Colossians 1:13-14 (NIV): For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
This is the amazing truth that we are forgiven people of God, all because of Jesus. Where else could we find that kind of forgiveness? Shortly before she died in 1988, Marghanita Laski, a secular humanist and novelist, was said to have said this - "What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me." But even though we believe and teach grace and forgiveness, how often do we live as though we are unforgiven people? How often do we live by guilt?
Over the years I’ve practised as a psychiatrist, I’ve spoken with so many people who have been struggling with the area of forgiveness in one way or another. As Christians, our understanding of our identity in Jesus as forgiven people and our understanding of our need to forgive others, will impact on our physical and mental health.
For some of us, although we have no problem with the concept that God forgives sin, we may be inclined to believe that God is more likely to forgive the sins of others and we at times struggle to believe that God will forgive all of the things we believe we have done wrong, all of the time. We may live with an underlying sense that surely it can’t be possible that I am forgivable. How often do we attempt to play the role of ‘Judge’ in our lives and say to ourselves, ‘if I were God then my grace would not extend to this particular wrongdoing in my life’?
If we don’t really believe, deep in our hearts, that we are forgiven people, we won’t forgive ourselves and we may struggle to forgive one another. Maybe we’ll end up living with a sense of guilt and shame which impacts on our relationship with God and others. As a result, we try to hide ourselves from God and the people around us. Perhaps, we can’t quite allow ourselves to get off so lightly. We may not feel worthy to be really known. But when we try to hide from God and others, we miss out on the richness and depth of relationship that’s on offer for us. With regard to our relationships with others, John Ortberg wrote in his book: ‘Everybody’s normal till you get to know them’ - “Knowing and being known go to the core of life: You cannot be fully loved if you are not fully known. You can only be loved to the extent that you are known. You can only be completely loved if you are completely known.”
So let’s talk freely to God about the parts of ourselves that we feel most ashamed about, as He knows it all already. He loves us with a limitless and perfect love and He wants us to come to Him with everything. Let’s open up more to the people we trust. Increasing intimacy in our relationships, primarily with God and then with one another, improves our physical and our mental health.
Jesus died a terrible death on the Cross for our freedom, not so that we would be left enslaved by fear, guilt and shame. One of my favourite verses says it all - Galatians 5:1 (NIV): It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
He died so we may be forgiven and live with the hope and assurance of eternal life and live with the freedom that comes from knowing deep within that we are forgiven by Him. All we need do is ask God to show us where we have gone wrong, confess before Him and ask for forgiveness and it will be done and we will find the freedom from our past and in our present, that God so wants for us.
God has told us (2 Corinthians 12:9) that His grace - that underserved favour of God, is enough for us. Kate Patterson wrote this poem in her book, ‘The Promise of Blessing’:
Grace Is More:
-- Grace is always more;
-- More than debts paid for, grace enriches me;
-- More than my striving, grace empowers me;
-- More than my fears, grace emboldens me;
-- More than my aspirations, grace surprises me;
-- Grace is always more.
The truth is that God’s grace is more than we can ever fathom and when we’ve confessed and repented before Him, any sense of guilt, shame or condemnation we might feel thereafter, isn’t from God.
If you’re holding on to misplaced guilt, it may help to talk about it to someone you trust and ask God together to release you from the sense of guilt and shame.
James 5:16 (NIV): “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed”. There is something powerful about praying in agreement with another person or people about anything. Jesus also said in Matthew 18:20 (NIV): “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them”.
Sharing it with someone else can take the power out of whatever it is and we can then really let go of the false guilt we are holding on to and leave it at the foot of the Cross of Jesus. God never holds our forgiven sin against us. Jesus has already paid the price. He’s already taken our guilt and our shame - don’t let us live as though he hasn’t.
We are also called to forgive each other.
Colossians 3:13 (NIV): “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you”. We are commanded to do this in the Lord’s prayer as well - “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.
Britain is apparently fertile ground for curse tablets, from the time of the Roman empire. Curse tablets, often made from lead, were inscribed with curses directed at someone they believed had wronged them and then consecrated to spirits and gods of the underworld. Examples of the content include ‘do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman or whether slave or free unless he reveals himself and brings those stolen goods to your temple’ or a wish that thieves should go blind and mad, while cheaters become as 'liquid as water’ or intestines get ‘quite eaten away’. Curse tablets were rife because of a culture of revenge, which still abounds in our society today.
Jesus came to show us something far greater than this, something radical. He offers us the miracle of forgiveness, the opportunity to live beyond the ‘eye for an eye world’, the ‘you hurt me and so I’ll hurt you back’ world. God commands that we forgive as He forgives us; that we love as He first loved us; that we extend grace as He extends grace to us.
God will help us to forgive. Forgiveness is a choice we have to make even when we don’t feel very forgiving. It will remove hurt, pain, bitterness or resentment from our hearts and will help to prevent whatever/whoever we are forgiving from damaging us or even destroying us emotionally. Forgiving others is not about approving of what someone has done, excusing it or justifying it. It is not about giving up on justice but it is about giving up on revenge. It is not about denying what someone has done, forgetting it, pretending we are not hurt and it isn’t necessarily about reconciliation with the other person or people. It is about making a choice to forgive whatever someone has done or we think they have done, whether they are sorry or not. Some may have been horrifically hurt in many ways and it must surely be difficult to get our heads around forgiveness in those circumstances. Many will already know that forgiving another may be a life time commitment.
In the book ‘Finding the Grace to Forgive’, Dr Stanford E Murrell wrote this - “Corrie ten Boom told of not being able to forget a wrong that had been done to her. She had forgiven the person, but she kept rehashing the incident and so couldn't sleep. Finally Corrie cried out to God for help in putting the problem to rest. "His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor," Corrie wrote, "to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks." "Up in the church tower," he said, nodding out the window, "is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there's a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we've been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn't be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They're just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down." "And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force - which was my willingness in the matter - had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at the last stopped altogether: we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts”."
Where forgiveness means reconciliation and the healing and restoration of a relationship, this is an incredible blessing. However, although forgiveness doesn’t always end in reconciliation with one other, true forgiveness can break the cycle of hurt and pain that may occur from broken relationships. When we forgive and pray for the person who has hurt us, God honours that and just loves to heal - the miracle of forgiveness can mend our own bruised and broken hearts.
“Forgiveness is unlocking the door to set someone free and realising you were the prisoner.” - Max Lucado