Friday, January 8, 2010

A neglected way to inner healing

This is a theme I can speak on from painful but ultimately rewarding personal experience, and one that cuts to the very heart of our relationship with the living God: "Forgive us as we forgive others." Or, as Jesus himself put it in the prayer method he personally taught to his followers, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

In good preaching tradition I am going to make three points:

  • Firstly, we all need God’s forgiveness;
  • Secondly, we need to forgive others; and
  • Thirdly, if we forgive others, then God will both forgive us and heal us.

We all need God’s forgiveness
OK, so we all need God’s forgiveness. It sounds obvious, doesn’t it, to anyone with any kind of Christian background? But it’s not always as obvious as it should be. Psalm 36 tells us bluntly that the wicked man “flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin”. In other words, Satan and our human vanity are constantly conspiring to make our actions seem more reasonable than they really are - constantly blinding us to our sin and our need of forgiveness. I want to share a frank snippet of my own past here.

Back in the mid-eighties, my first wife demanded a divorce. I was devastated; my career went off the rails, my social life fell apart. I drifted from day to day in sorrow, pain and anger that she could do this to me, not least because everybody, even her family, told me it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t until three years later that in desperation I asked God where I was going wrong, and he showed me the truth. The truth was un-confessed sin. I was responsible for getting into a marriage that was bound to fail from the outset. My wife was young, emotionally disturbed and rather anti-God. To marry her, I’d ignored advice of fellow Christians and stopped going to church rather than listen to them. As the marriage went downhill, I’d neglected to pray, become frustrated with her violent temper, and let it show in my attitudes. In other words, although I had tried to hold the marriage together, I shared responsibility for the damage it had done to both our lives. And in putting all the blame on her – in failing to confess my own sin – I’d been keeping God out of my life.

Of course I saw later that God had been with me all along, gently steering me back into fellowship. Nothing in the end can stand in the way of God’s love for us. But the sins that we don’t confess are like a barbed wire fence between God and us – a terrible barrier that can all too easily stop us experiencing his loving presence in our lives or sharing his peace. And the moment I said, “Sorry, Father, I’ve been living in rebellion. Please forgive me, and help me put my life back together,” that was when the long process of healing first got under way. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Most readers will already have heard those words from 1 John; many churches use them regularly in their worship times. But it wasn’t until God gave me the grace to say, “Lord, perhaps I’m not as innocent as I think I am. Show me the truth, even if it hurts,” that I was able to confess my sin and claim his promise of forgiveness.

So that’s the first point: Not just that we need God’s forgiveness, but that our sins aren’t always obvious to us. We rely on God’s Spirit to show us where we’ve sinned and need forgiveness. The second point is this: If we want God’s forgiveness, we need to forgive others.

We need to forgive others
Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we ask for forgiveness, but there’s a proviso:
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

"Can that be right?" I can imagine you asking. "Will God really only forgive me if I forgive others?"
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

"But what about that senior manager who told lies and ruined my career?"
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

"OK, Lord, but what about the swine that ran off with my partner? Surely you don’t expect . . .Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

"And what about my first wife? Look, Lord, I came clean and confessed where I went wrong. Isn’t that spiritual enough for you?"
[Please read the following line aloud, and ignore others in the room if they look at you strangely] 
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to the words of the Lord’s Prayer. And if that isn’t enough, listen to Jesus’ teaching about the Unforgiving Servant. Do you remember the story? A certain servant is in hock up to his neck. He’s let off a massive debt by the King, only to have a fellow servant thrown into prison for non-payment of a trifling sum. And what does the King say to the unforgiving servant? “You wicked man! Shouldn’t you have forgiven your fellow servant, just as I forgave you?” And the King has him thrown into the dungeons until he can repay every penny – something he can never do. And Jesus says, that’s what God will do to you, unless you forgive others from your heart.

Scary? Yes, it is. But the point is, we’re all sinners. The Bible says that all have sinned; all have fallen short of the glory of God. Unless Jesus Christ had died for us on the cross, we’d all be facing eternal death, the good and the bad of us alike. And when God himself suffered so much to forgive me, what right have I to continue holding a grudge against the colleague who got me into trouble, or the partner who deserted me, or the unknown figure in the crowd who broke into my car? It is hard to forgive; we could never do it without God’s help. But when we forgive others, two vital things happen: First, we show the sincerity of our own repentance. Second, we prove in a way that could never be forged that we belong to Christ. It’s then that Christ accepts us, and that we ourselves gain forgiveness through his death for us on the cross.

I know this is challenging stuff, but the good news is this: If we forgive others, then God will forgive us. And what’s more, he’ll heal us.

If we forgive others, then God will both forgive us and heal us
Forgiving others is very hard. It defies all our human instincts. But when we trust God with all our pride and our pain, remarkable things can happen. Do you remember what I said earlier: that my own healing started when I said sorry to God for the sin of my broken marriage? Well here’s something else: Don’t think I’m boasting – there’s nothing especially spiritual about me – but my healing was completed when I forgave my former wife for the hurt she had caused me. I’d long since accepted that the breakdown wasn’t all her fault, but forgiving her was still hard. It took a lot of time and prayer, and it was all God’s grace, not mine. But forgiving her was a turning point in my life.

We tend to think that things should happen the other way round, don’t we. You know... “Only let God heal my pain and humiliation, then I can start to forgive and forget.” And of course we do need a measure of God’s healing before we can even think about forgiving those responsible for our suffering. But God seems to like it so much more the other way round. I guess that’s why Jesus said, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you.” After all, which prayer is sweeter in God’s ears? “Lord, give me healing”, or “Lord, help me to forgive”? A time comes when we need to forget ourselves and pray for the ability to forgive. And the miracle is this: As God answers our prayer and forgiveness blossoms in our hearts, so the barriers fall. He breaks into our lives with the power to heal our pain and take the sting out of our memories. When I finally prayed for God to forgive my estranged wife the wrong she had done both him and me, and to give her his peace, that was when the final burden of guilt and pain and sorrow was lifted from me.

Now, I’m not making light of other people’s burdens. There may be some reading this who are carrying painful memories, and perhaps very recent scars, that go beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. But whatever the scale of our hurts, one thing remains true: Only our Creator God can heal us on the inside. The best Christian pastoral workers and counselling experts know that the priority is to focus not on our own feelings, but on Jesus Christ. And the key to inner healing is to let Jesus into every possible recess of our hearts and minds. All too often, it is either in failing to confess our guilt, or in hanging on to our anger and resentment, that we shut him out.

Remember when Jesus quoted Isaiah’s prophecy in the synagogue at Nazareth? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and to release the oppressed.” Well, Jesus comes to us still, to loosen the chains of guilt and bitterness and recrimination that bind us, to set the prisoners free, and to bind up the broken hearted. And his first words to us very often these: “Repent” and “Forgive”. And very often, just as when he performed healing miracles here on earth, his words of healing are these: “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.”

So to sum up: We all need God’s forgiveness, and we need to forgive others. But if we forgive others, then God will both forgive us and heal us. Because the one day we shall be with him in Heaven. And even now, as we forgive and are forgiven, we can claim a foretaste of that glorious future; an eternity in which the Bible promises that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more sorrow or crying or pain, for all these things will have passed away.