A mother reports that her four-year-old daughter was learning the Lord’s Prayer in her Sunday School class and the first time she recited it for her mom at bedtime prayed, “And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”

The issue of forgiveness is one that touches all people. Sometimes it’s a major crisis that forces us to choose between forgiving and not forgiving; a betrayal by a spouse, a family feud, someone stole our money or something else of value. But thankfully, it’s those pesky lesser offenses that we must deal with: when we get passed over at work for a promotion that we were expecting, or when a colleague spreads a lie about us, or a friend betrays us.

The issue of forgiving another person who has wronged us is one that touches all people.

The issue of forgiving another person who has wronged us is more of an issue for those who call themselves Christians because we know that we are called upon to forgive others. We were just reminded by Jesus and Paul that it is incumbent upon those who sing It Is the Cry of My Heart to Follow You to forgive as Jesus forgives.

My hunch is that not all of us have become as adept as Jesus was in forgiving those who put trash in our baskets.

In 2019, George Barna found some good news and some sad needs about the ability of Christians to forgive. The good news was that three in four Christians said they have offered unconditional forgiveness to another person at least once. The sad news was one in four Christians admitted that they are currently withholding forgiveness from someone in their life who wronged them. 1

Because being able to forgive other people is one of the marks of a mature Christian all of us from time to time need a refresher course on this subject.

Forgiveness is part and parcel of being a Christian.

Paul notes the inseparable link between being forgiven and forgiving: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).

The very nature of forgiveness requires the recipients who have received it vertically, from God to us, to extend it horizontally, between us and other human beings.

Forgiveness of each other is not an option for Christians!

Isn’t that what Jesus is implying when He comments on the Lord’s Prayer? “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15).

William Barclay writes: “Human forgiveness and divine forgiveness are inextricably inter-combined. Our forgiveness of our fellow-men and God’s forgiveness of us cannot be separated; they are interlinked and interdependent.” 2

Wait a minute; I thought that my sins were forgiven based upon what Jesus did, not what I do or don’t do; forgive or not. And you would be right; salvation is based upon our faith in Christ’s death as we were reminded in today’s Call to Worship from Ephesians 2.

We need to remember that The Sermon on the Mount is not about salvation; if it was we’d all be in big trouble. The Sermon on the Mount is about Kingdom living; following Jesus, patterning our lives after the life of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is not an ethical treatise laying out the requirements to someday gain entrance into the Kingdom of God, heaven; but rather, is indicative of the kind of response we can make today because the Kingdom has already come among us in Jesus.

We have been forgiven of our many sins (think of it as vertical forgiveness). And because we have, it is incumbent upon us to extend the same to others (or horizontal forgiveness).

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Every time we are reminded of the forgiveness we have received, through singing a song like we opened with, or receiving communion, or reciting the Lord’s Prayer, we would do well to also be reminded that we are called upon to forgive others the way we have been forgiven.

Now to be sure forgiveness is hard.

C. S. Lewis once observed that the word forgiveness, “is a beautiful word until you have something to forgive.” 3

Because, it’s not natural for us to forgive. Our sinful nature would rather seek revenge; would rather hold onto the desire to pay back the person who hurt us.
Our sinful nature longs for the day we’ll be able to see that other person suffering. Our sinful nature anticipates saying to the person who hurt us, “You got what you deserve buddy, what goes around comes around pal!”

A button in a tourist shop pretty much sums up our human condition: “to err is human, to forgive is out of the question.” 4

That may be true for some, but not for us. We have been placed upon this earth and given the gift of relationships in order to learn to be more Christ-like; including the ability to forgive. Although this is not a sermon on marriage, I just have to note that if you accept that logic, marriage is a great place to learn how to forgive.

At their 50th wedding anniversary party, Tom was asked to give his friends a brief account of the benefits of a marriage of such long duration. “Tell us Tom, what have you learned from all those wonderful years with Cindy.”
Tom responds, “Well, I’ve learned that marriage is the best teacher of all. It teaches patience, and more importantly, forgiveness; and a great many other qualities you wouldn’t have needed if you’d stayed single.”

Not that forgiving is easy; in fact it’s hard.

Dave Augsburger writes, “Forgiveness is hard. Especially in a marriage tense with past troubles, tormented by fears of rejection and humiliation, and torn by suspicion and distrust. Forgiveness hurts. Especially when it must be extended to a husband or wife who doesn’t deserve it, who hasn’t earned it, who may misuse it. It hurts to forgive. Forgiveness costs. Especially in marriage when it means accepting instead of demanding repayment for the wrong done; where it means releasing the other instead of exacting revenge; where it means reaching out in love instead of relinquishing resentments. 5

Forgiveness is hard.

Forgiveness is mandated, forgiveness is hard and forgiveness is also healing.

Michael McCullough, director of research for the National Institute for Healthcare Research and a co-author of To Forgive is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past “When we allow ourselves to feel like victims or sit around dreaming up how to retaliate against people who have hurt us, these thought patterns take a toll on our minds and bodies.” 6

That great preacher, theologian and author, Frederick Buechner in his book, Wishful Thinking, writes with tongue in cheek,

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger that results from un-forgiveness is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll your tongue over the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you. 7

In a three-legged race, one of your legs is bound to another persona and as you hobble along you’re thinking, if I could be free of this guy I could win this race. But the rules don’t allow for a solo run; you must remain tied to your partner. Hanging on to unforgiveness emotionally binds us to that other person. We are doomed to hobble through life together. It is only forgiveness that enables us to cut the cords that bind us to that person.

Studies indicate that forgiveness is not only good theology, but good medicine as well. People who forgive: benefit from better immune functioning and lower blood pressure, have better mental health than people who do not forgive, feel better physically, have lower amounts of anger and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, maintain more satisfying and longer-lasting relationships.

So often when we think of forgiveness, we think about what it’s going to do for that other person. What we don’t realize is that forgiveness is really an act of self-interest. Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself. Forgiveness helps us to live in the present instead of the past. It releases us from the burden of anger, pain, and resentment, and frees us to live more peaceful lives.

Because forgiveness is both hard and healing, when we are enabled by God’s grace to pull it off, it is almost a miracle.

When God enables us to really forgive someone who has hurt us, hurt us deeply perhaps, that is a miracle. Maybe not turning water into wine or raising someone from the dead, but the dramatic miracle of a changed heart as pent-up anger and bitterness are released and peace floods into our souls.

Just ask Ricky Jackson, who grew up in Cleveland, and who two years ago walked out of prison a free man after spending 39 years in the joint for a murder he did not commit. In fact, Jackson served the longest sentence of anyone found to be innocent. He was only 18 when he was misidentified by a witness. Jackson remembers, “The boy I was before prison, with all his dreams, all his intentions; he died the moment I was locked up.”

A 12-year-old paperboy named Edward Vernon who was in the area where a murder took place was pressured by police to make the identification although he saw nothing. Finally, inspired by a sermon by his pastor on coming clean, he came forward. There was a new trial, Vernon had an opportunity to tell the truth, and Jackson was released.

But being released was not enough for Ricky Jackson, who had become a follower of Christ while in prison. Jackson said, “For me to appreciate this gift I’d been given, this second chance, I had to move forward, I had to forgive him.”

When they met, they both dissolved into tears. Jackson admitted to Vernon that for many years he had hated him. He went on to say the only way he could move forward in life was to forgive.

And Ricky Jackson said he had been inspired not only by his faith but also the words of Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison as a wrongfully convicted political prisoner: and who said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” 8

The greatest motivation to forgive is to recall that at one time all of us have stood guilty before a Holy God with no way to pay the debt for wronging God.

Alexander III was Tzar of Russia for 13 years in the late 19th century. His rule was generally marked by cruel repression and in particular severe persecution of Jewish people. His wife, Maria, on the other hand, was known for her grace to those in need. Once her husband signed an order sentencing a prisoner to life in exile. The order read, “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.” Maria changed that prisoner’s life by simply moving the comma in her husband’s order, so that it read, “Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.”

Similarly, at one time our sentence was, “Pardon impossible, to be sent to hell.” But in Christ, God has moved the comma, and it makes all the difference: “Pardon, impossible to be sent to hell.”

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:32