Some time ago a fellow worker wrote a letter about my work and sent copies to our leaders and other co-workers. At first I did not know she had done this. She did not copy it to me. When someone else finally forwarded a copy to me, I felt bad. At least some of what she wrote just was not true. But I kept quiet. I did not slander her in return. After all, I knew I was supposed to forgive. And I thought not revenging was forgiving. But her sin was still inside me, eating me up, hurting me. The evil one made sure of that!
The evil one also made sure that the damaging rumors kept spreading. The one who had written the letter did not see anything wrong with what she had done. The rumors gathered power and momentum to influence more and more people. As for myself, I thought I had forgiven her. But what I really meant by my forgiveness was that I was tired of the whole business and just wanted to go on with my life. Was that really forgiving her in Christ?
I had not really thought about how my forgiveness of her should have the same powerful effect as God’s forgiving me. I knew that God had started on the work of providing forgiveness for my sins even before I came to the point of confession. Romans 5 says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” I knew that if God had not put my sins on Jesus so that I could be free of their power, and then sent his Holy Spirit to help me, I probably would never have confessed my sins. I would still be bound to those sins.
But what I did not think of at that time was how Jesus had also died for the sin of slander that my co-worker had done to me. I was trying to forget her sin rather than join God my Father in putting it on Jesus, the only one strong enough to overcome it. Once I, from my heart, joined God my Father in putting her slander on Jesus, God showed me more of what it meant to forgive in Christ. A teacher taught us in class, “Forgiveness is a process that is not complete until we can bless the person we are forgiving – with joy.” I thought that one over. I knew that God enjoys blessing those he has forgiven. So I tried to bless my co-worker. The words came out of my mouth, but there was no joy in my heart.
Very, very frustrated, I went back to God and groaned, “I can’t.” Then it was if God smiled at me and said, “Ruth, what made you think you could? I’m not expecting you to do this on your own.” He reminded me of 2 Peter 1 where the Bible says that God wants to share his divine nature with us.
So I prayed, “Okay, God, please take out of me whatever is preventing me from blessing her with joy. Then fill me with your joy in blessing those you forgive.” Suddenly, a surging power to bless rose from within me. I asked God to do one good thing after another for her. I blessed her husband. I blessed her children. I blessed her ministry. I was having so much fun, I didn’t want to stop. And I knew it was not just me, but God blessing her through me. I was finally doing the kind of forgiving that makes a difference.
Later I took note of the time Jesus first talked of Spirit-empowered forgiveness in the gospels. It’s in John 20 starting with verse 21. It was on the evening after Jesus rose from the grave. Jesus had just appeared to his disciples in the room where they were hiding out for fear of the Jews. Jesus had greeted them and they were filled with joy.
Then Jesus talked to them about forgiveness, but forgiveness with a difference. “Peace be with you!” he said. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Now that was not so different. Jesus had sent them before – to preach and to heal, as he had. But this time he was referring to sending them to do something else, as the Father had sent him – something he had done just two days before. Jesus had forgiven those who had used slander to get him crucified. Was Jesus now sending his disciples out to forgive as he had forgiven?
It seems so. He talks to them next about a new dimension to forgiveness. He breathes on his disciples and invites them to receive the power of the Holy Spirit. He then encourages his disciples to forgive with Spirit-empowered forgiveness. He assures them that if they do so, those sins will be forgiven. Those sins will no longer be a barrier to the Holy Spirit doing his work in their lives. If, however, says Jesus, we do not forgive the sins people do against us, we do not remove a barrier against the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Those sins will grow and increase in power. The next time they hurt us, it may be even worse. The kingdom of God will not expand as it does when we forgive in Christ.
Only the forgiveness of the cross is powerful enough to overcome the power of sin. Any sin is too dangerous for us to hold on to – either our own, or a sin done against us. The more the sins of others have hurt us, the more we need to turn them over to Jesus, and say, “These sins are too much for me. Take them out of my life and destroy their power to hurt me. Heal me, and save me and the person who sinned against me from the power of these sins.” Human forgiveness alone is not enough to stop the multiplication and devastation of sin.
But Jesus realized that if his disciples were to do this kind of forgiveness with a difference, they would first need to receive the Holy Spirit. Then their forgiveness would be the Holy Spirit moving out of them into the lives of those they were forgiving. The Holy Spirit would destroy the works of the devil in other people’s lives. Those they forgave would experience the blessings only the Holy Spirit makes possible!
Years ago I met someone who really understood this Easter brand of forgiveness. Ali was following up some new believers in a Muslim city. The police arrested him, took him to the police station, and beat him. Then they asked him, “Who are you working for? Who are you working with?”
Ali answered, “I am working for Jesus the Messiah. I am working with Jesus the Messiah. The work he gave me to do is to forgive people. So I forgive you because you don’t know what you are doing.”
“What do you mean we don’t know what we are doing?” the burly policemen shouted at him.
“Well, you were told to beat me. But were you told what crime I had committed?”
“No,” they answered.
Ali added, “That is why I said you did not know what you were doing. But you can also tell those who told you to beat me that I forgive them too.”
So they did. The authorities told the police to beat him again.
Now was that second beating more or less severe than the first one? Normally, the second beating would be more severe because they wanted to break him.
But Ali had forgiven his persecutors in the power of the Spirit of Jesus, the power of God himself. When the power of God comes upon someone, what happens to their ability to do evil?
Is it strengthened, or weakened? Of course, the power of God is stronger than the power of evil.
That’s why the second beating was less severe, not because of the authorities or the police. It was because of the power of God restraining them. After the second beating, the police asked Ali the same questions. “Who are you working for? Who are you working with?”
Ali gave the same answers, “I am working for Jesus the Messiah. I am working with Jesus the Messiah. The work he gave me to do is to forgive people. So I forgive you.”
Again the police reported his answers to the authorities. The authorities said, “Beat him again.”
What about the third beating? Was it more or less than the second? Of course it was less. God’s power coming through Ali’s forgiveness was overcoming the power of evil in their lives
. After the third beating, the police asked the same questions and Ali gave the same answers - again.
But this time the authorities ordered that he be released – on one condition. He must promise never to come back to their city again.
Ali answered, “I told you. I am working for Jesus the Messiah. If he tells me to come back to this city because there are more sins to be forgiven, I will do so.”
The police reported this answer to the authorities.
The authorities told the police, “Okay. Let him go!”
As Ali left the police station, he asked the police men if he could pray for them. They agreed.
“God Almighty,” he prayed, “we have just had another change of government. At such times people often lose their jobs. But I pray for these men that you will keep their jobs for them so that they can feed their families.”
The police station resounded with a loud “Amen.”
Ali continued. “God, I am leaving them now. But I ask that your Spirit will remain with them to lead them into all truth.”
There was another loud “Amen.”
Ali left them and made the five-hour trip back home. I went with a friend to visit him. He was lying sidewise on the couch because he was still healing from the beatings. But his face was shining. “I am a very beloved son of God,” he said. “God would never allow anyone to beat me or hurt me in any way, any more than I would see someone bullying my five-year-old son and just watch – unless he had a reason. The only reason I can think of is that those people beating me needed to experience the power of God’s forgiveness coming through a human being. And God chose me!”
Then he added, “I know that the forgiveness God gave me to pass on to them will not be in vain. At least one of them will come round later to find out more.”
Some months later, a tall well-dressed man came from that city to visit Ali. After some chit-chat, he confessed that he had been the judge who had ordered those beatings. But there was something inside him, he said, pushing him to come to Ali. After more discussion, Ali led that judge to confess all his sins to the God who forgives in Christ. The judge studied the Bible with Ali and experienced more and more of the Spirit of Jesus in his life. Eventually, the judge became a leader of a church in that Muslim city. He led many other Muslims into the Way of Jesus.
What if Ali had not forgiven his persecutors in Christ? Ali might still be in detention. He might have been beaten to death. The persecution from those authorities might have continued to get worse. The judge might never have known the power of forgiveness in Jesus’ name. He and many others might have remained bound in sins that would have kept multiplying and getting worse. Thank God Ali’s forgiveness was forgiveness with a difference. The sin of the beatings was no longer available to Satan to use for his purposes. Ali had taken that sin and given it to Christ. He had forgiven in Christ. And that kind of persistent forgiveness weakens the power of sin in those we forgive. It opens them up to experience more of the grace of God. Yes, there are different kinds of forgiveness.
There is the forgiveness of the world which may keep up us from revenging. But it may also make us doormats. It may even encourage others to sin against us again. A Muslim wise man knew this. That is why he did not want Christianity to come to his country. Christianity, as he understood it, taught that if you sinned, Jesus died for it. Sin again? No problem. Jesus died for it. Shari’a law had a hard enough time getting people to behave, he reasoned, let alone this kind of license.
But this Muslim wise man did not know the Jesus brand of forgiveness. He did not understand that forgiveness in Christ cannot be separated from the working of the Holy Spirit. So we prepared a Bible study for him on what happens when the Holy Spirit comes into someone’s life. The Holy Spirit washes the heart clean of sin and puts within a desire and power to do what pleases God.
As the Muslim wise man went through this Bible study, he asked with astonishment, “Do you mean there is a spirit that can do this? If this is true, that would be much more effective than Shari’a law! Once this wise man experienced how forgiveness in Christ was linked with this powerful work of the Holy Spirit to clean hearts, he lost his objection to Christianity. He became an enthusiastic witness for Jesus. For the rest of his life he kept leading other Muslims to Jesus the Messiah whose Spirit could clean the evil out of people’s hearts. As the Muslim wise man knew, and as many others have experienced, human forgiveness does not have the power to stop, let along to reverse, the power of evil. Only God’s forgiveness in Christ can do that. Passing on that kind of forgiveness opens the way for the Holy Spirit to pour new life into those we forgive.
So if we are forgiving but not seeing any change, we need to ask ourselves. Are we forgiving in Christ? Do we see those sins of others that we are to forgive as sins that Jesus died for? Do we realize that only the Holy Spirit of Jesus can do the kind of forgiveness that will overcome the power of evil in our lives and in the lives of those we forgive? If not, we need to learn how to forgive in Christ. We need to bring to the cross not only our own sins, but also the sins of others. If we find this difficult to do, we need to ask God for more of his Holy Spirit in our lives. Then God will empower us to do forgiveness with a difference!
Let’s pray. Lord, thank you for forgiving our sins in Christ. Help us to forgive in Christ the sins that others have done against us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.