Forgiveness: Doing What Cannot Be Done

Viewing Time: 23 minutes (approx.)

Jesus said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks will come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be thrown into the sea than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to say, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:1-4).

The forgiveness Jesus is talking about is not some passive thing. It is not, “Don’t worry about it. It does not matter.” We can say that about foibles and personality differences, but we can’t say that about sin. It requires forgiveness.

This forgiveness is not passive. It is an active concern for the other person. A response like, “Don’t worry about it; it doesn’t matter,” might mean that to us the person doesn’t matter. That is not love. To love someone enough to tell them they are wrong can be a selfless, generous kind of love.

Of course, it could also be a carping, loveless, kind of selfishness. This is why Paul tells the Galatians that it should be the spiritual who restore brothers and sisters who have fallen into sin. The unspiritual, who follow their own agenda rather than the Spirit, will only make things worse.

Jesus and Paul envisioned loving correction to be a normal part of Christian community. Because “it is inevitable that stumbling blocks will come (more literally, “It is impossible that things that stumbling blocks should not come”), we need to live as a community of restorative love. That does not mean – must never mean – that we are on the lookout for things people do wrong. But when we see a brother or sister hurting themselves or others, and we have checked our motives and want the other person to experience God’s blessing and joy, then we go to them.

Have you ever had a fellow church member come to you and tell you that you are doing wrong? It should not be a rare occurrence. All of us should have had someone do that for us – I say, “for us,” not “to us,” for this is a gift. Yet I doubt many of us have received that gift from a fellow church member.

And if we did, how would we react? With bitterness? Resentment? With a, “Who do you think you are?” attitude? Would we get angry and leave the church?

Jesus envisioned correction like this as normal. When it occurs, it should be received with gratitude and humility. But that is only possible among people who know each other well, trust each other completely, and are thoroughly committed to each other. If you have given me no reason to believe that you are for me, yet you rebuke me, I’ll need to be a spiritual giant not to take offence and reject what you say—even if what you say is true.

I have been talking about the church family for the past few minutes, but this kind of thing ought to happen in our biological families too. Let’s stop being deluded idealists. Our children, our parents, our spouses, our siblings, are going to trip over stumbling blocks, and sometimes when they do, they are going to fall and come crashing into us.

That is when we show them, lovingly, graciously, and gently, what they did and what it caused. “If your brother or sister sins, rebuke them” (verse 3). And since sometimes we will be the ones who stumble and fall, we’ll need them to do that for us.

When they do, it is important that we receive them “in the Lord.” If we receive them in our pride, the result will be ugly. We need to turn to the Lord and humble ourselves. Then we can listen and try to understand. If we still think they are mistaken, we can tell them so, but with such love and humility that we preserve the relationship.

Is that possible? Yes, it is possible “in the Lord,” though it is impossible “in our pride.” Imagine how quickly we might grow, how much progress in Christlikeness we might make, were we to love each other in this way. A person who can receive a rebuke with humility and love, and one who can give a rebuke with humility and love, are both on their way to Christlikeness.

But rebuke is only one side of this exquisite equation. There is also forgiveness. Forgiveness is the birthmark of the spiritually regenerate. Jesus’s family members forgive. Nothing shocks the world more – and the world needs this kind of shock like a person whose heart has flatlined needs a defibrillator. When Jesus forgave the soldiers who were nailing his hands to the cross, he shocked their hearts.

Erik Fitzgerald, a young pastor and father-to-be, lost his wife and their unborn son in a car accident, and was left to raise his toddler daughter on his own. The accident was the fault of the other driver, Matthew Swatzell, who fell asleep at the wheel after a long shift as a firefighter / EMT. The D.A. asked Erik if he wanted to pursue the maximum penalty against Matthew, but Erik chose the lesser charge as a way of demonstrating God’s forgiving love.

Erik and Matthew had not spoken until one day when their paths crossed in a store parking lot. Can you imagine how awkward that must have been? At the sight of Erik, Matthew began to cry. Erik went right over to him and hugged him. Since that day, the two have developed a friendship that defies any explanation except the power of forgiveness that is “in the Lord Jesus.”

Such expressions of forgiveness are impossible while we are living in anger and pride, but they become possible when we are living in the Lord. When we define and moderate our interactions with family, friends, and even enemies through our relationship to Jesus (Perkins) rather than through our hurt, what is possible looks very different.

If someone has hurt me and I say, “I cannot forgive,” that may be true: I cannot because I am not living in the Lord; I am defining my relationship with that person through my hurt and fear rather than through the Lord and therefore cannot forgive.

The way to change that is not (initially at least) to move toward the person, but to move toward the Lord. In our connection to him we are empowered to do what we could not otherwise do. He shares his strength, his love, his wisdom with us. When I was a young boy, I could not reach the eight foot ceiling in our living room … unless my dad lifted me up. I cannot reach forgiveness either, unless my Father lifts me up. That only happens in the Lord.

The way Jesus laid this out for his disciples was shocking. Look at verses 3 and 4: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Imagine someone who sins against you – they gossip about you and your friend hears and tells you about it. So, you go to them in love and rebuke them. They admit they did wrong, and you forgive them. So far, you are tracking perfectly with Jesus.

But before you even leave the room, you hear them gossiping about you again! An hour later, your friend tells you they are still at it. Seven times in one day this person repents. Can you really forgive them seven times in one day? Is that even possible? Jesus says it is, but only when you are living in the Lord.

To the disciples, seven times in a day seemed impossible. They cry out, “Increase our faith!” Surely you need to be a giant of faith to forgive like that. But Jesus knows that’s not true. He assures them: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” You don’t need a giant-sized faith to forgive, just real faith – if you are in the Lord. That is where faith is active. It hibernates outside the Lord.

Our families, biological and spiritual, need forgiveness. In some cases, husbands and wives have been divided and resentful for years. Siblings have not spoken to each other. Church members avoid each other. We must dare to do what Jesus has taught us.

You may still believe it is impossible. There’s just too much water under the bridge. You no longer have any affection for the person. You are afraid. They don’t deserve it. They won’t listen. It can’t be done.

Well, try it anyway. This is what Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” We model our forgiveness for others on God’s forgiveness of us. How did he forgive us? I will mention six things.

First, he forgave us in Christ. If you are going to forgive others, it will be in the same way. You will forgive them in the Lord. That is the theme of this message and this Family Month series. In the Lord, we can do things we can never do in our anger or our pride.

Secondly, God forgives all our sins, which is to say no sin is so great as to fall outside the scope of his forgiveness. In Colossians, Paul wrote: “God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins” (Colossians 2:13). All, not just the ones we deemed less serious.

That means we mustn’t say, “I can forgive anything but that!” People who say such things are willing to forgive irritations and annoyances but, biblically speaking, we don’t forgive irritations and annoyances: we bear with them. We forgive sins.

Thirdly, forgiving as God forgives means taking sin seriously. He doesn’t overlook it; doesn’t say “Don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal.” He sends his Son to die so that sins might be forgiven. When you forgive someone, you are not saying it doesn’t matter; you are saying it matters enough to warrant the radical and costly act of forgiveness.

This is a major stumbling block for some people. They feel that if they forgive, they’re admitting that what happened to them – the abuse, the infidelity, the deceit, and malice – didn’t matter. But forgiveness means the opposite: it does matter. It matters so much that it cannot be ignored; it can only be forgiven.

Fourthly, God forgives not because we deserve it but because he is forgiving. Some people withhold forgiveness until the offender deserves it. But – and this is important to understand – no one deserves forgiveness. God does not forgive us because we deserve it. Just the opposite: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve” (Ps. 103:10). We don’t forgive people because they deserve it; we forgive because we are the people of Jesus. We forgive because who we are in Christ not because of who the other person is in their sin.

Fifthly, when God forgives us, he does it graciously. The word translated “forgive” in Ephesians 4:32 is χαριζόμaι, from the root word χαριs, meaning, grace.  The idea here is to “grace” people with forgiveness. God is gracious when he forgives.

Some people are not. By the time they’re done forgiving us, we wish we’d never been forgiven. They remind us of what we did; they remind us of the pain we’ve caused. They remind other people of what we’ve done. This is not God’s way. He says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34). If we forgive as we have been forgiven, we will be gracious to people. We will not intentionally recall their sins. We will certainly be careful not to talk about them to others.

Sixth, and final point about forgiving the way that God forgives: When he says, “I will remember your sins no more,” he does not mean he cannot remember them.

This is important for us to grasp, otherwise we will think we have done something wrong when we’ve tried to forgive but haven’t been able to forget. We’ll think there is something wrong with us because we still feel angry when we see the person who hurt us. If we had forgiven as the God who remembers our sins no more forgives, wouldn’t the memory and the pain be gone? But forgiveness does not cause forgetfulness, and it doesn’t immediately relieve pain.

I had surgery years ago and for a few weeks I hurt more than I did before the surgery. When I saw the surgeon for my follow-up appointment, I told him as much, and he said (and I quote): “Whud’ja expect?” I expected the surgery to fix the problem, not worsen it. But the problem was fixed. In time, the pain would go away – if I didn’t pick at the incision and cause infection.

It is that way when you forgive. The pain persists until the passing of time and the healing life of the Spirit cause it to fade. But by forgiving we have already dealt with the underlying cause. Now we must refuse to bring it up again and again – we must resist the urge to pick at the incision.


If, after what we’ve just seen in the Scriptures, you still think that you cannot forgive, it may be that you are not living in the Lord. All kinds of things are possible in the Lord – encountering difficulties (Eph. 4:1), working through disagreements (Phil. 4:2), enduring adversity (1 Thess. 3:8) – that are impossible outside the Lord. Forgiveness is one.

Imagine that you want to learn to swim, and you see that a class is being offered in Coldwater. So, you go to the class with your swimsuit in your gym bag, but the instructor says, “You’re not going to need that tonight. We’re going to teach you to swim right here in the classroom.”

You’re doubtful that you can learn to swim in a classroom, but you’re willing to give it a try. The instructor explains that the very first thing you’ll need to learn is how to tread water. She demonstrates how to cup your hands and push down on the water, and how to scissor-kick your feet. Then she tells everyone: “Now stand up and raise your arms over your head. I want you to reach up with cupped hands and then push down with one arm and then with the other – and don’t forget to scissor-kick with your feet.”

You feel ridiculous and, after about a minute, you feel tired. But your instructor keeps you at it for fifteen minutes. “You never know,” she says, “when your life may depend on being able to tread water for hours.”

You go home that night and tell your family, “I really wanted to swim, but it’s too hard. I can’t get the hang of it. I’m going to quit the class.”

You feel that way because you are trying to tread water when you’re not in water. You have no buoyancy, nothing to hold you up. If you were in a pool or a lake, the water would actually help you. But in a classroom, you are on your own.

It’s that way when you are “in the Lord.” His surrounding presence helps you. But if you are in your pride or in your anger, you are on your own. It is in the Lord that forgiveness becomes possible.

So, if you are a follower of Jesus and sin has caused division between you and someone in your biological or spiritual family, and you have not been able to forgive, you need to reposition yourself in the Lord. If you have been away from him, you will need to admit that and return to him, which will mean leaving some attitudes, commitments, or behaviors behind. If you have been unable or unwilling to forgive, come close to the Lord today.

If you are not a follower of Jesus, I invite you in the name of Jesus to become one, right here, right now. If you’re not ready, not persuaded, but interested to know more, talk to me or to some Christian whose life you admire. But if you are ready, tell that to God right now. I’ll give you a model prayer that you can offer to the Lord. But the words you use are not the important thing. It is your intent to entrust your life to God and become one of his Son Jesus’s people.

Lord, even though you made me, and I am yours, I have gone my own way. I’ve lived for myself and not for you. Please forgive me. Now I choose to come to you by entrusting myself to Jesus, who died for my sins and then rose from the dead. Thank you for making it possible for me to be with you, now and forever. Amen.


About salooper57

Husband, father, pastor, follower. I am a disciple of Jesus, learning how to do life from him. I read, write, walk, play a little guitar, enjoy my family.
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