Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Good Monday, everyone, on this day before Independence Day here in the States. Last time, last week, we addressed sibling rivalries — a common theme in the Bible, and a concern we should have for our own homes today. Sibling rivalries was Thursday’s theme, in APJ 1954. And today we look at forgiving family members.

The question is from a listener to the podcast, a young man who lives in Brazil. He writes this: “Hello, Pastor John, thank you for this podcast, which has been a huge resource God has used in my own sanctification. My question is this: My family struggles to forgive each other, and it’s been this way for years. They argue along the line that ‘even Jesus was harsh with his enemies, so why should I forgive my enemies?’ How would you answer them? In dealing with hurt in the past, what is the difference between Jesus dealing with his enemies like the Pharisees, contrasted with what God expects from us in dealing with our own family members who have sinned against us?”

This is utterly crucial. It’s a matter of life and death, and I mean eternal life and death, as we will see in just a moment. So, I take this question really seriously, and I hope this family will take the issue seriously also.

What Is Forgiveness?

First, let’s clarify what forgiveness is and isn’t. That’s a huge stumbling block for a lot of people. When they start arguing about whether they should forgive or not, they don’t pause to define what it is and isn’t. So, let’s do that.

First, forgiveness is not thinking or saying or acting as though no great wrong was done. A great wrong may well have been done against you.

Second, forgiveness is not reestablishing a wonderful relationship. In Romans 12:18, Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” It may not be possible. He also says in Colossians 3:13, “[Bear] with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, [forgive] each other.” Now “bearing with one another” means, literally, “endure one another,” “forbear one another.” In other words, there will be frustrating, annoying, even hurtful things about others that no amount of forgiveness will fix, and they must be endured. We must bear with them. You’ll see why in a minute.

“Forgiveness can be real even if the other person does not accept it or want it.”

Third, forgiveness does not mean that trust is immediately restored. This is crucial. So many think that to forgive is to restore trust — to give trust to someone who has betrayed you. But that assumes that the person has reformed, and does not have those same untrustworthy patterns of life that made them do wrong. But, in fact, they may be worse, not better. Forgiveness may lead to new and deeper trust; it may not.

Fourth, forgiveness can be real even if the other person does not accept it or want it. They may not think they did anything wrong. That’s just a huge problem in marriage, for example. You want to forgive, and they don’t think they’ve wronged you. In those cases, the full transaction of repentance and forgiveness is not possible, but a forgiving spirit is still possible. And if that is all we can give, because they don’t want our forgiveness, then the Lord counts that — that forgiving spirit — as our forgiveness. We’ve done what we can do. We have shown that we are a forgiving person. You can love your enemy even while he remains your enemy if he chooses.

So then, if that’s what forgiveness is not, what is it? Forgiveness is wanting the good, not the ruin, of the one who wronged you, in spite of the wrong, and then acting for their good. You won’t let the wrong strangle your love. You won’t let their sin make you sin. You will lay it down and pray for their good and work for it.

Why Is Forgiveness Crucial?

Okay, with those clarifications in mind, why do I say forgiveness is so crucial?

1. We were greater enemies of God.

You as a Christian have been forgiven an offense against God that is millions of times greater than any human has offended or sinned against you. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” The outrage of the way you have treated God in your sin and unbelief was so great that it cost God the death of his only divine Son to forgive you. In other words, your debt was infinite. Nobody who has wronged you has ever come close to wronging you as badly as you have wronged God. And yet we are forgiven. You and I, Christian, are forgiven.

What would it mean if we refuse to forgive? Here’s what it would mean. It would mean we think God is a fool to forgive us. “He’s acting like a fool, because I’m not going to act like that. I’m not going to be stupid and foolish like that. So, God must be foolish to forgive me since I’m not going to forgive.” That’s pretty serious. Let that sink in. That’s very serious to think God’s a fool or to act like he’s a fool.

2. Jesus died for his enemies.

Our friend in Brazil says that his unforgiving relatives say, “Even Jesus was harsh with his enemies. Why should I forgive my enemies?” One answer is that Jesus forgave his enemies. Hanging on the cross to purchase our forgiveness, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Of course, he was harsh with the Pharisees and scribes, good grief. And the reason he was harsh with them is because they were so unforgiving. But while being harsh, he was on his way to die for them if they would only trust him. So, Jesus forgave his enemies.

3. Forgiven people forgive.

Jesus said that if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. Matthew 6:14–15: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

And then he told a parable to emphasize this shocking reality. The king forgave a slave who owed him zillions. And that’s a pretty good translation because the amount is like twenty thousand years’ worth of wages. I mean, it is supposed to sound like zillions. He owed him zillions of dollars. Then the slave went out and wrung the neck of a fellow slave who owed him ten dollars. And the king said, “Throw him in prison till he pays everything,” which means forever (Matthew 18:23–35). Why? Because in relationship with God, forgiveness must go both ways. God gives and we receive. That slave did not receive the king’s forgiveness. He despised it, he mocked it, he scorned it, he trampled it in the dirt.

When you won’t forgive someone else his debt while claiming to love the God who forgave yours, it’s just pure hypocrisy. You’re acting like God was a fool for forgiving you. And so, if you keep on thinking God is a fool, you will perish and not be forgiven.

4. A great reward is coming.

When forgiveness seems hard, think about the reward. That’s what Jesus says in Matthew 5:11–12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” So, when the hurt you have received seems so great that you can’t rejoice and forgive, Jesus says, “Remember your reward. Remember your reward. It will be very great.”

5. God will repay.

One more suggestion from Romans 12:19–20. One of the reasons we stumble over the command to forgive those who’ve hurt us is the sense that if we don’t punish them in some way, they’re going to get away with a great wrong; they’re going to get away with a real injustice. So, there’s a sense in which our very proper love for justice makes us hesitant to let the offense or the hurt go. We feel that if we let it go, justice will simply not be done, and that would be wrong, so we justify our vengeance.

“Nobody who has wronged you has ever come close to wronging you as badly as you have wronged God.”

But the problem with that way of thinking is that God has told us precisely that justice will be done, and that he will do it. He will do it far better than we could ever do it. Here’s what he says in Romans 12:19–21: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Now, that leaving to God to deal with it is part of what goes into forgiveness — you leave it. Paul goes on, “For it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Now, the amazing thing about this promise — “I will repay” — is that it is true for all the wrongs unbelievers do against us and all the wrongs believers do against us. If others wrong us and never turn to Christ and remain unbelievers till they die, they will go to hell, and all the wrongs that they have ever done will be duly repaid — indeed, repaid more terribly than anything we could ever do here. So, we don’t need to do it. We don’t need payback.

If those who wrong us are true Christians or become Christians in their lifetimes, then the wrong that they did to us — with all their other sins — was punished in the suffering of Christ. Christ bore the punishment for the sins they committed against us. Let me say that sentence again, because I just think it would have such a vast impact on the way we treat each other: Christ bore the punishment for the sins they committed against us.

Think what that means if we are unwilling to forgive their wrong against us. It means we are acting as if the sufferings of Christ were not enough. We are making light of the horrors he endured to bear the guilt of that wrong committed against us. We do not want to be found in that horrible attitude. We don’t. That’s a dangerous attitude to think that Christ’s sufferings are inadequate.

So, dear friend in Brazil, I will pray for your family and for you — that they would see the seriousness of what’s at stake in not forgiving, and that you would seek to be a beautiful example to them of what forgiveness looks like. I will pray for you. I hope you will for me as well.