By Dave Smith
I was a lousy big brother. I don’t know why. I started off well. But when I went off to school, it was as if I took a class on “How to be a Mean Big Brother.” I picked on Phillip constantly with biting, sarcastic, demeaning words. Though it rarely got physical, when it did, it was ugly.
When I was in high school, I got mad at him, picked him up, and hurled him to the floor. He broke his wrist. Even I felt bad about that. I went downstairs that night shaken by the event and the fact my parents did not know what to do with me. I found a Bible buried somewhere under my nightstand. I was not a Christian, but it was obvious I needed something.
Not knowing where to begin, I started in Genesis. Not a good choice. By the time I got to the “begats” of chapter 5, it was over. I put it down and did not pick up a Bible again for years.
The next year I was off to college. I did not see Phillip much and when I did, there was not a lot to say. I eventually graduated and ended up in Indianapolis, Indiana. One night I walked into East 91st Street Christian Church looking for nice girls. God grabbed me through the book of John and I was baptized Palm Sunday 1982. Eight months later I married the girl I met that first night. Life was good.
Until God began to convict me about how I had treated my brother. I don’t cry much. But there were several nights I wept over my behavior. And I knew I needed to ask his forgiveness.
Nancy and I went to my family’s house that Christmas. One night I asked Phillip to go downstairs with me. We sat down and I said, “Phillip, I was terrible to you growing up. I wish I could do it over again, but I can’t. I have become a Christian and I know God has forgiven me, but I want you to forgive me too. Will you forgive me?” The amazing thing is that Phillip, not a Christian, forgave me.
I have learned through the years that my brother was a lot more forgiving than many Christians. I am amazed at the number of Christians, many in leadership, who refuse to forgive. There is the minister who has not spoken to his sister in 40 years. There is the minister’s wife who has not called her mother for the last 30 years. There are leaders who teach and preach on forgiveness but harbor reproach in their hearts.
Serious about Forgiveness
I know many people have experienced deep suffering from the hands of those they trusted. Each semester I have students in my Christian life class write their stories. Many times I put down their papers, angry and shocked at what has been done to them. I understand many have been hurt. But if we are to follow Jesus, we must get serious about forgiveness.
One day Peter came to Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). The thinking of the day was a brother might be forgiven a repeated sin three times. On the fourth there was no forgiveness (an early “four strikes and you are out” policy). Peter, answering his own question, volunteers to forgive seven times.
Jesus responds, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus teaches forgiveness in the kingdom cannot be limited by frequency or quantity. And then he tells a parable of the unmerciful servant (vv. 23-35).
There is a servant who owes a debt he cannot pay. It is an astronomical amount. Since he cannot pay, the master orders he be sold to repay the debt. The servant begs for time and promises to pay back everything, an impossibility. The servant’s master takes pity on him, cancels the debt, and lets him go.
The servant goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him a little money. He grabs his fellow servant, begins to choke him, and demands the money. His fellow servant also asks for more time. But despite the grace shown him by his master, despite the similarities of their pleas, the servant has his fellow servant thrown into prison.
When the other servants see what happened, they tell the master. The master calls in the servant. “You wicked servant,” he said, I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger, his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
And Jesus concludes, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
What can we learn about forgiveness from this story? In short, because God in Christ has forgiven us so much, he expects us to forgive others. Of course people hurt us. Yes it is hard to forgive. But in light of all that God forgives—past, present, future—how can I not forgive those who sin against me, whose debt to me is miniscule compared to the debt God has forgiven me?
I remember a time I was struggling with forgiveness. Our family had just moved to New England to help plant a church. I had really counted on prayer, financial help, and emotional support from some people close to me. But I did not get it. In fact, they were very negative and made mean-spirited comments. I had really expected these people to be more kingdom minded.
Honestly, that first year I replayed certain scenes again and again in my mind. I was angry, hurt, and the way I figured, justifiably so.
And then on an ordinary day, during an ordinary run, an extraordinary thing happened. God brought this parable to mind and spoke to me. He said, “David, even if you are right about how they treated you, even if these are real slights, not perceived ones, how can you not forgive them when I have forgiven you so much?”
God’s words pierced my heart. In an act of sheer will, I forgave them. I had to do it several more times as I would replay the incidents in my mind. But eventually I reached the point where I truly forgave and experienced feelings of forgiveness.
Why forgive? Because God has forgiven us so much. Because there are consequences to unforgiveness.
The word used for torture in this parable derives from the word used to describe sickness and adverse circumstances. God can use such trials to discipline us and produce a right spirit among those who are children of God. If we consistently struggle with forgiveness, it may indicate we do not know the reality of our own sins and the gracious forgiveness God gives in Christ.
Why forgive? Because forgiveness makes sense. It honors the God who forgives us. It helps avoid the trials God may bring into our lives. It is part of loving others. And it frees us. When we forgive, we no longer go through life emotionally handcuffed to the ones who hurt us.
Someone who survived childhood abuse wrote, “Forgiveness gets you out of someone else’s nightmare and allows you to live in a state of grace.”
A rabbi who lost his wife, child, and parents in the Holocaust said he forgave because he chose not to bring Hitler with him to America.
Only forgiveness frees us from the injustice of others.
How to Forgive
It is one thing to talk about forgiveness, quite another to do it. How do we get there? If we are Christians, we have experienced God’s forgiveness. Because we are in Christ, we have the power, through the Holy Spirit, to forgive ourselves and others.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. There are two ways of remembering. I can recall the offense in such a way that it continues to affect me, or I can remember it happened but not allow it to impact me. I can move forward.
Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is a clear, logical action on our part. Forgiveness is not demanding change before we forgive. So how do we forgive?
Examine yourself first. Once you see your own imperfections, other people look more human. See forgiveness as a process. It has been my experience that with certain offenses, we have to choose and choose again to forgive. Start with forgiving the little things, the driver who cuts you off in traffic, the waiter who botches an order. Such forgiving begins to work in us the discipline of forgiveness.
Consider the long term. Do you really want not to talk to this person, five, 10, 15, 20 years from now? Don’t wait to hear “I am sorry.” Whether or not someone ever admits an offense, we are still called to forgive then.
Pray. Forgiveness is supernatural. We need the power of God to forgive fully and freely.
Shortly after I asked my brother’s forgiveness, he became a Christian. For the past several years, he has been one of my best friends. Every year we try and take an adventure trip together. This past fall I flew down to Mississippi several times to help him with Hurricane Katrina work.
As we laughed together and viewed the world from countless roofs, I marveled again at the power of forgiveness. Don’t miss it.
Dave Smith is professor of church planting at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.