How many of you like tests? This past week, the students at my school finished their last midterm exams before summer break. As a student, I always hated those kinds of tests. To this day, I have nightmares of them. I always have these weird dreams of having a test day, and suddenly realizing I haven’t even been attending class all year long. I don’t know why I have these stupid dreams. When I was in university I was a great student! I always attended my classes.
Now probably for most of of us, we don’t face very many written tests anymore. But it doesn’t mean we are no longer tested. Every day we face tests in our lives, and one is the test of holiness.
I think we often think of that test in terms of personal things: struggles with anger, lust, or other private sins which only we know about.
But our biggest tests in holiness often take place in our relationships. Especially when we have been hurt.
It’s one of the main reasons that some Christians hop from church to church. Or in some cases, they leave the church entirely.
You see, in a sense, it’s easy to be a Christian by yourself. To focus on reading your Bible, or praying, and doing all sorts of religious things in private. It’s much more difficult to live a holy life when you have to deal with other people, even when they are Christians. In fact, often times it’s even more difficult when you are dealing with Christians because you have much higher expectations of them.
But holiness is not something that can be truly achieved by hiding in your house, avoiding other people. You need to get out of your house, and take the test.
I think the writer of Hebrews recognized this. He said,
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
I don’t think he was saying, “Hey, be at peace with everyone. And by the way, be holy too.” I think there’s a link between the two. You cannot truly be holy if you are not doing everything you can to live in peace with the people around you. And without holiness, you will not see the Lord.
Jesus talked about this as well. We have been looking at the Sermon on the Mount. And near the beginning of it, he said,
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matthew 5:8)
What words surround that verse? Words about our relationships.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (5:7, 9)
Often times when we think about peacemakers, we think about helping two friends reconcile when they’re having problems. But being a peacemaker also means that you work for peace in your own relationships. Part of that is showing mercy to people. Forgiving them when they wrong you. Giving them second chances. And showing them love even when they don’t deserve it.
What happens when we don’t do this? Our hearts start to become clouded and stained with bitterness. And when that happens, our holiness becomes polluted.
So as we look at Jesus’ words today, I want you to think about your relationships and ask yourself, “Am I holy in my relationships? When I think about my relationships with my spouse, my coworkers, with people at church, with my ex-spouse, ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend, people I used to go to church with, is my heart right?”
Let’s take a look at the test Jesus gives.
Take a look at Matthew chapter 5 verses 38-39.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (38-39)
When Jesus talks about eye for eye and tooth for tooth, he is quoting from God’s law. These words are found three times in God’s law, and many people know the law today. But I wonder how many people really understand it? Many Jews in Jesus’ time certainly didn’t. Many of them thought that this was God giving them permission to take revenge on those who hurt them. But that’s not what God was commanding at all.
Actually, this law was for the judges of Israel. You see this especially clearly in Deuteronomy chapter 19:15-21. We won’t read it now, but if you want to, please look it up when you go home. God was telling the judges of Israel, “When you judge cases, make sure the punishment fits the crime. If someone knocks out another person’s tooth, don’t kill the attacker. That’s too much. Make sure the punishment is fair.”
And most times, this law wasn’t kept literally. Instead, many times the person who sinned had to make some kind of fair payment to the victim. (Exodus 21:18)
So that was the intent of the law. It was meant for judges. How many of you are judges in the Japanese courts? None of you? Then this law does not really apply to you. But there is a principle you can take from it when you’re dealing with your kids. When your kids do something wrong, make your punishments match the wrongdoing. Don’t overdo your punishments.
But anyway, as I said, the problem is that many Jews in those days, and many people today for that matter, look at this law and think, “Well then, it’s okay for me to take revenge when someone hurts me. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”
But Jesus says, “NO. When someone hurts you, don’t look for revenge. Instead, if someone slaps you on the right cheek turn to them the other cheek.”
I’ve mentioned this before so probably many of you remember this, but Jesus is not really talking about physical abuse here. How many of you are right-handed? Look at the person next to you. Now don’t hit them, okay? But think, “How would I hit this person’s right cheek, not their left cheek, their right cheek, with your right hand? It’s kind of difficult right? The only real way to forcibly hit them is with the back of your hand. But that’s more of an insult than an attack. And it was the same in Jesus’ day. It was considered a terrible insult to be slapped with the back of someone’s hand.
And so Jesus is saying, if someone insults you, if they wound you with their actions or words, let them. Don’t take revenge. Instead, forgive.
Now let me make a very important point of clarification here. There may be some people here that have been victims of domestic violence. Some of you may be experiencing it now. Jesus is NOT saying, “Just let them abuse you.” Again, he is not really talking about physical abuse as much as he is talking about personal insults you receive. If you are in physical danger from someone, get away from them. Put physical distance between you so that they cannot hurt you.
You see, forgiveness doesn’t mean that you allow people to keep hurting you. Forgiveness is not saying to that person, “What you’re doing is acceptable.” Nor does forgiveness mean that you automatically trust them again after they betray you.
“But Bruce, didn’t we read earlier that we are supposed to be peacemakers?” Yes, but we are also called to be wise. And it’s not wise to trust someone who shows no signs of genuine repentance. To make every effort at peace means to confront people with what they did to you and to seek reconciliation. And if they repent, peace can be restored. But as long as they don’t repent, there can not be true peace between you.
But whether or not peace is possible between you, you are called to forgive. And that goes not just for abuse, but for any kind of hurt you receive from people, whether it’s verbal wounds, betrayal, or whatever else it may be.
I said before what forgiveness doesn’t mean. But what does forgiveness actually mean? It’s letting go of anger. It’s letting go of your bitterness. And it’s saying to that person, “I no longer judge you. I no longer condemn you. I release you of your debt to me.”
Now that’s easier to do when you confront a person, they admit they’re wrong, and you start to see them change.
It’s much harder when they refuse to admit they’re wrong. Or when they admit they’re wrong but nothing ever changes. But even if they never admit they’re wrong, even if they never change, Jesus commands us to forgive. Why? Because he did so for us.
Take a look at chapter 6 verse 12. This is part of what we call “The Lord’s prayer,” but actually it’s a prayer for us as the Lord’s disciples. It says,
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Jesus then said this,
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (6:14-15)
Ouch. Those are hard words. And it’s so easy to try to say, “Jesus was just exaggerating right? Jesus didn’t really mean that, did he?”
But remember: The debt you owe God is immeasurable. Their sin against you is a mere drop in the ocean compared to your sin against God.
Do you understand that? Do you really believe that? When you sing, “Amazing grace,” and call yourself a wretch, do you really mean it? Or in your heart of hearts do you still think, “I’m not so bad”?
If you don’t understand the depth of your sin, you’re going to find it really difficult to forgive others when they hurt you.
You know some sins that people commit against us are very light. I’ve had people say, “Bruce, I’m sorry I did such and such to you. Will you forgive me?” and actually what they did really didn’t bother me that much. So it was easy for me to say, “Sure, I forgive you.” Those kinds of things are easy to forgive. It’s the deep sins that are committed against us that are the true test of holiness.
The wrongs against you, that when you think of them, and you think of the person that did them, your stomach instantly starts to knot up. Anger, hurt, and tears, all start to well up in an instant. Or for some of you, you’ve gotten past those emotions, and you’ve just become cold. Your heart is ice towards that person. Does anyone here understand what I’m talking about?
It’s so easy to say about them, “That person is an absolute wretch.” But when you start thinking those thoughts, look at your heart right at that moment. Look at the bitterness, anger, and hatred that is there. Look at the coldness that dominates your heart when you think of that person. How do you think God sees it?
Do you remember what we said several weeks ago? Anyone who is angry with their brother or sister, who kills them in their hearts, are worthy of God’s judgment. How often do you let your anger boil in your heart toward those who hurt you? How often, because of your hurt, do you lash out not only at them, but at other people around you?
Do you want God to forgive you for those ugly feelings, thoughts and actions? Then you need to forgive the person that hurt you.
“But Bruce, they don’t deserve forgiveness!” No they don’t. But neither do you. You deserve to go to hell for every ugly and bitter thought you’ve ever had. You deserve hell for every ounce of unforgiveness that stains your heart.
“But Bruce, you don’t understand what they did to me. It’s only natural for me to feel this way.”
I’ll be perfectly honest. Maybe if I were in your situation I would think it were natural too. But to hold anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness in your heart is still sin. And when you look in the mirror every morning, is that what you want to see in your face? Is that what you want others to see?
Think about Jesus for a minute. He was perfect. He never did anything that was wrong. And yet he was betrayed by one of his best friends. He was lied about. He was beaten and whipped. He had a crown of thorns beaten down on his head. And then he was crucified. While he was there, his enemies mocked him. “If you’re really God’s Son, come down from that cross!” How did Jesus respond? Did he hold all the bitter and angry thoughts you do when you’re hurt? Did he lash out at those around him because of his hurt? No.
Peter tells us,
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (I Peter 2:23)
In short, he forgave. In fact, while Jesus was on the cross, he said,
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)
That’s what our response is to be to those who hurt us. Not bitterness. Not anger. but loving and praying for them. Take a look at Matthew 5:44-45.
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
“That you may be children of your Father in heaven.” We saw that earlier didn’t we? “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” And part of being a peacemaker, is loving and praying for those who hurt you. Those are not just the ideal words of a dreamer. Jesus lived those words. On the cross, he prayed for those who hurt him. Our trouble is so many times we don’t pray for those who hurt us. If we pray at all, we pray about them. “God, do you see how horrible he is? Do something about him!”
But Jesus doesn’t say to pray about them. He says to pray for them. What do we pray?
Look at Jesus’ prayer. “Father forgive them. They don’t understand what they’re doing.”
So many times people hurt us because they don’t really understand what they’re doing. Many times abusive men are abusive because they themselves were abused when they were kids. Many times people have had experiences that wounded them, and now without knowing why, they act in similar ways to hurt the ones they love.
So pray for understanding. “God help them to understand what they’re doing and why. Help them to understand the pain they’re causing me and others. Help them to understand the hurts they have that are causing them to act this way. And help them to turn to you so that they can find healing and forgiveness in their lives, like you’ve given me.”
But don’t just pray for understanding for them. Pray that you can understand them. Pray that you can understand their hurts and why they do all they do. Because when we truly understand people, that’s when we start to feel compassion for them. It’s why Jesus could pray as he did on the cross. Because he saw our pain. He saw our hurts. And he knew exactly why we acted as we did, even when we ourselves did not understand why.
Prayer leads to understanding. Understanding a person allows you to having compassion for them. Compassion then allows you to show them mercy. And an understanding, compassionate, merciful heart, will set the prisoner free.
But here’s the thing and it’s an important truth. “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis B. Smedes)
You see, there’s something you need to realize. I said before what forgiveness is and what it isn’t. Now let me tell you what it does and doesn’t do. It doesn’t necessarily cause the person who hurt you to change. Sometimes by God’s grace it does. But not always. Many of the people who saw Jesus on the cross never did repent. But forgiveness sets you free. It sets you free from the bitterness and anger that binds your heart. It frees you from that knot in your stomach that you feel every time you think of that person that hurt you. Forgiveness sets you free.
Some of you here today may feel you have a right to be angry. That you have a right to be bitter. Maybe you do. But that anger and bitterness will will eat you up if you do not forgive.
True holiness is tested when we are hurt. Is forgiveness easy? No. Is it natural? For people like us who are broken by sin, it is totally unnatural. And so if we’re ever going to forgive, we need the supernatural help of God. But the good news is, we have it. That supernatural help is available for us. But we need to ask.
Forgiveness may take time. Depending on the depth of your hurt, it make take years. But the choice to forgive can start now. Will you make that first step today?
Plant Group questions:
- Read Matthew 5:7-9, 38-39, 44-45, and 6:12-15. What connections do you see in these passages?
- What is the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation? (Hint: Which requires one person? Which requires two? Why?)
- Read Leviticus 19:17-18, and Matthew 18:15-17. According to these passages, what does it mean to be a peacemaker in your relationships? What does it not mean?
- Many people think it’s unfair to forgive others when they don’t repent. Why is it important to forgive even when the other person isn’t sorry?
- When you were listening to the message, did you start thinking of someone whom you have not forgiven? Pray for that person that hurt you. Don’t pray about them. Pray for them. And pray for your fellow members that God will help them to understand the people who hurt them and to forgive them.