Lesson #7: Forgiveness of others brings us the blessings of Christ
It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Philemon 1:9-10
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness. It keeps popping up in various Bible studies and readings. And when that happens, I realize God is trying to tell me something. So, the other day while in my “She Shed” – where I do my Bible reading and mediation – I just sat and did an inventory of the people in my life and those no longer in it. My question for each face that popped in my head was “Is there something I haven’t forgiven in this relationship?”
There are people whom I actively must work at forgiving. There’s one person in my neighborhood that, each time I see him I need to remind myself I no longer harbor ill feelings toward him. It’s fascinating however, to pay attention to my whole body and mind when he enters my sphere. I remind myself I have forgiven him yet my body wants to remember the hurt feelings. It’s a brief little battle that, thankfully Jesus and the Holy Spirit help me to win. In fact, the last time I saw him I thought it was a different neighbor and I waved. When I realized who it was, I did a mental flip – “Ugh, why did you wave to him of all people? You’re just not supposed to think anything and move along!” But waving gave the impression I was happy to see him. I suddenly realized in my mini battle that it was again the Holy Spirit forcing me to step out of my comfort zone and not just be “neutral” but be kind.
That individual aside, I came to an even greater realization about my need to forgive. These days I can’t think of a greater forgiveness need in me than to forgive my church. Actually, just about all churches who have shuttered their doors during such desperate times.
But let me back up a bit. Today, we jump into the little book of Philemon. Paul, currently imprisoned in Rome, writes to a wealthy Christian friend in Colosse concerning the slave Onesimus. Onesimus took off from Philemon’s household having stolen from him. Onesimus found himself in the company of Paul and was converted. And now Paul humbly asks Philemon to forgive his slave and allow him to return.
I remember as a child my mom talking about converted prisoners. She scoffed at the idea that murderers and thieves could “find Jesus” and change their lives. She thought it was all just a ploy to get out of jail earlier or to garner forgiveness without truly repenting. And she may be right in some cases. Who is to know the heart of a sinner but God?
I wonder if Philemon thought the same? To Onesimus’ benefit he had the great apostle Paul standing up for him. How often have we held out forgiving someone because they didn’t meet our list of requirements for forgiveness? The person in my neighborhood that I must remind myself to forgive frequently? He hasn’t ever asked me for forgiveness. He’s never acted in a way that showed he even knows he needs my forgiveness.
My church, who locked their doors and turned me away from praying at the outdoor steps of the sanctuary, doesn’t see any need for me to forgive them. The elders and pastor who either ignored my pleas for help or worse, said hurtful things, have not asked for forgiveness. So why should I forgive them? Why should Philemon forgive a man to whom he gave so much and then stole from him?
I once was in a discussion about forgiveness during a Bible study. The leader, who also was an elder in the church, said to the group, “You can’t forgive someone unless they have paid a price or asked for forgiveness.” (There’s that Biblical truth issue popping up!) Now, I’m working on my path from being a “baby Christian” to a mature one but even I know that’s just not sound Jesus teaching.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." Matthew 18:21-22
The thing I like about this conversation in Matthew is he deals with a real world situation. So many of us keep doing things that need forgiveness from others. And Jesus says to keep on forgiving – each and every time.
I was reading about forgiveness and came across this list of spiritual characteristics of someone who forgives:
- Concern for his place with God
- Concern for people
- Concern for fellowship
- Concern for knowledge
- Concern for glory
- Concern for blessing
My response to the Bible study leader was that if her “rules” about forgiveness were true then how can we forgive people who have already died but negatively impacted our lives? Or how can we forgive people that either don’t have anything to do with us anymore or have no idea they did something wrong? Under her idea so many of us would live with a horrible burden of pain and hurt and anger. And Jesus doesn’t want that for us. He wants to shower us with that glory and those blessings listed in the “forgiver characteristics.”
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. Mark 11:25
Against anyone – for any reason. But the most important part of the forgiveness lesson? “So that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” I want to be forgiven because I know I have a lot for which I need to be forgiven. Therefore, I need to search my heart and truly forgive our churches.
I’ve learned a lot this last year about compassion and our human tendency to live in fear. And although our pastors preach to have faith rather than fear, we fall back into the flesh so easily. I do it, you do it and our church leaders (who are just humans too) do it. It doesn’t make me feel good to see our churches closed but I also don’t want to have the burden of unforgiveness on my heart and soul. I realized I can be sad and still forgive.
I like that in this letter to Philemon, Paul doesn’t demand that the slave Onesimus be taken back into the household. Paul wields a lot of authority. He could’ve just said, “Take him back and don’t be mean to him.” But God wants our hearts. Jesus and the Holy Spirit work on our transformation. That’s why each time I see what was previously my “nemesis” in the neighborhood I know the Holy Spirit is working in me. My hand was purposely lifted up to wave at him – not the mistaken neighbor. To help my heart be free of any last morsels of unforgiveness.
Friends, I have seen the miracle healing of forgiveness in others. I have felt it in myself. It’s there for the taking for you. Let’s be like the father of the prodigal son – from a long way off he saw his son returning. He didn’t know why his son was coming back. It could’ve been to ask for more money. Instead of looking out the window and thinking every bad thought, he ran to him. (Luke 15:20) He tucked his tunic between his legs and ran to hug him in front of the townspeople. He might’ve needed to forgive him a few more times in the course of their lives, we don’t know. But the joy he had with that one action has given us the lesson for the ages.