|Smith, Malcolm. The Lost Secret of the New Covenant. Tulsa: Harrison House. 2002.|
Forgiveness by Malcolm Smith
In the passage from Ephesians 4, we are not only called to be done with bitterness, but to immediately take up new goals and attitudes. We are, in fact, to take up the heart of God and forgive as He has forgiven us. We are to choose to be lovers of others with God's own kind of love.
…forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you…. Ephesians 4:32-5:2
In these few words, the totally supernatural character of living the Christian life is summed up. We are to love and forgive…just as God has loved and forgiven us!
We Choose to Forgive
We must face the fact that the entire Bible holds us responsible for every thought, imagination, spoken work, and action that we do. The passage we have under consideration says that we must put off the bitterness and we must forgive. It does not say that it is going to be done for us. Paul does not exhort the believers to let Jesus achieve forgiveness for them; they are to forgive even as they have been forgiven.
Believers are crippled by the paralysis of the world which refuses any responsibility for thoughts or actions. The key phrase is "I can't help it," and it is accompanied by an inertia which drifts through life reacting to everything and everyone rather than acting responsibly.
Thus, when we read such commands as these, that call upon us to put away bitterness and to forgive, they do not register. We want someone else to pray for us and bring about a miracle in us; we want to lie back and let Jesus bring to pass the needed action quite independently of our own will and obedience.
No! He commands us to choose! We are commanded to will the will of God. But that must not be confused with dead legalism, which grits its teeth to try in its own strength to keep God's commands. Legalism will always end in frustration and sin! We are called to will the will of God because God has already worked His miracles in our life.
The first choice we make in agreement with God's will for our lives is the new birth, when we change families. Then, in the middle of the Ephesians passage, we have the key phrase that directs our new life in Christ, Be imitators of God, as dear children.
To be a Christian is to actually receive Christ to live in us, communicating His life to us by His Spirit. We do not try to imitate a Jesus in a distant heaven; Jesus, living within us, lives His life through our faith choices.
Because we have been forgiven and have received the love nature of our Father…and our life is now Christ, it is incompatible with our faith to harbor unforgiveness and bitterness. We have been received into His family, and forgiveness of all who have done evil to us is a must.
In Ephesians 4:1, we are called to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called. This is an old English way of saying, "Walk in balance," walk through life with your actions in harmony with or balancing out what you believe. Paul is saying, "You have believed in and responded to Love Himself calling you to a lifestyle of love; now let the way you conduct yourselves demonstrate your faith."
It is not as humans that we try to imitate God, however. That would be impossible and foolish, bringing only condemnation as we continually fail. The Word of God tells us it can be done only because we are God's children, as we partake of His life, which is Christ Himself, who lives in us by His Spirit.
Christ lives within the believer, but what is overlooked by so many is that we need to be supernaturally empowered to translate that life into actions. When Jesus lived on earth, He did so in constant dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who gives to us the supernatural power which enables us to put into practice the person we now are, acting in union with Christ Jesus.
These words we are considering, which command us to act out our faith and forgive, come in chapter 4 of Ephesians, after earlier chapters clearly tell of the incredible power that is now residing in us and available to us:
…surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe…in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named…. Ephesians 1:19-21
In Ephesians 3:14-21 Paul prays that we may be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man. He finishes the prayer with a shout of triumph to the God who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us…
Another example of this power is in Colossians 1:11 …strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience…
The words which are found throughout these prayers, strengthened and power, are almost the same in the Greek and are defined for us in Acts 1:8. They both speak of the supernatural power imparted to us by the Holy Spirit. The word "strengthen" was used in classical Greek to describe an empowering, enabling someone to act beyond the boundaries of human strength; it was the word to describe the power of a superhero. Today's equivalent would be Superman.
This superhuman power is given to us, not just to raise the dead, but to accomplish steadfastness and patience. Patience, in the Greek language, means loving and continuing to love the unlovable. But it means more than that for the believer. It means that whatever that unlovable person does to me, he cannot drag me down to his level and make me hate him or hurt him. Patience is a word that describes the opposite of getting even.
A Scripture we are more familiar with is Galatians 5:22: But the fruit of the Spirit is love… The love that characterized a believer is not to be confused with human love. It is not something that we create out of our own human ability, but comes from God Himself, who lives and energizes us from within by His Spirit.
I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough. Although we outline steps which will lead to forgiveness, there is no real forgiving unless we are empowered by the Spirit to love and, therefore, to forgive. As we choose to forgive, we call on the Spirit who lives within us to give us His ability - He actually communicates the life of Jesus to us and through us.
We should not expect a rush of power that can be felt, either. It is usually in looking back that we are amazed that we were able to forgive as we did and to recognize that His power was working in us: …it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me… (Galatians 2:20)
And so, we are responsible as those made in His image with free choice; if we are joined to Christ and empowered by His Spirit, then we can - and must - put away all that is incompatible with Him. We put away bitterness as we would put a disgusting object out of doors.
Many believers do not forgive because of misconceptions of what forgiving another person really entails; in most cases, they have an exaggerated view of what takes place. Understanding what we are being called upon to do will help us bring ourselves to obey the command of God. But, first of all, it will help us to understand what forgiving someone is not.
Forgiveness is not absolving a person's sin. When a person has deeply wounded us, to forgive them does not mean that we pronounce their sin pardoned. That is between the person and God, to Whom they are responsible for what they did to you.
In other cases, I find people hold back from forgiving their enemy because they feel that in so doing, they are surrendering to him and letting him win. These people look at forgiveness as the act of giving in to evil, of becoming a doormat for the abuser to walk all over. Actually, the reverse is true. When we forgive, for the first time we are really in control!
The person who lives in bitterness is dominated by their enemy; their every thought is darkened and, in some way, controlled by the bitter remembrances of what someone said or did to them. This person mistakenly believes that they have enslaved the one they do not forgive, but the truth is, they have become their offender's lifelong slave.
The offender is never far from the edge of their thoughts, dictating their moods and the way they act in every situation. To forgive means that they are free to get on with life, and their enemy no longer has any power over them.
Many times, believers are caught up in the lie that forgiving means betraying themselves. It is seen as giving a phony smile and brushing the matter aside: "Aw, that was nothing. Everything is just fine! I made a mountain out of a molehill; let bygones be bygones." Any sane person rebels at such a betrayal of his true self.
We cannot forgive until we admit that we have been hurt. For many believers, this sounds almost like a call to sin! But then, most of those same believers are not mentally or emotionally whole either.
Look through the Psalms of David and see how he readily expresses his anger, grief, and disappointment at the way others have treated him. It should be noted that the psalms were prayers or letters to God and, in them, men of God expressed their deepest feelings to Him.
This is not an invitation to vent our anger at the one who hurt us; nor is it sharing the hurt with others in a self-pity banquet. It is telling God plainly how we feel and how we have been hurt, and releasing our feelings and hurts to Him, presenting ourselves for His healing.
In some cases, more than one psalm deals with the same hurt. With us, it may take a period of time for us to let God into the deepest hurts of our lives in order for us to be truly healed. It is out of this unloading Godward that we are able to forgive and come to wholeness within.
Another foolish phrase that is bandied around the Christian community is that we are to "forgive and forget." As if the new life in Christ is a form of amnesia! Forgiving means that we can remember the incident as an item of history, but all the poison has been drained out of it, and it is no longer active in our life today.
We must also distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation. We are to forgive all who hurt us, even as they are hurting us, but it does not mean that we must immediately become fast friends. It is possible that we shall never be close.
To forgive the child molester does not have to be expressed in making him our babysitter! To forgive an emotionally abusive mother does not mean that we now have to allow her into the house every week to continue her verbal destruction.
Jesus Cancelled All Debt
What then is forgiveness? The word simply means to send away, or to release a person. When we forgive someone, we send them away, releasing them into the hands of God, the only Judge; in doing so, we are choosing to no longer be that person's judge.
On the cross, Jesus uttered the words, Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). The meaning of this is spelled out with great care in Peter's epistle:
For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously… First Peter 2:21-23
Let's explore the meaning of some of the phrases and words that are used here.
Leaving an example is an expression taken from the schoolroom, where the student would copy over the script of the teacher and, in this way, learn to write. We are told to copy the way Jesus handled the unjust treatment that was hurled at Him.
It is significant that this is the only time the sufferings and death of Jesus on the cross are referred to as an example. In every other case, His death is seen as unique, in that He is dying for the sins of the world. The fact that this is the only time we are told to use His sufferings as the example of how we should act when unjustly treated makes this a very important text.
Follow in His steps is a beautiful expression that can be pictured in the idea of putting our feet in His footsteps in the sand.
Reviled is a word we do not often use in daily speech anymore. It means to insult or humiliate.
Suffer is an abusive kind of suffering. Jesus was abused in every way in His sufferings, both before the cross and on the cross.
Entrusted Himself is the key phrase to this whole passage. It means to deliver over, to commit, or to release into another's care for them to manage or look after.
The tense of the verbs here indicates that for every abusive blow, every cruel insulting work, and every humiliation, there was a specific release of it by Jesus into His Father's care.
Forgiveness is putting our footsteps in His, learning to forgive by doing as He did, which was to place every hurt into the management of the only Just Judge. We should take all the things we have held in bitterness for these many years, and do as He did, committing every hurt to the Father. From now on, minute by minute, every blow that lands upon us shall be placed in His care.
But everything inside us screams out, "What about justice? Someone has got to pay!" We are so wrapped up in our hurt that we look upon ourself, the one who has been sinned against, as the center of the universe.
Let us face a fundamental fact, and one that will help in our understanding of forgiveness: Primarily, I do not sin against you, nor do you sin against me. All sin is against God. Sin is the choice to disobey God and set myself in the center of my universe as a god.
We talk glibly in church of sinning against God, but how do we actually achieve it? We sin against God when we violate the rights of and hurt a person who is His creation - when we act unloving toward another human being. It is His command we have violated when we last out against each other. When someone speaks or does evil against us, we are deeply wounded, but the sin is against God.
David took the wife of his next-door neighbor and best friend, Uriah, and had a passionate affair with her. In that, he broke covenant with his friend, abused Bathsheba, Uriah's wife, and sent all of Israel into confusion, as he was their spiritual leader. Moreover, we could go on concerning the shock-waves this sent to the pagan nations all around him, those who had submitted to God because of David. Yet, when he prayed his prayer of repentance, he said, Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned (Psalm 51:4)
And what has God done with all the sin that we have done against Him? He has taken the debt to Himself in the person of the Lord Jesus and, by the shedding of His blood, canceled it all. He is the compassionate King who has released us by taking the uncollectible debt and paying it Himself.
My sin against God, which was expressed in hurting you, and your sin against God, expressed in hurting me - all have been canceled in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
"But," someone cries, "what do I do, caught in the middle? I have been violated, wounded by a very bad person! Someone has got to pay!"
Upon hearing these words, I hear Jesus say, "I paid."