You know, I have always thought forgiveness was this feeling of reconciliation one receives when one absolves another of an offence. I also thought forgiveness was not possible without an inordinate amount of restoration, or as I would like to call it, works of restitution.
After reading my bible, however, I have found forgiveness in God’s eyes is an entirely different matter. He treats the absolution of sins as his highest form of love. I had to delve deeply into his word in order to understand that when God forgives, he does it without conditions. That unconditional love God shows is so wonderful, so great, so just, that nothing will ever compare to the feeling of knowing he has forgiven me in whole.
A Root of Bitterness
Now, if you have not read any of my previous posts about my past struggle with a root of bitterness I will make it easy by explaining it here. Hebrews 12:15 says, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (ESV throughout).
I have done some gardening in my lifetime. I cannot brag of having attained a green thumb, but I am able to get by. As any gardener knows, when planting flowers, or anything else for that matter, the one thing that keeps popping up to the surface is weeds. I do not like weeds. They are insidious. If I do not remove weeds, they will choke the good plants and cause them to stop growing. Even more so, left unchecked, weeds can kill plants leaving me with nothing to show for all my toil.
Therefore, I take desperate measures when dealing with weeds. I dig deep into the soil looking for the root. If I were to cut the weed from where it breaks ground, it would only grow back. Then I would be there every few days to remove the same weed repeatedly. No. That does not make sense to me. Either I do the job right the first time, or I do not do it at all. Simple. I look for the root, and sometimes it is not an easy thing to eradicate. I can tug at it, but it may also have thorns to prevent me from removing it with my bare hands. In such cases, I use garden gloves for protection, but even then, the gloves may not be enough. I may need the help of various tools to aid with the extraction from the ground. A small shovel works well, as does a tool specifically designed to pluck the root.
It gets better, once I remove the root I then stand in one spot staring at a hole in the ground.
Similarly, a root of bitterness, as described in the book of Hebrews, can spring up and cause all sorts of trouble. The verse describes how that root, if left to grow, will fester and spread, corrupting other people as well. All of a sudden, the original incident that gave birth to bitterness becomes secondary, and every slight becomes an issue.
In Matthew 5:23, Jesus says, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Why would Jesus want me to leave my gift at the altar, find the person who has a grudge against me and reconcile with them? They are the one with the problem. Why should I be the one to lose face and try to make amends?
The Sermon on the Mount
That attitude of not wanting to help others, Jesus covers in The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In his sermon, Jesus blesses the people and talks about how Christians should become examples for others to follow, likening them to light (Mat. 5:13-16). He also talks about the perils of anger, lust (v. 21-30) and retaliation (v. 38-42). He finishes the chapter admonishing his followers to love their enemies, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (v. 43-45).
Sporting around a root of bitterness will not encourage anyone to love an enemy. Jesus goes on to describe what happens when that root of bitterness spreads, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Mat. 5:46-47). In other words, Jesus is saying I should look to do more than love my friends. I should treat my enemies as I would a brother in Christ.
Jesus ends his teaching on the subject by instilling a goal to his listeners, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).
Perfection for someone ordinary like me is impossible. I fail at things. I do the things I do not want to do (Rom. 7:15). And I am a sinner (Rom. 5:12). How can I be perfect as God is perfect? Impossible.
Yet, despite my own perceptions, it is possible. When the apostle Paul was dealing with pride, he had to overcome a messenger of Satan, whom he referred to as a thorn in the flesh. He pleaded with Jesus three times asking for relief. The story continues, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
If God can make me perfect by his grace, which he gives freely regardless of my weaknesses, then I have nothing to worry about in this life or the next. Paul explains it well in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Filling the Emptiness
Remember the hole left behind after I had pulled the weed by its root in my garden? The emptiness I felt once I realized my life was not worth anything without God’s presence compelled me to kneel before him to ask for the soaking of his spirit. It was the only way I could move forward from the damage the root of bitterness had caused.
Back in my garden, I filled the hole with dirt, seeded and watered it every day until new growth sprouted to the surface. Likewise, instead of the emptiness left behind, I took to God’s word and seeded the hole with the word of life. I no longer needed to gird on the armor of God (Eph. 6:10-20) as my tools to remove the weeds, but this time, I watched as the fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) took root in my heart and spread throughout all my relationships.
Put another way, God, the ultimate gardener (Gen. 2:8-9), replaced that root of bitterness in me with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
I counted it a difficult thing to overcome a grudge, however, once I realized God had given his only begotten son as a sacrifice so that he could save me from the wages of sin (John 3:16), I looked upon my enemies not as I had, but with mercy. I gained the understanding through God’s Holy Spirit, that if I wanted God to forgive me of my sins against him, I needed to forgive others their sins against me.
Going back to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus passes along the template his followers should use when praying to God the Father. I grew up knowing it as The Lord’s Prayer. Others may know it as the Our Father (Mat. 6:9-13). When praying to God, I use it as a prompt for what I want to say. Each verse is specific in intention, as I discovered one night when verse 12 jumped out at me. In it, Jesus says, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
As anyone who has ever had a debt knows, it would be sweet music should a creditor decide to cancel a debt. For one thing, it means that whatever is owing to the creditor is no longer owing. I cannot imagine what it would feel like if someone should knock on my door and say to me that my mortgage is no longer payable.
In like manner, Jesus talks about doing just that, expanding on the idea even further at the end of the prayer, “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” (Mat. 6:14-15).
Not only does Jesus make it clear that the Heavenly Father will not forgive those who do not forgive, but he also implies that full responsibility for those debts will fall on the heads of the unforgiving.
I cannot fathom the thought of dying with full knowledge that I could have released others of their debts against me. Moreover, should I have a hard heart, I will also have to worry about judgement being against me in due course, as Paul says, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
The Unforgiving Servant
In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mat. 18:21-35), Jesus talks about forgiveness in its basic form. Peter came up to Jesus and asked him how many times should he forgive his brother—seven times? Jesus answered him saying not seven times, but seventy times seven (v. 21-22). What Jesus meant was not 490 times, but we should always forgive, having mercy for those who have wronged us. He then begins to tell Peter the story of a servant who owed his master 10,000 talents (v. 23-24).
Now, a talent in those days equaled to about 20 years wages for a single laborer. There was no way the servant could ever repay the master all that money in his lifetime. It would have taken the servant 200,000 years in all to wipe the slate clean. Stating it differently, Jesus wanted to emphasize the debt’s value as immeasurable.
Facing the fear of his master’s order to have him, his wife, his children and all that he possessed sold to repay his debt, the servant fell on his knees pleading with his master for forgiveness (v. 25-26).
What happens next astounds me, “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). Knowing fully well the servant owed him thousands of years of wages, immeasurable by human standards, the master forgave all of it.
When I think of all the bad I have done in my lifetime, and I think of how God sits on his mercy seat (Heb. 9:5), ready to extend his grace on to me, I humble myself in utter worship in the presence of his glory. For it says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
But the story of the servant does not end there. Instead of being thankful that his master stayed the order to sell him, his wife, his children and all that he possessed to repay the debt, and instead of waking up every morning knowing his freedom was secure, the servant did something altogether different, “But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt” (Mat. 18:28-30).
A denarii was a day’s wage. All the servant had to do was wait 100 days and his fellow servant would have paid him back. He did not wait. He had him thrown in prison.
When God forgives, going forward he expects me to forgive others in the same way. If I do not do that, I would have to deal with his judgement. This is what the servant faced, “Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’” (v. 32-34)
Eventually, the master delivered the servant to the jailers, until he paid all of his debt (v. 34). In the New International Version, it is more specific, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” Continuing with the English Standard Version, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v. 35).
By this time, it is apparent that forgiveness has nothing to do with the one who may have perceptually caused the offense, but works by releasing the chains of the one holding the grudge. Once those chains fall under the weight of God’s grace, they become as if they never were. Ephesians 4:31-32 describes the process in a beautiful way, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
My Forgiveness Campaign
I went on a forgiveness campaign of my own recently to reconcile with everyone in my life who I thought perceived me as an enemy. I had to grovel. I had to apologize. And in some cases, I had to open my heart completely in order to show my sincerity and seriousness with wanting to remove any occasion for the devil to lay his hooks into me again (1 Pet. 5:8). The hardest part about the whole thing, though, was the rejection. I realized that not everyone wants reconciliation. I thought it odd, at first. I mean, I did my part by leaving my gift at the altar, but the other person just did not want to hear it. They were content with the way things were.
To that, I cannot do a thing. What is important is I have done my part asking for forgiveness. And to me, that is all that matters. My comfort lies in the knowledge that Jesus also faced rejection when he was walking among us on earth (1 Peter 2:4-8). So, why should it surprise me that even I should bear the burden of rejection?
For this reason, before reaching the end of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it a point to emphasize a lasting lesson to his followers, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Mat. 7:1-2).
When it comes down to it, forgiveness is not only about eradicating a root of bitterness and moving on. It also requires vigilance to love an enemy as oneself. I can attest it is not an easy task to do when all there remains of the relationship is sad memories. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, anything is possible. As long as I keep repenting, turning away from wrongdoing, God will blot out my sins (Acts 3:19). He will extend his grace, and Jesus’ sacrifice will not have been for naught (Rom. 6:5-8).