Staying In Love: On Forgiveness

By: Everett Vander Horst

Scripture Reading: Colossians 3:12-14

October 5th, 2008

Steps for resolving conflict work best when both parties are involved, and, while there may be some hurt involved, primarily the task at hand is sorting out the details when interests and desires between two parties simply don’t match up. She wants to go out Christmas shopping for the kids together. He just wants to stay home alone and watch the big game tonight on TV. He wants his parents over after church this Sunday. She wants anyone but his parents over after church this Sunday. These are conflicts. They need communication and resolution.

A couple weeks ago on the Back to God Hour we looked at conflict in our marriages and other close relationships. We discussed conflict resolution—how we can, in healthy ways, work through disagreements with our spouses and others. Today we are talking about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not like conflict resolution. Forgiveness is far more difficult, and applies to situations that are more toxic.

She decides not to show up for dinner with his friends from work because her friends invited her to a movie at the last minute. He hears about a truck that’s a really good deal, so he goes out and buys it without consulting her, even after promising that they would fix up the kitchen together as soon as they can scrape some extra money together. These aren’t conflicts needing communication. They are sins needing forgiveness. And they are a reality in marriages, friendships, and relationships of all kinds.

In relationships, we almost always have the best of intentions in mind. But we often find ourselves in situations where we need to make a decision between two or more choices, and sometimes we choose poorly. In choosing our words and behaviors, we have to act on someone’s interests. Ideally, we should consider the interests of both parties. But in reality, sometimes we act on our own alone.

We want to do what is right, and loving, and kind, but we are hindered by the brokenness, and sometimes the blindness, of our own souls. Thus we find ourselves at times living with hurt, or living with people whom we have hurt. This is a common piece of the human experience as we live with our own sin filled brokenness in a fallen world. So what can we do?

Here in this letter the Apostle Paul calls the Colossians to do something about their own sinfulness and brokenness. Earlier in this chapter, he’s already called them to put aside their sinfulness. Now, on a more positive note, he calls them to put on the kind of virtues that will help them to be more like Jesus. He calls them, and all of us, to first be who Christ has made us to be.

Essentially, Paul says, start with who you are. And who does he say we are? We are God’s chosen. That means that it is not by our own initiative that I am who I am, and you are who you are, but by God’s initiative—we are his handiwork. He initiated his relationship with you.

Paul goes on to note that you are holy. You have been set apart by God for his service. That means there is something true of you that is not like everyone else.

Paul also says that you are dearly loved. Now, I must say that you are dearly loved, not because you are inherently lovable on your own. I can say this with some confidence, even though I don’t know you personally. This is because of the Bible’s teaching about sin, and how sin has infected each and every one of us. That’s why he spoke earlier in the chapter about the need to set aside our sinfulness. No, it’s not because of your own virtuousness that you are dearly loved, it is because of the nature of God. God is loving—God is love! So you are dearly loved by God himself.

In each of these three ways, God takes the initiative. God has chosen you. God makes you holy. God dearly loves you. And that means (and we’ll pick up on this a little later) you are like Christ, who was anointed, holy and beloved of the Father.

Those aspects of our identity ought to be foremost in our minds as we assess our relationships, make decisions and generally live out our lives. Too often, I think, we revert back to thinking of ourselves according to what we have been, sinful and broken, and so downgrade our expectations of ourselves and our behaviors. But God has called us to more, through the healing he has already provided. Think of it this way. Imagine a person was quite sick, but hesitated to see a doctor. That person thinks, "The doctor sees sick people all day long. He must get tired of it. I don’t want to bother him. I’m not really worthy of his attention." Such an attitude fails to take into account the very nature of the doctor, who got into the profession in the first place out of a desire to bring healing, wholeness and happiness to his patients. The sick person must come to a clear self understanding of who they are, their identity, before the doctor, and so find what is needed and get on with a better life. This is also true in our relationship with God. All who have accepted the healing Jesus offers can now live out their new identity, as chosen, holy and beloved children of God. It would make no sense to revert back to the self—destructive and self—defeating patterns of a life of sinfulness.

Chosen, holy, beloved. That is what you are—at God’s initiative. Now act like it!

Paul speaks of virtues that are an attitude of the heart, each of them flowing from this new identity. He says we ought to clothe ourselves with them, those listed in the latter part of verse 12. These virtues ought to be put to use in everyday life. After all, it’s one thing to have fine clothes available to you, ones that are hanging in your closet, but that’s not really what they are for. Clothes are for wearing.

So put on compassion. This means suffering or feeling with another. Obviously, that precludes ignoring the needs of others. Instead, the Christ—like response is to enter into their sorrows, to understand, know and share the pain they know all too well.

Next, put on kindness. Kindness rejects the attitude that says we ought to let others get their just desserts. Kindness is all about seeking to stop and prevent pain for others.

Third, put on humility. The humble do not put effort into seeing that their needs are met first. Humility means seeing in yourself primarily the potential for serving, not being served.

Also, put on gentleness. Those who have put on gentleness do not hurry in their handling of others as if they were objects. Gentle people recognize when others are physically, emotionally, or spiritually fragile.

Finally, put on patience. Patience rejects the pressure that is exerted by external agendas or schedules. Instead, patience flows out of humility, showing a readiness to wait for and on another.

All of these virtues have been demonstrated best by Christ himself. Go ahead, read his book. Watch carefully as Jesus interacts with others. Jesus was compassionate and kind, he humbled himself, treated others gently, and was and continues to be very patient with sinners. Go, and do likewise.

Verse 12 is a reminder of the basics, the foundational stuff. Think about compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, not as theological concepts, but as descriptions of what you bring into your marriage, your parenting, your friendships, your workplace. We need to get that right in our own heads and hearts because these virtues are the steering wheel by which our actions are directed.

So clothe yourself, and put those virtues into action. This is the application for our marriages and other relationships. Paul says, in verse 13, "Bear with each other." That is, apply your patience. Be willing to restrain your natural reactions—to another person’s grouchiness, or to another person’s absentmindedness. Be willing to wait on the other. Will she ever get to the point? Wait and see. Will he ever finish that project he’s been fussing over? Wait and see.

But Paul doesn’t leave the application there. At some point, or in some instances, being patient, or bearing with the other, is not the right response. This is the point where forgiveness becomes necessary. Perhaps an argument went too far and your spouse spoke angry words that cannot be forgotten. Or maybe you were hurt when an event you were planning to be a part of together was scrapped because your spouse decided to go and do their own thing instead. In cases like these, patience does not address the hurt. Forgiveness is required.

Forgiveness is surrendering whatever grievances you may have. Forgiveness is primarily an exercise in giving, giving of oneself, of honor, pride, or rights. It is a very risky act; it is putting one’s self on the chopping block. It is a self sacrificing act that many of us are able to do for a time, but we cannot keep it up—not with spouses, not with friends, not even with fellow believers.

Now I am guessing that there are many people listening today who have given up on forgiveness. You’ve given up on forgiveness as a way to heal your marriage, friendship, or your faith community. You have come to see forgiveness as a suitable response to minor hurts, or as a theological concept not well suited to the ‘real world.’ You may think you have simply let it go, faced the inevitable, tried to be realistic, and moved on. Maybe you smile and say a greeting, but you still loathe doing anything else. Or maybe you’ve just stopped the hurt or angry silence and settled back into speaking, but the resentment still runs deep. On the surface, we seem to have forgiven any grievances, but on the inside, they aren’t truly forgiven.

Paul tells us to forgive others as the Lord forgives us. But how do we know what that type of forgiveness looks like? Jesus Christ himself serves as the very model of forgiveness. He is the very essence of self—sacrifice. His work of ministry among us seems at first, perhaps, a deterrent. "Forgive as the Lord forgave me? Impossible!" But in fact, his forgiveness is the means by which we can forgive.

The following 6 steps for practicing forgiveness are adapted from three chapters in Walter Wangerin’s book, "As for Me and My House." He has done such a fine job of dividing forgiveness into manageable pieces; I see no way to improve on them. So know that these are his insights into the hard work of Christ—like forgiving.

First, if we are to forgive, we need to get real! Or at least, be realistic. Figure out what happened. Assess the seriousness of the sin. There are three kinds of questions you need to ask yourself as you prepare to forgive. To start, clarify: what exactly was the sin? Was it a coffee stain on the rug? Or a brutal word spoken in anger?

Then, against whom was the sin committed? Was it against another loved one? Was it against him or herself? Against you? Then what part? Your body? Your mind? Your authority? Your trust? Your desire for rest?

Last, what are the consequences of this sin? What was damaged? Was anything destroyed?

Assessing the seriousness of the offense is helpful, because sometimes it’s not even clear to us why we feel hurt. Clarifying sins against us keeps us from overreacting to minor matters, or from smothering deep hurts.

Once you have a better idea of the sin that so hurts, take time to remember your own forgiveness—that which you have yourself received. Do that painful work of recalling your own sin against God or another. When have you done something similar, a sleight of hand or heart? This is not done to induce guilt, but humility, to avoid a posture of spiritual self—righteousness. You need to recognize your spouse or friend as a fellow wanderer. Let your own sin and forgiveness sink in, and let it go deep.

I heard once of a woman who testified of the importance of realizing God’s forgiveness in her own life. "It used to be that I hated my husband," she said. In fact, I once vowed that I’d refuse even to go to his funeral. But now that I got religion, I’d be glad to go to his funeral any day of the week!" We need to let forgiveness go deeper than that.

After assessing the sin and remembering the grace extended to you, you need to start giving. As Wangerin points out, this ‘giving’ is the central work of for—give—ness. Step 3 is to give up your rights in prayer. The simple fact is, forgiveness involves surrendering your rights—that’s what makes it scandalous, even offensive. With forgiveness, it is up to the one who has been hurt to set things right. And that is so unfair! That means giving up right to punishment, payment or hurts. Because it is so hard, it is suggested it be done in prayer, where God is present as an effective witness and healer.

Next, give notice. Tell your spouse or friend what the offense is. This step is risky. Will the other person feel wounded? Will this create more hurt? One has to keep in mind that forgiveness is not all about you. Remember humility. It’s also about the other person, and their need to be corrected and have opportunity to grow.

Tell the other person prayerfully, carefully, without anger or bitterness. Tell that they’ve been forgiven. And be warned, the other person might not, at first, have an appropriate reaction. But that’s alright—forgiveness depends on you, not them.

So give up rights, give notice and then give a gift. Christ has shown us that forgiveness is more than words. A freeing gift shows that love continues, and that the forgiveness is real. Break the normal pattern! Let flowers be given to the one who has sinned! What would that say about the power of forgiveness? Better than flowers, give the gift of service, a giving of self. What service is it that your spouse most appreciates? A back rub? Favorite homemade cookies? Time to him or herself, for their favorite hobby? Give of yourself in a way that affirms your spouse’s desires. It is at this point that the unrepentant may be convicted.

The last step, number 6, is to come to agreement about steps to avoiding this same hurt in the future. Wangerin gives it an appropriate theological title: a covenant. Such covenant making may need to wait if your spouse or friend didn’t respond well to the steps of giving notice and forgiveness.

To make a covenant is to note this moment for future reference. This flies in the face of the common saying, ‘forgive and forget.’ In fact, forgiving and forgetting is both impossible, and in many cases, harmful. Would you let a convicted child molester care for your children? After all, forgive and forget…? Forgetting sin is unwise and unhelpful, especially when it comes to more significant, habitual sins. God can forgive and forget. We cannot.

Make a pact around how you will, in the future, point out a familiar danger? For example, ahead of time, agree on how he is going to warn you that your drinking is getting out of hand. And how will you acknowledge the message? Ahead of time, agree on how he is going to respond when she points out he is spending too much time at work, away from family, again. Covenant together to break the cycle of sin. Don’t let it happen again.

Paul summarizes the call to put on Christ—like virtues when he says, "And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Bind these virtues with love. And what does that mean?

According to the Scriptures, love is consistently acting in the best interests of another. Love is more than a feeling. Your stomach in knots, feeling off balance, warm all over, light headed—when described as a feeling love can sound a whole lot like seasickness!

Love is grace in action. It’s what pulls us through when the feelings of love are gone. Wangerin says, "Forgiveness is repaying evil with kindness, doing all the things that love requires —— even when you don’t feel the love; for you can do the love also in the desert days when you do not feel loving."

A lack of forgiveness will cripple love in any relationship. When all is held in, when sins are not dealt with openly, when injustices are not let go, it becomes hard if not impossible to act in the best interests of your spouse or friend—which is the very essence of love. In a healthy relationship, a Christ—like person lets love bind these virtues and actions together—kindness connecting with forbearance, compassion enabling our forgiveness.

But love does more than that. The Greek text allows for another possible translation of verse 14: it is love that binds people together. Her to him. Him to her. Parent to child. These folks to those people.

Back in 1995, it was love that bound Christopher Reeve’s wife to him. The "Superman" actor had fallen from a horse in a riding accident that severed his spinal cord and paralyzed him from the shoulders down. In the days which followed both he and his mother considered pulling the plug on his life support system. In his memoir Still Me, which recounts how he battled back from the accident, Reeve said he first shared his thoughts with his wife, Dana. "I mouthed my first lucid words to her: ’Maybe we should let me go,’ " he recalled. But his wife, through tears, persuaded him to fight back, saying, "I want you to know that I will be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You’re still you, and I love you."

Love binds virtues and people together—and binds us to the heart of God. As Paul says in another of his letters, to the Romans, "I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

May we live out the knowledge and assurance we have of God’s love in Jesus. Over the past few weeks we have considered different aspects of relationships—conflict and forgiveness and intimacy, but we return to where we started.

Each one of us has a need to connect in a loving relationship with God our Creator and Redeemer. It is my prayer for you that that relationship is alive and flourishing. If your relationship with God has grown cold, or if you have never known the warmth of the embrace of God, I encourage you with all my heart and prayers to reach out to God, whose arms are extended out in a loving embrace, the most important, most enriching, most enduring hug of love we can ever receive. Know that your heavenly Father loves you, that all is forgiven, and he desires your love in return.

Please pray with me.


Dear heavenly Father, today we thank you that you have given us the gift of love. Thank you for love’s expression in so many ways among us—healthy marriages, youthful crushes, close friendships and intimate fellowship. Most of all we thank you for the love—gift of your one and only beloved Son, Jesus Christ, who loved us enough to offer his life as payment for sin in our place. Lord, I pray that if there is anyone today who does not know your love, who yearns for your divine embrace or needs to know that you are out there somewhere, waiting patiently for your lost children to come home, that your Spirit would hear and respond to their heart’s cry. Let them know, in unmistakable ways, that you love them, and receive them, through Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.

About the Author

Everett Vander Horst

Everett Vander Horst is the senior pastor at Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and his wife Christa have been married for 14 years, and have 3 children: Laura (10), Eric (7) and Jason (5). A Canadian, Everett grew up on a dairy farm in southwestern Ontario. After graduating from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1996, he and Christa moved to British Columbia where Everett was ordained as pastor in the Telkwa Christian Reformed Church. They took the call to Shawnee Park CRC in 2001. When he is not pastoring, Everett enjoys digital photography, fishing as well as building toys and furniture in his basement woodshop.

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