ARE YOU MARA?
One of my favorite books of the whole Bible is the book of Ruth. I think it’s arguably the greatest short story ever written in the history of the world. And very early on, we’re introduced to a woman who becomes a central figure in the story. Her name is Naomi. She’s one of God’s people. She lives in the great nation of Israel. And a famine hits; a great economic crisis hits their land. And her husband is a foolish man, and he decides that he will relocate his family. And a move is a big thing, especially in that day, when you’re leaving God’s presence at the temple, and you’re leaving God’s people in Israel.
And he takes his wife and their sons, and relocates to a pagan land. And there, his sons marry godless women, and he dies, and then his sons die, and this woman is left destitute poor, and absolutely alone. And she—she has a devastated, difficult life. Her name, Naomi, meant sweet. Her identity was daughter of God, and her life was supposed to be sweet.
Things become very dark and difficult for her, and in Ruth 1:20, she makes this statement: “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, because my life has become very bitter.” She changes her name, and in so doing, she’s redefining her identity by her hurt, by her suffering, by her loss. The worst day of her life became the defining day of her life. And in asking others to call her Mara, she was accepting bitterness as her identity, and the lens through which she would interpret everything that would happen for the rest of her life, because the name Mara literally means “bitter.” Bitter.
Are you Mara? In your past, have you had a season of Mara? Are there people that you’re in relationship with who are Mara? Are there seeds of discontent in your soul that will, eventually, cause you to be in a season of Mara—bitterness?
This issue is so pernicious in my almost seventeen years now of pastoral ministry. This is the issue that I have dealt with most frequently, in my own soul, and in the soul of others. Early on in our church, I was the only paid pastor on staff, until we had about eight hundred people, which means a lot of the counseling load resided with me. And I found over and over and over and over and over this issue of bitterness versus forgiveness. And the text of Scripture that I have taken people to in counseling appointments more than any other is Ephesians 4:25–32. It’s where we find ourselves today, dealing with this topic of “I Am Forgiven.” It deals with forgiveness and bitterness.
CHARACTERISTICS OF BITTER PEOPLE
As you’re finding that place in your Bible, let me do a bit of work, pastorally and theologically, regarding bitterness. Bitter people are archeologists, always digging up the past. If you talk to someone who is bitter, they will continually revisit painful circumstances from their past. They can’t move on. They always return back. They’re stuck. “That’s the day that my life was ruined. That’s the day that my hope was destroyed. It’s been a funeral since that day.”
Number two, bitter people remember intricate details because they keep a record of wrongs. First Corinthians 13 says, “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” Bitter people do keep a record of wrongs, and they will revisit and rethink and recollect certain circumstances and situations, not always accurately, because bitter people sometimes lack a truthful perspective. They will sometimes even obsess. “I wish I would have said this. I wish I would have done that.”
When you’re dealing with a bitter person, they’ll—“On this day.” And they can name the day of the week and the actual date and the time of day and the weather and what you were wearing and what your facial expression was and the tone of your voice and word for word what you said. And you may say, “I don’t know if I—I don’t remember.” “What, you don’t care?” “No, I’m not bitter. I haven’t been replaying that video in my mind every day since. And you’ve obsessed over it, and you’ve kept a record of wrong.”
Number three, bitter people are triggered less by the offense and more by their love for the offender. What I mean is this: if a complete stranger does something against you, even if it is detestable, ten years later you are not likely to be bitter, because they were a stranger. But if someone that is near and dear to you, someone that you love and have deep affection for, offends you, sins against you, hurts you, disappoints you, you are more likely to become bitter because your expectations were higher. They may say something like, “It wasn’t a big deal,” and the response is, “But you are.”
So, we’re most likely to become bitter against the people we love the most—our parents, our grandparents, our children, our grandchildren, our spouse, our friend, our ministry leader, the people that we love and have expectations of and hopes for. And yes, friends, even God. Even God. Mara alludes to this in Ruth 1:20. She says, “Call me Mara because the Lord has made my life very bitter.” She’s saying, “You know, God is sovereign, and if these things pass through his open hands, and he does not capture this affliction, but he allows it to rain down upon me, then he is complicit in my suffering, and he has contributed to my bitterness.” And some of you are bitter against God.
And number four, bitter people are prone to be self-righteous since they are the perceived victim. Bitter people tend to place themselves on throne, where they rule and reign like judges, and they pass verdicts on people who have done wrong, and they sit in a very exalted seat of pride. “I see things clearly. I filled in the details of the narrative, and I’m here to render my verdict, because that is my right as the victim.”
If I sin against you, am I prone to feel guilty or bitter? Guilty. If I perceive that you’ve sinned against me, and I choose not to forgive you, am I prone to feel guilty or bitter? Bitter. So, bitterness is, by definition, the possession of the one who is perceived to have been wronged. This contributes to their sense of self-righteousness and judgmentalism.
FIVE WAYS PEOPLE BECOME BITTER
How do people become bitter? There are five ways that I have seen, biblically and practically, that people become bitter. The first four are illegitimate, and the fifth is legitimate. I need to distinguish them.
Number one, you wrongly think that they have sinned against you. Now, they haven’t sinned against you, but you think they have, but you’ve got your facts wrong, so it’s a lie. I’ll give you a case study.
Some years ago, talking to a man. He had not spoken to his brother in a number of years. They were in a business together, and the one brother accused the other brother of stealing. And so he cut off all communication, and this split the family right down the middle. They both lived in the same city, and they both had children. And so they would not get together for the holidays. The cousins grew up not knowing one another in any real relationship, because there was division—there was bitterness.
Finally, when digging down to the bottom of the conflict, the one brother said, “He stole from me, and I will not forgive him.” The other brother said, “I did not steal anything.” We explored it. We investigated it. Come to find that thievery had happened by someone else in the company. The bitter brother was wrong. Sometimes we think we’ve been sinned against. We haven’t been. We haven’t been. So, we’ve got to be careful to investigate, to get the facts.
Number two, some of you have unreasonable and/or unspoken expectations that are unmet. Unreasonable, meaning you were expecting someone to say or do or be something to you, and they disappointed you. And you’re hurt by that, and you’re grieved by that, and you mourn that, or maybe even you’re angry about that. But it was unreasonable. The expectation was unreasonable, or it was unspoken. You expected from them, and they did not deliver, but they did not know because you did not say what it was you were hoping for.
Number three, they rebuked you, and you were hard-hearted, and you were hurt, so you’re bitter against them. You’re bitter against them. “How dare they say that to me? How dare they point that out at me?”
And then what happens is the conversation shifts from your sin to their tone. “I see this in your life. It’s a sin, and it’s a problem.” “Who are you to talk to me? Let me talk about sin in your life. Let’s change the subject,” or, “I don’t like the way you said that,” or, “You did it with a certain look on your face,” or whatever the case may be. Maybe they did love you, and there was something in your life that needed to be addressed, and they rebuked you, and you became hard-hearted, and hurt, and bitter against them.
Number four, you are jealous of them. Jesus’ brother, James, says in James 3:14, this phrase, which is penetratingly insightful. He speaks of a condition that he calls, “Bitter envy and selfish ambition.” This is not ambitious for the glory of God. This is ambitious for the glory of self that fuels, feed, fosters bitter envy. Jealousy.
This starts when you’re a kid. Your sibling has an ability—they’re the cute one. They’re the funny one. They’re the athletic one. They’re the musical one. They’re the obedient one. And you seethe against them, you’re frustrated by them, you’re angry with them, because you’re jealous of them.
This explains why, sometimes in your life, you’re having a glorious season, and it leads to a painful conflict with a friend or a family member that you thought would be glad for you. You got into the college you wanted, and now they’re upset with you. That’s because they didn’t get in. You’ve met someone, and you’re in a dating relationship, and you’re really excited, and they’re really not because they want to be in a relationship, and that has not yet happened for them. You’re engaged to be married, and you tell them, and you anticipate that they will happy, and they’re not, or it turns negative. All of a sudden, they’re critical. “Why do you always have to talk about them? Why do you got to rub my nose in it? Why do you have to parade it in front of my face?” “What? I—oh.” Bitter envy, selfish ambition.
“We’re pregnant! We’re having a child!” They’re struggling with infertility or still single, and they can’t rejoice with you because of bitter envy and selfish ambition. Your kids are walking with the Lord, and you give testimony to that, and they’re angry and upset and critical because their children are wayward. Or you’re happily married, and you celebrate that, and then they criticize that because the bitter envy and selfish ambition. Or you get a job, or you get a raise, or you buy a house, or you’re healthy, or God uses you, and all of a sudden a good thing becomes a bad thing because of a bitter heart that is filled with envy.
If you’re bitter against someone for any one of those four reasons, you are in sin. You’re in sin. The rest of the sermon doesn’t apply to you. You don’t get to take out the hat that says, “Victim,” and then wear it for the rest of your life because you haven’t been sinned against.
YOU HAVE BEEN SINNED AGAINST
The fifth category is the group I want to spend the remainder of the sermon speaking, in large part, to, and that is, you have been sinned against. You’ve been sinned against. You’re a victim of sin. Somebody has said something or done something or failed to say something or failed to do something. And it’s not just you, seated on your throne, rendering a verdict. It’s God, seated on his throne, saying, “That was wrong. That was wrong.”
When we are sinned against, we have two choices: bitterness or forgiveness. That’s it. There’s no third option. When you are sinned against, it’s bitterness or forgiveness. So, who is it that you are bitter against, or potentially bitter against, or will be bitter against? Who has sinned against you? Whose face comes into your mind’s eye? Whose name comes into your mind? Who has betrayed you? Who has abandoned you? Who has harmed you? Who has disappointed you? Who has hurt you? Who do you blame for your bitterness?
Dear bitter friend, what tends to happen is, when we have been sinned against—we have been victimized—we tend to justify our bitterness, and if someone should show us Scripture that says, “You are bitter,” we then say, “Yes, but they made me bitter. Here’s what they did.” But, no one can make you bitter. They’re responsible for their sin, but you’re responsible for your bitterness.
Amy Carmichael was a gifted missionary, and she has this insightful analogy. She says, quote, “For a cup brimful of sweet water cannot even spill one drop of bitter water, however suddenly jolted.” This is your heart. Someone sins against you, all that comes out is what’s already in. If there’s bitterness in you, they’re going to expose it. They’re not causing it; they’re exposing it.
If there’s sweet water in your soul, and someone sins against you, they’re exposing, not changing, what is in your soul. You can’t say, “I was only sweet water, and then they bumped me, and all the water became bitter.” No, all the jolting, and sinning, and conflicting does is reveal, not change, who we are. If it’s bitter, it’s because we are choosing bitterness. If it’s sweet, it’s because we’re choosing sweetness.
What’s in your heart? What’s in your soul? Sweetness or bitterness? Naomi or Mara? Naomi means “sweetness.” She says, “Change my name to Mara.” Are you Naomi or Mara? Is your heart and soul filled with sweetness or bitterness?
And I want to be careful, friends, because I don’t want to give you the excuse that because you’ve been sinned against, you have a right to sin. And that’s what bitterness is. It’s responding to evil with evil, sin with sin.
SIX COMMANDS FOR BITTER BELIEVERS
That brings us to Ephesians 4:25–32, the section of the Bible that, in my time, I have used for myself and others more than any other. What does God say to those who are bitter? What would God have us to say to those whom we counsel and are bitter?
Ephesians 4:25–29: Six Commands for Bitter Believers. “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up”—not tearing down—“as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
WATCH YOUR GOSSIP
Six commands for bitter believers. Number one, watch your gossip. Watch your gossip. When we are hurt, we are prone to leak. He tells us, “Let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor”—meaning, if you think they sinned against you, go work it out with them, OK? Gossip is when we talk about people; we don’t talk with them. That’s gossip. The Bible has nothing good to say about gossip, and just because you’re hurting doesn’t mean there’s an exception clause. Can’t say things like, “I’m just emotional.” Guard your heart.
In our day of social media, we have to be very careful to watch our gossip. You can post—Facebook, Twitter, blog. You can pick up a phone and call. You can text. You can e-mail. If you don’t watch your gossip, you now have, at your disposal, the biggest opportunity in the history of the world to gossip as quickly and widely as possible. Watch your gossip.
Some of you say, “What, I can’t talk about it?” Maybe talk to the Lord about it. We call that prayer. It says this in Proverbs 26:20, “Without wood, a fire goes out. Without gossip, a quarrel dies down.” What he says is that a conflict between believers is like a fire, and gossip is like wood. And the more you talk, you’re just inviting other people. “Hey, bring your wood. My fire’s going down. I was having a conflict with this person, and now the conflict is dying down, so I want more people involved, and I want more wood brought to the fire, and I want to stoke this into a real blaze. So gossip with me, listen to me, and then speculate. Fill in the blanks; finish the narrative. Let’s just talk about this ad nauseam. Let’s invite more people to get involved.”
See, God’s people are to bring water to the fire, not wood. Gossip is just dry kindling. This doesn’t mean you can’t seek wise counsel. Some of you should. You should meet with a pastor, or biblical counselor, or somebody who’s in a peace-making ministry, if it really has escalated into an adversarial position. Say, “OK, here’s where we’re at. I do want to talk to them. Help me arrange or figure out how to talk to them so we can work through this.”
Sometimes this means you literally need to sit down with them face to face. Matthew 18 says if there’s a personal offense between the two of you, you start face to face. And if that doesn’t produce any result, then you bring along two or three other godly people to help mediate and observe the process. This may include writing a letter so you can get it all thought out, knowing that seeing them would be very emotional. And you’re willing to meet with them, but first you want to communicate. “OK, here’s where I’m at and here’s where I want to meet and here’s what I want to talk about, and if you’re agreeable to that, let’s pray and get our hearts ready so we can talk.”
This may include a phone call or a Skype if they are far away. You never reconcile anything with a text. And you never reconcile anything on the Internet. All you do is invite all the bitter gossips to be involved, which only complicates things. They bring all their wood to your fire. Somebody may be unsafe or dangerous because they’ve assaulted you, or they’re not a trustworthy person. Maybe it’s a phone call. Maybe it’s with witnesses. It’s finding a safe way to have that conversation. But watch your gossip.
And ladies, watch your prayer request gossip. Right, religious ladies? “Please pray for my husband. He’s a ‘blank.’ Oh no, that wasn’t gossip. That was a prayer request.” No, that was a gossip prayer request. You’re tricky. Right, men? “Boy, pray for my wife. She’s a ‘blank.’” That’s gossip. Have you talked to her? “No. I’m not talking about her. Pray for her.” How about I pray that you stop gossiping about her?
WATCH YOUR EMOTIONS
Number two, watch your emotions. He says, “Be angry and do not sin.” What he doesn’t say is, “Don’t be angry.” And religious people will say, “Oh, there are two buckets of emotions: good emotions and bad emotions.” There’s not, because God has all emotions. The question is whether or not the emotions are driving us toward holiness or unholiness. And some will say, “Oh, anger—that’s a bad emotion.” Not necessarily. God gets angry. God gets angry. Jesus gets angry. He never sinned, but he got angry.
The most frequently quoted verse in the whole Bible, if you go to the sixty-six books of the Bible, and say, “Boy, there’s a lot in here. What verse is repeated most often?” It’s this one—Exodus 34:6—and it’s God’s self-disclosure and revelation of himself. And he describes himself as “A God who is slow to anger.” God has a long wick. God’s not always on the threshold of eruption. God gets angry, but you have to get him there with ongoing stubbornness, hardness of heart, rebellion, and folly. By the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I need to be like that. It’s not that we don’t get to anger, but we don’t start with anger. “In your anger, do not sin.”
Anger can be a very powerful emotion that can be used for constructive good. I’ll give you an example. The woman who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving—she had a child who was killed by a drunk driver, a repeat offender drunk driver. And it looked like, perhaps, nothing would be done, legally, to this guilty drunk driver who killed her child.
She became angry. Is that OK? Is that OK? If somebody gets drunk and kills people, if somebody molests a child, somebody assaults a woman, what do you think is in God’s heart? Anger. It’s wrong. What she did was she took that anger, and she founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to do something good out of the suffering that she was enduring. “In your anger, do not sin.” Watch your emotions.
WATCH YOUR CLOCK
Number three, watch your clock. It says, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” That’s an agrarian society where you would get up with the sun, go to work, and then you would come home and go to bed when the sun went down. They didn’t have electricity. It was a day that was governed by the rising and the setting of the sun.
In saying, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger,” what it’s saying is, “Don’t let things extend or delay.” It doesn’t mean you can’t go for a walk and say, “Look, I’m really frustrated. I need to pray. Let me journal, think my thoughts through, get my head on straight. Let me cool down. Let me go read my Bible. I’ll be ready in an hour or two. Let me just get ready to talk to you so I don’t bring a lot of wood to this fire.”
That’s OK, but when you wait days and months and years, it’s like untreated cancer in the soul. It just grows and grows and grows. So he tells us to watch our clock. Some of you so fear conflict that you’ve chosen bitterness over conflict. What happens when we fail to heed God’s instruction?
WATCH YOUR ENEMY
Well, that’s the impetus for point four. He says, “Watch your enemy.” He says, “Give no opportunity to the devil.”
This is where Christian instruction is different than non-Christian instruction. If you’re dealing with issues of bitterness, and strained relationships, and unforgiveness, and you’re dealing with secular psychology and counseling, they’re not going to include Satan and demons. But the Bible does, and the Bible says that Satan and demons—they hate God and they hate God’s people, which means they love it when God’s people shoot one another. Satan loves it when a Christian shoots a Christian. Saves them the bullet, and it also publicly damages the reputation of Jesus. It’s all spiritual war.
That’s where this is all going in Ephesians 6. The very next chapter is about spiritual warfare. And the introduction to Satan and demons is right here—that they tend to get their foothold in the church and in our families and in our relationships and in our lives and in our Community Groups and in our Redemption Groups through bitterness.
WATCH YOUR HANDS
He says, as well, to watch your hands. He says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
What do you do with your hands when you’re bitter? Do you punch something? Do you shove someone? Do you grab someone? Do you throw something? Do you slam a door? Do you jump in a car? Do you slam it into gear and speed away? What do you do with your hands?
He says, “Watch your hands.” Do something constructive, not destructive. Do something that helps others, doesn’t harm others. I was talking to a divorce attorney after the previous sermon. He came up and he said, “This sounds like my life.” He said, “And what people do with their hands when they’re bitter,” he said, “Mark, it’s devastating what they do with their hands.” Grab your phone, grab your laptop, and declare war. Watch your hands.
WATCH YOUR MOUTH
And number six, watch your mouth. He says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.” You say, “How do I know whether or not it’s corrupting?” He says, “It’s not about you getting your hurt out, but imparting grace to those who hear.” Is this going to tell the truth? Because he starts with this statement: “Put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth.”
Now, bitter people tend to rewrite, revise history. “I will omit these details that paint me in a negative light. I will emphasize these details that paint them in a negative light. And I will not speak the whole truth.” He says, “Watch your mouth. Watch your mouth. Tell the truth about them and you.” Some of you say, “But they sinned against me, so don’t I have a right?” You do not have a right to respond to sin with sin. The Bible says, “Do not respond to evil with evil.”
And here’s something that I’ve observed. In almost seventeen years now of being your pastor, I’ve observed it in my own life, and I’ve observed it in the life of others. When you’re bitter against someone, you tend to nickname them. In my experiences, we nickname those we love and those we hate. And if we’re bitter against someone, we name them—we nickname them. And what we’re doing is we’re trying to create an identity for them. You are not “Dearly Loved Child of God.” You are whatever the name is.
And then we articulate that to invite other people to echo our naming of them, so that then, not only do we see them in this negative light, but then as many as possible join us in seeing them in that negative light. And once we name them or nickname them, the assumption is they will never change. This is who they are. There’s no hope for them. And then we can treat them with utter contempt. So Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, says, “Watch your mouth. Watch your mouth.”
This is written by whom? Who wrote this? God, through a guy named Paul, who is in prison. He could be very bitter—against people and God. He is in prison because he loves Jesus. That’s why he’s in prison.
And he could be in prison saying, “I hate the Roman government. I’m very bitter against them. And I’m also disappointed in Jesus. I have suffered shipwreck, homelessness, poverty, beatings. I have no wife. I have no children. I am all alone. I am in a jail cell. I do not know if I will be released. And I’m disappointed with Jesus, because I have given my all for him, and he has given nothing to me.” And that’s not what he says. His life is harder, his pain is deeper, his grief is darker than yours and mine. His demonic affliction is at a scale that we do not even comprehend.
THE CYCLE OF BITTERNESS
So, how do people become bitter? What is the cycle of bitterness? Ephesians 4:31, “Let all”—how much? All. The word “all” is very important. “Let all bitterness”—so, that’s what we’ve been talking about for forty minutes—that word. “All bitterness.” Let me just start there.
DIG UP THE ROOT OF BITTERNESS
Hebrews 12:15 says that, as Christians and in the church, we have to dig up the root of bitterness lest it grow up and defile many. What he’s saying is that bitterness has roots. I’ll give you an analogy, an illustration from my childhood.
I was the oldest of five children, and we didn’t water our lawn during the summer because it cost money. So, the grass would die, but the weeds would flourish. I know not why, but that’s just how it worked in our yard. So, weeds everywhere. And my dad—“Mark, I’ve got to go to work. You’re home for the summer. I need you to go out, get rid of the weeds.” “How should I do that, Dad?” “Get a shovel. You got to dig them up.”
I thought, “No, I want to ride my bike and play ball. It’s summer. There’s got to be a quicker way to remove the weeds.” So, I got the electric weed eater, the weed whacker, and I thought, “Well, I’ll just—this’ll just take a minute. We’ll get rid of all the weeds, and then I’ll have time to ride my bike and play ball and move on with my life.” So I got the electric weed whacker, whacked down all the weeds, jumped on my bike, drove away to go enjoy the rest of my summer. And lo and behold, it wasn’t long. I looked out on the lawn and what do you think was there? More weeds. More weeds, because weeds have roots, and if you don’t pull the roots, you just get more weeds, right?
Forgiveness is the shovel that digs up the root of bitterness. So, what Paul is saying here is, “Don’t just work on your hurt, or your anger, or your temper. Get the root.” And the root is what? Bitterness. How many of you, you feel like, “I dealt with that, and then it comes back, and it’s bigger and worse than ever”? You didn’t pull the root.
HOW TO BUILD A FIRE
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Returning to my analogy that I borrowed from Proverbs 26:20, “Without wood, a fire goes out. Without gossip, a quarrel dies down.” Bitterness is a spark. You’ve been sinned against. You’ve been hurt. There’s a flash. You decide, “I will not forgive them,” or, “I won’t forgive them right now.” There’s a spark.
That leads to wrath. Now, you’ve got a flame. You ever built a fire or a campfire? First thing, you need a spark, and then a little flame. OK, now we have the beginnings of a potential fire. There’s an opportunity here. That’s what wrath is. Bitterness is like the spark. Wrath is the first flame. Now, through gossip, you’re literally breathing on it. “They did this.” “They said that.” “They hurt me.” “Here’s how I feel.” “See my emotion.” You’re blowing on that little flame, hoping you can get this into a fire.
Anger is where you officially have a small fire. You don’t need to keep stuffing paper. The kindling has caught. It’s not a big fire, but it could be.
“Clamor.” Now it’s a growing fire. It’s a growing fire. It’s warm. There’s heat coming off of it. You can see it. There’s life to it. You ever been around a big fire? It’s like it has a life of its own—so much energy there. That’s the state of clamor.
“Slander.” “Well, nice hot fire. The coals are burning. We need more wood. We need more wood. My wood alone will not make the kind of forest fire that I want, so I’m going to start talking about this person who I say is responsible for the fire, because, you know, their flint rock collided against my flint rock. So, the spark is their fault—their fault.” Forget the rest of the story, which is you stacking wood and blowing and encouraging and yearning for conflict and a bigger fire.
“Where can I get some wood? I remember that person doesn’t like them. I’m going to talk to them. You don’t like them? I don’t like them either. You know what they did to me? They did that to you? Come on, bring your wood. Throw it on my fire. Do you have any friends that have been hurt by them? Let’s go talk to them. Let’s friend them. Let’s e-mail them. Let’s call them. Let’s text them. Let’s get together with them. Hey, bring your wood! We got a fire! Oh, you don’t even know them, but somebody did something similar to you, and you’re unforgiving and hurt? Well, your wood will burn. It’s dry. Just throw it on our fire.” That’s slander. That’s slander.
“Along with all malice,” that’s where it becomes an uncontained wildfire. It just goes in any direction, and consumes any fuel. This is where whole families get burned down, businesses get burned down, friendships get burned down, Community Groups get burned down, Redemption Groups get burned down, churches get burned down.
Some years ago, Grace and I were taking a vacation, when the kids were younger, in Central Oregon. It’s desert country. It’s dry. There was a fire that started. They’re not sure. They thought maybe a camper didn’t pay attention to their little fire, or somebody was driving down the road and flicked their cigarette out—just a little spark. And the fire department couldn’t contain it.
Now it’s a raging forest fire. And it had jumped the line. It had jumped over freeways and roads. It was consuming homes and devastating lives. And they rerouted all of the traffic. And as we’re stuck in traffic, you could just see this billowing, black smoke that just covered the sky. I’m sure whoever threw the cigarette, or failed to attend to their campfire did not intend for that.
Bitter people don’t intend to burn down everything in their path. But the two options are bitterness or forgiveness, wood on the fire, or water on the fire. And sometimes, hurt people like to hurt people. Some fires move slow. Some fires move fast. The Holy Spirit knows what he’s talking about, doesn’t he? This isn’t an old Book. This is a timeless Book, so it’s always timely.
FORGIVEN PEOPLE FORGIVE
So, what do we do? Well, forgiven people forgive. Ephesians 4:30, 32, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” Now, I know immediately in hearing this, some of you are like, “Forgive them? That’s the water on the fire? I can’t do that. I won’t do that.” Here’s the truth. You can’t do that, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, you can. The Holy Spirit is the third member of the Trinity. He’s the one who empowered the life of Jesus.
Friends, was Jesus ever sinned against? Yes. Did Jesus ever sin against anyone? No. So, he’s the most innocent victim who has ever lived. Did Jesus become bitter? No. How? By the power of the Holy Spirit, he’s able to forgive. Jesus has now sent the Holy Spirit to live in his people, so that we have access to his power, so that, rather than reacting out of our bitterness, we can be responding through the Holy Spirit.
It takes a miracle for a bitter victim to forgive, and the name of the miracle is the Holy Spirit. He is the one who will allow you, empower you, enable you to forgive. And if you resist or quench him—those two words are used in Scripture of how we fight the Holy Spirit and suppress his ministry—we grieve the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force. He’s a personal God. He loves you, and he loves them, and he loves the joy and the peace that forgiveness can bring. And when you fight him, when you resist him, when you disobey him, when you ignore him, you grieve him.
Friends, sin is not just breaking God’s laws. It’s breaking God’s heart, because God is not just a law. He’s a person. Are you grieving the Holy Spirit? Is there sadness? Is there grief, because of you, in him? It says in Genesis 6 that “The earth was filled with sin, and God was grieved in his heart that he made man.” Some of you say, “But I am hurt.” And the Holy Spirit would say, “And so am I.” “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Once you become a Christian, the Holy Spirit is in you, and he’s going to get you through to the kingdom of God.
BECAUSE GOD IN CHRIST FORGAVE YOU
So, what do we do? “Be kind to one another.” You didn’t want to hear that, right? You didn’t want to hear that. “Tenderhearted,” not hard-hearted—tenderhearted. Didn’t want to hear that. “Forgiving one another.” Did not want to hear that. “Why should I forgive them? Why?” “Because God in Christ forgave you.” Forgiven people forgive. This has more to do with you and Jesus than it has to do with you and them. They don’t deserve it, and neither did you. That’s the gospel, right?
That’s the gospel. All of our sin is against God. The psalmist says this in Psalm 51: “Against you only, Lord God, have I sinned.” All sin that we commit, even if it’s against another person, is ultimately against God. What does God do in response to our sin? He doesn’t become bitter. He doesn’t attack. He comes, as the Lord Jesus, to walk among his enemies, to live without sin, and to be sinned against continually.
Jesus does the most amazing thing. He goes to the cross, and he substitutes himself, and he dies in the place of his enemies. And the theologians will say that Jesus had seven last words from the cross—seven statements. One of them is this—Jesus says, “Father”—what?—“Forgive them.” And then Jesus dies so that we could be forgiven. And the Father is not angry with us; the anger went to Jesus. The Father does not punish us; the punishment went to Jesus. The Father does not condemn us; the condemnation went to Jesus.
Are you glad that God is not bitter against you right now, inventing ways of doing malice? It is hypocritical to say, “God, I am so thankful for your forgiveness, but I refuse to extend that forgiveness to others.” Because when we do that, what we’re saying is, “Lord, I know the sins I have committed against you are grievous, but the sins that they’ve committed against me are worse. So, I understand that you would forgive me, and I need you to understand why I would not forgive them.” It’s blasphemous.
SEVEN THINGS FORGIVENESS IS
Let me hit briefly—because now, many of you will have questions—seven things that forgiveness is, and then we’ll hit seven things that forgiveness is not.
Number one, forgiveness is canceling a debt owed to you. “I’m not going to make you pay. I’m going to let that go emotionally, relationally.” Jesus tells us to pray this way: “God, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Forgiveness is releasing a debt that is owed to you.
Number two, forgiveness is removing the control that the offender has over you. If you haven’t forgiven them, and you’re bitter against them, then they still control you. Jesus is not functional, practical Lord because who you think you are and how you respond is largely dictated by what they’ve done, not what he’s done.
Number three, forgiveness is giving a gift to yourself and to your offender. You can move on. You can let go of some of the stress, some of the anxiety, some of the haunting.
Number four, forgiveness is forsaking revenge. In Romans 12:19, God says, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.” What you’re not saying is, “I am sanctioning injustice,” but “I’m just leaving it in the hands of the perfect court, with the perfect Judge.”
Number five, forgiveness is leaving ultimate justice in God’s hands. Some of you love justice. You should. So does God. And justice either comes at the cross or in hell—where Jesus died in their place for their sins, and they come to repentance or they don’t, and they stand before the Lord Jesus to be sentenced to the conscious, eternal torments of hell forever, suffering for what they have been doing. It’s leaving the ultimate justice in God’s hands. Friends, it came in the past at the cross or it comes in the future in hell, and you’re willing to not seek justice now but to leave it in his hands.
Number six, forgiveness is an ongoing process. You’ll forgive them once, but you may need to forgive them again because they do it again, or maybe the hurt comes back afresh, and the old wound starts bleeding. There was a common teaching by the rabbis in Jesus’ day that you should forgive someone two or three times. They come to the Lord Jesus. They ask him, “Lord Jesus, how often should we forgive our enemy?” And he says what? “Seventy times seven.” It’s another way of saying, “Keep forgiving. Keep forgiving.”
And number seven, forgiveness is wanting good for your offender. You know that, ultimately, you’ve forgiven them when your hope is that they come to the Lord Jesus and that their future is better than their past.
SEVEN THINGS FORGIVENESS IS NOT
Seven things that forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not denying that sin occurred or diminishing its evil. “Nothing happened. I don’t even remember it. It’s not a big deal. That was in the past.” No, it really was horrible. God had to die for it. It’s that big of a deal.
Number two, forgiveness is not enabling sin. Your spouse is an addict or a thief or an abuser. It’s not enabling sin.
Number three, forgiveness is not necessarily a response to an apology. “They never said they’re sorry.” They may never say they’re sorry. They may never be sorry. They may die without apologizing. They may have moved away. You may not even know where they are.
Forgiveness is not covering up crimes committed against us. I told a woman many, many years ago—her husband was abusive. I said, “You need to forgive him and call the police.” “I can’t forgive him and call the police.” “Yes, you can, because he has committed a crime.” We are not a church that allows women to be beaten or children to be assaulted. No, you can forgive someone and send them to jail. If they’ve committed a crime, that’s what justice requires.
Number five, forgiveness is not forgetting. Many religious people like to quote Jeremiah 31:34, where it says, “I remember their sins no more.” And they’ll, just with sort of a pithy lightness that’s inappropriate, say things like, “Well, God doesn’t remember, and you shouldn’t remember. You need to just let it go and forget about it.” You go, “Really, I—” God doesn’t forget anything. God is omniscient. God is all-knowing.
There’s not a list of things that God used to know. What that means is God chooses not to see our identity in light of what we’ve done, but rather in light of what Jesus has done, and he doesn’t interact with us primarily based upon what we’ve done, but primarily by what Jesus has done. And so to forgive is to say, “That’s not always on the forefront of my mind, and that’s not how I define you and interact with you, with no hope for you.”
Number six, forgiveness is not trust. Husband commits adultery on the wife, says he’s sorry. She says that she forgives him. Do they pick up where they used to be? No, because a great withdrawal has been made from their account of trust. Trust is gained slowly. It’s lost quickly. Forgiving someone is not a full return to complete trust necessarily with that person.
And number seven, forgiveness is not reconciliation. It takes one person to repent. It takes one person to forgive. And then there’s reconciliation. It takes two people to reconcile. All you can do is what you can do. It’s where Paul says elsewhere, “Insofar as it is possible with you, seek to live at peace with all men.” What he’s saying is, “Put your hand out. Leave it out, and if they don’t respond, you’re not reconciled, but you’ve done what you can, and your conscience should be clear.” So, forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation. It’s an invitation to reconciliation. That’s what it is.
WHO DO YOU NEED TO FORGIVE AND WHO NEEDS TO FORGIVE YOU?
Two questions in closing. Are you ready for them? Things for you to think about, talk about with your spouse, your roommates, your Community Group, your Redemption Group, your friends.
Number one, who do you need to forgive? Who do you need to forgive? Because forgiven people forgive.
Number two, who needs to forgive you? See, when we hear this sermon, because we tend to be religious and self-righteous, we think of all the people who should apologize to us, and we tend not to think as eagerly about all the people that we need to apologize to. Who have you sinned against, and, if they heard this sermon, it would be your face and your name that would be on the forefront of their mind? How will you repent, extend a hand to them?
I appreciate you letting me teach you for an hour. Some of you will ask, “How does he have these insights?” Because he’s a guilty sinner who has learned some things the hard way, too. And I need Jesus, and you need Jesus, and we need Jesus. And the good news is, in Christ we are forgiven, and forgiven people can forgive. I want this heaviness to weigh in the room. I don’t want, too quickly, to just move on emotionally because it can be a little awkward. I want you to let this sink into your soul.
I’m going to ask the financial stewards to come forward at this moment, and we’re going to collect our tithes and offerings. And the reason we do this is we want to see this good news of Jesus go out to the world. We want our church to be healthy. We want other churches to be planted. We want disciples to be made. We know that the world is filled with sin and death, and we know that apart from Jesus, there really isn’t hope and help and healing, especially that would last forever. So, as you give your tithes and offerings, let me say, we love you, we appreciate you. And if you’d like to get connected, or you need help, or us to follow up with you, if you fill out that card, then you can let us know how we can love and serve you.
In a moment, we are going to respond, as well, by partaking of Communion. Let me explain this to you. When we partake of Communion, we’re remembering the broken body and shed blood of Jesus—that we’re not just forgiven, we’re forgiven through the death of Jesus Christ. All right, he says, “Just as God in Christ forgave you.” Apart from Christ, there is no forgiveness of sin.
So, if you’re here and you’re a non-Christian, you are not forgiven unless you have turned from sin and trusted in Christ. So, I invite you to do that right now. And for those of you who are forgiven in Christ—you’re Christians or you become Christians today—sometimes as we take and partake of Communion, it can be just sort of a routine. Let it, today, be a ritual where we remember, “I’m forgiven through the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus. And his word to me, from his cross, from his bloodied mouth, is ‘Father, forgive them.’” And as you partake of Communion, you’re publicly identifying that Jesus died for you, and that you’re forgiven in him.
And if you are here today with someone that you’re unreconciled with, Paul tells the Corinthians that before we partake of Communion, we need to reconcile with those that we are unreconciled with. And so, take an opportunity. Maybe it’s someone that you came with or in the room is here with us today. You need to go seek them out, and you need to, if not resolve everything here, say, “We need to resolve this, and I’m covenanting in the sight of God that we will. Let’s partake of Communion together as the beginning of our efforts to put some water on this fire and no more wood.”
And lastly, I want you think about this fact: some of you are now going to have the hardest, most emotionally exhausting, difficult conversations in the history of your life. And it also could become the source of the greatest ministry you’ve ever had—that once you are forgiven and you can share your story of forgiveness and encourage others to forgive—this hard season for you could be a glorious opportunity.
This is the Apostle Paul. In Acts 7, it introduces him before he’s a Christian—that he is present, overseeing the murder of an early church deacon named Stephen. Stephen loves Jesus, and Paul hates Jesus, so Paul murders a man who loves Jesus. And here’s what Stephen, the early church deacon, says as he is dying: “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”
Stephen tells Paul, as he is breathing his last, “I forgive you, and I’m praying that God would forgive you as well.” And Stephen released the sin against him, left it in the hands of God, wanted good for Saul, prayed for him. Jesus saved Paul. He went from a murderer of Christians to a pastor of Christians, and one who talks about forgiveness because he has been forgiven.
Father God, I pray for our people. Lord God, I pray for those who have sinned to repent and apologize, and those who have been sinned against to forgive. God, I know that when we’re hurt, we want a big fire. We want everybody to see it. We want people to walk, gather around our fire in the darkness, so that we might talk to them, and we might leak and vent and gossip with them. God, we know that the world is filled with hurting and burdened and broken and bitter people. We know, Lord God, that people are just walking around with cords of wood, just looking for fires. And God, in the age of technology, it’s more available than ever.
So, Lord God, I pray for myself, I pray for us as a church, I pray for our families and our Community Groups and our Redemption Groups and our various locations. I pray against the enemy, his servants, their works, and effects. I pray against his opportunity to seek a foothold through bitter people. Lord God, please send the Holy Spirit to illuminate our understanding and to empower our relationships. And Lord Jesus, we thank you that we are forgiven, and we thank you for the great invitation to forgive others because forgiven people forgive. In Jesus’ name—amen.
Note: This sermon transcript has been edited for readability.