I was on a phone call this last week with someone very near and dear to my heart. Just before we ended the long, cheerful Thanksgiving day conversation, I asked a question that I’d not contemplated or asked before. I felt a bit weird even asking it, but there it came out.
For some strange reason I asked them about their son – someone who I’d only met once quite some time ago.
What was an innocent query of concern quickly revealed an old hurt – pain from a past decision that they had made that has left the relationship between them and their son in a damaged state.
So for the next several minutes I listened to the story they pulled from their memory – all the while, their voice told its own story; one of regret, second-guessing and deep pain. I don’t know why I asked – perhaps I just assumed for all these years things were OK, so their response took me by surprise.
For years on end, they had been living in the pain of worry and regret; living over half of their life in the abject misery that comes from blaming one’s self for something and feeling hopeless to do anything about it.
Three things immediately stood out as I listened to the painful story about their son.
• The first thing is that three decades of pain hadn’t accomplished anything positive. Through all of this time, all those years, the only thing that the two of them have to show for it is pain and the memory of pain.
• The second thing is I came out of the conversation seeing first-hand how regret is the evil twin sister of worry.
• Lastly, what was made very clear to me is the striking reality of the need for forgiveness.
This person whom I love and have known for a very long time has said that they are a Christian, and that they do have an abiding faith in Christ. And I felt genuine sorrow come into my heart as they talked because I could feel the pain and suffering they expressed.
I wanted to help remove the pain.
But I sensed that like so many Christians, although their relationship with God is genuine; it is perhaps genuinely distant.
It may be distant for many reasons, but likely because of the lack of the fruit of real forgiveness in their life.
As is the case in my own experience, it’s far, far easier to forgive someone else than it is to forgive yourself. Our lack of forgiveness stems from many things – not the least of which is the acute awareness of a spiritual condition called sin.
Part of the struggle in other relationships stems from the lack of self-forgiveness, and some of it stems from the lack of forgiveness coming from the other person. And in this case, their son for many, many years just won’t return their phone calls or letters.
So it’s a vicious cycle.
If they do manage to forgive themselves even a little bit, that step of progress will soon be a leap backward when the bitterness from their son seeps into what little communication – or lack of it – there is.
So the cycle continues for years, and at least in this case, for decades.
And so likewise, many a Christian lives in defeat due to unforgiveness.
If we implicitly trust God’s word, if we trust what He says very clearly about His forgiveness, then we can boldly say that it does not require the other person to reciprocate.
To be sure, if you have trespassed against someone, you really do need to try to restore that relationship – through prayer and asking for forgiveness after expressing genuine remorse for your actions.
Scripture lays out a principle for living with others pretty simply in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”
In my own personal experience, it is far better to gain acceptance of an apology and enjoy the restoral of friendship, but sometimes that doesn’t take place.
It certainly does make it more difficult when there’s no reciprocation or acceptance, but today I want to help you see something very important here – those words in Romans 12:18 don’t say, “Live peaceably with all men [period.]” Scripture goes out of the way to prefix the principle of living peaceably because it says, IF it is possible.. IF, and not just IF but this clause is additionally followed up with “as much as depends on you.”
Did you catch that? Scripture comes out and tells us it may not always be possible, and, not just that, but there are factors that are going to be out of your control that can and will affect your ability to live peaceably with all men.
So what does this mean when it comes to forgiveness?
It means, genuinely ask for forgiveness. If it’s not accepted or acknowledged, guess what? It’s out of your control. You can’t MAKE the other party accept your apology or reciprocate and restore the relationship. There will be times when it’s not up to you, regardless of what you do or say.
Here’s something else. If you’re still beating yourself up after all these years and you’ve continued to try to restore your relationship with that person but they’re steadfastly ignoring or refusing to accept what you’re saying, then consider stopping.
That’s right, I said consider stopping.
Stop and consider this – perhaps instead of trusting implicitly and explicitly in what scripture says, you are instead placing your hope and trust for forgiveness on the other party. Scripture never says, “God will forgive you, but only until the person you offended forgives you, until then you aren’t fully forgiven.”
Scripture NEVER says anything CLOSE to that. That’s the world talking. That’s the enemy speaking.
And it’s here where things very often get really strange. Listen up.
You see, a lot of times, the other party will consciously, willfully withhold their expression of forgiveness to deliberately turn it around to inflict as much pain on the one calling for a truce. This is the evidence of the bondage of sin – and it’s very often manifested in the perverse desire to inflict emotional distress on another in the face of their apology and plea for forgiveness.
This is from our natural state of sin.
Let me share a quick illustration of this.
Corrie Ten Boom and her family resisted the Nazis during World War II by hiding Jews in their home.
Ultimately they were discovered, captured and sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Corrie barely survived until the end of the war; all of her family members died in captivity. Although terribly seared by this massive trial by fire, Corrie’s faith in God survived, and she spent much of her time in the post-war years traveling in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, sharing her faith in Christ.
On one occasion in 1947, while speaking in a church basement in Munich, she noticed a balding man in a gray overcoat near the rear of the room.
She had been speaking on the subject of God’s forgiveness, but her heart froze within her when she recognized the man. She could picture him as she had seen him so many times before, in his blue Nazi uniform with the visored cap—the cruelest of the guards at the Ravensbruck Camp where Corrie had suffered the most horrible indignities, and where her sister had died.
Yet there he was, at the end of her talk, walking up the aisle toward her with his hand thrust out.
“Thank you for your fine message,” he said. “How wonderful it is to know that all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
Yes, Corrie had said that.
She had spoken so easily of God’s forgiveness, but here was a man whom she despised and condemned with every fiber of her being. She couldn’t take his hand! She couldn’t extend forgiveness to this Nazi murderer!
She realized that this man didn’t remember her—how could he remember one prisoner among thousands?
“You mentioned Ravensbruck,” the man continued, his hand still extended. “I was a guard there. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. But since then, I’ve come to know Jesus as my Lord and Savior. It has been hard for me to forgive myself for all the cruel things I did but I know that God has forgiven me. And please, if you would, I would like to hear from your lips too that God has forgiven me.”
Corrie recorded her response in her book:
“I stood there—I whose sins had again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it. I knew that. It was as simple and as horrible as that. And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. And so, woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me.
And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, and sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother,” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”
The worldly influence – the old man, the flesh, the direction of sin is to take up offense, wear the shiny tin crown of victimhood and seek revenge; seizing the slightest opportunity to claim justification to inflict equal or greater harm on the other party.
This kind of messaging from the world is very forceful and deliberate today.
Point fingers, assign blame, and seek revenge because the world’s idea of righteousness is to be a victim. Victimhood is the current expression of worldly righteousness, and embedded in this worldly expression of righteousness is the perverse justification for all manner of evil.
And today we see all manner of mental and verbal gymnastics to vilify someone – anyone – for the slightest trespass, and even those who are innocent, accusing them and judging them for anything and everything – often imagined offenses; offenses designed and calibrated to place accusers in the seat of judgement to wear the crown of victimhood for the desired perception of justification – a worldly ideology of worldly righteousness.
And so they march and blame, point fingers and accuse, judge and condemn others for wrongs real and imagined.
Through all of these marches and machinations, comes a wholesale tearing-down. The debasement and defilement of civility is widespread, such ‘archaic’ notions are dismissed; tossed aside for a crusade of sorts, the crusade of the self-righteousness to be seen, heard and socially endowed with the socially righteous crown of victimhood.
Because victimhood has become the world’s substitution for genuine righteousness.
It is ultimately a rejection of God’s word – substituting the self and placing of the self in a seat of final authority and judgement to decide what is right and what is wrong. It’s really nothing new.
The very word, ‘forgive’ and the concept of forgiveness is not in their vocabulary of violence – and it won’t be because their real master is the father of lies. The ends will always justify the means in their eyes, no matter the cost, no matter the consequences, because they have bought the lie with their very lives.
And so, Christians whose tenuous relationship with God hangs by some vaporous thread of hope all the while they continue clinging and subscribing to worldly ideologies are seeking forgiveness in the mouth of evil.
Why would a Christian who by the very definition has sought and obtained perfect forgiveness at the feet of the cross continue to re-wound themselves with grievances and regrets that they have been long forgiven of?
Psalm 103:12 in a clear and descriptive way, informs us of God’s faithfulness in His forgiveness – “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
So when we humbly ask God to forgive us for our sins, when go before Him in prayer and confess our error, when we read His words in scripture and call him Lord, how is it that we quickly turn around and remove God from His rightful place declare that His forgiveness is not quite enough?
That His forgiveness is insufficient?
That to be forgiven requires something more?
Is it perhaps because we wish to assert our own form of righteousness by staying in pain, by holding onto grievances, by re-living regret and swimming in bitterness so that we can wear the crown of victimhood?
That may hurt.
That may offend.
That might even wound some pride and stir anger in you.
Please, just recognize for a moment that scripture tells us something very telling about our own natures. It reveals something we can’t begin to fathom – and its right there in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
Deceitful above *all things* -- all things. Not just some things, all things.
What we should be taking away from this warning in scripture is that embedded into our sinful DNA and psyche is our capacity for self-deception. Our own hearts will lie to us; deceive us with respect to sin, seduce us into evil with notions of pleasure, it is all illusion and fancy that proposes much but delivers only sorrow.
The scripture isn’t there to hurt your feelings; it is there out of genuine concern and love. God’s word reveals not just his patience and love, but also the hard and dangerous truth about our own hearts. It’s that two-edged sword aspect of the truth.
How about this – do you want to hear something beautiful about our hearts?
Read Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.”
What does that mean?
It means God loves us so much that he put the hope and expectation and awareness of ETERNITY into your very heart, but hasn’t given you the capacity to understand it.
That is beautiful, that is grace, that is something so many Christians overlook by not reading their bibles. This verse screams out that we are HIS creation, that God Himself wants us to be with Him. GOD wants to share eternity with us.
And yet, here we are moping and wallowing in the filth and purification of the world and of our own doing, our eyes fixed on the mud at our feet instead of on the joy delivered by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
But somehow, in some twisted way, we think suffering is just what we should be doing – moping in the mud. It’s almost like there’s some unspoken rule book somewhere that people run by when discussing someone else’s misery or their own.
“Oh, well, she deserves it…bad mother and all, you know, won’t hurt for her to be miserable for a while. Maybe she’ll wake up someday and be a better Mom.”
“He should feel that way, after all, look at what he did to my car!”
“I deserve to miss out on that event; I’m just a no good trouble maker anyway.”
Let’s set something straight here.
After you have sinned and when you come to recognize that sin, maybe through the reading of scripture, or the prompting of your conscience through the Holy Spirit, or even some crazy Christian witnessing to you, when do you finally come to the realization and acceptance of the error, you absolutely should feel remorse.
Because what you have done is an offense; a transgression against God. Sin brings death – it brings death in many ways, and most immediately is the disruption of your fellowship with a perfectly just and perfectly Holy God.
So yes, you should feel remorse – the distressing emotional recognition of acts, thoughts or regrets for that which is shameful, hurtful, and just plain wrong.
When we are convicted in our heart and mind of our sin, remorse is the correct response. Remorse can only come from a heart and mind that recognizes an error for what it is – a willful deviation from good. And when a heart is aligned with God’s law, remorse is the natural and expected response to the recognition of sin.
When we sin, we should feel remorse – we should feel guilt, the guilt and burden of transgressing God’s law and offending God Himself.
So remorse itself is not sin. On the contrary, we can find scripture that declares it is the lack of remorse which indicates a defiled heart and mind.
Isaiah 66:2 – a beautiful verse – says,
“For all those things My hand has made,
And all those things exist,”
Says the Lord.
“But on this one will I look:
On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit,
And who trembles at My word.”
Everyone knows what a synonym is right? Synonyms – or words that mean essentially the same thing – for the word, ‘contrite’ are ‘apologetic,’ ‘repentant,’ ‘chastened,’ ‘humble,’ ‘sorry ……remorseful.
Did you know that even non-Christians have a knowledge of God’s law?
It’s because God wrote His law on our hearts.
Romans 2:14-15 “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.”
Note if you will, the capital L in Law in that verse. God’s law, not the swiftly changing ideas and laws of men which are subject to their passions and changing whims, but the Law of God who changes not.
So remorse is the deep, sorrowful recognition of our error – the transgressions we commit or things we should do and don’t, those we omit. Remorse can lead us back to God in seeking forgiveness.
Psalm 34:18 – “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.”
Psalm 147:3, “He heals the brokenhearted And binds up their wounds.”
When we go before the Lord with a contrite heart and honestly, humbly seek His forgiveness, he is faithful to forgive. How can we know this? Read scripture!
1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
God is faithful to forgive, but why is that? Sometimes we don’t feel like we deserve to be forgiven.
Psalm 86:15,”But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth.”
Micah 7:18, "Who is a God like You, Pardoning iniquity And passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, Because He delights in mercy.”
He DELIGHTS in Mercy! And be glad we don’t get what we deserve, o Christian. Be truly glad because the God who loves us dearly did not spare his own son the pain of the cross.
When we go before the Lord and confess our sin we are then the recipients of the most magnificent and joyous gift – the gift of mercy and grace!
Don’t accept any substitutions. Don’t go to the world and look for real mercy and grace because you will not find it.
Christian, wake up. If your relationship with God is weak and feeble or strained it’s not because God is weak or feeble or impatient with you. It’s weak, feeble and strained because the muscle of your faith isn’t well exercised.
I remember a pastor bringing up a special kind of faith that he called, ‘Sterling faith.”
Well, that sounds pretty good I thought at the time.
However, it is in his explanation of what ‘Sterling Faith’ meant where we get the real picture. You see, he was referring to the Sterling silver cutlery that some families had and would keep in a special drawer to be rolled out and used only for special visitors or occasions.
It hit home with me, because my Grandmother, Altha DeCastro had a sterling silver cutlery set – and indeed, we never once used it for dinner, even during the very rare and special times we had guests over for dinner.
So a ‘sterling faith’ referred to the kind of faith that instead of being used every day, is the kind of faith that is kept hidden until some special person or event takes place and they feel safe enough – and proud enough – to roll it out.
Do you have a sterling faith? Are you only rolling it out when you feel safe to do so? For some special occasion that never occurs?
Have faith in this.
If there’s something even remotely close to what I described earlier going on in your life – the person I love who is going through emotional hell because of a strained relationship with their son; over decades and decades, now lives a life of missed opportunities to speak with and to share experiences with their son. There’s the destruction. I feel terrible for them, but it’s not the end.
Perhaps it’s something similar to this? Something you did that you just can’t seem to shake, and just keeps coming back; the old bony finger of blame pointing at you squarely, accusations echoing back from a relentless old wound.
Or is it people that you haven’t forgiven?
You just can’t let go? The poison of their offense has always been just below the surface of your thoughts? That emotional scar has now turned to anger and bitterness, and you want revenge but your heart calls it, ‘justice?’
Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours.”
When we refuse to forgive, when we won’t let go of those old hurts and trespasses, not only do we miss out on the blessing from the Lord, but we disobey God and remain in the past so we can’t progress in our faith.
The self-righteous anger we harbor against whoever it is turns into bitterness which poisons everything we do and become.
“Do not call to mind the former things,
Or ponder things of the past.
19 “Behold, I will do something new,
Now it will spring forth;
Will you not be aware of it?
I will even make a roadway in the wilderness,
Rivers in the desert.
Here God reveals what we truly miss when we stay anchored in the past – we miss out on the new. We miss out on the miracle of rivers in the desert.
You miss out on everything. You poison your own future – you destroy your own relationships; bitterness is no joke. Because not only do you miss out, but your son, your daughter, your spouse, your best friend all suffer as a result.
It’s sin. Unforgiveness is sin.
Recognize it for what it is.
Remember what we know about sin – sin causes death.
It kills relationships, it murders people, it destroys livelihoods, it ruins careers, and it destroys and kills and maims and strangles anything that brings forth life.
When you remain unforgiving of someone else, or remain unforgiving of yourself, you reject God’s word, you deny the finished work of the cross and you put yourself in place of God on the seat of judgement that only God himself has a rightful claim to occupy.
I don’t care what mental gymnastics you use, what special circumstances you can enumerate or enormous hurts you have gone through. If you remain unforgiving of yourself or anyone else, you have invited death into your relationship with God and it will kill your fellowship with Him.
The unforgiveness will turn into bitterness, and the bitterness will spread like poison into every aspect, every last corner and path in your entire life.
Hebrews 12:15, “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;”
And here we were, thinking it’s just us – it’s just a personal thing, just between us and the person who I won’t forgive, just can’t forgive. It’s just me and my own heart.
Your nurturing of unforgiveness breeds bitterness like wild weeds – its poison spreads out and affects everyone around you. Nothing remains untouched. Even if you’re sitting there in a cold little hut all by yourself in the arctic-circle somewhere, the bitterness you have given safe harbor to in your heart through unforgiveness will affect others, even people thousands of miles away.
Ephesians 4:31, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.”
Unforgiveness, personal or interpersonal, is lethal. Scripture has a lot to say about it because it is so damaging and destructive.
And sometimes people won’t forgive themselves because they know what they have done deserves punishment – like those who do not know Christ and reject God, their consciences are seared and they seek escape from the knowledge of their trespasses, yet know they deserve punishment.
Our common enemy will mock you for even listening to these words – he fears that Christs love will overcome your guilt and by confession of your sins be saved and pulled out of his trap he has set for you because he hates you on account of his hate for God.
So in some twisted way, you feel guilty for something and therefore you won’t forgive yourself or others, and thereby conform to the desires of the father of lies and to the false righteousness of this world by inducting yourself into the cult of victimhood.
Don’t be fooled by your own heart, Christian. Feelings and perceptions will mislead you, but you can have the truth through the Holy Spirit – just like it says in Psalm 119:105,”Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.”
Want to see something really freaky? Set aside a time to actually pick up your bible this week and READ IT. Actually spend time, sit down, shut everything off and read scripture. Try starting in Matthew CH 1.
You will be amazed at all of the distractions and other things that will suddenly show up competing for that time.
Stick to the schedule, read your bible. Let God’s word minister to your heart and soul – James 4:7, “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”
Meet with God in prayer, read His word and listen to what He’s saying to you. God isn’t that voice of condemnation, it isn’t those words of discouragement, it isn’t the yelling and screaming of accusations, the blame seeking or the endless days and years of regret to punish you.
It is the voice of love beckoning you to come back and walk with Him and trust in Him to leave the past behind.