Have You Forgiven God?
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”—Isaiah 55:8-9
A few years ago I officiated at a funeral service for someone I had never known. I interviewed people who had known the deceased, and in the process I found out some dark and disturbing things.
What do you say at a funeral when you can’t find anyone who ever knew the person who has anything good to say about them? What can you say at a memorial service when surviving friends and relatives are having a difficult time forgiving God for allowing the deceased to have been the nasty, intolerant, self-centered person they apparently were?
Preparing for the funeral and preaching the service took me directly to God. The path I took to God on this occasion is a well traveled road in my life—I call it “Forgiveness Avenue.” As my life in Christ continues, I find myself walking down this road regularly, for it takes me in a Christ-centered direction. It’s my experience that thinking about and pondering forgiveness will almost always lead us in the right spiritual direction.
I want to discuss a little about that funeral as a way of introducing the subject of forgiveness. You may already know enough about forgiveness to know that it is certainly not a warm and fuzzy topic. I warn you that this message may make you uncomfortable…but then, the truth often does that, doesn’t it?
I was in my office, after talking to people who knew the deceased, preparing a sermon for this person I never knew. I paused and remembered that a funeral or a memorial service is not all about the person who is being buried or cremated. A funeral or a memorial service is all about Jesus.
After all, if what is said at a funeral or memorial service depends on the merits and demerits of the person being buried or cremated, well, yes, there would be some funerals that would be more uplifting and encouraging than others because some people do seem to live a better life than others. But here’s the bottom line of that thinking: if the merit and demerits of a human being are the basis of a funeral sermon, then we’re all out of luck!
I’m reminded of the story of two brothers—both of whom were rich, but they were rich because they were lying, corrupt, cheating businessmen. They made sure to attend the right church in town—the one that all the bankers and town leaders attended. Their pastor, however, could see right through the brothers’ deceptive ways.
One day one of the brothers died. The other brother went to see the pastor about the funeral. He said, “Pastor, I know you didn’t think much of my brother—or me for that matter. Here’s what I’m going to do. I will write you out a check, a donation to the church, for $50,000. I’ll write this check if, when you preach his funeral, you will say my brother was a saint.
The pastor agreed, deposited the check, and prepared his sermon for the funeral. The surviving brother assumed that the pastor had accepted the bribe and there would be no embarrassment at the funeral.
At the funeral, the brother of the deceased sat on the front row, along with all the rest of the family. The pastor was candid and truthful as he spoke about the deceased. “He was an evil man. He lied, he cheated, he was a drunk”—and continued, for some time, to list many of the sins of the deceased. But then, he concluded with the following, which ensured that the donation to the church would not be in danger—”But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”
Many years ago I learned that funeral sermons are not about the pastor or preacher trying to preach the deceased into heaven—or trying to preach them into hell.
I have learned that funeral sermons and memorial services are not a time when the preacher lists all of the good deeds of a person, and if they somehow outnumber the bad, then that person gets “preached into heaven.” I also have learned, in many years of ministry that memorial services and funerals are times when many friends and families are dealing not just with grief but with feelings of guilt because they still have not forgiven the person for the hurt they caused them.
As I prepared my funeral sermon, the more I pondered what God’s forgiveness is truly about, I thought back to many of the funerals I had officiated—and many others I have attended. I recall funerals when the deceased was a notorious scoundrel. I recall funerals when virtually everyone was convinced the deceased was a lying, cheating low-down crook.
I thought of those who went to their graves filled with hatred and bitterness. I thought of those to whom I had talked during their last days and hours, those who refused to forgive an unfaithful spouse and those who were filled with such bitterness that they refused to forgive a mother or father for a less than perfect home life. I thought of people who had died blaming God for all the suffering and heartache in their lives. I thought of those whom I had known who decided that the misery of their life was God’s fault, and further, they would not forgive him.
Preparing that message, knowing that it would be delivered to people who had real and profound issues with the deceased, helped me to appreciate my own relationship with God. It’s good for me to revisit the topic of forgiveness, for God has forgiven me much.
While God has enabled me, by his forgiveness, to forgive others, this funeral reminded me that I am just like all other humans. I am still hanging on to issues, issues with names and faces attached to them, people that by God’s grace I need to forgive.
Forgiveness is one of the most painful and difficult topics we can consider because it involves some of the darkest places in our lives and in our souls. Forgiveness involves a trip to the spiritual mirror, where we peer deeply into the innermost places of our hearts—the places in our souls where ugly, putrid and corrupt evil can lurk in the shadows.
But, on the other hand, true forgiveness is also one of the most liberating and joyful topics we can explore, because the act of working through what forgiveness in Christ is all about enables us to let go—and to extend the same forgiveness to others that has been lavished on us.
When we think of forgiveness, the first human reaction is to think of those who have hurt us, and how we need to forgive them… sad and pitiful sinners that they are. That, if you like, is the surface level of forgiveness, the forgiveness we need to extend to others. It is so much easier to see the sin and pain others cause us than to recognize the hurt and anguish we cause others.
If we keep thinking and praying about forgiveness, God’s grace will take us to another level. We’ll go beyond the pain and heartache others may have caused us and we’ll begin to think of how our own actions and behaviors have negatively impacted others. We will remember the pain and heartache our actions and behaviors have caused.
But again, when the word “forgiveness” comes to mind, that’s not the first place our hearts and minds take us. The first things we think about are those things that others have done to us.
I want to discuss two kinds of forgiveness:
1) forgiving ourselves,
2) forgiving God.
Let’s talk first of all about forgiving ourselves:
When you get several layers deep into the topic of forgiveness, you will eventually come to the issue of forgiving yourself. In my experience, this level of forgiveness transcends forgiving those who have hurt us, as well as the act of asking others whom we have offended for their forgiveness.
Many of us convict ourselves and sentence ourselves to harsh sentences, mostly in secret. We have a difficult time appreciating the liberating teaching in Romans 8:1—there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…. In some cases we may admit that God has forgiven us, but we can’t forgive ourselves because we live in a secret world of self-loathing and passive hatred.
The answer to the problem of failing to forgive ourselves lies in the nature and the level of intimacy we enjoy in our relationship with God. There is a point at which—in our knowledge of God and in our relationship with him—when we realize the fullness of freedom in Christ, and when we are released from self-hatred.
God’s grace liberates us from the tendency to torture ourselves in self-recrimination. There is a time in our relationship with God when we realize that our fleshly response to continue to incriminate and condemn ourselves is an enemy of the gospel of God’s grace. After all, God’s forgiveness covers us once and for all.
You may have heard of the story of Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who survived a concentration camp in World War II. After the war she traveled in Holland, France and Germany preaching forgiveness.
After one service in Munich a man came forward, stuck out his hand, and said, “Fraulein Ten Boom. I am so glad Jesus forgives us of our sins—I agree with you.”
She first saw his outstretched hand, but then, looking at his face, Corrie recognized him as one of the guards in the Nazi concentration camp. Her own hand remained frozen at her side. She was shocked by her response. Here she was, having preached forgiveness to so many, but now confronted a man whom she could not forgive. She prayed, silently,
“Jesus, I can’t forgive this man. Forgive me!”
Having prayed that silent prayer, almost immediately she felt forgiven. Forgiven for not forgiving. Her hand reached out, she took the hand of her former tormentor, and shook it, humanly releasing him from his own guilt and in the process, perhaps not knowing it at the time, accepting a deeper freedom in Christ herself.
She realized that she had been forgiven by God, and that God had empowered and enabled her to free others. She also came to see that God also made it possible for her to forgive herself, for having not been forgiving. With God all things are possible.
Let’s turn to the topic of forgiving God:
Many of us blame God for things in our life that have gone wrong. Of course, I need to state the obvious from the outset—God doesn’t need to be forgiven. The Bible never even hints that we need to forgive him. The entire weight of evidence, biblically, is that God is holy, just and perfect, and therefore not in need of forgiveness.
Jesus often cast the act of forgiveness in monetary terms, his parables often speak of the forgiveness of a debt. When we sin against God, we incur a debt—we owe God. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death.
Jesus paid a debt he did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay. Colossians 2:13-14 speaks of Jesus’ nailing our certificate of debt to his Cross, in effect taking our indebtedness and writing, in his blood, “the debt is paid.”
So forgiveness is the canceling of a debt. Since, in God’s case, no debt is owed, then there is no need for forgiveness. God doesn’t need to be forgiven of anything, and he certainly doesn’t need us to forgive him.
So, when we speak of “forgiving God,” we might be speaking of forgiving others for what we see as God allowing them to do. We might also be talking about our need to forgive our own anger. So, again, the fundamental step is to completely accept the absolute forgiveness God extends to us.
Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote a play called The Trial of God. The play is inspired from a real event Wiesel experienced as a young boy in a Nazi concentration camp. As Jews tried to balance their belief in God with the horrific reality of the brutality of the Holocaust, many realized that they could not forgive God. Of course, as I said earlier, their real issue was “why was God allowing the Nazis to do what they were doing?”
According to Wiesel’s play, The Trial of God, rabbis, the most educated and religious men in the camp, arranged to put God on trial. They heard arguments prosecuting and defending God and then they retired to render a judgment. After long deliberation and testimony, the rabbis found God guilty of crimes against his own people, the Jews.
Ironically, Wiesel notes, just as they passed down the verdict that God was guilty, the rabbis quickly told the assembly that it was time for prayers—so they needed to adjourn. Time for prayers? To whom? The God they had just judged to be guilty?
Religion (and all of its traditions) is a powerful, habitual and addictive routine, where addicts simply go through motions (“religiously”) without really thinking.
When we talk about forgiving God, we’re talking about those tragedies and traumas in our lives we don’t understand. When we talk about needing to forgive God it’s often our way of saying we need to get our “head around” something God has obviously allowed—some accident, crime or catastrophe we have suffered.
At this point we return to the basic teaching in our passage today. One of the keys to this deep level of forgiveness which some may erroneously call “forgiving God” is understanding that God doesn’t need to explain himself. Academically, we know that God can never be wrong, but when we think of that for very long, it can actually make us more frustrated because we want to blame him—especially when we can’t make any sense of some horrible thing that has happened.
We have already mentioned the Holocaust as a prime example for our generation. Any war—with the senseless, inhumane torture and maiming that accompanies a war—is another example of something we can’t understand.
Perhaps you had a family member or friend who was a “good” person, who didn’t abuse their body with junk food, didn’t smoke, didn’t over-indulge in alcohol, yet at the age of 25 or 30 they contracted a fast-growing cancer and died. I have several close friends who had this very experience.
By contrast, perhaps you know a next door neighbor who is 85, who has smoked several packs of cigarettes a day for decades, who wakes up with a hangover virtually every morning, who wouldn’t know what a salad or a vegetable looked like if it hit him in the face, but he seems to be the proverbial picture of health.
Where is God and what is he doing?
Perhaps you have a friend who is a Christian, a wonderful parent, a loving person—but they are out of work, impoverished, unable to take care of their children. At the same time, you may know someone who is a crook—who lives in a 20-room house, drives expensive cars, sends his children to expensive private schools and takes long vacations all around the world. But from everything you can determine, that person is ruthless and could care less about any other human being.
Where is God and what is he doing?
Step one in “forgiving God” is realizing that God has not explained himself and his plan to us in all of its detail, and that he doesn’t have to. Even if he did explain his plan, we probably wouldn’t, given our limited comprehension, understand him. God is God and we are not.
Step two follows immediately on the heels of step one. We need to ground our faith in God. Our forgiveness of others, no matter how hideous and despicable their actions may have been, is based in and on Jesus Christ.
When we hurt, when we feel abandoned, God is right here with us. Jesus experienced it all, he knows, he has been here and he is still here, with you and me through it all. We may not, in fact we will not, understand the full nature of why God allows all that he does, not on this side of eternity.
But by God’s grace we can realize 1) that God is God and we are not—we cannot demand answers from God because we, in our physical state, are in no condition to understand all the things of God. We also need to realize
2) that we trust in Jesus, who will never forsake us, who has suffered just as we do, who has taken our pain and suffering on himself on his Cross, who has borne our sorrows and anguish, and who is always with us. We can trust him—we can trust his care, concern, wisdom and understanding more than our own.
Our sermon title is Have You Forgiven God? I will admit the question is a bit of a bait-and-switch, at least when we understand that God doesn’t need to be forgiven.
But it does focus on the issue, and it uses the language often used by so many who are struggling with their pain and heartache.
The real questions are these:
1) Have we accepted the fact that God does not owe us a complete explanation for everything that happens in this world?
2) Do we fully trust in the Lord Jesus Christ—do we know and believe that he has walked among us as one of us, and knows exactly what we face? Do we believe that though Jesus will not always deliver us from the storm that he will always stand with us in the midst of every storm? Do we trust in him—or will we trust in our own flesh, our own wisdom?