Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us (Luke 4:11, NIV).
I once was an actor in a Passion play. Through all of the rehearsals, I came to know the other actors quite well. The lead actor who played the part of Jesus was an affable positive guy and did a wonderful job. By his own admission, playing the part of Jesus changed his life. A few of the events moved him deeply and caused him to feel great emotion. Two events in particular caused him to see Jesus in a whole new light. When we rehearsed Jesus being tried by Pontius Pilate in front of the crowd, all of us actors stood around him and shouted at the top of our lungs, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” It is one thing to think about it happening to Jesus, and it is quite another thing to have it happen to you, even as an actor. We actually had to take a long break after doing that scene because the man playing Jesus was reduced to tears. He was so deeply disturbed that he could not keep going.
The other event which brought great emotion to the man playing Jesus was being on the cross. When we rehearsed this event, again we stood around and jeered at him. With this scene, the actor told me afterward that it was all he could do to say the words: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Instead, he really wanted to yell back at them in anger, to let them know that they were going to get in trouble with God after he resurrects from the dead! Revenge is far more natural and easier than forgiveness. Yet, Jesus taught us to forgive, and he modeled it for us.
As a pastor, I am really in the forgiveness business. I teach it, preach it, and try to live it because I am convinced that grace is at the heart of Christianity and is the best way to live. I have seen first-hand the life-giving benefits of forgiveness; and, I have seen the tragic consequences of an unforgiving spirit and a bitter heart. There was once an older woman in one of the church’s I served who had grown up in a difficult family situation. When she married and had children of her own, her bitterness continually came out on her husband and kids to the point where, when the kids grew up, they left home, had families of their own, and really did not want much to do with their Mom. She did not ever do anything terrible or horrible, like physically beating them. She just was so unhappy and so unforgiving all of the time that she was hard and cranky. The result was that no one wanted to be around her, not even her own kids and grandchildren.
But then through becoming part of a congregation that was alive and full of grace, she discovered how awful she had been to be around all of her life. This woman simply had no idea how miserable she made the people in her life. So, she asked God to forgive her for her unkindness to others. She asked each of her four children to forgive her. She then forgave herself because the guilt over a lost life of bitterness washed over her. And her life completely changed. She became happy, sought to encourage others, and basked in the grace given her in Jesus. She began to enjoy the contentment that came with forgiveness and the relational happiness it brought.
If people want to be content in this life, they must obey Christ’s command to practice forgiveness. But many people live with discontentment because they think to themselves: “I will not forget what you did, and I will not forgive.” Persistent thoughts of revenge only serve as a cancer which destroys the mind’s thoughts, erodes the soul, and hinders the heart’s ability to love. But people who practice forgiveness are much less likely to be hateful, hostile, and belligerent toward others. They are healthier and happier, and more at peace.
If churches want to be places of health and happiness, of peace, love, and joy in the Holy Spirit, then the members within those churches must continually practice forgiveness. Sometimes we can be completely oblivious to the reality that our own corporate unhappiness actually pushes people away. But when we awaken to our own sin and misery and deal with it, then the grace that comes in has the ability to alter our relationships forever. Whom do you need to forgive today?