Three Steps to Forgiveness
February 1, 2002 - Jesus said, "If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly father will forgive you. But it you refuse to forgive others, your father will not forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your father will not forgive your sins."—Matthew 6:14-15, NLT
by Elisabeth Elliot
Most of us, from time to time, wished that those who have deeply hurt us would have the grace to acknowledge that they need to ask for forgiveness. Years may have gone by, and yet the memories of the offenses remain.
One morning I received a phone call from a young woman. She told me a sad story about a person who had been a friend of hers long ago. The friend had called her and asked her to join her and the family for their baby's christening. The young woman asked me, "Am I suppose to say 'yes' to something like that after what she did to me?"
I told her that she would not find calm and quietness with God until she talked to Him about it—that He would show her what to do.
1. Humbling Ourselves
Years ago I was speaking on the topic of what to do when we are wronged and the necessity of accepting the apology from the person who acknowledges the wrong. In the audience sat a woman who was seething inside. Some time afterward she told me what she had been thinking: "If you knew my husband and how difficult he is, you wouldn't ask me to humble myself. We have had 33 miserable years with each other—we have finally come to the conclusion that we can't stand each other and we're going to split up."
She went on to tell me that when she left the church and drove home, she was still seething with anger. How could anyone expect her to live with a man who was so difficult?
But, before she got home, a change of attitude took place inside her. She said that instead of wanting to wring her husband's neck because he would be sitting in the house glued to the TV—which apparently was all he ever did—she said, "Honey, can I say something to you?"
For the first time in their marriage he turned off the TV to listen. She didn't know what to say. She didn't know how her husband would receive her. She knew only that she must humble herself.
She looked at her husband and thought, "I do love this man. I do want to stay with him. I do want him to know the Lord Jesus the way I do." In the ensuing conversation she experienced a total reversal of the negative attitude that she had had toward him.
The woman then called to tell me about the miraculous change that had come over her. A few years ago my husband, Lars, and I were in a church not far from where she lives. To my delight she came to the church to talk to me, telling me that their entire lives had been transformed since those earlier terrible, dark days. She was a radiant Christian, able to speak honestly about the wrongs that had been going on in their home and the wonderful ways in which God had shown each of them how to forgive.
2. Utter Surrender of the Right to Be Right
The Lord Jesus wants us to surrender our wills, our rights—something that's never easy. In Colossians 3:13 we read, "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you."(1) Some people carry unforgiveness that becomes a heavy weight. They may try to sluff it off and forget about it, but again and again the unforgiving attitude pops up. We need to forgive as God forgave us.
I think again of my friend—I can still almost see her with her hands on her hips—saying, "Elisabeth, are you going to tell me that I have to go to the christening of that baby?" I wouldn't tell her that. But we all must go to the foot of the cross and find out what God wants us to do in our given situations. Forgive as God has forgiven us—that is a choice.
More than one person has said to me, "Elisabeth, I don't think I can forgive—not after what she did to me/not after what he did to my husband/not after what my husband did to me." "Forgive as the Lord forgave you"(1)—Those are unequivocal words. Scour your heart and ask God to reveal anything that you know you must confess to Him.
Think about the times when you knew that you were in the right and that the another person was in the wrong. Then think of the words from the great hymn:
"Upon that cross of Jesus
My eyes at times can see
The very dying form of
One who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart, with tears,
Two wonders I confess—
The wonders of His glorious love
And my unworthiness.
I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than
The sunshine of His face,
Content to let the world go by,
To know no gain or loss,
My sinful self my only shame,
My glory all the cross."(2)
3. Relinquishment of the Wish for Retribution
Who of us can say that we would not have loved to see punishment meted out to all those who have hurt us? The Lord Jesus asks to relinquish that wish and give it to Him. Take it to the foot of the cross and let it go.
In "The Pilgrim's Progress," when the pilgrim, Christian, reached the hill of Calvary, the burden fell off his back, rolled down the hill and into the tomb and was gone forever. Christian looked up and said, "He hath given me Rest by his Sorrow; and Life by his Death."(3)
What a release, what a relief, when we go to the foot of the cross and give up the bitterness to roll into the tomb and be forgotten!
Have you wondered whether your adversary might be suffering in some way? Have you gleaned a bit of joy from the thought that your adversary might be suffering? God knows how to deal with the person who has wronged you—when or whether He deals with that person is not your business. God knows the whole situation, and if you will relinquish the wish to see punishment meted out, you will be relieved of a great burden.
The Scripture makes it clear that true confession humbles, it doesn't depress. God wants us to be free of all that tremendous baggage that we may be lugging around—and instead leave it at the foot of the cross.
Consider Matthew 5:43-47: "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. ... If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?"(4)
Every time I read that passage I pray, "Lord, aren't You asking too much of us?" And of course He answers that He will help me: "Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."(5)
God will not go back on His promises. He will indeed help us. With our tiniest fragment of obedience heaven opens up and the most profound truths of God are ours straightaway. God will never reveal more truth about Himself until we obey what we know already.
But I know that there have been times that I have carried anger in my own heart, an unwillingness to let go, a desire to see my adversary come to justice instead of going to the foot of the cross and letting the burden roll down the hill and go into the tomb. May the Lord God give us grace. May He give us the willingness to do what He is speaking to us in our hearts to do.