One of my favorite songs of all time is the hymn known as “In Christ Alone.” The very first line is “In Christ alone my hope is found” – a bold saying given how much I hope for all kinds of things. I hope for healthy kids, I hope for a long life, I hope I get hired, I hope for healthy relationships, I hope I get to my appointment on time, etc.
But what does it mean to say that my hope is in Christ alone? Is it wrong to hope for a certain outcome in any given circumstance? Not really, but the question is what is the root of your hope? What is the root of my hope? If it is something other than Jesus and his resurrection, then there will be trouble.
The type of hope that I want to talk about is the hope that accompanies unforgiveness. Someone has wronged me and so… I hope they feel bad for that. I hope he pays for what he did. I hope they understand my pain. I hope they say sorry.
But that is putting my hope in the wrong place. Those may be normal, human things to feel, but getting stuck there shows a shallow hope that is not in Jesus.
So when it comes to forgiveness, I must give up one kind of hope for another.
When I am unforgiving I hang onto a wrong that has been done, seeking justice for what has been done. I want the wrong doer to pay, but find that I am tied up instead. I hope something will change but I am powerless to do much about it.
So long as I hold on to unforgiveness I am not trusting God to act justly. I proclaim that I know better and that I am owed something. My hope ends up fixed on some outcome, based on a set of circumstances outside of my control. Forgiveness is letting the person off the hook. Well that is to say, off my hook. I let the person off the hook and then leave what was done to God who will have them on his hook.
God forgives and requires me to forgive. As Jesus taught us to pray, “give us today our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:14-15). This cannot be overlooked. I think it is important to note how our daily bread and forgiveness are linked. Every day we need food, and any given day someone may wrong us. From minor things like being cut off in traffic to major ones like the betrayal of a close friend. We need to be forgiven every day and we need to forgive others every day. Immediately after teaching this prayer to his disciples Jesus then says this:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15).
How we forgive others is directly related to how we are forgiven by God. To illustrate this Jesus told a parable found in Matthew 18:21-35, which I will paraphrase here:
There was a wealthy and powerful king who decided to settle the debts of those who owed him money. One of the servants who borrowed massive amounts of money was brought in and told to pay back what was owed, some 200 billion dollars. The servant could not pay so the king said to sell him and his family to slavery and sell everything he owned to recoup some of the loss. But the servant begged the king to be patient, and that with time he could pay back all. The king was moved by this plea, and did better than just give him time, he said, “You are free of debt, you don’t have to pay me.” The servant was shocked and elated, he went out to tell his family the good news.
But later that day, the servant came across a fellow servant that owed him 100 dollars. The first servant grabbed him and demanded he be paid. But the second servant could not pay and asked for more time to pay him back. So the first servant had the second thrown into prison.
Now word had already got around the kingdom about the king’s extraordinary generosity to this servant. So when people saw him treat his fellow servant so poorly, they began talking. Word got back to the king and he grew angry. He called for the first servant and asked ‘since you were forgiven so much, could you not forgive even a little?’ Therefore, the king reinstated his debt and handed the man over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay back every penny.
But Jesus closes the parable with this statement: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”
We are servants of the king, and we stand as Christians forgiven of an impossible debt. So when we who have been forgiven refuse to forgive another who also bears the image of God, what are we communicating to the world about who God is?
How do I forgive? Personally I have found that when I don’t forgive it is because I don’t trust God to handle it. And I suspect whenever there is unforgiveness it is probably rooted in distrust of God.
Forgiveness is a transaction between you and God. The person you are forgiving, doesn’t have to change anything for you to forgive them, they can even be dead and you can forgive them. But it is a transaction between you and God and no one else. It takes trust because you have to believe God is good and just to handle the wrong done to you. Also, forgiveness is a process that may need to be undertaken daily. There are still things that come up from decades ago that I still have to forgive again.
Whatever it is for you, do the work of forgiveness, and keep giving it into God’s capable hands. Who do you need to forgive? Do it now, trust God to handle it. Take them off your hook, and put them on God’s hook.