Majoring in Life
Learning the linkage between bitterness and unforgiveness, and the difference between judicial versus experiential forgiveness, can make a big difference in your approach to life. And your enjoyment of it.
Scripture passages in this lesson are linked to this page for easy access.
Lesson 3: Don't Forget to Forgive
(Dispelling the black mist of bitterness before you leave home)
Text written and copyrighted © 2002 by Manfred Koehler. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)
Her stomach churning, Christine was driving too fast. But if she drove any slower, the bent fender would shake like a nervous diamondback. She pegged the needle on eighty and kept going. If she went anywhere between sixty-seven and seventy-three miles per hour, her car would rattle the glasses off her face. The thought left her head shaking, teeth biting her upper lip, her eyes stone cold, staring at the road.
Joseph. What a jerk! Why couldn't I have been an only child?
She resisted the urge to stop for coffee. The sooner she reached Cambridge College, the quicker she could rid herself of the car she once loved. The fact that a mechanic could fix it for a few hundred bucks seemed irrelevant. Joseph had contaminated her vehicle beyond repair. She would sell it within a week for whatever she could get.
Doing drugs in my car? Unbelievable!
Joseph had done some stupid things in his seventeen years as her brother, but this beat them all. Now he sat in the county jail, cooling his heels. Accepting the fact that the incredible had happened, she strengthened her resolve. Borrowing her car without permission was borderline forgivable. This, however, would not be so easily dismissed. Somehow he'd have to pay. If his drug habit left him too poor to pay the damages of last night's fling, she'd get it out of Joseph another way.
Even if it means never talking to him again.
The thought shook her, parting the dark cloud of anger long enough for another thought to slip in: But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
The car slowed to a dull rattle. Only partly aware, Christine scratched at her neck, trying to decipher the verse's strange meaning. This was bigger than a bent fender—that much was clear.
Judicial Versus Experiential
The verse that rattled Christine's cage (Matthew 6:15) used to confuse me. Did Jesus mean that my salvation was dependent on forgiving others? That sounded scary. I thought my salvation was a gift from him, not dependent on any work, even that of forgiveness (Ephesians 2:8-9). So which was true?
My thoughts went in another direction: Maybe all true Christians are born forgivers; perhaps unforgiveness is not an issue for them. But that didn't fit with what I knew about myself and had seen in many other believers: Unforgiveness is an issue; forgiveness doesn't come naturally. One believer I knew hadn't spoken to her blood brother in over thirty years. Now that's sad.
My dilemma was resolved when I made a distinction between judicial and experiential forgiveness. Allow me to explain.
This is what you have in Christ through his death on the cross. God, the righteous Judge, placed your sin on Christ's shoulders, in turn declaring you wholly righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). You are judged to be completely forgiven—past, present, and future sins included—and that forgiveness is unchanging. Once forgiven in Christ, you can no longer be condemned (Romans 8:1) . That is judicial forgiveness. It knows no measure.
Experiential forgiveness is judicial forgiveness that has touched the heart—and in turn touches others (Ephesians 4:32). That kind of forgiveness can be measured. It fluctuates in direct proportion to your spiritual maturity. The more you grow, the greater your experience of God's forgiveness, and the greater your willingness to forgive others.
The converse is also true. If you're not growing spiritually, in all likelihood you're not forgiving, nor are you enjoying God's forgiveness.
The parable of the unmerciful servant is a classic example of judicial forgiveness that didn't touch the heart (Matthew 18:21-35). In this story, a servant forgiven by his master for a debt he couldn't pay in a hundred lifetimes—turned around and threw a fellow servant in jail for a petty unpaid loan. Though forgiven, the unmerciful servant extended no forgiveness. His shallow appreciation of his own forgiveness left him unwilling to pass that forgiveness on to another.
That's a dangerous place to be.
If you spitefully withhold your forgiveness—the very forgiveness God has so richly granted you through his Son—you'll find God firmly withholding your experience of his heartfelt forgiveness for you. That's what Jesus meant in Matthew 6:15. Instead, like the unmerciful servant, you'll be delivered over to the tortures of guilt, bitterness, anger, vindictiveness, and depression (Matthew 18:34-35). That's a pit of raging dogs that will tear your soul to shreds.
A very painful place to be.
Experiential forgiveness even determines your ability—or lack of it—to love. If you have a miserly estimation of how much God has forgiven you, your love for people will be measured in pennies. But if you spend time meditating on the riches of God's vast forgiveness for your frequently sinful existence, your love for others will know no measure—including your love for people who've hurt you to the core. Instead of wishing God's curse upon them, you'll be praying for their blessing (Matthew 5:44).
Consider Jesus' words as he contrasted the attitude of a repentant streetwalker with that of a self-righteous Pharisee:
"Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little" (Luke 7:47).
Your experiential forgiveness determines the measure with which you love people—to say nothing of your love for God. And understand this: You don't need to be a has-been hooker or a three-time murderer to enjoy huge forgiveness. It's all about your depth of appreciation, not about the depth of your sin.
That appreciation only comes through long, humble-hearted meditation.
Without it, you'll be hunted down by the dogs of unforgiveness, no matter how far away your university travels take you. Loving forgiveness is your only escape: Love ... keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).
While packing your bags for college, think about your need for a deep, experiential forgiveness, one that's both felt from heaven and extended to all on earth who've wronged you. Ask God for it. Let him pack your heart full. Don't leave home without it.