There are times, as a preacher, when I have a clear sense that what I will say is particularly relevant. Three important Sundays come to mind in this respect. The first was April 18, 2004. Six days prior I had been called to a 9 PM meeting of all the pastoral staff of the church where I served. That night, it was revealed that our pastor had sinned such that he must resign. Obviously, he would not be preaching on the following Sunday, and my brothers asked me to fill the pulpit. My text for the day was Hebrews 12:1-3. I don't remember much about that day or about what I said (except when I look back at my notes). However, I distinctly remember feeling the weight of preaching in the wake of such a tragic moment in the life of the church.
The second was July 22, 2007. The setting was a different church, but having been there for almost two years, I was convinced that we needed God to breathe a reviving wind into our congregation. Though my normal pattern is to preach through books or sections of books in the Bible, I broke from my pattern that day to preach on Ezekiel 37...the famous vision of the valley of dry bones. I look back on those notes, and I remember the weight of that day as well. It was challenging as we considered the dryness of our live, but it was encouraging as we turned our eyes to the God who brings times of refreshing.
The third was two days ago. Though God did use a circumstance to prompt a change in my preaching pattern again, it was not a change to address a tragedy. It was a change to address something that is very hard for all of us...forgiving one another. The text was Matthew 18:21-35 (the parable of the unforgiving servant), and again, I felt the weight of its relevance...in my own life and for all who would hear. After all, what spouse has never been tempted to hold the past over the head of the other (though repentance and confession has taken place)? Who has never been tempted to think of "that hurt" when "that person" walks in the room, though forgiveness has been extended?
[Pause for commercial break] There is much that could be said in this arena, but I will have to limit what I say to a "blog-sized" thought. For more on forgiveness, I would recommend the following resources:
- From Forgiven to Forgiving by Jay Adams - I should publicly say that it is no coincidence that my sermon has this title...I intentionally borrowed Jay's. Jay makes the case, quite well, that forgiveness is not a feeling...it is a promise. This is a critical distinction in our feelings-driven culture. So, if you find yourself saying something like "I don't feel like forgiving" or "I don't feel like I have forgiven," this book would be beneficial.
- Unpacking Forgiveness by Chris Brauns - Brauns works through the topic of forgiveness by addressing lots of great questions. Here are a few: Should I just get over it? How should I respond to the unrepentant? How can I conquer bitterness? How can I stop thinking about it? These are important questions to think through.
- Relationships: A Mess Worth Making by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp - This is not a book primarily about forgiveness but about relationships (in case you were having trouble decoding its mysterious title). However, within the wide range of issues associated with relationships, Lane and Tripp deal with sin, mercy, and forgiveness. I have benefited greatly from their other books, and while I have not read this one, it's on my list.
- Forgiveness: Showing Grace When You Have Been Hurt by Rob Green - For those who think a whole book might be too much, this booklet gets to the point and is very practical.
- What Do You Do When Your Marriage Goes Sour? by Jay Adams - This is another booklet, and it includes an explanation of the three promises we make when we forgive. I have several in my office if you'd like to have one.
How does one possibly forget a wrong done? How do you put it out of your mind? How can you erase the memory? In 2002, I was treated unjustly by my senior pastor, and as a result, my family suffered for it. Even as I type this blog, I can remember the events of that day as clearly as the day it happened. What am I doing wrong?
These are good questions, and in order to get the right answer, it's important we have the right definition of "forget"...a definition shaped by the teaching of the Bible. I am convinced that, when it comes to forgiven sins, the biblical concept of forgetting is not the same as me failing to get milk at the grocery store because my mental recall failed (something that happens all too frequently). So, let me take you to two texts (one from the NT, one from the OT) to get a grip on what it means to forget.
- 2 Peter 1:9 - "For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins." Here we have a prime example of forgetting. Prior to this verse, Peter lists qualities that should be increasing in the life of the believer: virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. These are the qualities that will keep Christians from being "ineffective" or "unfruitful."
Then, in verse 9, if we lack them, we're nearsighted to the point of blindness, "having forgotten" that we were forgiven of our sins. Here, Peter does not mean that our mind has gone blank...that information which was in our mind is no longer there. No, what Peter means is that we are living as if we had never been forgiven. So, "forgetting" something here means that this something (i.e.- the forgiveness of sins) is no longer affecting the way we think or live.
- Jeremiah 31:34b - "For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." If Peter's "forget" didn't quite land in your mind, then this verse will certainly help. Here, the Lord is speaking through Jeremiah about the new covenant...that new covenant which was signed, sealed, and delivered by the blood of Christ. Part of the blessing of the new covenant is the final atonement for sin. Our sin is fully and finally forgiven on the basis of Christ's death in our place. We are off the hook...we are not liable anymore. And here, the Lord speaks of the fullness of this forgiveness when He says, "I will remember their sin no more."
Certainly, we should not think that the all-knowing God loses track of some knowledge or that His memory lapsed. If that's the case, then how does God "remember...sin no more"? The answer is similar to what we saw in Peter. God does not "remember" sin...God "forgets" sin...in that our sin no longer affects His relationship to us. He does not remember our sin against us. He will not hold our sin against us; He will not make us pay. He has done everything necessary to make the payment for our sin in Christ, and no further payment is necessary. Because of Christ, our sin is forgiven and forgotten.
In our relationships with one another, we should think about forgiving and forgetting in the same way. When we forgive, we let people off the hook. We have experienced real pain, real hurt, but when we forgive, we are declaring that the other person will not be held liable for that pain. When we forget, we are saying that even when the events of this day come to my memory, I will not hold them against you. I will not let the forgiven past dictate my relationship to you.
In doing these things, we are not condoning sin anymore than God condones the sin He forgives and forgets. We are not saying "It's okay" (which is the wrong way to respond to an apology, by the way). We are actually saying, "It's not okay, my pain is real and deep, but because you are repentant, and because of the greater mercy I have received from God, I release you from liability toward me, and I promise not to hold it against you (publicly or privately) from this point on." In other words, "I forgive you."