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A Christmas Outcome: Forgiveness

A Christmas Outcome: Forgiveness

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Christmas is over, but should we be over Christmas?

Christmas is over, but should we be over Christmas? One critic has spoken of the “mantle of merriment” wrapped around Christmas. Folks grow warm and generous in wishing all a “Merry Christmas.” It’s only a cover for a little while, he maintains.

Among most people, nothing really changes amid the parties and pretense. Division and ill tempers remain. There’s only a temporary suspension of evil habits. A few days after the celebration— certainly by income tax time—everything returns to normal.

This need not and certainly should not be the case. If we truly worship the Christ of Christmas, we will not get over its enduring message of confidence, love, forgiveness, and self-emptying sacrifice. Henry van Dyke challenged us to “keep Christmas” by being unselfish, by “closing our book of complaints against the management of the universe and to look around for a place where we may sow a few seeds of kindness.” Then he adds that if we keep Christmas for a day, we can keep it always.

The Word became flesh! God was enfleshed in the body of man and the enduring Truth must be fleshed out in our lives. One of our more perceptive Christmas cards said, “If we could have been forgiven in any other way, God never would have sent His Son to us on Christmas day!”

We are to enter into His spirit by giving back some of that love by forgiving others. That’s a life changing Christmas outcome!

In speaking of forgiveness, we must clear away some misunderstandings. Forgiveness is not forgetting. We remember the facts, but they no longer have emotional significance. “He takes the stinger out,” one teenager explained.

Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is a clear, logical action on our part in obedience to Christ’s command.

It is not pretending but honestly facing the facts. Forgiveness is not bringing up the past. Some keep a trading book of hurts. When the right time comes, they vengefully cash in their grievances. Also, it is not demanding change before forgiving the offender. We are to “be . . . kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Forgiveness involves self-giving and is therefore costly to love of self and pride. It occurs when love accepts the hurt and then drops all charges against the offender. It involves giving freely without any assurance of restitution. Simon Peter, probably feeling religious, asked the Master, “How many times shall I forgive my brother? . . . Seven times?” (Matthew 18:21, NIV).

To his surprise Jesus replied, “Seventy times seven!” (v. 22). How could one keep track of 490 instances of pardon? That’s the point— forgiveness is to be free and without calculation.

“And when ye stand praying, forgive,” counseled Jesus, “if ye have aught against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). Catherine Marshall indicates that in failing to forgive, we may imprison another person mentally in a certain pattern of behavior, thereby condemning him to remain unchanged. She suggests a systematic releasing of our “oughts” to free others and to clear our own hearts of the snare of bitterness.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NIV). He taught us to pray, saying, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” and then added the admonition, “If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (6:12, 15, NIV). He practiced what He had preached when on the Cross His first words were, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

When trouble strikes, we wonder where God is and if He still loves us. However, in the midst of chance and change, if we can be sure that behind it all is a God whose name is Father, we can endure, knowing the world is organized not for our comfort but for our training.

Christ forgave His tormenters, not making crucifixion an unpardonable sin. But it wasn’t easy forgiveness. Repentance and faith were required.

To prevent those who would trade on the mercy of God, the rabbis said, “If a man says I will sin and repent, he is not allowed to repent.” The list of five unforgivable sinners includes “those who sin in order to repent and those who repent much and always sin afresh." This saying persisted: “If a man has an unclean thing in his hands, he may wash them in all the seas of the world and he will never be clean; but if he throws the unclean thing away, a little water will suffice.”

“Go back,” Christ can be heard saying, “find that man that made that cruel crown of thorns and placed it on My brow and tell him I will have a crown ready for him when he comes into My kingdom and there will be no thorns in it. Hunt up that man that took a reed and brought it down over the cruel thorns, driving them into My head, and tell him that I will put a scepter in his hand and he shall rule over the nations of the earth if he will accept salvation. Search for the man who drove that spear into My side and tell him there is a nearer way to my heart than that” (D. L. Moody).

The argument of the invocation was that “they know not what they do.” They had no depth of understanding of their actions. Paul said, “I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief’ (1 Timothy 1:13, NIV). When a person commits sin, he doesn’t know what he is doing to himself, for sin is never satisfied in being small. He doesn’t know what he is doing to his family and friends. The ripple effect of wrongdoing increases the hurt in an ever widening circle.

Was Jesus’ prayer answered? Yes! Thousands believed. One of the two thieves was converted. The centurion who superintended the execution confessed Him to be the Son of God, while multitudes who beheld the sight went away smiting their breasts (Luke 23:48). A great example was set for Christians in the days to come. Stephen, when being stoned to death, cried, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60, NIV).

Christmas is over, but we can’t afford to get over it.

Life’s relationships are fragile like a snowflake. Persons who have wronged us need our forgiveness even as we need their mercy and forbearance. Forgiving cannot be done in our own strength or “for goodness’ sake.” No, it can only be accomplished for Christ’s sake and by His grace.

The key to doing this, as Jesus says, is through prayer. In fact, the experience of the saints demonstrates that there is no way we can continue to hate a person for whom we regularly and sincerely pray. Love replaces hate, generosity banishes harsh words, and good deeds turn foe into friend. Dare to pray until your life and others' are changed by Christian forgiveness! 

George Privett for Herald of Holiness, January 1989

Reprinted for Coffee Break with Holiness Today