Harvest House Publishers
Healing the Hurt We Never Deserved
When I learned to forgive,
it was like a million pounds were lifted from me.
Ray, have you thought about preaching on forgiveness?”
The question came from George Theis. My answer was immediate. No, I hadn’t given any thought to preaching on forgiveness. Over the years, I had touched on our need to forgive others in various sermons, but never as the theme of a sermon series. “You need to read a book by R. T. Kendall called Total Forgiveness, and then you need to preach on forgiveness to your congregation.” George Theis is the former executive director of Word of Life, an international youth ministry. Our conversation took place while I was preaching at Word of Life Florida for a week. People often recommend books to me, and most of the time I don’t ever get around to reading them. But George Theis is not the sort of man who would recommend a book lightly. He told me that he had been recommending the book to others, and had been preaching its message himself with great impact in various churches.
So I said I would read it, which I eventually did. I found the book powerful and convicting. In the first chapter Pastor Kendall tells of a time when someone very near and dear to him hurt him greatly. He doesn’t say who it was or exactly what he did—only that the pain was deep and the hurt profound because he had looked to this person as a surrogate father figure. The anger that he felt overwhelmed him. At length he talked it over with Josif Tson of Romania. After he poured out all the sordid details of what his so-called friend had done to him, he paused, waiting for Pastor Tson to say, “R. T., you are right to feel so angry. What happened to you was awful.” But he didn’t. After listening to all the details, Josif Tson said simply, “You must totally forgive him.” Pastor Kendall was dumbfounded. So he started to tell the story all over again, this time adding more details. Josif Tson interrupted with words that would change R. T. Kendall’s life: “You must totally forgive him. Release him, and you will be set free.”
I read through the book and immediately decided to preach on forgiveness to my congregation. The response overwhelmed me. In the 26 years I have been a pastor, no sermon series I have ever preached anywhere at any time has generated the sort of response I received to my sermons on forgiveness. Later I preached those messages at Bible conferences around the country, and the response was the same. God’s people are so hungry to hear about forgiveness that it is as if they have never heard about it before.
Many Christians live in great pain because they have never discovered the liberating power of forgiveness. Here are a few examples:
A man called me on the phone and said, “Pastor Ray, could I come see you?” Then he told me his story. “My wife left me for another man, and when she got tired of him, she decided to come back to me. Everything seemed fine for a few weeks, then she left me again for the same man and stayed with him for a while. Then she came back a second time and I thought everything was fine. Then she left me again and she’s been with him for a while. She just called me up and said, ‘I want to come back.’ Pastor, I’m not sure I want her back. I can trust someone who wrongs me once or even twice, but I’m not sure I can trust that person the third time.”
A woman sat in my office and said, “I think I’m going to kill myself.” “Why?” “I don’t have any reason to live anymore,” she replied. All her friends had deserted her. She couldn’t get a job. She didn’t have any money. Everything that she valued in the world was gone. She told me about her children—how they had deserted her, how they couldn’t care less what happened to her. “When I told my son I was thinking about killing myself, he said, ‘Mom, why don’t you just go ahead and do it and get out of our hair.’ ”
A man in my church looked at me and said, “Pastor, you wouldn’t believe what I have been through.” Then he told me a story I found hard to believe. It involved a brutal divorce after many years of marriage, a financial collapse, the loss of his job, the end of his career, and lies told about him behind his back that have ruined his reputation. He told of people he had once trusted who had stabbed him in the back. He looked at me and said, “Pastor, do you want to know the worst of it? The people who have done this to me are Christians.”
Sometimes I wish I could invite people to come into my office for a week just to sit in the corner and listen to the individuals who share their hearts with me. And listen to all the phone calls and read the letters I get and the e-mails that arrive day and night. Each week brings an unending series of heartbreaking problems. Divorce. Broken homes. Broken marriages. Broken promises. Children estranged from their parents. Parents estranged from their children. Longtime friends who don’t speak to each other anymore. People who have lost their jobs because someone cheated them. People who have lost their fortunes because someone did them wrong. Families that don’t even speak at Christmastime because they hate each other so much.
For all these heartaches, there are many answers and there is only one answer. There are many solutions you can carry out and one solution you must carry out: Release them, and you will be set free. The very moment we hear or read those words, however, the mind begins to argue:
“But you don’t know what he did to me.”
“They lied about me over and over again.”
“She intended to destroy my career—and she did.”
“You can’t imagine the hell I’ve been through.”
“If you knew what this has done to my family, you would be angry, too.”
“They deserve to suffer like they’ve made me suffer.”
“I’m going to make them pay.”
“My daughter was raped. How do you forgive that?”
“I was sexually abused by a priest. How do you forgive that?”
“I will never forgive those people. Never!”
C. S. Lewis made this telling remark: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” He’s right, and in order for us to understand the message of forgiveness, we need to answer a few preliminary questions.
Questions About Forgiveness
If you know a bit about church history, you know that before Martin Luther became the father of the Protestant Reformation, he was a Catholic priest. As part of his training, he spent years studying Greek, Hebrew, Latin, the church fathers, and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. By all accounts, he was brilliant, devout, and very devoted to his studies. But his soul was deeply troubled. Burdened with the haunting sense that his sins were not forgiven, he felt that God’s judgment hung over him like a heavy weight he could not lift. Being a priest only made matters worse. No matter what he did, he never felt the assurance that his sins were forgiven. In desperation, he went to Rome, hoping to find answers, but he came away even deeper in despair.
Several years later, while studying the book of Romans, he encountered the phrase, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17 KJV). Slowly his eyes were opened and he saw clearly that God forgives us not because of anything we do, but solely on the basis of what Jesus did for us when He died on the cross and rose from the dead. He called that truth “the gate to heaven.” So it is not surprising that Luther said that the phrase “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” was the most important article in the Apostles’ Creed. He wrote, “If that is not true, what does it matter whether God is almighty or Jesus Christ was born and died and rose again? It is because these things have a bearing upon my forgiveness that they are important to me.”
Psalm 130 points us in the right direction. This psalm has a long history in the Christian tradition. It’s called De Profundis—a Latin phrase that means “out of the depths,” taken from verse 1, which says, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” The whole psalm teaches us that we will never fix ourselves because we lack the inner resources to solve our own problems. That flies in the face of Oprah and Dr. Phil and a host of other self-help gurus who say that the answer is within us. The Bible says the opposite is true: The problem is within us. The answer lies outside of us. As long as you think you can solve your own problems, you can only get worse. When you finally say, “Lord, please help me. I can’t do it on my own,” you’re a good candidate for salvation. Verse 3 of Psalm 130 goes on to say, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand?” Novelist Franz Kafka wrote in his diary that the problem with modern people is that we feel like sinners, yet independent of guilt. We sense that something is amiss in our lives, something is wrong. We live in a society that tells us to get rid of guilt by getting rid of the rules that make us feel guilty. So we do our best to ignore pesky things like the Ten Commandments. All those “Thou shalt nots” make us nervous. And why not? Guilt comes when you break the rules, and you know it. So the best way to get rid of guilt is to get rid of the rules—or so we think. We do away with the rules, but the rules won’t go away because they weren’t written by man in the first place. It’s as if they are written in indelible ink. Even when you try to erase them, the image keeps coming back. So we cheat and steal and lust and sleep around. We lose our temper and then make excuses. We whisper about the sins of others and wonder why we can’t sleep at night. We blame everyone else for our problems, but we won’t take a good look at the person in the mirror.
We need forgiveness and cannot live without it.
So why don’t we confess our sins and find the forgiveness we need? We fear punishment. We’re afraid that if we own up to our own stupidity, the Lord will punish us. So we lie about our lies and we cover up our cover-ups. We pretend that we didn’t do what we know we did. No wonder we’re so messed up. We think guilt is a bad thing so we avoid guilt at all costs. Our children learn to make excuses by watching us make excuses. We blame everyone except ourselves. But Psalm 130 liberates us from that self-destructive cycle. Verse 3 says that God doesn’t keep a record of our sins. In the original Hebrew text, the verse literally says God doesn’t keep an eye on our sins. That is, He’s not looking for a reason to send us to hell. Many people picture God as a cranky old man with a long white beard who hopes to catch us messing up so He can send us to hell. But that’s not the God of the Bible. He is willing to forgive those who repent of their sin and cry out for mercy.
We need forgiveness because we are sinners who try to change the rules so we can dodge the guilt question. And because the rules can’t be changed, we end up extremely messed up on the inside. Here is the bottom line: We need forgiveness and cannot live without it. Without forgiveness, we are hollow men and women, empty and conflicted on the inside. The one piece of good news is that God doesn’t keep an eye on our sins. If He did, we’d all be in hell already.
By that I mean this: What are the chances that we can be forgiven? Is it just a distant dream, some kind of long shot? If the Vegas bookies laid odds on our forgiveness, what would the number be? Fifty thousand to 1? One hundred thousand to 1? One million to 1? Look in the mirror and consider your own soul. If you do, the outlook will not be hopeful. The first part of Psalm 130:4 brings us some very good news: “But with you there is forgiveness.” Or to say it another way, God makes a habit of forgiving sin. He does not delight in punishing our sin. He looks for chances to forgive us because forgiveness is in His nature.
That’s a significant insight because it affects how you see God.
He is eager to forgive.
He is ready to forgive.
He wants to forgive you.
Exodus 34:6-7 calls Him “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
If you are in the pit, you need to know that sin is real. You can’t break the rules and get away with it forever. But whenever you are ready to come clean, the Lord is right there waiting for you. It’s never easy to confess your sins, but listen to the invitation given in Isaiah 55:7: “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” Okay, so maybe you don’t like that word “wicked” or the word “evil.” Maybe that sounds harsh to you. But that’s God’s description of the whole human race. That’s what you and I are apart from God’s grace. We are wicked and evil. Get used to it, because that’s the plain truth about all of us. Don’t get hung up on the negative words and miss the invitation. Turn to the Lord, and you will find mercy and pardon.
Picture two doors, each with two words emblazoned across the top:
|Door #1||Door #2|
Now which door do you like better? Answer: We all like mercy and pardon better. God says you have to go through the door marked Evil and Wicked to get to the door marked Mercy and Pardon. You have to go through the first door to get to the second. But someone says, “I’m going to skip Door #1 and go directly to Door #2.” It doesn’t work that way. You can’t skip Door #1. And you can’t climb through a window, either. The only way to reach Door #2 is to go through Door #1 first.
When you go through Door #2, you discover that “he will freely pardon.” Freely means without cost. No charge. You want mercy? You’ve got it. You want a pardon for all your sins? You’ve got it. You can go in evil and wicked, and you can come out with mercy and a full pardon from the Lord. That’s the best deal in the world.
The last part of Psalm 130:4 has the answer: “Therefore you are feared.” Another way to say this is, “Therefore we worship you.” Once we are forgiven, that vague feeling of unease is removed. Our slate is wiped clean. The prison cell door swings open and we walk out. We’re free at last. Sometimes that’s the hardest part to accept. Recently I received a letter from a prisoner who had read one of my books. Because of the heinous crime he had committed, he is afraid to go to church because he worries that people will find out what he did and thus shun him. That kind of shame works in all of us to keep us in bondage. The devil whispers to us, “You’re no good. If people knew what you were really like, they’d have nothing to do with you. How can you call yourself a Christian and treat your wife that way? Your children that way? Your husband that way? You hypocrite.”
The only way to deal with Satan’s accusations is go back to the character of God: “With You there is forgiveness.” Have you ever worried about the day when you stand before the Lord? Some Christians fear that God is going to push a button and project all their sins—even the sins of the mind—on some huge screen for the entire universe to see. We fear that all our ugly words and deeds, all our secret sins that no one else knows about, and every dark thought filled with anger, lust, pride, hatred, rage, and greed will be displayed for the millions to see. How could we endure such a moment? And how could God ever welcome us into His kingdom after putting our depravity on public display?
There are four different words for forgiveness in the Bible— three Hebrew words and one Greek. The first Hebrew word means “to cover”—like using a rug to cover the dirt on your floor. The second word means “to lift and take away”—which happens when you remove a stain from a carpet. The third word means “to pardon” or “to wipe the record clean.” The fourth word means “to let go” or “to send away,” as when you release a prisoner from jail. When you put these words together, you get a graphic picture of forgiveness. God covers our sin, He removes the inner stain, He wipes our personal record clean, and then He releases us from our guilt so that we are set free.
If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins—if You gazed on our sins—who could stand? No one. We’d all be doomed and damned. That’s the whole point of Psalm 130. We cry from the depths of shame and guilt, and God says, “Good news. With Me there is forgiveness.” The Bible uses a number of images to describe how God deals with our sins:
God blots out our sins as a thick cloud (Isaiah 44:22).
God forgets our sins and remembers them no more (Jeremiah 31:34).
God puts our sins behind His back (Isaiah 38:17).
God buries our sins in the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19).
God removes our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).
When God forgives, He forgets our sins, clears the record, and erases the tape so that when He pushes the button, nothing shows up on the big screen in heaven. Our sins are forgiven, forgotten, removed, buried, and blotted out. They can never condemn us again. Let that thought grip your soul, and you will never be the same. But how could it be this way? How could God forgive us? Why doesn’t He look at our sins? Here’s the answer: A long time ago, God fixed His gaze on the cross of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. When we are honest enough to admit that we are wicked and evil, a stream of mercy flows out from the cross of Christ and our sins are covered by His blood. We discover, in one shining moment, that with God there is forgiveness.
Consider these words from the lips of our Lord:
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven (Luke 6:37).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said it very plainly:
If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14-15).
The apostle Paul put forgiveness into a slightly different framework in Ephesians 4:32:
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
He made a similar statement in Colossians 3:13:
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
When Peter (a man who knew from experience the value of forgiveness) wrote his first epistle, he summed up forgiveness this way: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
There is another way to express that truth, and it’s found in the “Love Chapter”—1 Corinthians 13. While describing the greatest virtue, Paul declared that “love…keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). That little phrase deserves a closer examination. Eugene Peterson in The Message, says it this way: “Love… doesn’t keep score of the sins of others.” Love doesn’t keep score because love has a bad memory. It finds a way to forget the sins of others.
Finally, the greatest, most profound statement on this topic in the entire Bible—the finest, purest, highest example of forgiveness—came from Jesus Himself. When He hung on the cross dying, condemned to death by evil men who plotted to murder Him and produced lying witnesses to convict Him, as He surveyed the howling mob assembled to cheer His suffering, Jesus the Son of God, the One who knew no sin, the only truly innocent man who ever walked this sin-cursed planet, uttered some words that still ring across the centuries: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Those 12 tortured words sweep away all our shabby excuses. They reveal the barrenness of our heart; they rip the cover off our unrighteous anger and show it for what it is. Many of us say, “If only the people who hurt me would show some remorse, some sorrow, then maybe I would forgive them.” But that rarely happens, and we use other people’s inaction as an excuse to continue in our bitterness, our anger, and our desire to get even.
Consider Jesus on the cross. No one seemed very sorry. Even as He said those words, the crowd laughed, mocked, cheered, jeered. Those who passed by hurled insults at Him. They taunted Him.“If you are the king of Israel, come down from the cross and save Yourself.” Let us be clear on this point: When He died, the people who put Him to death were quite pleased with themselves. Pilate washed his hands of the whole sordid affair. The Jewish religious leaders hated Him with a fierce, irrational hatred. They were happy to see Him suffer and die. Evil was in the air that day. The forces of darkness had done their work and the Son of God would soon be in the tomb. No one said, “I was wrong. This is a mistake. We were such fools.” And yet He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
That is precisely what we must say if we are going to follow Jesus. We must say it to people who hurt us deliberately and repeatedly. We must say it to those who intentionally attack us. We must say it to those who casually and thoughtlessly wound us. We must say it to those closest to us, to our husband or wife, to our children, to our parents, to our friends, to our neighbors, to our brothers and sisters, to our fellow Christians.
At this point it is necessary to clear up some misconceptions about forgiveness. In some ways it is easier to say what forgiveness is not than what it is. These misconceptions matter because sometimes when we say we can’t or won’t forgive, we are actually talking about something other than biblical forgiveness. Let me list a few things forgiveness does not mean:
It does not mean approving of what someone else did.
It does not mean pretending that evil never took place.
It does not mean making excuses for other people’s bad behavior.
It does not mean justifying evil so that sin somehow becomes less sinful.
It does not mean overlooking abuse.
It does not mean denying that others tried to hurt you repeatedly.
It does not mean letting others walk all over you.
It does not mean refusing to press charges when a crime has been committed.
It does not mean forgetting the wrong that was done.
It does not mean pretending you were never hurt.
It does not mean you must restore the relationship to what it was before.
It does not mean you must become friends again.
It does not mean there must be a total reconciliation as if nothing ever happened.
It does not mean that you must tell the person you have forgiven them.
It does not mean that all negative consequences of sin are canceled.
I received an e-mail from someone who lives in a distant state. Recently he has come to grips with the fact that a neighbor abused him when he was a child. That trauma plus the fact that he was raised in a family where his parents could not express love to their children played havoc in his adult life. This is part of what he wrote:
But just this year, through prayer and a Christian counselor, I am beginning to “let go” of the past. It is still very difficult to overcome the anger and maybe even the hatred I felt toward my father. It took me going to the cemetery to visit my father’s and mother’s graves and having about a two-hour conversation with them that began to let the anger go that had kept me in a state of sadness most of my adult life.
He went on to say that for many years he focused on helping others because he knew how to “fix” people and “fix” problems. “Until the facts of my childhood awoke and slapped me in the face and I couldn’t ‘fix’ it. If it were to be ‘fixed,’ then God would have to do it.”
And the first step was learning to forgive.
Forgiveness allows you to let go and move on.
That story is very helpful because it demonstrates that forgiveness is essentially a matter of the heart. This is a hugely important point because most of us think forgiveness is primarily about what we do or say. But it is quite possible to mouth kind words of forgiveness while harboring anger and bitterness within. Forgiveness begins in the heart and eventually works its way outward. There is a profound sense in which all forgiveness, even forgiving someone who hurt you deeply, is between you and God. Other people may or may not understand it, or recognize it, or own up to their need to receive it.
Forgiveness, in its essence, is a decision made on the inside to refuse to live in the past. It’s a conscious choice to release others from their sins against you so that you can be set free. It doesn’t deny the pain or change the past, but it does break the cycle of bitterness that binds you to the wounds of yesterday. Forgiveness allows you to let go and move on. And this story illustrates that you can forgive even when other people make no confession. You can forgive without a restoration of the relationship. You can forgive when the other person has done nothing to earn forgiveness because forgiveness is like salvation—it is a gift that is freely given, it cannot be earned. You can forgive and the other person may never even know about it. You can forgive without saying, “I forgive you” because forgiveness is a matter of the heart.
That brings me back to the statement by C. S. Lewis: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” Then it becomes difficult.
The late Lewis Smedes said there are three levels of forgiveness. First, we rediscover the humanity of the person who hurt us. That simply means that without diminishing their sin, we admit they are sinners just like we are sinners. Second, we surrender our right to get even. This is hard because it is natural to want someone else to pay for all the pain they caused us. But in the end, we must leave all judgment in the hands of our just and merciful God. Third, we revise our feelings toward the other person. This means giving up our hatred and letting go of our bitterness. Ultimately, it means taking Jesus seriously when He said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NKJV). You’ll know you have reached the final level of forgiveness when you are able to ask God to bless those who have hurt you so deeply. This is indeed a high standard—so high, that without God it is impossible. That’s why Smedes calls forgiveness a miracle. He’s right. Forgiveness is nothing less than a miracle of God.
And it is the miracle we desperately need.
This is only the first chapter. There is much more to be said and much more we can learn together about the miracle of forgiveness. For the moment let’s wrap things up with two final thoughts:
In order to experience the healing power of forgiveness, we need two things: soft hearts and courage. Some of us have been deeply hurt by what others have done to us. People have attacked us, maligned us, mistreated us, abused us, sexually assaulted us, ridiculed us, belittled us, publicly humiliated us, physically beaten us, and they have done it deliberately, repeatedly, viciously. In response we chose to become hard on the inside to protect ourselves from any further pain. But that hardness has made it difficult for us to hear the gentle call of the Holy Spirit. We need soft hearts to hear His voice. And then we need courage. The timid will never forgive. Only the brave will forgive. Only the strong will have the courage to let go of the past.
Excerpted from The Healing Power of Forgiveness by Ray Pritchard. Copyright © 2005 by Harvest House Publishers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.