Forgive One Another
I hate this story. And I love it. It’s a true story. It’s a powerful story. I love it because it beautifully illustrates the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of someone seeking to be faithful to Christ but struggling to follow through. I hate it because every time I hear it, it pierces my mind, my heart, my soul.
“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands.” says Corrie ten Boom. “People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. …’ The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were! [Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.] “Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’ And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course – how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me. ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. ‘Fräulein,’ again the hand came out – ‘will you forgive me?’” What would you do?
Last week we started a new sermon series on the “One Another’s” of Scripture. This week, we’re talking about what I think is probably the single biggest threat to our unity, anger, and our need to freely forgive one another. So turn in your Bibles to Ephesians 4:31-32. Anger. It’s one of the most dangerous human emotions. An angry word can destroy a relationship. An angry action can destroy a life. It is also a common human emotion, and nowhere does the Bible say “don’t get angry.” Anger is not an emotion to be avoided. It can’t be. We all get angry.
Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, in his book Anger: Handling a Powerful Emotion in a Healthy Way, says “Anger is everywhere. Spouses are angry at each other. Employees are angry at bosses. Teens are angry at parents (and vice versa). Citizens are angry at their government. Television news routinely shows angry demonstrators shouting their wrath. Spend some time around a major airport when bad weather has canceled flights, and you will observe anger in action. Many of us are angry at ourselves …” We all experience anger, and Chapman is right. It is a powerful emotion, capable of influencing our thoughts and our behavior in powerful ways.[i]
But why do we get angry? Some say we get angry when we experience a loss, and I think this is true. But there’s more to it. We get angry when we experience the loss of our sense of safety and security, or at the loss of a relationship, or of a possession. But look below all of that loss and it is really our lost sense of fairness that makes us angry. We get angry when we experience a real or perceived injustice. We get angry when we either have been wronged or in our subjective experience think we have been wronged. And that sense of justice, of right and wrong and good and bad comes from our being created in the image of God. You see, God gets angry.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that God is an angry God. Too many people have believed that for far too long, and a major component of the Apprentice series that we have just started here is shooting that perception out of the water. Nowhere does the Bible say that God is an angry God. The Bible says that God is Love. That God is Holy. That God is just. Those things define God. Or maybe it is better to say that God defines those things, because love and holiness and justice emanate from God. They are a part of his nature. Anger is not a part of his nature. He is not an angry God. But God does experience anger. The word anger appears 455 times in the Old Testament; 375 of those refer to God getting angry.[ii] In the New Testament Jesus expressed anger too. Funny, it was usually at church or with religious people. He turned over the tables in the temple and called the Pharisees “a brood of vipers.” But no one would describe Jesus as being an angry person. It all had to do with the burdens the religious leaders were placing on the people. Anger is God’s response to injustice and unrighteousness. And because we are created in the image of God, we get angry when we experience injustice too.
Unfortunately, we aren’t holy and righteous. We are fallen and sinful but forgiven and saved by grace. So sometimes our anger really is motivated by true injustice. And sometimes, because we still struggle with sin, it’s due to a perceived injustice. We THINK we have been wronged. In our humanness, our sinfulness, our sense of justice is kind of skewed. It’s got a bent toward our own sense of self preservation and ego. Fair and just is that which benefits me and lines up with what I want. Sure, we can overcome that sometimes, but we have to think about it, work to manage it. So when my Latina friend tells me she has to show two forms of ID every time she uses a credit card, even though she was born and raised right here in TC and has the same level of education I do, I get angry, because I am treated better than she is. But I also get angry when I get home after a long day and just want to sit and Becky, who is even more tired and overwhelmed than I am in that moment asks me to do something to help. The first “angry” is legit. The second one isn’t. It’s a perceived injustice, but it isn’t real.
And that’s the problem with anger. Nowhere does the Bible call anger a sin. But it does tell me time and time again to deal with my anger before it leads me into sin. Anger is a powerful emotion. Back up in V. 26 of this same chapter Paul says “Be angry and do not sin.” There is something called righteous anger. There are things over which it would actually be wrong NOT to get angry. The problem is that it is far too easy for us to fool ourselves about the motivation of our anger. It is far too easy for us to excuse our own anger as always being righteous anger while writing off our friend or neighbor’s anger as sinful, illegitimate anger. That’s why Paul is so careful to warn us, “Be careful with anger. In your anger do not sin.” And then he places this limit on it: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” You see, it is when we let anger fester that we get into trouble.
Now, sometimes we do need a cooling off period. Sometimes in an argument between a husband and wife, or between friends or neighbors, or even between brothers and sisters and Christ in the church, we need to walk away from each other and cool off and get some perspective. I call it “calling time out.” Just take a break and reboot the part of your brain that can say, “Don’t say that. You’ll be sleeping on the couch tonight if you do, and it will really hurt her feelings.” But we still need to come back to the issue and deal with it. We can’t stuff it. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” It is not anger itself, but anger that is allowed to fester and grow, like a bad mold behind the walls, that creates problems in relationships and leads us into sin. Paul never does call anger sin. But he does tell us not to let it fester, give the devil a foothold, and lead us into sin. And in V. 31 he tells us to “let bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor (that’s shouting … goes with anger) and slander (that’s trying to destroy someone’s reputation because we are angry with them) be put away from you, along with all malice.” If you need to walk away from each other and cool off fine, but come back and deal with the issue. Don’t allow anger to lead to sin.
Now I know that some men in here didn’t recognize some of those words. Anger is one of the most common emotions I help people process as both a counselor and as a pastor. One of the things I’ve noticed is that women have a much more developed emotional vocabulary. Most are capable of using about four feeling words: mad, sad, glad, and scared. I try to keep it that simple with them at first. They can relate to those four words. So I have a worksheet for them to help them express the subtler nuances of the anger they are dealing with. It includes words like contemptuous, resentful, irritated, enraged, furious, annoyed, inflamed, provoked, offended, sullen, indignant, irate, wrathful, cross, sulky, bitter, frustrated, grumpy, fuming, stubborn, belligerent, confused, awkward, and bewildered. Those words all kind of fall under the “angry” category. There’s a bunch of women out there right now asking me for a copy of that worksheet so they can teach their husbands and boyfriends some more nuanced emotional words. The Psalms are full of anger. But regardless of whether you are feeling frustrated and annoyed or resentful and offended or angry and wrathful and vengeful, we must be careful. Anger is a powerful emotion. We can and will experience it often, and that is not sinful. But we must manage it lest we do damage to relationships and to our relationship with God. That is why we cannot let the sun go down on our anger, but must deal with it and put it away, lest we give the devil a foothold in our life, our marriage, or our church.
And what is the antidote to anger? Forgiveness. Look at V. 32. Now, forgiveness is one of those things that’s easy to talk about and hard to do. So what is forgiveness exactly? First of all, forgiveness is an act of the will. It is NOT an emotion. Genuine forgiveness sometimes feels good. And sometimes it doesn’t. Forgiveness is a decision that you and I make not to hold someone else’s sin, someone else’s mistake, against them any longer. Forgiveness is actually a financial concept. It pictures someone to whom a debt is owed forgiving, canceling the debt. When that happens, the one doing the forgiving actually accepts a real loss. The money owed her will not be repaid. The debt owed will go unpaid. To forgive is to accept that loss and not bring it up anymore. Not only is forgiveness an act of the will, it is a DAILY act of the will. Forgiveness is not a one-time event. It is a discipline that must be practiced daily. And it IS a process. Over time, it may become easier and easier to forgive until the forgiveness is internalized and no longer requires an act of the will. But until that happens, it requires a daily decision to forgive.
But forgiveness is not the same as trust. Forgiveness is a gift of grace. A wrong has been done. A debt is owned. Forgiveness by definition lets the other person off the hook without repaying the debt. Even with a legitimate, heartfelt apology, the debt will not be paid. Forgiveness is a gift of grace. But trust is earned. Trust is the product of someone proving over time that they are again worthy of our trust. Let’s say that Sherm gets so angry with me that he punches me in the face. Now if you know Sherm, you know he’d never do that. But let’s say it happened. For whatever reason, Sherm decides he doesn’t like me and so he decides to punch me in the face. Now I can legitimately and authentically forgive Sherm for doing that. But this doesn’t mean that I come within arm’s length of Sherm for a while. I’ve seen the concept of forgiveness used to convince battered and abused people, most often women, to stay in abusive relationships. You can forgive someone and still create a safe distance between yourself and the dangerous, harmful anger of the other person until they decide to get help and actually show change. Forgiveness is a gift of grace. Trust is earned.
But forgive we must. Look at how Paul ends his argument here: “… forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Sound familiar? It should. Jesus said the same thing. In fact, we pray it every week. “Forgive us our trespasses, AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US” (Matt. 6:12). This is the only part of the Lord’s prayer Jesus felt the need to expound upon. He wanted to make sure we understand the seriousness of this matter, because in V. 13 he goes on “For 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.” I really wish the Bible didn’t say that, but it does. Now, Jesus isn’t saying that we earn our forgiveness from God by forgiving others. Both Jesus and Paul say “Forgive as you have been forgiven.” You see, it is the mark of a forgiven person to be forgiving. Our willingness to forgive is evidence that we have in fact been forgiven. We don’t forgive one another so that God will forgive us. We forgive one another because God has forgiven us. Grace, mercy, forgiveness, salvation do not start with us. They start with God. We forgive because we have been forgiven. But this doesn’t mean it is easy, or that it feels good, or that we want to forgive. Some days it feels empty and meaningless. But remember, forgiveness is not a feeling. It is a decision, an act of the will.
“… I stood there” says Corrie ten Boom. “I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’ I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that. And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’ And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”[iii]
[i] Gary Chapman, “Anger: Handling a Powerful Emotion in a Healthy Way,” Northfield Publishing, Chicago, 2007, Pg. 9.
[iii] excerpted from “I’m Still Learning to Forgive” by Corrie ten Boom. Copyright 1972 by Guideposts Associates, Inc., Carmel, New York 10512