let it drip from our lips. So, revenge!
I said to a woman, “Well, what would you like to have happen to your husband?” and she said, “Hell sounds good to me. Just to see him burn there and the fact that it’s forever would make it even sweeter.” The closest she was ever getting to heaven was to visualize her husband burning in hell. That’s why the Bible says, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves because you can’t handle vengeance.” Vengeance tears you up and no matter how vengeful you are there’s always more that you want to destroy, more that you want to get even. That’s why it has to be in God’s hands.
And this is why marriage counseling is so difficult. I’m glad that God has not called me to do marriage counseling. I used to do a lot more of it, and then couples caught on that they’d better to go to someone else (laughter). It took them awhile but they got the message.
See, the problem is that you have two different scales by which offenses are weighed. You know, the woman thinks that this is just absolutely atrocious and awful, and she feels vengeful. And the guy is saying, “Well, hold it. Now wait a moment. You know this really isn’t that bad.”
And a marriage counselor told me, by the way, that men find it much easier to forgive than women. That’s understandable because women are so sensitive. These hurts sometimes are so deep that they find it very difficult to forgive. And that’s why you have so many nasty divorces, by the way, because you see, all of the anger and the hostility has been built up, and you’ve got two people, both of whom want vengeance, and they want to destroy and to break. There’s no sense of justice or of rationality. There’s only one thing. Destroy him! And God says, “That’s sin.” That’s vengeance, which belongs to Him.
So I’m going to ask you to do something in a few moments that is contrary to every feeling in your body. I’m going to ask you to do something that is contrary to what you feel, but I’ve had to do that too. Do you think that I feel like forgiving? There have been times when I’ve just simply had to open my arms to the Lord and say, “God, I can’t handle this. I give it to You.” And there is something within me that says, “No, no, no, you do that and you will no longer be able to fantasize about vengeance,” but you just do it in faith and you get it done so that you’re free. Wow!
Sixth, the final misconception is that forgiveness should be easy. After all, it’s just a matter of words: “I forgive you.” (chuckles) Easy! What about that unforgiven servant? He didn’t forgive. Was his unforgiveness easy? He was handed to the torturers until he should pay the debt.
There are some of you, God bless you, who have been handed to the torturers.
Someone said, and the reason that I’m mentioning this is because forgiveness is so difficult that we seek for alternatives. We seek for substitutes, and there are two substitutes that we seek for. One is the fantasies of revenge. But someone has written, “The moment I start hating a man, I become his slave. I can’t escape his tyrannical grasp on my mind. When the waiter serves me steak it might as well be stale bread and water. The man I hate will not permit me to enjoy it.” And there are some of you who cannot enjoy life because the person you hate will not permit you to enjoy it. What a tragedy to think that that person who hurt you continues to hurt you and will not allow you to enjoy life.
There’s a second possibility if we don’t want to forgive, and that is denial. “Oh, I forgive.” But you know, just like it’s possible to say I love you and not mean it, it’s possible to say, “I forgive you,” and not mean it, or maybe even to say, “I’m not bitter; I’m just hurt.” Now there may be a distinction, but for some people, that distinction is an air raid shelter. They don’t have to deal with anything in their life. “No, no, no, I’m not bitter. I’m just hurt. Mind you, I think that you are scum and that you are a lot lower than I am on the totem pole, but I’m not bitter.”
How difficult is it to forgive? Let me quote the words of one writer:
Unfortunately the cost of forgiveness is too high for many people. Consequently they’ve turned to cheaper versions of forgiveness that will enable them to think better of themselves, to cope with their situation without having to engage in struggles, or change the nature of their relationship. I figure how I can make myself feel better and cope. But Christian forgiveness (Ah, I love this. This is the answer now, folks. Here we come.) requires our death, understood in the specific form and shape of Jesus dying and rising. For as we participate in Christ dying and rising, we die to our own selves and find a future no longer bound by the past.
In a moment I’m going to ask you to forgive somebody who does not deserve forgiveness. I’m going to ask you to forgive somebody who perhaps has not asked for forgiveness. You know, I’ve been speaking here about offenders, and I’ve been talking about the wounded person, but, you know, there are some of you who have really hurt others, and you have never asked them for forgiveness. And you know right well who you are, and who you may be here today listening, whether here in this church or over the radio. You have done hurt to others, and you’ve never asked their forgiveness, and yet you claim to be a Christian. Do you know what Jesus would say in Matthew 18? He would say that you as a Christian should forgive for two reasons. First of all, you’ve been forgiven so much, and secondly, you can entrust justice into God’s hands. Therefore, having been forgiven, you should forgive. And if you do not forgive, Jesus comes very close to saying, “You’re not a child of God and you’ve never been forgiven by God,” because Jesus said, “Those who have been forgiven much, forgive.”
Here’s what I’m going to ask you to do today. In a moment we’re going to ask you to come, and I’ll explain that. But then, what we’re going to do is to take revenge and bitterness and take one last look at it like a bucket of water, and then spill it out at the foot of the cross, and walk out of here free.
Forgiveness is an act. It’s also a process. You can’t just forgive once, but once you’ve learned how to do it once and you keep doing it, the freedom eventually comes because Jesus said that the Son shall set you free, and you shall be free indeed. Spilling it out sometimes means tears. Sometimes it means agony. It means death, but thank God, it means freedom.
Father, we do ask in the name of Jesus that You shall do today that which only You can do, we pray. Grant, oh God, that You, by Your blessed Holy Spirit would set Your people free. Today we pray, Father, that couples will come down together, that there may be those, Lord, who have relationships among each other where there’s been bitterness and hostility and unforgiveness. We pray that there may be reconciliation. Come, oh Father. Set hundreds of people free here and throughout the country we ask, in Jesus’ name, Amen.