March 13, 2016 “Forgiving Life” – Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2

Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
“Forgiving Life”
March 13, 2016 – Fifth Sunday of Lent

Who is forgiveness for? Who benefits most when you forgive someone? In our day when we talk so much about psychological health, we may be tempted to think that the primary beneficiary of forgiveness is the forgiver. I feel better because I’ve forgiven the person who hurt me, because I’ve let go of anger and other negative emotions which were damaging my mental, emotional and possibly even physical health.

In fact, one or two of you in response to these sermons and conversations about forgiveness have told me a story about forgiving someone and said something very much like that. You offered forgiveness to someone who caused you pain, but there was not much response from the offender. “But I felt a whole lot better,” you said. I am sure that’s true. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing relief and healing in your own heart because you forgave someone. But may I challenge you this morning to avoid the conclusion that forgiveness in that case was more about you than about that other person? Forgiveness is not something you do primarily for yourself.

Our text today from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians gives us some insight into this important fact about who is the beneficiary of forgiveness. Verse 32 is the simple command Jesus taught and which Paul repeats more than once, “forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Leading up to it, we are told more about the kind of life which regularly and habitually offers forgiveness.

One facet of a forgiving life is Paul’s recognition that anger is going to be part of it. You and I are going to get angry sometimes. It’s inevitable. Anger is a common, frequent human experience. We all know it is also a dangerous, negative experience. Anger does damage to ourselves and to others. That’s why verses 26 and 27 put limits on anger, and verse 31 tells us to completely eliminate a variety of forms anger takes and kinds of speech by which it is expressed.

Yet verse 26 (and the Bible as a whole) does not teach that Christians are to completely eliminate anger. Paul’s direction is “Be angry but do not sin.” It is possible to experience anger without doing or even feeling anything wrong. Christians, in fact, need to have that kind of sinless anger. It’s part of and sets the stage for genuine forgiveness.

Once again I am borrowing heavily from a book by our friend Robert Roberts.[1] He wants to carefully distinguish genuine Christian forgiveness, which is focused on the other, on the person being forgiven, from a modern, therapeutic idea of forgiveness which focuses on the benefit forgiveness brings to the forgiver.

So Roberts tells a story about two young women, Diana and Maria. They’ve been best friends from college. When Diana hears that Maria is going to move to Chicago where she already lives,

she suggests they get an apartment together. Diana’s present one is too small for two, so she agrees to look for a larger apartment and start fixing it up for Maria’s arrival in about six weeks. Diana finds one (though the rent is higher than she anticipated) and sets to work with the paintbrush. She works happily, her mind set on the pleasures of friendship and life together. About a week and a half before Maria’s appointed arrival, she phones Diana and says she’s decided not to come to Chicago after all. She’s met the most wonderful guy, and she doesn’t want to jeopardize the relationship by moving away from his part of the country just now. She wishes Diana a happy time in her new apartment and luck in finding someone to share it with. Diana is furious.[2]

Roberts tells us “that there is something right—even healthy—about Diana’s fury.” It’s not wrong to be upset at an injustice, at the breach of an agreement when it results not only in financial loss but damage to a friendship. Diana would be morally blind if she didn’t feel offended by what her friend did to her. You and I would be blind too if we didn’t see the justice in Diana’s anger.

Yet, as Roberts goes on to say, there’s a downside to anger. If Diana holds on to it and continues to view her friend through that red cloud of fury then she will ultimately lose a friend. She won’t be able to see Maria’s good qualities or remember all the things she valued in their friendship. Moreover, Diana’s anger may ruin her own happiness and, if she holds onto long enough, hurt her physical health.

That’s why the Christian view of anger is a mixed report, just as we see here in what Paul says. Anger does us the service of letting us see clearly that something wrong has been done. God is angry when He looks at sin. Jesus experienced anger when He saw the Temple desecrated by commercial activity. But hanging onto anger, and living by it, is not healthy and not spiritually right. As James 1:20 says, “human anger does not produce the righteousness of God.”

So there are two limits to anger there in verse 26. “Be angry but do not sin,” is the first limit. Anger may be justified, but something sinful in response is never justified. It’s all right to be angry when you are done wrong. It’s not right to respond to that wrong with physical violence, whether against a family member or a stranger. It’s absolutely correct to be angry if your spouse is looking at pornography, but it’s absolutely wrong to retaliate by having an affair of your own. Righteous anger never justifies unrighteous action.

The second limit to anger is “do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” Proper anger should be short-lived. It’s not something you should keep stoking like a campfire, finding more offenses to think about to keep it burning. It flares up to let you feel just how deeply you’ve been hurt by someone, but letting it turn into a forest fire that burns for days and scorches the landscape around you will not do you or anyone else any good.

Forgiveness is the way God gives us as Christians to respond properly to proper anger. It’s the way we take a very justified feeling of pain and indignation and direct it on a course which leads to healing and healthy life. It’s giving up anger in order to do what James says anger can’t do. We forgive and give up anger to produce the righteousness of God.

As we’ve been doing all along in this sermon series, we need to say what forgiveness is not. If we are going to give up anger in a forgiving way, we need to realize that forgiveness is not just making an excuse for someone. Roberts notes that Diana could think about her friend in ways like this: “Maria grew up in a family of moral knuckleheads, and since she had that kind of upbringing I can hardly expect her to behave responsibly.” Or Diana could say to herself, “Maria has always had a desperate need to be loved and a dearth of boyfriends. So what can I expect of her when she gets some attention from the opposite sex?”[3]

Making excuses for someone is not forgiveness, says Roberts. It’s simply convincing ourselves that there is nothing really to forgive. A person didn’t really do anything wrong because he couldn’t help it or something like that. That’s not forgiveness. Real forgiveness has to be for a real offense.

That’s not to say, as Roberts also points out, that excuses like Diana might make for her friend can’t help her forgive. Seeing another person’s weaknesses can give us compassion which turns in the direction of forgiveness. But it’s not forgiveness if the excuse removes all responsibility from the offender. Which is why it’s good to note that Paul starts this list of admonitions we are looking at by calling in verse 25 for us to tell the truth. We need to be truthful with others and with ourselves when something wrong has been done. We want to “speak the truth in love,” as Paul said just ten verses earlier in this chapter, but it needs to be the truth.

Roberts says that “forgivers… are persons of integrity who do not play mental games with themselves.” It’s not forgiveness to pretend or try to convince yourself that what happened was not so bad or not bad at all. Forgiveness is letting go of anger, not letting the sun go down on it, when that anger is in fact totally justified, when you’ve been truly and wrongly hurt or betrayed.

The second thing that forgiveness is not, according to Roberts, is that it’s not something you do for your own sake. As I suggested at the beginning, real forgiveness is for the sake of the offender. The very word “forgiveness” has the word “give” in it. It is something you offer to someone else, for her benefit. Look again at verse 32, “forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

If forgiveness is something we do for our own sake, to feel better, to be happier, to produce our own emotional and physical health, then how can it be like God’s forgiveness of us? God does not get anything out of forgiving our sins. He doesn’t need to feel better about Himself or work on His emotional health. The forgiveness God pours out on us through the Cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all for us, a pure gift aimed at us, not at God’s own good feeling.

Our forgiveness is meant to be like God’s, a gift we offer for the sake of the person we forgive. It’s fine if it also makes us feel better, just like it’s O.K. to feel good when you give someone a tangible present. I felt good taking my wife to the opera Friday night for her birthday. But I didn’t do it just so I’d feel good. Truth be told, I didn’t enjoy it all that much, didn’t feel that good in the moment. But I gave her that gift for her sake, so that she could enjoy it and feel good. The same thing needs to be true of forgiveness.

Now, as we’ve already noted these past weeks, the good we want to do for someone by forgiving them may not be appreciated. The gift of forgiveness may not be received or received well. Diana could have sat down and got her anger under control, thought about verse 32 or the parable we read a couple weeks ago or the Lord’s Prayer which talks about forgiving our debtors. She might have written a very kind and generous e-mail to Maria, telling her how much that broken agreement hurt her, but saying that she still wanted to be friends and all was forgiven. We all know that much still depends on Maria. Is she ready to genuinely repent and honestly and sincerely apologize for what she’s done?

In these verses from Ephesians 4, Paul pictures a whole community of people who live lives of forgiveness and love. That’s the point of writing these directions, to help us as a Christian church to be a group where wrong can be honestly named and truly forgiven. Repentance is part of that. That’s why verse 28 takes stealing as an example. If a thief has been offered forgiveness both by God and by Christians around him, then the completion and fulfillment of that forgiveness is repentance and changed life. He “must give up stealing; rather let him labor and work honestly with his own hands.”

Forgiveness has to be for the sake of the other person because a new life is what we want to give her, an opportunity to repent and become someone new, something better. Just like we read from II Corinthians 5:17 last week, “If anyone is in Christ, that one is a new creation.” God’s new creation, the new life in Christ, happens through the offer of forgiveness received in genuine repentance.

Several years ago a young boy started coming to our church by himself. He lived nearby and walked over on Sunday mornings to be in our Sunday School and worship services. We welcomed him, got to know him, and even helped out his family a bit. But then he started stealing from us. A couple of small electronic devices disappeared when he was the only one around. One of our members caught him going through pockets of coats hanging in the narthex during worship.

So I confronted him. I told him we loved him, that we wanted to be his friends and his church. But I said that we knew he had stolen from us. I said, “We forgive you, we love you, we want to be your church family. But it can’t happen again. You need to say you are sorry and quit stealing.” He turned around and walked away and we saw very little of him after that. We gave the gift of forgiveness, but it was not accepted.

Kay told the Church Council this past week about the sex offender who abused her daughter years ago writing her a letter from prison last year. In it he only defended himself, tried to pretend what he had done was a misunderstanding. He expressed absolutely no repentance, but instead begged her to write the parole board a letter in his favor. Some misguided pastor who had spoken with the offender also wrote Kay to tell her that as a Christian she had to forgive and write the letter, otherwise she was sinning. Kay was absolutely right to not respond to either of them.

As I’ve said all along. Forgiveness is hard. That’s what Kay said. That’s what I experienced with that boy. Cases like that might make you feel that the forgiveness is just something you do for yourself. It makes you feel better, but it does nothing for the one being forgiven. But making yourself feel better cannot be the aim of forgiveness, no matter how hard it is. The aim of forgiveness is to bring others back into the love and grace of God, whether or not they respond and whether or not you can welcome them back into relationship with you.

One reason for Diana to forgive Maria was to get her friend back. Lots of forgiveness is like that. That’s the picture Paul gives us here, Christian community where we lead forgiving lives, where we constantly and regularly extend grace to each other, where we “live in love, as Christ loved us” according to chapter 5 verse 2. We forgive for the sake of friends and family with whom we want to live together in the love of God.

Yet we recognize that restoration of relationship between human beings is not always possible nor desirable. On this side of eternity, neither Kay nor her daughter should have any relationship with that sex offender. The forgiveness they may offer is only to let go of anger and to desire that the person receive the true fruit of forgiveness, a repentant heart through which God, and only God, can one day begin a new creation.

Remember that real forgiveness is honest. It speaks the truth. It tells the offender that a real wrong has been done, that you have a right to be angry, but that you are letting go of that anger, that you refuse to hurt back. So verse 29 talks about letting no evil talk come out of our mouths, but only words that “give grace to those who hear.” And verse 31 talks about putting away all the vicious forms of expressing anger: bitterness and wrath, quarreling and slander, and all malicious talk and action. Real forgiveness means putting aside all our desire to speak or act hatefully toward the person we’ve forgiven.

Yes, it’s complicated. God made us wonderfully complex creatures, full of mixed motives and conflicting desires. It’s hard to know if we’ve forgiven, especially when it hasn’t been received in repentance. Yet the result of aiming for the real thing, for a genuine laying down of anger for the sake of the person being forgiven is there at the end of chapter 5 verse 2, Jesus’ own forgiving life, giving “himself up for us [was] a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” That’s what this text is saying our own lives are meant to be, when they are forgiving lives, a fragrant offering to God, as beautiful and sweet as the blossoms of spring which surround us.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] What follows is from Taking the Word to Heart: Self & Other in an Age of Therapies (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 189-204.

[2] Ibid., p. 191.

[3] Ibid., p. 193.