GIVE UP MY PAST FOR FORGIVENESS
SUMMARY: Forgiveness is hard to understand and hard to do when we have endured severe injustice. But if we can give up our past for forgiveness we will discover an incredible new life.
Is give it up. 8 things that I’m choosing this year to give up for a better relationship with Jesus Christ. And I was reflecting on this in the New Year, about things that I would like to do to better my spiritual life. And I stumbled across this thought. And the thought was this. What if I just stopped doing more things, and I started giving more things up. Instead of just adding things to my spiritual life, what if I started getting rid of things?
Getting rid of things that are extra baggage for me, that might make life better. And then I stumbled over a verse in the New Testament. As Jesus arrives on the scene and begins his earthly ministry, there’s this guy named John the Baptist, who was preaching as a predecessor of – a precursor to Jesus Christ. And he sees and lays eyes on Jesus Christ. And he makes this profoundly – profound, incredible statement. He says, “He must increase and I must decrease.” And it just struck me, “What if we just decreased things in life, rather than add to our life?”
And so I came up with 8 things that I want to get rid of in my life for a better life in Jesus Christ, beginning today with this message. I want to give up my past for forgiveness. I was thinking about this over the last few weeks. And what’s really interesting about the title of this message is that I believe vengeance, justification, and the need – the need to come against and to pay back another person, is such a natural human impulse.
Most of us have – in this life at some point, a vengeful thought or feeling regarding an injustice that we have experienced. And for most of us, these are only thoughts that rattle around in our brain. They’re whispers of our hearts at times when someone has hurt us, or spoken a harsh word or acted in a way toward us. It draws up this vengeful spirit.
And you know at times in my life – as I’m thinking about what’s going on in my heart – once, in a while, I’ll come across an act of vengeance. Or maybe I’ll see it glamorized in a movie, on a television show. And all of a sudden I’ll feel like my heart connects to that moment. Where this man or this woman get somebody back for the wrong that they’ve experienced. And it awakens all of these human feelings in my heart and in my soul, in my mind – that often are incredibly unhealthy.
Well, the fact of the matter is this. Is that vengeance is a really old, old, old idea? It’s not new. We don’t live in a world today where we see vengeance around us, and oh it’s some sort of new idea. This is one of the oldest ideas in the Bible. If you turn back to Genesis 4, only the 4th chapter of the Bible – you will discover powerful, powerful vengeance. It’s a guy named Lamech. And he’s got 2 wives, and I want you to hear these words that flow out of his heart.
Here’s what it says in Genesis 4, verses 23 through 24. It reads, “Lamech said to his wives, Adah and Zillah, ‘Hear my voice you wives of Lamech.'” Whenever someone refers to themselves in the third person, you should be concerned. “Listen to what I say, I have killed a man for wounding me. A young man for striking me.” If Cain’s revenge is 7 fold than Lamech’s is 77 fold.
Now I don’t know if you’re listening carefully to this. But this man’s heart is soured with vengeance. He is so proud of his vengeance that he tells his wives about it. And he takes vengeance upon 2 other characters in the biblical story and extends it to them far beyond – far beyond the injustice that he experienced. In fact, if you fast forward through the narrative, you’ll discover that God put limits on retaliation for this reason.
Often we refer to Genesis 4 as, “The law of Lamech. ” But if you fast forward to Exodus, chapter 21 – you’ll discover that God put limitations on a retaliation of other people. In fact, we use an idiom today to describe this. “Eye for an eye,” is the law. So here is the law that God exacted in retaliation. Exodus 21, verse 23. “But if there’s harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
And the reason why God enacted this law, is because he knew that the human heart for vengeance, always wanted to extend itself beyond the crime. If you don’t believe me, watch 2 boys wrestle on the floor in your house. It’s true. They start with a poke, with a word. They end up wrestling. Pretty soon they’re hitting each other with hockey sticks. And that’s the way it works. Because we love to live and extend justice for our injustice that we experience beyond the ramifications of the sin itself.
So we love to take 2 eyes for 1 eye. 2 feet for 1 foot. 2 teeth for 1 tooth. 2 hands for 1 hand. And we love to do that. Because that’s how injustice works in the human heart. We are not just people. And so God gave us this law. It’s called the law of retaliation, that we should never extend judgement beyond the extent of the crime. But what’s interesting about it – is thousands of years later, Jesus arrives on the scene. And he talks about this law of retaliation.
In Matthew chapter 5, he gives us an understanding of this. And this is what he says. He says, “You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other also. And then he continues a little later on. “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. That you may be sons of your father is in heaven, for he makes the sun rise on evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.'”
And in this moment, what Jesus does, is he helps us to see something better. He helps us not to see just the vengeance in our heart. He helps us to understand how you can turn vengeance against itself – and use it to help other people understand who God is, by acting out of character. By acting in love. And extending love toward your enemies.
Now let me, let me slice and dice something here real quickly. Jesus here is talking about an injustice that we experienced personally by another person. If we see injustice happen to a friend, I believe we should get involved. But Jesus here is talking about a personal injustice that we experience. And when we do, we have an opportunity to look beyond the crime. To look to what God is doing in that circumstance – and to turn that vengeful act into something more beautiful.
But I do have to say that although we understand this journey of retaliation and a vengeance to the Bible. And I’ll daresay that most of us have read about these moments in God’s Word. Actually living in forgiveness and working through the vengeance in our own heart is much harder to do than we realize.
Because I’ve got to say this, while for most of us sitting in this room thoughts of vengeance most of the time only reside here. Every once in a while it comes out in our life through a word or a deed. And as soon as we act in vengeance, we bind our self to sin and to evil. And it’s really hard to untangle that act of vengeance in life. As soon as it happens.
Many years ago when I was about 10 years old, I remember that my mother – who was divorced from my biological father, was going through kind of a hard time in her life. I remember at this point in my journey about 10, 11, 12 years old – I started to have this longing to have my father engage more with my life. And he left when I was 2, was very disengaged. And even though I really wanted him around, he was rarely around. He hardly came to anything in my, in my life. Nothing.
But I remember when I was in my young teens, I remember having this longing for him to be engaged with me. Because it seemed my mother was continuing to disengage. And I used to visit my biological father every other weekend – for these every other weekend visits. And my mother was always really concerned about me going to spend time with him. She knew it wasn’t safe, she knew I was going to see things that I shouldn’t. I was going to experience things that I shouldn’t I was going to hear things that I shouldn’t. And she was kinda protective of it, even though the law required that I go spend time with him.
What was interesting about it is – in my young teens, I begin to request that I have more of my bio dad’s engagement in my life. And I went to my mom time and time and time again and said, “Will you please talk to my dad about spending more time with me?” And of course, 1 day she abdicated. She gave in. She said, “Sure, I’ll talk to him. Go for the weekend, when you get back, I’ll engage.”
So I went for the weekend at my father’s house. And we came home. And I remember driving back to my mother’s house. And I got out of the passenger seat, and I saw her waiting at the door. She comes from the door, passes me on the sidewalk. Says, “Just wait inside.” And she went out to talk to my dad. Now this is the only time in my entire life I ever saw my mother and father together. The only time was in this moment. Other than pictures of their wedding.
And so, I stayed around the corner, I watched and I listened – and I was really hopeful. And she engaged my father. He rolled down the window, she leaned into the window. She talked to him. I kinda heard whispers back and forth. They begin to argue. It escalated. And the words that I heard next scarred me forever. My father yelled at her and said, “I don’t want to spend time with him. You spend time with him.” And he drove off.
Now in that moment, it didn’t hurt so bad. But I will tell you – years later, that began to unfold for me. And even though my father didn’t realize that I was standing around the corner – his vengeful words toward my mother, created a tangled web in my life that took years to unravel. And it’s that that’s difficult to understand. It’s that that’s difficult to move through.
But I believe that if we can engage these – this hairball of vengeance and unforgiveness in life – that one strand at a time, we can learn to forgive. And we can overcome the vengeance and the thoughts that we have in our mind, and we can live a better life. But how can we do it?
I meet – I’ve met hundreds of people over my lifetime as a Pastor that engage moments just like this. And they’re very difficult to understand. Because everybody’s situation in life is so different. Everyone in this room has experienced an injustice. Out of which you feel a sense of vengeance. And to unravel that hairball is incredibly difficult. But I believe that God has given us a path to unravel it. And it is through forgiveness. And if we can discover how to forgive other people, then maybe we can forget our past and give it up and live a better life.
So today, I want to show you through my own life – how to forgive those who have hurt you. 2 principles. Number 1 is this. We must understand biblical forgiveness. Understand biblical forgiveness. I think most Christians really misunderstand this concept. Which is why people talk to me sometimes about how to do it in the midst of all the crimes and injustices that they’ve experienced.
They come to me looking for perspective. And as I sit down with them over multiple meetings, I’ll discover that forgiveness is much harder to define for them than we realize. So to define it today, rather than to just give you some beautiful, nice definition – I want you to see it at work through a very powerful biblical story. It occurs in Genesis chapter 45. And before I read this tiny snippet, I want you to take a look at the most dysfunctional family of all time.
It’s a story of Jacob and his 12 sons. Jacob – eventually named Israel, would give birth to the 12 Tribes of Israel. One of those sons’ names was Joseph. And we know Joseph because he was the favored son. He had everything going for him. He had this incredible gift of being able to interpret dreams and his father loved him. He was the 11th of all the sons, and talk about a family that would wrestle on the living room floor. This was a family that did that to the nth degree.
Joseph – because he was so well liked, and so gifted – was hated by all– Almost all of his brothers. One day they’re out on the land, and his brothers devise a plan to kill him. They throw him into a pit, and suddenly they’re swayed to not just kill him – they’re going to sell him into Egyptian slavery. And they do. They strip him of his coat, they sprinkle blood on it. They come back and tell their father Jacob that Joseph is dead – killed, murdered.
Well, Joseph goes on, and he spends the next 15 years in Egyptian slavery. He ends up in Potiphar’s House. And then the story unfolds again. Where Potiphar’s wife begins to make sexual advances towards him. He runs, she cries wolf. Joseph ends up in prison. We don’t know for how long, but for quite a while. And while there – he interprets dreams, hoping that someone will tell the good news to somebody else outside of prison – so he’ll get out. But he’s left for dead.
And then eventually one day, the most powerful emperor in his day, the Pharaoh – is looking for a dream of his to be interpreted. Knowing that there’s a guy in prison – someone tells him that this guy in prison, Joseph – can interpret the dream. He comes to Pharaoh, and interprets his dream. And then Pharaoh does the unthinkable in the story. He makes Joseph the second most powerful man in the world.
He’s the Prime Minister of Egypt. He predicts a famine. And about 3 to 4 years into the famine, his family comes looking for food. His brothers show up on the scene, and of course, there’s this game that’s kind of positioning each of them with each other. Because Joseph knows it’s them. But they don’t know it’s Joseph. His appearance looks different. His – the second most powerful man in the world at the time. Joseph plays a few games with him, and then there’s this revelation of who Joseph is.
He can no longer hold back, and he speaks these words. It’s from Genesis 45, verses 4 through 8. Here’s how it reads. It says, “So Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come near to me please.’ And they came near. And he said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph. Who you sold in Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these 2 years, and there are yet 5 years in which there will be neither ploughing or harvest. And God sent me before you, to preserve for you a remnant on earth – and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and Lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.'”
Now, this is a remarkable moment. And what’s remarkable about this moment is how we see Joseph express his self. And what he says to these brothers – that he could exact vengeance from. I mean Joseph is the second most powerful man in the world. What do you think he could do to these people? He could eviscerate them. He could take their breath. But in this moment he does the most powerful thing that he could ever do. He lives in Godly forgiveness that has something powerful to teach us. So here’s how I define forgiveness, based on what I read in this text. Hear this.
Forgiveness is when a mature Christian – aware of God’s forgiveness and plan, releases an offender of an injustice already experienced – by taking on the consequences of the wrong and ceasing to feel resentment. Therefore, breaking the cycle of retaliation and bondage to sin. I think what Joseph here does, is the greatest thing a man could ever do. At the moment that he could take vengeance, and has the power to do it – he resolves himself to become aware that really his circumstances were a part of God’s plan.
That it was not his brothers that threw him into that pit. It was God that put him in that pit and walked him through 15 incredible years of loneliness – to eventually place him as the second most powerful man in the world. To put him in a moment, where he’d face off with his brothers again. And instead of exacting vengeance, he reveals his presence to them. Says it was God who did it. And we can see here that he’s let his heart of resentment go, to the point that he can look out at him and make the most profound statement of all time. And here’s what I believe this is.
“And now – do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here.” I mean, his heart is so pure in this moment. That he can actually look at his offenders and say, “I’m not only forgiven you, but I need you to forgive yourself for what you did a long time ago.” Now, guys, that’s forgiveness. That is spiritual maturity and a snapshot of it that we can see. And if we could live in this, we would discover what it is to know and love Jesus Christ.
I remember in my college years that this started to boil over for me. What I thought was buried and gone, was resurrected during my college years. It was during the time of loneliness when I was far away from my relatives, my grandparents, at school. There became these thoughts of anger and bitterness and regret and pain that came back from some of my father’s statements in my own life.
And even though I never saw him from that point forward, I had to learn to forgive someone that I was never going to see again. And that was hard. And it took me – I’d say a couple of years of reading text like this before I really started to let go. But we need to let go. It’s good and healthy for us.
4 days ago, I was in Vail and I was meeting with a pastor in Vail, Colorado. And he’s part of a church there. There was a church that split about 12 years ago. 2 new senior pastors came in. One overseeing one church that I know, and one overseeing the other church that I know. And out of the split, there was much pain and regret and unforgiveness and bitterness and resentment that was built up over the years. And I sat down with one of these pastors 4 days ago. And I looked him in the eyes, and he doesn’t even know me.
And as soon as I sat down, he said to me, “This church has been through a lot of pain. 10 years ago, I took the senior pastorate here. And there was all this stuff that began to unfold. 2 months ago, I went back to seek forgiveness. And I went back individually to each and every person and apologized.” And I literally jumped out of my seat and embraced that guy.
Because there is something powerful that happens when we forgive. We begin to not only define forgiveness. We begin to live in it and experience the plenty of it. And I could look in his eyes and tell that 10 years of bitterness were gone. And I could see the joy in his face and excitement about the future. Where does it all begin?
Principle 1, we must begin to define it. And where it is defined, is not only on paper. It’s through you and what you choose to do and say. Principle number 2 is this. Often to give it up. To give up my past for my forgiveness. We often have to go back to go forward. We have to go back to go forward.
There’s another story in the bible that’s equally powerful. I don’t know if you’ve read the book, but you should. It’s only 3 minutes long. It’s the book of Philemon in the New Testament. You’ll get through it in 1 sitting, I promise. But it has an incredible story attached to it. Here’s how the story goes.
There are 3 characters – Paul, the Apostle, and writer of the letter. The second character is Philemon. He’s a wealthy entrepreneur in Colossae And the third person is Onesimus, a slave. So here’s how the story goes. Paul is in prison in Rome. And while there, he’s leading people to Christ. Because that’s just what Paul does. And then one day he comes across this guy named Onesimus. And as he comes across to him, he leads him to Christ. And as he leads him to Christ and he’s discipling him, he discovers that he’s a runaway slave. But not a runaway slave from just anybody. He’s a runaway slave from a guy who’s funding his ministry, Philemon.
Philemon, this wealthy entrepreneur in Colossae helped to build the church there. And Philemon was known for being so wealthy that he was funding a lot of the mission work across the empire. Paul – when he discovers this, is all of a sudden in a conundrum. “What do I do?” And he turns to Onesimus, and he’s going to tell them to go back. Now Onesimus has something to risk. Because what’s happened in Onesimus’ life is he’s committed a crime on Philemon’s property, and to avoid punishment he ran away. Which is to commit a greater crime. And the punishment for a runaway slave is death.
So he ran away in hopes of never being found again. But now he finds himself in a situation. And so Paul is going to push him to go back. And Paul’s going to give him a letter. Now what’s interesting and perplexing about this situation is that Paul’s going to give Philemon a letter, and encourage him to treat him in a certain way.
Now Philemon knows how to treat this young man, the slave. Is to punish him by death. But Paul’s going entreat him not to do that. Therefore, Philemon has something to risk. And the risk for Philemon is this. Public shame and embarrassment and weakening his leadership in front of slaves. And so he’s risking his reputation and his economy and his political power and influence in a community by being willing to even to consider having this guy back.
So Paul writes this letter to entreat him. And here’s what Paul says to him in verse 17 of Philemon. He says, “So Philemon if you consider me your partner – partner in the gospel – receive him as you would receive me.” So in other words – receive a slave who has disobeyed you and committed a crime against you and ran away as you would receive me, your father in the faith. If he has wronged you at all or owes you anything – charge that to my account.”
So Paul’s taking whatever he has done wrong for himself. “I, Paul write this with my own hand.” Which was rare at this point, for him to do that. “I will repay it to say nothing of you owing me your own self.” Which is an illusion to him leading not only Onesimus to Christ but Philemon to Christ? “Yes brother, I want some benefit from you and the Lord, refresh my heart in Christ.”
And what Paul does here – is he writes a letter to Philemon, hands it to Onesimus, hopes that what Philemon will do is read it and act justly and forgive Onesimus – in hopes that something might happen between these 2 incredible men after Paul is gone. And I want you to know that they did reconcile. And out of extra-Biblical literature, we discover that Onesimus became the Bishop of the church in Philippi.
Because we have to conclude that Philemon forgave Onesimus. And through that forgiveness, something powerful happened. Isn’t that incredible? Now I want to say something about this. Because this book of the Bible has captured me for years. Because of a single occurrence in my life years later.
Years later, my wife and I were married. We had 3 kids at the time. My mother died. It’s approximately 12 years ago or so. My mother died – lived in California. We went back. I closed up the house by myself. Sold the house. Made a trip back home. I got home, and about a week later I got a call. From a person, I hadn’t heard from in – well, over 15 years.
Was my father. I hardly understood his voice. He was extremely inebriated. And I tried to have a reasonable conversation with him, until the point he made this statement to me. He said, “Vince, heard you sold your mom’s house.” “Yeah, sold – sold the house, Dad.” He says, “Well, I just want you to know that for years and years and years and years I paid child support to your mom for you. And now that you’ve sold that house, I expect you to pay me back.”
The conversation was shortly after that. And we hung up the phone. I went in and told my wife what happened. And then it just re-birthed all those old feelings again. And I sat down, and I tried to figure out how to respond to it. So I started writing a letter, articulating my feelings. Because I couldn’t – the feelings were so overwhelming I actually couldn’t navigate through it. I was sitting on the other side of the table as a Pastor, experiencing vengeance and pain. Not just helping other people through it.
And so I started writing this letter, and it was a couple of pages long. And I shared it with my friend named Stuart Lumpkins. Stuart’s a well-known lawyer. And I shared it with him, and he said, “Can I, can I read the letter?” And I said, “Sure.” And I sent it to him and he read it. And he edited it. Sent it back. Said, “I’d like to see you make these changes.” And he gave me some changes. Some were grammatical, some were thoughts. Some were deletions.
And I made the changes, and I sent it back – which was hard. And we did this a couple of times. Went back and forth, and then he bought me breakfast one day. And said, “Read me the letter.” And I read him the letter. And he said, “Now, I want you to tear that thing up.” And I was shocked. I said, “What? Spent all this time writing this letter.” And he goes,
“Vince, what do you think’s going to happen when you give that to your father? Nothing good. He’s not a Christian, he doesn’t believe in Christ. You’re probably never going to find reconciliation with him or restoration from him. He’s constantly hurt you over the years. Do you think anything good will happen from that?” And I’d never thought about that. And I said back to him, “No, nothing good.” And he says, “I want you to delete it, tear it up and burn it.” And so I did.
To be quite honest, it’s been many, many years now. I don’t even know what the letter said. But I know what I experienced in that moment. Stuart made me go back. And he made me articulate some feelings. And as a good mentor does, he walked me through the process, and held my hand and helped me to articulate some things. But I know at the end of it all, he encouraged me to do exactly the right thing. And the right thing to do was to forgive myself for the pain that I had taken upon myself for the injustice and crimes that I had experienced.
And I got to tell you, it was freeing. But even sharing the story’s painful and embarrassing and shameful for me. Because who doesn’t want a father that loves them? Who doesn’t want to experience forgiveness? In this story here, you have 2 Christians – is what you have. And they’re pushing toward the same values and the same morality, inbred by the same spirit. And the hopes is that reconciliation and restoration can happen.
But sometimes it can’t. And sometimes these people don’t believe in Jesus Christ, and they don’t have a moral code. And they don’t have a spirit that indwells them. And we can never find or seek the forgiveness we want. But we know that God will forgive us, and forgive them of the pain that they experience in life as well.
Three things I take out of the story, that I think are very pragmatic steps for you – if you’re kinda wondering how to forgive. Number 1, I think if you want to walk a path of forgiveness – number 1, You have to find a wise, objective person to help you. That’s who Stuart was for me. That’s who Paul was for Onesimus and Philemon.
Number 2, you have to be willing to be accountable to doing the hard work. Sometimes we all need a push, friends. All of us. We need a push to do the hard work – as far as it will take us. And number 3 – and I learned this. This is such a practical thing. Both Paul did this, and Stuart encouraged me to do the same. Write out your thoughts. And articulate your feelings. And put them masterfully down upon a piece of paper. And yes someday you may just tear it up. And someday you may hand it over to somebody.
But I think these 3 practical things that happened in this text are incredible. They help these 2 guys find reconciliation and restoration. And I know in the end, that’s what Jesus wants. He wants us to let go and to give up our past for a future of forgiveness. Listen to these words, they’re incredible. Matthew 18. Don’t ever forget this, Matthew 18.
Peter comes up to Jesus, and he says these words. “Master, how many times should I forgive someone who’s offended me, up to 7 times?” And then Jesus says back to him, “I do not say to you 7 times, but 77 times.”
Now why do you think Jesus says that? I believe Jesus says that because Jesus is saying to Peter, “It’s not how many times you need to forgive somebody else, it’s about the business that you need to do in your own heart. And you need to do it until the law of Lamech is dissolved. Until the vengeance is gone. Forgive until you learn how to define forgiveness. Because forgiveness is defined by your heart.”
“And when you really learn to forgive,” don’t miss this. “There is not a moment that you become more like Jesus Christ. Who, hanging on the cross looked down at the injustice and crime committed against him, and said these words, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.'”