Put off bitterness. Put on forgiveness.
James F. Borgwardt
Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables is a tale of how an act of grace dramatically changed a man from a selfish criminal to a fine gentleman and a leader in society. The main character Jean Valjean had been imprisoned for 5 years for stealing bread and served another 13 years for failed attempts at escape. When he was finally freed, he carried the label of an ex-con and received help from no one.
Finally a bishop had mercy on him and gave him lodging. A hardened Valjean, however, left his host’s home in the middle of the night and stole the man’s silverware. Caught by police, he was brought before the man from whom he had stolen. The ex-con expected a sharp rebuke and a return to prison.
The bishop rebuked his overnight guest, but not for stealing the silverware. He reproved him for forgetting to take the candlesticks too! He pressed no charges. He only told Valjean to use these gifts to make a good man of himself. The arresting officers were shocked but not as much as the ex-convict. Overwhelmed by this other man’s gracious forgiveness, Valjean was changed. He began to live a very different life.
FORGIVENESS AS GOOD SCIENCE
Such a change is not news to Christians, of course. But it’s fascinating to notice how the power of forgiveness is being promoted in other circles.
One of the most prolific authors on forgiveness is Dr. Robert D. Enright, professor and president of the International Forgiveness Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He has been leading a dramatic increase in the study of forgiveness among social scientists over the past two decades. Time magazine has called him “the forgiveness trailblazer.” I presume that means in scientific and academic circles. We know another forgiveness Trailblazer.
Reading any of his many books on forgiveness can prove helpful for people wanting to improve interpersonal relationships. In writing dozens of books and papers on forgiveness and its effects, he uses plenty of Christian references. It would be hard not to. But if he is a Christian, he doesn’t present himself that way.
After careful study, he observes that forgiveness clearly brings many personal benefits. Physiologically, it lowers the forgiver’s blood pressure. Emotionally, it releases the forgiver from anger and resentment. Socially, it improves the forgiver’s other relationships. Forgiveness betters the lives of individuals and even communities.
Recognize, however, that non-Christians come to this conclusion from a different perspective than Christians do. Following a postmodern mindset, their reasoning is simple: If it makes my life better, I’ll try it. Christians approach it the other way around. It’s true, therefore it must work.
HIS FORGIVENESS CHANGES US
It’s wonderful that social scientists and psychologists have discovered the many personal benefits to being a forgiver. But Christians have a higher motivation to forgive others than serving oneself. We want to glorify God, follow the example of Jesus, and serve others in the way we live. Knowing Jesus has saved us through his life, death, and resurrection, we become willing conduits of his grace to others. A forgiven heart is a forgiving heart, and we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
We’ve been considering the apostle Paul’s guidance for Christian living from Ephesians chapter 4. He first directed us to draw on the power of our baptism and our new identity in Christ: “Put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
He then tells us how putting off the old self and putting on the new self affects our behavior. This issue we consider putting off bitterness and putting on forgiveness: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31,32).
WHAT DOES FORGIVENESS LOOK LIKE?
God’s command for Christians to forgive is clear. Yet people don’t always understand what forgiveness is. It may be most helpful to remember what forgiveness isn’t. Forgiveness is not tolerating injustice. Christians can protect themselves from injustice, perhaps even press charges against a criminal. Sometimes justice comes. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, we still forgive the wrong that was done.
Forgiveness is not excusing. The forgiver doesn’t say, “No harm done.” There was harm done. The other person is to blame. To forgive is to recognize that the offense cost something. If a child hits a baseball through the living room window, there’s a real cost to replace the window. If the father forgives his son, he’s saying that he’ll absorb the cost. He’ll assume the debt.
Forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation. God commands we show active kindness to the other person, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the forgiver has to restore the relationship to what it was before. While God commands us to love and forgive, he doesn’t command us to act as though nothing has happened. The sin is forgiven, but the relationship may never be the same again. It can be restored, but sometimes only over time.
Forgiveness is also not forgetting. At least not in the way we typically think of forgetting—the erasing of something from our memory. When the Bible says that God “remembers [your] sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34), it’s not talking about him forgetting in the same way we do when we misplace our car keys. God is omniscient, after all. And when he remembers something, it doesn’t mean that it had somehow slipped his mind for a time. When Exodus chapter 2 says that God remembered the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob after their descendants spent four hundred years in Egypt, it means that he would now act upon his promises. In the same way, when the all-knowing God forgets something, he is simply choosing not to act upon it. So when he says, “[I] will remember their sins no more,” what he’s saying is, “I will act toward sinners as if they had never sinned.”
When we imitate God by “forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you,” we may still have the offense somewhere in our memory banks. But we’ve thrown away the tally sheet. Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5).
The ultimate teacher of forgiveness is, of course, Jesus. The deeper we study his Word, soak up his grace, and contemplate the depth of our own forgiveness, the more we’ll reflect his forgiving heart and live our lives for God.
In this way we’ll carry out his will for Christian living, just as he prayed for us to his heavenly Father: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).
James Borgwardt is pastor at Redeemer, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
This is the final article in a six-part series on sanctification and good works.
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Author: James F. Borgwardt
Volume 102, Number 11
Issue: November 2015
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