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Forgiveness

The Father can change your heart

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When I graduated from seminary, I became the assistant pastor of a church in New England. I was there only about a month when the secretary asked, “Do you know John Smith?”

“No. I don’t think I’ve met him,” I said.

“I saw him at breakfast this morning, and he told me you were in an affair.”

“John who?” I didn’t know John, but now I wanted to! “I’ve never slept with anyone but my wife,” I told the secretary. “Who is this guy?”

A couple of weeks later, someone else asked me, “Do you know John Smith?”

“No,” I responded, “but I’m starting to know him. Why?”

“I was talking to him the other day, and he said you stole money from the church.”

I explained that I didn’t even have access to the finances.

A couple of more weeks passed. I still hadn’t met John, but more people reported that he was spreading lies about me. I was livid.

Finally, the district superintendent called me. “Do you know John Smith?”

“Not really,” I said, “but I’ve heard a lot about him!”

“Well, he called the district office and told me that you are in an affair and have stolen money from the church. I know it isn’t true, but I just called to tell you to watch your back. For whatever reason, this guy is out to get you. And you aren’t the first pastor he has come after.”

I thanked him for the warning.

I tried to set up a meeting with John so I could confront him, according to Matthew 18. He wasn’t willing to see me, and he never repented. But, after I discovered who he was, each Sunday morning he would shake my hand with a big phony smile and say, “Nice to see you today, Pastor.” I wanted to stick my foot out and trip him!

What do you do when people have deeply hurt you? What if they won’t own it and they won’t repent? The answer is as plain in Scripture as it is uncomfortable: you forgive them.

Jesus said, “‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven’” (Matt. 5:43–44).

In Matthew 6, Jesus taught us to pray and say, “‘Forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors’” (v. 12). He went on to say, “‘For 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’” (vv. 14–15).

We don’t get any credit, according to Jesus, for loving our friends—even the pagans do that. But when we love our enemies, we are marked by the Father’s love. Loving our enemies is the single greatest indicator that we have been infected with divine love. It is the mark of the Father on our life. We need to forgive. But how do we do it?

Forgiveness is a choice. It is a decision to release someone from our debt. We don’t need someone else to own their part or to say they are sorry. We can forgive them unilaterally. This is actually a gift to us. If we depended on someone else’s repentance before we offered forgiveness, we would always be bound by someone else’s will. But we can forgive even if someone is unrepentant, is no longer part of our lives, or even has died. We must be willing to forgive those who have hurt us.

However, there is a difference between forgiveness and trust. Forgiveness is a gift that is granted by the offended party. It is never deserved or earned. Trust, however, is earned. Trust is earned when an offender repents and turns away from his or her sin. And while forgiveness is a unilateral act, reconciliation is bilateral; it takes two. For reconciliation to take place, I must own my part, you must own your part, we both must repent, and we both must forgive.

Sometimes we are trying to forgive, but we hit a snag.My wife, Jen, and I had an ongoing issue early in our marriage. She was hurt by something I did when we were dating. She would bring it up, and I would say, “We already talked about this. I apologized, and you forgave me.” She would say, “I know.” But the issue kept coming up.

One day Jen explained to me how deeply my actions had hurt her. I was offering her a cup’s worth of apology, but she had experienced a gallon of pain. As I listened to her heart and how deeply she was hurt, I was struck by the extent of my offense. I got on my knees and apologized with tears.

That was the last time we ever talked about the issue. I offered her a gallon of apology, and she offered me a gallon of forgiveness. That was reconciliation. She could have forgiven me unilaterally, but trust and reconciliation couldn’t occur until I repented fully for my offense and she forgave me for it.

I have discovered that blessing those who curse me is a great aid in the process of forgiving my enemies. I used to mistakenly think that “blessing those who curse us” was just a nice way of saying, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But God wanted me to learn a much deeper truth.

John Smith continued to speak ill of me, and I was angry. One day while I was alone with God, I heard the Spirit whisper to me, Luke 6. I knew the passage He was leading me to: “‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you’” (vv. 27–28).

“Surely, You didn’t mean that stuff,” I protested. But, of course, He did. Immediately I thought of Jesus on the cross praying, “Father forgive them.” I said, “Lord, I much prefer the imprecatory psalms, where David prays God-get-them prayers. Can we pray those?” But I sensed the Spirit urging me to pray blessings on John.

After wrestling with God for a while, I surrendered. I said, “Lord, I will pray blessings on John, but You need to know I don’t mean a word of it. I’m willing for You to change me. And I will pray blessings for Your sake, not for his sake. I can’t change how I feel, but I can obey, and I will.”

I prayed out of obedience. And my prayers sounded a bit like this: “God, I pray you would bless John. I don’t know how, but I pray you would. I pray his wife would even like him, if that is possible. I pray that his kids wouldn’t turn out to be like him!”

But over time the tone of my prayers began to change. I prayed that God really would bless him. I prayed the good things that I wanted in my life for John. I admit my feelings weren’t in it, but I prayed blessings on John every day, day in and day out. Over time, my prayers became heartfelt.

I would see him in church, and he would shake my hand, smile, and act like everything was fine. Then he would proceed to tell lies about me that week. I kept praying blessings.

One day I saw John at church. He shook my hand with his phony smile and said, “It’s good to see you.” And I smiled back and said, “It is good to see you, too.” And much to my surprise, I meant it. I could feel the love of the Father welling up in my heart for this man. It was a miracle. My heart for him had changed.

Take a moment right now and ask the Lord, “Is there anyone I need to forgive?” Allow the Holy Spirit to bring up names, faces, and events that have hurt you. Write them down, and commit to forgive those people and to pray blessings on them. If you will obey God and do what you can do, He will do what you cannot do: He will change your heart.

21 responses to Forgiveness

  1. Thanks to those of you who commented about the story not following Mt 18, and allow me two responses. First, the article is about forgiveness, & this was an illustration so I can’t cover everything. Second, there was definitely reluctance in the leadership to confront the issue, though I tried, but regardless of how it was mishandled, I had to forgive.

  2. I was encouraged by the transformational story.

    However, the church structure/culture seemed to be dysfunctional. For a slanderer to be permitted to ignore Matthew 18 and continue to attend seems bizarre.

    Perhaps that might be addressed in a future article.

  3. Loved reading the personal experience and raw honesty on forgiving those that curse you. Don’t hear much about the blessing part which took the article to another level and awesome challenge.

    Yet I was deeply concerned of the absence of following Matthew 18 under the awareness of a DS and others. When does someone refusing to enter into step one of Matthew 18 void the next two courses of action? Why did the DS listen to John Smith without a witness to corroborate the accusations? At least that is what I perceived as happening.

  4. Curious…maybe I missed this…was there a reason that Matthew 18:15-17 was not followed through on? I read that the party was unwilling to meet…what about vs. 16-17?

  5. Tatijana,
    Thank you for writing so openly and honestly. I am deeply sorry for your pain and I pray God would release you from your hurt, heal your wounded soul and change your heart with His tender affections. Stay the course!
    May the peace of Christ be upon you!
    Rob

  6. It’s been almost 30 years and I have yet to forgive a rapist & a handful of child molesters who have affected my life as well as others who I deeply love. I always ask myself, why would God forgive a rapist, a child molester a murderer? How could a Pastor talk with a man and let him know God has forgiven him for murdering Christians,because they repented? Father God I pray for a change in my heart where I am able to understand why all people deserve forgiveness, I will never give up on my journey ~

  7. I left the ministry in 2011 after a senior pastor crushed me with his lies, hurts,abuse, and bullying. I feel I have forgiven him, but am stuck. I am in a new career and am starting over. The anger and bitterness are gone, but I am sad that it was allowed to happen. Still praying for the lord to restore what was taken.thanks for the wisdom and help.

  8. Best piece on forgiveness I’ve been blessed to read. Thank you for sharing. I identify intimately with many of the key points & experiences. Praise be to God that He did not let me off the hook. I remember praying those first feeble prayers of fogivnrss,Blessing and salvation. Humbled, I see God working miracles in me and others I never would have believed possible.

  9. Thank you for the challenge to pray blessings on the offenders. I know the wounding of wrongful and untrue accusations. I can also say in the very moment of the attack and slander, forgiveness welled up in my heart. However, when those I trusted to know better and have my back believed the untruths, bitterness was born within and has sadly grown. I have grieved over the loss of trust and friendships, but am now accepting the challenge to pray God’s best over these individuals, hopefully leading me to forgive them as easily as the first accuser. I know that Biblical truth when applied brings peace. I just needed this reminder to actually practice what I know is right and true. Thank you.

  10. Forgiveness and reconciliation is something I’ve been struggling with for a long time. I have also learned that reconciliation can be achieved in other ways. I recently discovered that the man who had assaulted me while I was in college had died. I thought I had completely forgiven him. When I read his obituary, I discovered he had spent the last fifteen years of his in service to the blind and to disabled veterans. When I read this, I knew that on some level that he had found his way and that perhaps that this could serve as an indicator of redemption. I have reconciled internally. If I see him in heaven, and I hope that I do, I will be able to tell him that I am alright and that I had forgiven him.

  11. Thank you this truly puts things into perspective. I have someone I need to forgive and when I feel that I’m almost there I realize I am not. Again I thank you.

  12. Dear Gerardo,
    Thank you for courageously writing that. May God help you through it, and may you find freedom and reconciliation!
    With all the Father’s affections,
    Rob

  13. I have experienced similar issues especially with forgiveness of my father. At first, I felt I was lying to God with my phony prayers but, like you, one day I realized I really did forgive him.
    You probably taught me how to do it.
    Love,
    Bo

  14. Rob, the teaching that the Holy Spirit gives you to share never disappoints or fails to turn eyes to the places we’d prefer to look away from.

    For your book, your Empower course teachings, and your articles, I’m ever grateful!

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