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Sermon Illustrations on Forgiveness

Background

Bitterness only Hurts Ourselves

When we are bitter, we delude ourselves into thinking that those who hurt us are more likely to be punished as long as we are set on revenge. We are afraid to let go of those feelings. After all, if we don’t make plans to see that justice is done, how will justice be done? We make ourselves believe that it is up to us to keep the offense alive.

This is a lie-the devil’s lie. “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: `It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). We only hurt ourselves when we dwell on what has happened to us and fantasize about what it will be like when “they” get punished.

R. T. Kendall. Total Forgiveness, Charisma House Publishing.

Forgive

“What happens here may be expressed by the quite simple and yet unfathomable word, ‘forgive.’ What occurs when I forgive another person?  It does not mean . . .  that I can ‘forget’ what he did to me.  It just can’t do that.  No, when I forgive another, I myself step into the breach and say to myself, ‘The same thing that made the other person mean, hateful, and guilty toward me is in my heart as well.  Ultimately we are two of a kind.’

If I tell my neighbor, ‘I forgive you,’ and I say it from the bottom of my heart, then, in a manner of speaking, I take over the burden of his guilt and place it on my own heart just as though it were mine. . . .  I say, ‘Yes, what you did to me was very wrong; it was even shocking.  But I know from looking at myself how fickle and wicked the human heart is.  Therefore I could do exactly what you did.  It’s coiled up in me too.  So I’ll suffer through it with you.  I’ll put myself in your place.  I’ll share your burden.’  When I forgive another person, I share the burden of his guilt.  I become his brother and his sister, a burden-bearer at his side.” 

Helmut Thielicke.  I Believe:  The Christian’s Creedtrans. by John W. Doberstein and H. George Anderson.  Phil.:  Fortress Press, 1968, p. 116).   

Forgiveness Means…

Forgiveness doesn’t mean “I didn’t really mind” or “it didn’t really matter.” I did mind and it did matter, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything to forgive at all, merely something to adjust my attitudes about. We hear a lot today about people needing to adjust their attitudes to things they formerly thought were wrong; but that’s not forgiveness. If I have a wrong attitude toward someone, and if I need to adjust my attitude, if anything, it’s me who needs forgiveness, for my misguided earlier stance. Nor is forgiveness the same as saying, “Let’s pretend it didn’t really happen.”

This is a little trickier because part of the point of forgiveness is that I am committing myself to work toward the point where I can behave as if it hadn’t happen. But it did happen, and forgiveness isn’t pretending that it didn’t; forgiveness is looking hard at the fact that it did and making a conscious choice-a decision of the moral will-to set aside so that it doesn’t come as a barrier between us.

Taken from Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright Copyright (c) 2006, pp.159-160, by N.T. Wright. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Forgiveness Means Going Soft on Justice

In the Middle East both the main protagonists embrace religions where forgiveness has never been seen as a duty, let alone as a virtue, but rather as a kind of moral weakness—and by “moral weakness” I don’t just mean a failure to keep a moral law but a deficiency in the implicit moral code itself. Nietzsche would have agreed: forgiveness is for wimps. The main moral standard for the main participants in the Middle East conflict is justice. To forgive people, they will say, means going soft on justice, by which they mean the full recompense and punishment which both sides believe they are owed because of atrocities committed by the other.

It’s not just that they don’t want to forgive or that they find it difficult. They believe passionately that it would be immoral, totally wrong. It would belittle the evil that has been done.

Taken from Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright Copyright (c) 2006, p.156, by N.T. Wright. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Line Runs Through

In any polarized situation, the overriding human tendency is to draw a line with oneself and one’s allies on the good side and the opposing party on the wicked side, with very little attempt made by either side to understand the other. As these positions harden it becomes almost impossible to achieve the insight necessary for a breakthrough.

For some years now I have kept a file that I call “The Line Runs Through.” This title is from Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic and one of the very few profound public thinkers of our time. You will remember that Havel was one of those who resisted the Communists and was put in prison for his activities.

When he came to power after the Velvet Revolution, Havel was conspicuously forgiving toward his former enemies and other collaborators. Some blamed him for this. But he maintained his position. In the Central European regimes of the seventies and eighties, Havel said, “The line {between good and evil] did not run clearly between ‘them’ and ‘us/ but through each person.

Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Sermons from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Eerdmans Publishing, 2007.

Stories

“Chancing One’s Arm”

In her book Family Ministry, Diana Garland relates the following account by R.L. Honeycutt on the origin of the Irish expression “Chancing one’s arm”:

On display in St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin hangs an ancient door with a rough hewn, rectangular opening hacked in the center. The story of this “door of reconciliation” and the related Irish expression of “chancing one’s arm” are remarkable and instructive.

In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormond’s and Kildare’s, were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormond, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s cathedral, bolting themselves in.

As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare concluded the feuding was foolish. Here were two families worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and, as an inscription in St. Patrick’s says today, “undertoake on his honour that he should receive no villanie.”

Afraid of “some further treachery,” Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his spear, cut a hole in the door, and thrust his hand through. It was grasped by another hand inside the church. The door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. From Kildare’s noble gesture came the expression “chancing one’s arm.”

Submitted by Chris Stroup, Taken from Diana Garland, Family Ministry (InterVarsity Press, 1999), p.358.

“Dear Paco,”

Ernest Hemingway grasped some of the difficulty that characterizes relationships between fathers and sons in his short story, The Capital of the World. The story revolves around a father and his teenage son Paco, set in Spain. Paco was an extremely common name in the Spain of that time. With desires to become a matador and to escape his father’s control, Paco runs away to the capital (from which the title is derived) of Spain, Madrid.  His father, desperate to reconcile with his son, follows him to Madrid and puts an ad in a local newspaper with a simple phrase:

“Dear Paco, meet me in front of the Madrid newspaper office tomorrow at noon. All is forgiven. I love you.”

Hemingway then writes, “the next day at noon in front of the newspaper office there were 800 “Pacos” all seeking forgiveness.”

The world is full of people in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. The model for such forgiveness is most profoundly found in Jesus Christ.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Difference Between Forgiveness & Reunion

In November of 1990, as the long struggle for freedom in South Africa was reaching its climax, a group of black and white spiritual leaders from almost all the churches in that land met at a hotel outside of a little town called Rustenburg.

Some of the leaders represented people who had wounded and wronged blacks. Others represented the people who had been so horribly wounded and wronged, these men and women came together to answer two questions: Could the blacks ever forgive? And could blacks and whites ever be truly united as brothers and sisters?

Desmond Tutu, spiritual leader for many in South Africa, answered for the wounded and the wronged of his beloved country. He gave his answer in a straightforward speech that bears the title “We Forgive You”…Forgive, yes, said Tutu: “The victims of injustice and oppression must be ever ready to forgive.” But could there ever be a coming together?

Ah, that is another question. “Those who have wronged [us] must be ready to make what amends they can…if I have stolen your pen, I can’t really be contrite. When I say, ‘Please forgive me’ if at the same time I still keep your pen. If I am truly repentant, then I will demonstrate this genuine repentance by returning your pen. Then [reunion], which is always costly, will happen…it can’t happen just by saying ‘Let bygones be bygones”

We can forgive him if he keeps the pen. We should not be his friend unless he gives it back.

Lewis Smedes, The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and You Don’t Know How, Ballantine Books.

Forgiving a Concentration Camp Guard

After the defeat of Hitler’s Nazi regime in World War II, Holocaust survivor and Christian Corrie ten Boom returned to Germany to declare the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. One evening, after giving her message, she was approached by a man who identified himself as a former Nazi guard from the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, where she had been held and where her sister, Betsie, had died.

When Corrie saw the man’s face, she recognized him as one of the most cruel and vindictive guards from the camp. He reached out his hand and said to her, “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea! You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk. I was a guard there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, will you forgive me?” About this encounter, Corrie writes:

I stood there—I whose sins had again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place. Could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I ever had to do . . . I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. . . . But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently.

As she reached out her hand to the former guard, Corrie says that something incredible took place. She continues:

The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” . . . I had never known love so intensely, as I did then. But even then, I realized it was not my love . . . It was the power of the Holy Spirit.

Scott Sauls, A Gentle Answer, Thomas Nelson, 2020, pp.19-20.

From Spitting to Hugging

On a Saturday afternoon in May, 13-year-old Michael Hirschbeck quickly donned his Cleveland batboy uniform and then went looking for his friend. That friend was Roberto Alomar, second baseman for the Cleveland Indians. When he found him, the teenager gave Roberto a big hug. This hug was incredible when you remember that, four years before, Roberto Alomar in a fit of rage spat in the face of Michael’s father, John Hirschbeck.

That ugly moment has been put behind them, and now Roberto and John work together to raise money for ALD (a rare degenerative genetic brain disease) that took the life of John Hirschbeck’s eight-year-old son in 1993. “Maybe God put us in this world to help somebody beat this disease.” The essence of this story, though, is the grace of forgiveness.

Taken from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion, Tyndale House Publishers.

“A Less Obvious Solution”

In The Essential Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, the cartoon character Calvin says to his tiger friend, Hobbes, “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I’m sorry I did it.”

“Maybe you should apologize to her,” Hobbes suggests. Calvin ponders this for a moment and replies, “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution.”

Norm Langston in Fresh Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching.

The Line Runs Through

In any polarized situation, the overriding human tendency is to draw a line with oneself and one’s allies on the good side and the opposing party on the wicked side, with very little attempt made by either side to understand the other. As these positions harden it becomes almost impossible to achieve the insight necessary for a breakthrough.

For some years now I have kept a file that I call “The Line Runs Through.” This title is from Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic and one of the very few profound public thinkers of our time. You will remember that Havel was one of those who resisted the Communists and was put in prison for his activities.

When he came to power after the Velvet Revolution, Havel was conspicuously forgiving toward his former enemies and other collaborators. Some blamed him for this. But he maintained his position. In the Central European regimes of the seventies and eighties, Havel said, “The line {between good and evil] did not run clearly between ‘them’ and ‘us/ but through each person.

Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Sermons from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Eerdmans Publishing, 2007.

Moving Forward With Your Life

After the Civil War, in an incident recounted by Charles Flood in Lee: The Last Years, Robert E. Lee visited a woman who took him to the remains of a grand old tree in front of her home. There she cried bitterly that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Union artillery fire. She waited for Lee to condemn the North or at least sympathize with her loss. But Lee—who knew the horrors of war and had suffered the pain of defeat—said, “Cut it down, my dear madam, and then forget it.”

In the late 1990s, Pete Peterson was appointed U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Peterson had served six years as a prisoner of war in the dreaded “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp. When asked how he could return to the land where he’d endured years of starvation, brutality and torture, he replied, “I’m not angry. I left that at the gates of the prison when I walked out in 1972. I just left it behind me and decided to move forward with my life.”

When you’re tempted to get even with those who hurt you, remember that you can’t go back, you can’t stay where you are, but, by God’s grace, you can move forward one step at a time.

Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun

Nelson Mandela and a Presidency of Reconciliation

What does true forgiveness and reconciliation look like? The world was given such an image the day Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President of South Africa. What was so significant was not just that a person of color was becoming the head of a state with years of segregation and mistreatment of its black citizens, but it was also Mandela’s gracious inclusion of his former adversaries that was so inspiring.

When Mandela arrived, he was accompanied by his eldest daughter, as well as the South African security forces. But that was not all. The police and the correctional services (the same people in charge of his 27 years in prison) walked alongside his car, saluted him and escorted him to his inauguration. It was a powerful moment for many reasons, but most of all provided a reminder that just a few years ago, Mandela had been considered by the South African state as a public enemy, a terrorist to be arrested and exiled to a remote prison.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

No Further Instructions

A successful Irish boxer was converted and became a preacher. He happened to be in a new town setting up his evangelistic tent when a couple of tough thugs noticed what he was doing. Knowing nothing of his background, they made a few insulting remarks.

The Irishman merely turned and looked at them.

Pressing his luck, one of the bullies took a swing and struck a glancing blow on one side of the ex-boxer’s face. He shook it off and said nothing as he stuck out his jaw. The fellow took another glancing blow on the other side. At that point the preacher swiftly took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and announced, “The Lord gave me no further instructions,” Whop!

J. Vernon McGee in Charles Swindoll, Tale of a Tardy Oxcart, p 214.

Not Until After My Death

Frederick William I was a king of Prussia in the early 18th century. Personality-wise, he was described as exacting, frugal and austere. He was known to beat his children when they disappointed him. His eldest son, the future king Frederick William II, along with two friends, attempted to run away to escape his father’s ire. One escaped, but the other was imprisoned, and after a season, executed in front of the son in an attempt to reform the child’s wayward path.

As he lay on his deathbed, the pastor attending him told him he must forgive all his enemies. Immediately he thought of his brother in law, George II of England. “In that case,” he told his wife reluctantly, “write to your brother and tell him I forgive him, but be sure not to do it until after my death.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Analogies

The Debt Must Be Paid

Mercy goes beyond justice, it does not undercut it. If I forgive you the hundred dollar debt you owe me, that means I must use one hundred dollars of my own money to pay my creditors. I cannot really make you a hundred dollars richer without making myself hundred dollars poorer. If the debt is objectively real, it must be paid, and if it is my mercy that repays your debt, I must pay it. That is the reason why Christ had to die, why God could not simply say ‘forget it’. Instead he said ‘forgive it’ and meant that if we did not pay it, he had himself.

Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue. San Francisco, Ignatius Press. 1992, p.113f.

Humor

“A Less Obvious Solution”

In The Essential Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, the cartoon character Calvin says to his tiger friend, Hobbes, “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I’m sorry I did it.”

“Maybe you should apologize to her,” Hobbes suggests. Calvin ponders this for a moment and replies, “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution.”

Norm Langston in Fresh Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching.

Not Until After My Death

Frederick William I was a king of Prussia in the early 18th century. Personality-wise, he was described as exacting, frugal and austere. He was known to beat his children when they disappointed him. His eldest son, the future king Frederick William II, along with two friends, attempted to run away to escape his father’s ire. One escaped, but the other was imprisoned, and after a season, executed in front of the son in an attempt to reform the child’s wayward path.

As he lay on his deathbed, the pastor attending him told him he must forgive all his enemies. Immediately he thought of his brother in law, George II of England. “In that case,” he told his wife reluctantly, “write to your brother and tell him I forgive him, but be sure not to do it until after my death.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

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