Summary: To be transformed we must forgive.

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Series: Resolutions Worth Making

Title: Forgiveness

Text: Matthew 18:21-35

Truth: To be transformed we must forgive.

Aim: To encourage forgiveness.


Louie Zamperini is the subject of the current hit movie Unbroken. He was born in 1917 in New York, then, shortly afterward, his family moved to the west coast to live in Torrance, California. In Kindergarten he did not speak English. This, and his Italian heritage, made him the focus of bullying. He learned to fight and get even with his tormentors. At ten he was smoking and stealing liquor; he was a juvenile delinquent. The school principle, his older brother, and a police officer came together to decide how they were going to change this wild child. They decided to put his running abilities to work by getting him involved in track. His first race was the 660. Louie came in dead last. But he set a national high school track record for the mile, which stood for two decades. It earned him the opportunity to be on the 1936 Olympic team that went to Berlin, Germany. He finished eighth in the 5,000 meters, but his finishing lap of 56 seconds was a record that stood for several years. It earned him the opportunity to meet Adolph Hitler.

The movie is mainly about his time as a POW of the Japanese. The brutality and cruelty is shocking. I do not think I could have survived what Zamperini endured. But, typical of Hollywood, they chose to downplay his Christian faith which is truly the exemplary part of his life. The movie exalts his unbroken spirit despite great hardship, but the truth is Louie Zamperini was a broken man after the war. Every night he had nightmares about the cruel POW camp commandant, “the Bird.” One night he woke up and was strangling his wife, but in his dream he was strangling “the Bird.” He became an alcoholic, because, he reasoned, if he got drunk every night he could sleep without these horrible nightmares. Obviously, it did not work, and his wife said she was going to divorce him.

In 1949 an exciting new evangelist held a huge tent revival in the area. Louie’s wife attended and was saved. She told him that because of her decision to accept Christ she had decided not to divorce him. He was very happy about that, and eventually, and reluctantly, he went to hear the young evangelist, Billy Graham. Louie said for 30 minutes he talked about one man, Jesus Christ, and Louie received Christ.

When he got up off his knees he knew he had forgiven every Japanese prison guard, including “the Bird”, who tortured him. That night, and every night for the rest of his life, he never had another nightmare about the torture he had endured and the anger to kill those who hurt him. He called it a miracle. Later he went back to Japan and met with every guard to tell them he forgave them. Some even accepted Christ, but the man known as “the Bird” refused to meet with him. The message of forgiveness is more needed than the message of a man who refused to be broken.

In a national survey by pollster George Barna, four out of ten Americans said they were currently having difficulty forgiving someone who had wronged them. As many of those people were Christians as non-Christians. Forgiveness is not the preferred choice for most Christians. If becoming a Christian were the only requirement for being a forgiver, then our churches would be filled with loving and forgiving people.

Dr. Martin Marty, a well-respected scholar of the University of Chicago, analyzed the distinctive traits of the dominant world religions. Marty summarized these religions with a one-word description of the essence of each. According to Marty, Buddhism equals suffering, Islam equals submission, Judaism equals monotheism, and Christianity equals forgiveness. The fundamental blessing of salvation is forgiveness.

The public library in a county seat town was next door to the Baptist church. One day a group gathered on the sidewalk, pointing and laughing at a sign on the library steps which said, “Forgiveness Day.” Anyone with an overdue book could bring it in on that day with no penalty charged and no questions asked. All was forgiven, and the record was erased. The borrower’s library card was as clean as though he had not kept the book beyond the due date.

Someone in the crowd commented that the sign was on the wrong building—it should have been in front of the church, because “they’re the ones in the forgiveness business.”

But forgiveness can be perplexing. What does forgiveness look like? Is it something that is done immediately, or is there a process? Is forgiveness something that requires the other person to repent, or is it something we do inwardly, personally for our own benefit? If we forgive, does it mean that we have to return to the persistently abusive, miserable relationship?

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