"For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (NIV) Matthew 6:14
In 1983 Mehmet Ali Agca was in the midst of the crowd in St. Peter's Square. He pulled a gun out of his pocket and tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II. He was arrested and imprisoned. In January 1984 the Pope visited the prison, and when he walked through the cell door, he said to the young man, "I forgive you."
The papers in the city of Rome made much of it, but one editorial writer made a significant statement. "Of course the Pope forgives the man who tried to kill him. After all, he is the Pope, and forgiveness is his business."
Strangely enough, what he said about the Pope is true about us. Forgiveness is the business of every Christian. But forgiveness is scarce in our culture, although it is terribly needed. We bury the hatchet with people, but then we keep a road map of exactly where we buried it. We put our resentments in cold storage, but we're ready to let them thaw out again whenever we need them. We take grudges down to the lake to drown them, but we remember the location in the water so we can find them again. We take the cancelled note, tear it up and say, "They don't owe us anything anymore," but we hang onto the wastebasket. We talk about forgiveness more than we forgive.
What is forgiveness? The dictionary defines forgiveness as to cancel a punishment and to assume the cost of repair. Someone else has said it is ceasing to feel resentment against the offender. I read somewhere that forgiveness is to send away or to cancel. All of these are nice, but they are difficult to understand.
Lewis Smedes tells a story which will give us a better definition of forgiveness. Frederic and Hilda lived in Friesland, a state in Northern Holland. He was a baker, and they lived in an apartment above the bakery. Every morning he got up early, went to the kitchen, and prepared the bread for the day. After he had prepared the baked goods for the day, Frederic would go up to the apartment and have breakfast with his wife, Hilda. He was a very methodical person. He was also an elder in his church and one of the leading citizens of the community-part of the town government. One morning after years of this routine, he went back upstairs to have breakfast with Hilda, and he found her in bed with another man. He was devastated and immediately word spread all over the community because news of this sort cannot be contained. Everyone knew that Hilda had been found in bed with another man. But Frederic said to the community that being a good citizen and a Christian, he would forgive Hilda. However, he continually punished Hilda emotionally for the way she had treated him. On the surface, they were together, but in his heart, he froze her out. After a while, Frederic began to have terrible chest pains. He went to the doctor, but the doctor could find no reason for the pains. The pains intensified, and Frederic couldn't sleep at night. He couldn't stand up straight, and he walked stooped over. After the years went by, the chest pains increased, his stooping was more pronounced, his life was very difficult. Finally, in the middle of the night, he could stand it no longer. He cried out to God, "God, relieve this pain I have in my chest!" An angel appeared to him and said, "We can take away the pain from your chest, but first you must get magic eyes." He said, "What are magic eyes?" The angel replied, "What has happened is that every time you look at Hilda, you have looked at her with scorn and contempt. And each time we have put a pebble in your chest. As the years have gone by, the pebbles have accumulated, and they are about to break your chest." He asked how he could get rid of the pebbles and the pain, and the angel said, "You must have magic eyes. You must see Hilda not as a woman who betrayed you but as one who has been frozen out of your life. You must begin to forgive Hilda." He said, "I can't do that." And the pain returned. Frederic knew that he had to give up his beloved hatred in order to become healthy again. He began to look at Hilda one day at a time, not as one he had scorned, but as one whom he had frozen out?that was the way of magic eyes. Each time he looked at her with magic eyes, the pain subsided. Finally, as the days and weeks and months went by, health was restored to Frederic. Goodness came to their relationship, and they began their second life together.
All of us have a choice of forgiving those who have offended us, whether or not they have repented. Remember, Jesus on the cross said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." There was no mass repentance around the cross. They were still jeering them, yet he forgave them.
It's delicious, isn't it, to hold on to an offense? It tastes so good. We rationalize that we're justified. "They've offended me. Look what was done to me."
Years ago, I was invited to preach in a church in the eastern part of South Carolina. I was staying with a family in a great Southern mansion. Shortly after I arrived, the lady of the house invited me to have tea. She began to tell me about the horrible split in their church, how bad it had been. Here I was going to preach in a few hours, and she was telling me about all of these wonderful resentments. I said, "When did this happen?" She replied, "Twenty-five years ago." I said, "Don't you think you ought to let it go?" She didn't answer and I didn't push her. After all, I was a guest in her home. It's delicious to hold an offense, to enjoy its taste, but it becomes a perverse influence as it poisons our system. It destroys our lives, and we must decide if we want to be healed or to go on suffering from an unfair hurt.
One day a lady came to see me. She was as angry as anyone I had ever seen. Her husband had recently died, and I had been through the death, burial, and the grief process with her. She had been left with three teenagers-and that in itself was an experience. She looked at me and said, "I am angry with my husband," and I replied, "He's dead." She said, "That's why I'm mad at him! He died and left me with three of the most unruly teenagers you've ever seen. He's walking around heaven on streets of gold with no problems or pain, and I'm stuck with these kids." She had a right to be angry. Her status had been changed; she had to go through life now as a widow and deal with difficult children. She needed magic eyes.
One young man, in particular, in my congregation was having trouble forgiving his father for what his father had done to the family. Remember that we always confuse our fathers with God. He said, "I can't forgive my father for what he did to me, my mother, and to the family." He had a right to be upset. Finally, I said to him, "You have to choose. Do you want to enjoy the pain or do you want to be healthy and well?" The choice was his to choose between health and his delightful agony. He had to learn to see his father with magic eyes.
Some people have had a bad experience in church, but remember that the church has a human side to it. A lot of people have gotten their fingers caught in church machinery and have been terribly bruised by the church. It's harder when you're bruised by the church because that's the family of God. So to punish God, they move away from the church, yet there is something missing in their life. There comes a time when one must forgive the people of God. You must see them with magic eyes so that you can have the joy, strength, and love of the Christian community. After all, it's a sinful world. It's either magic eyes or your beloved pain.
Corrie ten Boon was a Dutch lady who during World War II hid the Jews from the Nazis in her home. When the Nazis found out, she was taken out of her home and placed in a concentration camp. When the war was over, she went around the cities of Germany and Holland preaching that everyone should forgive one another for what had happened during that terrible time. One day Corrie was preaching her sermon on forgiveness in a Hamburg church. When it was over, the people were lined up to speak to her, and in the crowd of faces around her, she saw one particular face and a hand reaching out to her. The man said, "Corrie, can you forgive me?" This was the man who controlled the shower room for the women. Once a week the women were herded into a communal shower, they were disrobed, the water was turned on, and this man was perched above them on a platform where he could observe and control the room. He rather enjoyed the indignity of this moment as the cold water hit the bodies of the very frightened women. Corrie said that of all the people in that prison, he was the one she hated the most. She said she couldn't get rid of the hate she had for him and the look on his face as he leered at them in their humiliation. That's the face that possessed the hand that came to her, and he said, "Corrie, can you forgive me?" And she said, "I stopped and prayed and asked the Lord Jesus to give me the power and strength to forgive this man." She said it was the hardest thing that she ever did.
We must learn to look at the world, our friends and neighbors and church through magic eyes. There is not one of us that doesn't have a nick, a bruise, a scrape; sometimes it's an amputation. If you have lived at all or done anything, somewhere along the line you have accumulated a little pouch of anger and hate. The problem is that when someone gives you a pain in the neck, who has the pain? Your pain won't go away until you have magic eyes.
My wife and I have a little house in the mountains, and we call it our mental health place. We go there when we just have to get the cobwebs out and get some rest and recreation. When we built it, we had some landscaping done because the rains caused serious erosion problems. The landscaper came to put in railroad ties; and when I looked out the window and saw him, I decided I better make friends with him. This man was built like a middle linebacker, and he had a chainsaw over his shoulder. I went out to say good things to him, and he looked at me and said abruptly, "Are you a preacher?" And I replied that I was. And he said, "I want to ask you something. Are you pre-millennial or post-millennial?" Now, I learned early on in the ministry never to discuss theories of the Second Coming with a man who had a chainsaw in his hand. You just don't do that. It's not good sense. So I looked at him and said, "And what are you?" And he replied, "I'm pre-millennial." And I said, "Well, so am I." He was an artist with that chainsaw. He could carve an eagle or a bear with that chainsaw. Now my hands are made for talking. I have never touched a chainsaw. I'm not adept at it, but my mountain friend is very adept with a chain saw. That's his job.
We are not good at vengeance. That's God's job. Our job is to forgive. Forgiveness was the centerpiece of Jesus' teaching. He made it clear that we could not worship effectively if we did not make things right with our brother. If we lived by this, it would empty our churches. Jesus also made it clear that we must forgive others if we expect God to forgive us. In effect, we are forgiven by God in direct proportion to our forgiveness of others, and this forgiveness is unlimited, seventy times seventy. I trust we will begin to look at life and at one another with magic eyes.
Now let's also remember that the Bible does say, "Vengeance is mine," saith the Lord. The Bible doesn't give us a license to get even with people. The Bible says that God keeps vengeance on his side of the ledger. On our side of the ledger is forgiveness. If we let God do the getting even, balancing the books, and setting the record straight and we do the forgiving, life goes well; but when we start doing the vengeance, it only hurts us. If we live in God's order, life works. But getting even is so much fun--for a short time. Then the pebbles go to the heart. Our job is to forgive.
I feel compelled to share with you a painful glimpse into my family. I will not go into all the details, but I'm sure many of you live with similar family situations. Our older son is married to a German girl and lives in Hamburg, Germany, as a sometime rock musician. His life is different, to say the least. On his occasional visits home, we had a ritual that took place at the airport as he returned to Germany. We would go as far as security allowed, and then I would give him an envelope with his next month's allowance in it. Frankly, I began resenting it. I resented the wasted years, the education. I resented the waste, the pain, the anguish, and the anger. I resented it all. This may be difficult for you to hear, but after all, I am human.
He was at home for Christmas one year, and we had a wonderful holiday. But before we were to go to the airport for his return trip, I was in my study putting together a sermon on forgiveness. Now I don't know if it was the voice of God, but a voice came up out of the text. You know, you can't preach a text until the text is preached to you. That is the key to preaching.
The voice said, "Have you forgiven Lee?" I said, "This sermon is for the congregation. It has nothing to do with me." The struggle went on in the study. It was almost like Jacob wrestling with the angel; and, finally, I knew in my heart that I had to get peace about this. So I took a sheet of paper and wrote on it simply, "I forgive you. Love, Dad." So we went to the airport and did the usual things, and before he went through security, I gave him his allowance. Then I handed him another envelope and said, "Son, I have something else for you in this envelope, and after the plane takes off and the seat belt light goes off, I want you to read it." A week later, I got a letter from him; and it said, "Thank you for Christmas and for all the things you gave me. But most of all, Dad, thank you for the letter you gave me. Love, Lee."
I'd like to tell you that life has been perfect since then, but I can't. But I can tell you that relationships were restored, and it had to begin with magic eyes. Jesus said, "If you forgive, God forgives you. If you don't forgive, God doesn't forgive." It's tied that closely together. The appeal of this sermon is that we look at life and at one another with magic eyes. It's the only way to health.
Let us pray.
Eternal God, we pray for the gift of magic eyes. Let us see one another through the eyes of forgiveness, for we ask it in the strong name of Christ our Lord. Amen.