First, the best perspective…
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hast aught against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. – The Lord Jesus, Matthew 5:23, 24
NOTE: Today’s blog entry is part one of a four part series on the topic of forgiveness. Looking forward, part two (Granting Forgiveness) will be posted Monday, February 2; part three (Church Discipline) will be available Thursday, February 5; and part four (God’s Forgiveness) is planned for Monday, February 9.
The Apostle Paul is rightly considered to be one of the great leaders of the early church – one who helped establish Christianity through his missions trips as recorded in the Book of Acts and through his writings under the inspiration of God, which comprise a significant portion of the New Testament. When you think of doctrinal issues and church practice, you should be reading the epistles. Paul wrote most of them.
However, Paul was human and therefore subject to the same daily challenges as any other person. In his own writings he clearly stated, “O wretched man that I am…” A careful reading of the New Testament reveals one aspect of Christian living that Paul may have struggled with – forgiving others. Several examples stand out:
1. Paul in his relationship with Barnabas (Acts 16: 36-40). Note the brief sentence at the beginning of verse 39. “And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder…” Imagine not being able to come to agreement with such a man as Barnabas, who was known as the son of encouragement!
2. Paul’s rejection of John Mark (Acts 16:36-40). This is what led to the aforementioned disagreement with Barnabas. The problem was between three missionaries who had recently completed a successful journey that had been blessed of God. Then, as they were about to begin a second journey, division and strife arose, causing the split.
3. Paul’s problem with Alexander (II Timothy 4:14). Paul wrote of this man, “Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: The Lord reward him according to his works.” This verse is the only place Alexander is mentioned in the New Testament, but it’s clear that Paul was highly displeased with the actions of this man.
The Scriptures do not give a detailed or complete story about these three incidents from Paul’s life, but we do know that Paul eventually had a reconciliation with John Mark (see II Timothy 4:11). Probably Paul settled things with Barnabas, although nothing is mentioned.
These few verses from Paul’s life help to illustrate the need we have to properly seek forgiveness of those we offend or hurt through our words or actions. In order to be reconciled to those we have hurt or offended, we must be willing to humble ourselves. We must speak with them in a spirit of true humility to ask for their forgiveness.
There is a wrong and incomplete way to apologize to others. Maybe you have heard these or similar statements…
1. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
2. “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt.”
3. “I’m sorry for how that turned out.”
4. “I’m sorry you have a problem with what I said.”
5. “I’m sorry but you made me so upset, I couldn’t help it.”
None of these statements are effective in truly seeking forgiveness and each one reflects a prideful spirit while being unwilling to accept personal responsibility for offensive words or actions. Each of these statements actually makes the situation worse. It may be difficult to seek forgiveness, but the stress one naturally feels in properly asking forgiveness is usually counterbalanced by the feeling of great relief that comes once reconciliation takes place. This is a far better result!
So then, what is the proper way to ask forgiveness from someone you have offended or have deeply hurt? Consider the following steps:
1. Realize before God the wrong you have done.
2. Look for or create a private moment free of possible interruption.
3. Introduce the subject to the offended one: “I have been thinking.”
4. “I was wrong to…” (briefly name and describe the offense).
5. Clearly ask, “Will you please forgive me?”
6. Pause: It’s their turn to speak – you should quietly listen.
7. Once they have spoken, talk further as needed to close the issue.
Now… I’m not talking about the little things here – the sort of minor events that happen in our lives every day as we interact with others. There is nothing wrong with offering a simple apology for a minor inconvenience. I’m also not talking about groveling before someone, an emotional response that arises from fear in the midst of a difficult and stressful moment.
What we are considering here are the truly harmful offenses that we unfortunately fall into on occasion. I refer to the spiteful words and ugly deeds that truly harm a person’s reputation or their emotions. These are the things that create and leave a wound, one that’s deep and difficult to heal. These offenses require far more than a simple, “Oops, sorry about that – I didn’t mean it.” Much more than offering
a halfhearted apology, we must in humility ask for forgiveness.
When you go to someone to ask for forgiveness, go with a spirit of true humility but also with confidence and high expectation that the offended one will receive you and grant the forgiveness that you request. As you ask the person for their forgiveness and they in turn grant your request, it should provide relief to each of you.
Should the time come when you find it necessary to seek forgiveness of one you have wronged in some way, I encourage you to humbly take the steps needed to resolve the situation. A weight will be lifted from your shoulders and perhaps the other person as well, hopefully leading to a stronger and closer relationship.