People are carrying a heavy load of anger, bitterness, and resentment. It’s a lot to carry, and it makes life a pretty miserable slog. Forgive for your sake. Forgive so you can be forgiven.
–May 25-26, 2019
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Let it Go!
#4—Forgive everyone always…again
Introduction and offering:
ILL: Laina and I recently listened to Michelle Obama’s best-selling memoir, Becoming. It was a fascinating look at her life: born and raised on the Southside of Chicago, educated at Princeton and Harvard, a lawyer, and of course our First Lady. It’s a great story.
She talked about Donald Trump in 2011 propagating the “birther conspiracy”—the falsehood that Barak was not born in the US and was therefore not a US citizen. She said, “I can never forgive him for this.”
I winced when she said it. I understood the feeling. Some things can be very hurtful, and very hard to forgive. Have you ever felt this way? “I can never forgive that.” Most of us have. So what should we do when we feel like we can’t forgive? We’re talking about that this weekend and next.
Let’s start here:
How many of you have ever asked God for forgiveness? Me too. Every day. Self-reflection, self-examination and confession are a regular part of my time with God. I reflect on my day and confess my failures and short-comings to God and ask for His forgiveness. And I receive it.
I want to emphasize that I not only ask for forgiveness; I receive it! Jesus died to pay for all my sins. They are paid in full. I am fully forgiven because of Jesus. When I confess, I know I’m forgiven. I never wonder—I know. (Read this aloud together.)
1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
When you confess your sin, what happens? God will forgive and purify you. Why? Because He is faithful and just. I never wonder—I know I’m forgiven.
As we’ll see in a moment, Jesus actually taught us to pray this way—to ask for forgiveness. One of the petitions in the Lord’s prayer is, “Forgive us our debts/sins.” Forgive me, Lord.
We’re going to read two familiar passages from the gospels where Jesus teaches about prayer and forgiveness. What He says is so radical, so scandalous that many Christians simply choose to ignore it. We live and act like Jesus didn’t say it, or at least like He really didn’t mean it. But He did say it, and He does mean it—and it can radically change your life! Here’s the first passage:
Mark 11:24–26 (p. 870). (Keep your tab finder here.)
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
A little context. Jesus has just cursed a fig tree and it withered—a symbolic and prophetic act of judgment on fruitless Israel. But it was also an opportunity for Jesus to teach on faith and prayer and forgiveness. Verse 24 says we are to pray with faith, to believe that God hears and answers our prayers. And then Jesus adds one more Big Idea to our understanding of prayer. Look again at verse 25. When you pray, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father may forgive your sins. When you pray, forgive. We’re going to unpack that verse in just a moment.
Look back at your Bible. You see verse 26 is numbered, but not there. This is because it is not in the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts, so most scholars believe it was not in Mark’s original text, but was added later by a copyist. Here is what it says.
Mark 11:26 But if you do not forgive, your Father in heaven will not forgive your sins.
Why would a copyist feel free to add this to verse 25? Because it sounds like what Jesus said in another very famous passage.
Matthew 6:6–15 (p. 831)
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“ ‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (This is what Mark 11:26 says—and why a copyist added it.)
Look back at verse 12. “Forgive us our debts/sins.” And then here comes the radical part: “as we also have forgiven our debtors/those who sin against us.” Forgive me, Lord! We’re good with that. Forgive me, Lord, just as I forgive others! Whoa! Do you really want to pray that? Especially if you’re going to say, “I can never forgive that”?
Here are three Big Ideas from these two texts:
Luke 6:38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. You can’t out-give God!
- Forgive whenever you pray.
Mark 11:25 “And when you stand praying.” Most translations use the word “whenever.” Whenever you pray, forgive. Make forgiveness a regular part of your prayers.
This is also in the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Forgive us as we forgive others. Whenever you pray, forgive. Make forgiveness a regular part of your prayers.
Whenever you pray, forgive. Let’s talk about the “whenever.” When do you pray? For many of us, prayer is for emergencies.
ILL: You’ve all seen those emergency boxes that say “In case of emergency, break glass.” They’ve sponsored a cottage industry of emergency boxes filled with all kinds of things: emergency chocolate, emergency snacks, emergency coffee, emergency money, an emergency smoke—the list goes on and you can use your imagination! I like this one: an emergency Bible! Someone should make one for prayer!
In an emergency, I can’t think of a better place to turn than to God in prayer. Got an emergency? By all means, pray!
But for too many of us, that’s the only time we pray. We go about our business all week and only pray when we’re in trouble. For some of us, this means we don’t pray much. Unless you’re like Isaac Singer, who said, “I only pray when I’m in trouble; but I’m in trouble all the time.” If that’s you, I guess you’re praying all the time, and that’s good. Jesus starts, “Whenever you pray…” and I hope your “whenever” is often. I hope it’s every day.
Have you heard this: “When all else fails, pray.” I say, “Why wait until all else fails? Why not pray first?” Let’s make prayer an ongoing, daily conversation with God—not just “break glass in case of emergency.”
Part of that daily conversation is confession. “Forgive us our debts/sins.” Ancient Christians called this spiritual practice “the examen.” It was a daily time of self-examination and confession. It’s a powerful spiritual practice that’s largely fallen into disuse in our time. We’re too busy to pray, too busy to reflect, too busy to examine ourselves and confess our sins. And we’re the worse for it. Our lives, our character, our relationships with people and with God would all be better if we had a daily time of prayer that included self-examination and confession.
One popular and useful acronym for prayer is:
- Supplication (asking)
Start your conversation with God with adoration or worship. Start with Him. Then confess—take some time to reflect on your life. This reflection will lead to confession of sin—“forgive me,”—and then to thanksgiving. Then finish with supplication—that is, asking.
Most of us start with asking, and go no farther. Our conversations with God are one-dimensional, and shallow. All we do is ask. We skip adoration, confession and thanksgiving, and our relationship with God is shallow because of it.
“Whenever you pray.” I hope it’s every day. And I hope your prayers include confession, “Forgive me.” But Jesus didn’t stop there. He said, “Whenever you pray, forgive.” Whenever we pray, we’re not only to ask for forgiveness, but we’re to give it. Forgiveness is to be a major part of our prayers, our conversation with God.
What if every time you prayed, you asked God, “Is there anyone I’m holding anything against?” If no one comes to mind, that’s great—move on. But if someone does, then before God, forgive that person. Remember, the word “forgive” in the Greek means to release, to let go and to send away. “God, I forgive them, and I’m not holding on to this offense any more. I choose to let it go. I’m letting go of my desire to get even, to punish them. I’m letting go of my pain. I forgive them just as you have forgiven me. I know they don’t deserve it, but neither did I. You forgive me; so I forgive them.”
“God, is there anyone I’m holding anything against?” Sometimes you don’t have to ask that question. The pain just comes crowding in.
ILL: Many years ago some very close friends left our church and said some unkind things on the way out. I felt betrayed and hurt; I forgave them, but the hurt kept resurfacing, and anger with it.
Late one Saturday night, I was praying and these folks came to mind, and I couldn’t pray for them. I was so mad that I couldn’t pray…or I was going to pray one of those imprecatory prayers: “Lord, dash them on the rocks till their bowels spill out.” I told the Lord that I was frustrated because I thought I had forgiven them, but every time I thought of them, the hurt came back, and with it the anger.
I believe that God gave me a picture of someone punching me hard in the arm and leaving a big bruise. The guy apologized and I forgave him. But a second guy saw it all, and he wanted to keep the first guy and me at odds, so every time he saw me, the second guy just lightly punched that bruise, just enough to keep it sore and tender…and remind me of the first guy.
The Lord said, “You have forgiven, but the enemy is pounding on your bruise. Tell him to leave you alone and it will heal.” So I did. I told the devil to buzz off, in Jesus’ name, that I had forgiven those people and he couldn’t keep pounding my bruise. And I felt an instant release from the anger. The next time I thought of them, here came the hurt and the anger, but this time I was ready, and told the devil to go to hell. (He’s the only one you can say that to, since Jesus said hell was made for the devil and his angels.) That happened a few more times, and that was the end of it.
Whenever you pray, forgive. Sometimes you may have to ask God, “Am I holding anything against anyone?” Sometimes you’ll know immediately. Either way—forgive. Let it go!
Forgive every time you pray. Make forgiveness a regular part of your prayers.
- Forgive anyone for anything.
Mark 11:25 “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them.” Let’s say this together: Anything against anyone.
Jesus said, “Whenever you pray, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them.” Forgive everyone always. Make forgiveness universal—forgive everyone always!
First, notice the contrast between “hold against” and “forgive.” When we don’t forgive, we “hold something against” someone. The Greek word is the common word for “have or hold.” When I don’t forgive, I’m hold something against you; I’m hanging on to that offense, to my hurt, to my anger, to my right to revenge, to my desire to make you pay, to my right to hate. That’s a lot to hold on to—and it gets heavy. (Have a bag full of stuff for each of these; pick them up and hold them all. Invite someone up to help.)
ILL: My friend Jerry Sittser included this story in his book, The Will of God as a Way of Life.
Sidna Masse became bitter and angry after Diane, her friend and neighbor, was murdered. “I had a dead friend and now lived behind three motherless kids,” she said. “I felt I had every right to hate the murderer who caused this.”
But over time she began to notice that something was happening inside her own soul, something ugly and evil. When Jennifer, the murderer, received a life sentence, that did little to diminish her rage and hatred. “There was no relief in her sentencing. That’s the thing with hatred and bitterness—it eats you alive. Every time I passed the house, I missed Diane and became angry all over again.”
At first Sidna recoiled from the idea of forgiving Jennifer. But the teachings of Jesus persuaded her to reconsider. So she decided to write a letter to Jennifer to tell her that she had forgiven her. She described the impact of writing that letter: “A weight lifted. That’s when I learned that anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness keep you from experiencing the depths of joy.”
That letter was only the beginning. She began corresponding with Jennifer, and they have become friends.
Holding on to your anger and hurt and hatred, holding on to your right for revenge and pay back—that’s a lot to hold on to, and it gets heavy. And it’s hard to take hold of joy and love and life if your hands are full. You need to…let it go.
Did you notice that when it started getting heavy, I asked someone to hold some for me. We do that—we share our anger, our hurt with others. Unforgiveness not only poisons you—it poisons others around you.
Hebrews 12:15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.
Bitterness not only poisons you; it poisons others. It “defiles many.” Stop holding on to all that; let it go!
That’s the contrast here. Hold something against someone—or forgive, let it go and send it away.
I’m guessing that the big objection rumbling around in your mind is this: “Forgive anyone for anything—really? There are some things I just can’t forgive.” Sounds familiar. I get it. Some things are harder to forgive than others. I get it.
ILL: When my son died of a prescription med (oxycontin) overdose—a med that he had bought illegally from a guy at work—I was angry. I was angry with Jeff for buying and taking the medicine. And I was angry with guy who sold it to him. We knew who it was. But the police couldn’t arrest him because of a lack of evidence. I told the investigating sheriff that there were moments when I wanted to take a gun and visit this young man—not to kill him, but to scare the crap out of him and impress upon him what he had cos t us. The detective said, “Please don’t do that, Mr. Wittwer.” I promised him I wouldn’t—but I wanted to. I had a hard time letting go of that one. It was hard to forgive.
So friends, I get it. I get that some things are hard to forgive. But I had to forgive Jeff and that young man—I had to forgive for my sake. Ultimately, it wasn’t about them—it was about me. I couldn’t hold that anger and desire for revenge without poisoning my own soul.
When we say we can’t forgive, it’s usually because we’re making it about the other person. But it’s not about them. It’s about you being free, you letting go and not holding that terrible weight any more. Let it go. For your sake—let it go.
This is why we say “forgive everyone always.” It’s for your sake. You weren’t designed to carry that weight—let it go.
One last thought here: forgiving anyone for anything includes the person you may find it most difficult to forgive: yourself. Stop beating yourself up. Confess your sin. Receive God’s forgiveness. Then let it go. So many of us are hanging on to things that God let go of long ago.
ILL: Bruce Larson tells the true story of a Catholic priest living in the Philippines, a much-loved man of God who carried a secret burden of long-past sin buried deep in his heart. He had committed that sin once, many years before, during his time in seminary. No one else knew of this sin. He had repented of it and he had suffered years of remorse for it, but he still had no peace, no inner joy, no sense of God’s forgiveness.
There was a woman in this priest’s parish who deeply loved God, and who claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ, and He with her. The priest, however, was skeptical of her claims, so to test her visions he said to her, “You say you actually speak directly with Christ in your visions. Let me ask you a favor. The next time you have one of these visions, I want you to ask Him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary.”
The woman agreed and went home. When she returned to the church a few days later, the priest said, “Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?”
She replied, “Yes, He did.”
“And did you ask Him what sin I committed in seminary?”
“Yes, I asked Him.”
“Well, what did He say?”
“He said, ‘I don’t remember.'”
What have you been carrying around for all these years? God has already forgiven you. Let it go.
Forgive anyone for anything.
- Forgive so you can be forgiven.
Look again at Mark 11:25. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
Forgive so you can be forgiven. Verse 26 simply says the same thing in the negative: if you don’t forgive you won’t be forgiven.
Forgive so you can be forgiven. This is also what Jesus said at the end of the Lord’s prayer. We pray, “Forgive us our sins just as we forgive others their sins.” And Jesus added verses 14-15 to make sure we got it.
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Forgive so you can be forgiven. This is also the lesson from Jesus’ story in Matthew 18 of the king who forgave a servant of 10,000 lifetimes of wages, but when that servant refused to forgive another of 100 days wages, the king rescinded his forgiveness. And Jesus finished the story,
Matthew 18:35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Forgive so you can be forgiven. Don’t make this about the other person and what they’ve done. This is about you! Forgive for your sake! Forgive so you can be forgiven. That’s why I winced when I heard Michelle Obama (or anyone) say, “I can’t forgive that.” Is that what you want God to say to you? Forgive so you can be forgiven.
I know that this creates some theological tension for people. “I thought forgiveness was a free gift of grace.” It is. “But you make it sound like something I earn by forgiving others.” Nope. In the story about the king who forgave the 10,000 lifetimes of wages, the king forgave first, fully and freely. It was a complete gift of grace. But when that forgiven man refused to forgive, he sacrificed his own forgiveness.
Understand that forgiven people must forgive! We literally can’t afford not to forgive. However much you want to nurse that hurt or hang on to that bitterness, it’s not worth it! Is your own forgiveness worth sacrificing just so you can stay offended at someone else? No way! Let it go!
A couple common objections:
“I can’t forgive them; that’s like condoning what they’ve done.” Forgiveness is not condoning what they’ve done. Just the opposite: forgiveness clearly says that what they did is wrong—that’s why it needs to be forgiven. So forgiveness doesn’t say, “It’s ok.” It’s not ok—it’s wrong, and that’s why we’re forgiving.
“I can’t forgive them; they don’t deserve to be forgiven.” Yes, that’s true. And neither do you. But God forgave you anyway. When Jesus prayed for those killing Him, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” did any of them deserve to be forgiven? Had they repented, confessed, said they were sorry? Nope. Jesus forgave anyway—that’s grace. That’s what you’ve been given and what you are called to give. Forgiveness doesn’t say that they deserve it or earned; forgiveness says that you have offered grace.
“I can’t forgive them; that’s like letting them off the hook.” You feel they need consequences, they need to be punished. Maybe so, but don’t you think that’s God’s job? I think that’s over my pay grade. I don’t want to be judge, jury and executioner. That’s a load to carry. Leave that in God’s hands, and remember, if you hold on to that and don’t forgive, you’re not punishing them, you’re only punishing yourself. Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.
Forgive for your sake. Forgive so you can be forgiven.
So, who are you struggling to forgive? The worship team is going to lead us in a song. As we sing, would you pray and reflect—who do you need to forgive? Then I’ll lead us in prayer and we’ll thank God for forgiving us, and as forgiven people, we’re going to let it go.
Song and Communion
Sittser, Jerry (2009-12-08). The Will of God as a Way of Life (p. 123). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.