Sermon delivered by Howard Batson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo, T.X., on August 16 2009.
1 John 2:10-12
Perhaps you’ve seen the photograph. It won a Pulitzer Prize for the photographer, Huynh Cong Ut (Nick). The best-known photograph from the Vietnam war. The date was June 8, 1972. This picture portrays children running down a road covered in napalm which was dropped on their village by Vietnamese planes. In the middle of the frame is a most pathetic sight. Nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc is centered among the group of children running through the streets of a Vietnamese village. Her frightened face tells it all.
The North Vietnamese forces had occupied their city. South Vietnamese planes, in coordination with the American military, dropped a napalm bomb on their village, mistaking the children for enemy soldiers.
The little girl, Kim Phuc, tore off her clothing as her body was being chemically burned. She is holding her arms out in the searing pain of a chemical burn. She is shrieking with tears as the soldiers are running behind. The image of chemically burned Kim, running naked amidst the chaos of war, became one of the most haunting images of the Vietnam war. She later said she was crying “Too hot. Too hot.”
The photographer, Ut, took Kim and the other injured children to a hospital in Saigon, where it was determined that her burns were so severe that she would not survive. After a 14-month hospital stay, however, and 17 surgical procedures, she was able to return home to her village.
You go home and Google the picture yourself and experience the powerful photograph..
Kim eventually became a Christian – left her family’s traditional religion to accept Christ as her Lord and Savior.
Kim said that at first her heart was angry. She remembers reading Christ’s words about forgiveness for the first time and thinking she could never forgive the men who covered her body in napalm. But in the end, she did. She said that becoming a Christian and learning to live a life of forgiveness has been essential to her ability to live in happiness.
Who do you need to forgive? Who do I need to forgive?
The person for Kim was the faceless pilot and others who had coordinated the attack upon innocent children – the persons who had dominated her life because they had robbed her of her childhood innocence, who had taken the lives of her family members and placed her under the horrible pain of 17 surgeries and a hospital stay of more than a year.
Unbeknownest to Kim, the man, John Plummer, who had set up the air strike, himself, had a nine-year-old son – just the age of the little girl who haunted him in the picture. Plummer had seen the photo which portrayed a horrible tragedy and thought he’d never have the chance to ask her forgiveness. He convinced himself he’d done everything humanly possible to make sure the attack area was clear of civilians. But every time he saw that infamous picture he knew that he needed to speak to Kim Phuc. “But there was no way I would ever go to Vietnam again,” he said. Though he told almost no one about the incident, a day didn’t pass that he wasn’t thinking of Kim, the little naked girl, covered with napalm, running down the street.
In 1996, Kim gave a speech at the US Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day. In her speech she said one cannot change the past, but everyone can work for a peaceful future.
John Plummer passed a note to Kim at the event which read: “I am the man.” He meant, “I am one of the nameless, faceless men who destroyed life as you knew it.” He met with Kim Phuc briefly and was publicly forgiven by her. (“A Picture of Forgiveness,” Christian Century, 2/19/97; “From bitterness of war to forgiveness,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City), 9/23/06; “The Long Road to Forgiveness,” NPR 6/30/08)
I don’t know who it is for you. I know who it was for Kim Phuc – John Plummer.
Who is it for you? Picture his face or her face right now. Who is it who keeps you awake at night? Who haunts your dreams and assaults your thoughts during the day.
If you were to be honest with yourself – you don’t have to even be honest with me – you’d take pleasure in his or her downfall or suffering. “See, serves him right. He got what he deserved.” You’ve allowed that person to invade your heart, your soul, your mind, your self. And now he or she is in control. Dare you be honest enough with yourself to change your life? The sermon today will change your life.
You’ve moved way past angry. You’re bitter now. Maybe it’s your ex-spouse. Maybe someone who hurt your family. Maybe it’s the man who lied about you at the workplace. Maybe it’s the person who abused you. Maybe it’s someone who was so close to you – they are the ones who hurt us the most, aren’t they? He or she made you feel betrayed, back-stabbed, or abandoned.
If anger is a short madness, bitterness is an anger that is boiled, simmered, and found so unpalatable that it has been thrown into the deep freeze of our unconscious psyche. It controls us, maneuvers us, and saps us of our very soul. Bitterness is that hateful, spiteful sourness in our hearts that creeps in when we have been or think we have been maliciously wronged.
There are some folks here in this room who, if you would listen to the word of God today, your life would be absolutely changed forever. And there are some of you here today who are going to hear these words and reject them. And you’ll walk down the predictable path of bitterness. The loss will be yours.
I want to give you some fallacies about forgiveness. There are five points I want to quickly make. And I’m only speaking to believers today. If you don’t have Christ in your heart, you can’t even think about doing what I’m asking you to do. Maybe you need to become a believer today to have the power to do what I’m asking you to do.
I want to quickly speak of five fallacies of forgiveness and then give you God’s gracious solution.
I. I don’t have to forgive him because he doesn’t deserve it and he hasn’t asked.
The biblical mandate is not to only forgive people who ask for it or people who have merited your mercy. That’s the world’s philosophy. The reality is that the one who hurt you, who offended you, may never apologize, may never admit his wrongdoing, may never openly acknowledge how he has hurt you.
I’m not talking about him or her today. I’m talking about you. Forgiveness for you is the act of untying yourself from the thoughts and feelings that bind you to the offense committed against you.
When I look at the events of forgiveness in scripture, I don’t see formulaic forgiveness in which the offender must ask to be pardoned. Jacob thinks Esau is coming to kill him because Jacob had been deceptive. He had robbed his brother of both his birth right and his blessing. But before Jacob can utter a word, Esau – we’re told in Genesis 33 – ran to meet him. Esau takes the initiative. The offended, hurt brother takes the initiative and runs and meets the brother who had stolen his blessing, embraced him, fell on his neck and kissed him. And they wept.
Jesus, hanging on the cross, says concerning the ones who were gambling for His garments, the ones who had bludgeoned Him with a beating – they not only didn’t merit forgiveness, they weren’t seeking forgiveness – but Jesus says, “Father, forgive them. They don’t even know what they’re doing.”
Stephen is stoned to death. Can you imagine a more horrible death than being slowly and torturously murdered by the casting of stones from a mob? It says in Acts 17:16ff., “On his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And having said this, he fell asleep.”
Do I have to say any more? The Lord Jesus on the cross. Stephen during his stoning. Their last words are, “God, don’t hold this against those who hurt me.” They didn’t wait for an apology. They didn’t dare withhold their forgiveness.
This is about you. It’s not about the offender. The offender needs neither to merit your mercy nor ask for your forgiveness. But believers have to forgive anyway.
II. The second fallacy of forgiveness is that you can choose to forgive.
I’m utterly intrigued by the idea of grace and forgiveness. I’ve read numerous psychological and medical studies about the power of forgiveness. Repeatedly I hear the words, “Forgiveness is a choice. You can choose to forgive. You must choose to forgive.”
That’s not right. It might be right for the world, but it’s not right for the people of God. Whatever gave us the idea that we could choose to forgive or we could choose to bathe in bitterness? Somehow we think we hurt the other person by holding a grudge. So, we’re going to pout. We’re going to seethe in our sourness. We’re going to wallow in our worries. We’re not really going to give the offender, the one who hurt us, the gift of grace. We have a right to refuse to be righteous in this regard.
Who ever told you you had a right to refuse?
If you’re not a believer, I guess you do have a choice. Although if you’re not a believer, I’m not sure by what principle you’re willing to forgive anyway. If I wasn’t a believer in Christ, I wouldn’t forgive anyone anything. But since we are believers in Jesus Christ, we have no choice but to forgive. He commands us to forgive. He gives His people no other opportunity.
The passages are numerous, and time won’t allow us to look at them, but let’s just look at a few.
Let’s start with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount, you have the Lord’s Prayer. And you know the Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed by Thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts AS we forgive our debtors.
And do you remember how Jesus closed that prayer?
In verses 14 and 15, right beneath the prayer, are haunting words. We never say them when we say the Lord’s Prayer, but they’re just as much a part of the words of Jesus as is the prayer.
“For if you forgive men their transgressions, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
The minute you choose to refuse to be a giver of grace, you get no grace. (See also Matthew 18:33.)
If you want the forgiveness of God, you must forgive His children. And everyone is His child.
Our passage today is so clear in regard to our duty to forgive.
1 John 2:9
The one who says he is in the light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now.
1 John 2:11
But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded him.
1 John 3:15
Everyone who hates his brother is a murdered; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
1 John 4:20-21
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.
You can’t say you love the Father if you don’t love your brother.
I heard a pastor say one time that if you want to measure your love for God, you can pretty well calculate it by how much you love the person whom you most detest on earth. The way you love your enemy is, in God’s eyes, the way you love Him.
III. A third fallacy about forgiveness is that holding a grudge will hurt my offender.
In reality, forgiveness is the refusal to hurt the one who hurt you. With that I agree. But refusing to forgive does not bring the great hurt upon the offender; it brings the great hurt upon you.
Do you know that bitterness is becoming such a problem in our angry culture that the American Psychiatric Association is debating whether or not to include bitterness in the diagnostic and statistical manual for mental disorders. They’re going to name it the “post-traumatic bitterness disorder.” I can see the ads for the prescriptions in the future. “Think it’s just bitterness from job loss, foreclosure on your home, or the nonexistent pension for which you’ve been saving all your working years? No, it may be post-traumatic embitterment disorder, a mental illness that some doctors think is due to a chemical imbalance....” (Christopher Lane, “Bitterness: The Next Mental Disorder,” Psychology Today, 3/28/09, www.psychologytoday.com)
The reality, according to Dr. Stephen A. Diamond, is that bitterness is a chronic and pervasive state of smoldering resentment which is one of the most destructive and toxic of human emotions. He describes bitterness as when you’re hostile toward someone, something, or toward life itself, resulting from the consistent repression of anger, rage, or resentment regarding how he really has or perceives he’s been treated. (Stephen A. Diamond, “Anger Disorder (Part Two): Can Bitterness Become a Mental Disorder?” Psychology Today, 6/3/09, parts cited from his book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence,Evil, and Creativity, www.psychologytoday.com)
When you’re bitter toward someone else, you’re not hurting him or her. You’re putting poison in your own bloodstream. You’re giving that person rent-free space in your head. He is controlling your thoughts and your mood. She is robbing you of happiness in your other relationships. He or she is dominating your very soul. You become a person of self-pity, thinking everybody in life has it easier than you do. You dwell on the events surrounding the offense and the offender. You have outbursts of anger at the slightest provocation from others. People start avoiding you because they don’t enjoy your company. You’re going to ruin some other valuable relationships in your life. You find yourself sapped and soaked in sorrow – literally lifeless and without energy.
You can hold a grudge all you want. You can hold it until it kills you – literally kills you – if you want to.
IV. A fourth fallacy of forgiveness is that you can be like Christ in other ways, but you don’t have to be like Him in the realm of forgiveness.
The fallacy goes: while you may not measure up in the category of forgiveness, you can continue in your walk with Christ in other areas of your life. You can be obedient. You can keep the commandments. You can be loving and caring to other people. You just don’t have to forgive your enemies as Christ forgave His.
Jesus says in Luke 6:27-28, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
That’s the way we are to be like Christ. He forgave them for His death, even while He was hanging on the cross. In fact, scripture says anybody can love a friend. It is only the people of God who can love an enemy. Pray for an enemy. Ask God to bless an enemy.
Now, imagine I decide I will follow the recipe in regard to most of the ingredients. And I decide the ingredients I choose to differ from the holy recipe are the sugars. It calls for 3/4 cup of white sugar and 3/4 cup of packed brown sugar. I just don’t want to use the sugar like it calls for. I’m just going to use the other ingredients. You know, using 90+ percent of the ingredients just like the recipe dictates, I know I’ll be okay.
And I’d say, “Well, I diverted a little bit, but I followed 9 out of 10 elements of the recipe.”
But when I differed from the recipe, I ruined the recipe. You can’t be like Christ in other ways and claim to follow Him if you’re not like Him in forgiveness. To forgive is to be like Christ. To withhold forgiveness to pattern yourself after evil forces. You cannot leave out the grace of God in being like Christ. You cannot leave the sugar out of the recipe. You ruin the recipe for being a child of God.
V. The fifth fallacy of forgiveness is that to forgive is to condone.
Just because I forgive somebody doesn’t mean I’m saying they didn’t hurt me. It doesn’t mean that I’m saying it’s okay. It doesn’t mean that I approve of his or her behavior. Christ wasn’t condoning the behavior of the soldiers who brutally beat Him. Stephen wasn’t casting his blessing upon his stoners. But Christ aind Stephen chose to forgive any way.
The reality is that if you don’t forgive, you do not receive the forgiveness of God. And, at the end, you become worse than the person who has offended you.
So, how do you do this? How do you forgive?
You do it, not with your own strength, but with the strength that God has given you. God, who gives you the command to forgive, gives you the grace to forgive as well.
You see, we really don’t have a choice. And we do it because of the cross. It always comes back to the cross, doesn’t it? If it weren’t for the cross of Christ Jesus, I would want to keep account of every wrong that I ever endured from everyone. I’d want to make them pay not once, but twice for the wrongs they inflicted upon me. In fact, I would feel duty-bound to hold everyone’s feet to the fire, to overlook no wrong and to refuse to forgive. But God didn’t treat me that way.
And God didn’t forgive me because of who I am. He forgave me because of who Christ is. And I don’t have to forgive you because of who you are. I have to forgive you because of who Christ is in my life. Christ is saying that he has already borne the shame and the sorrow and the suffering for all wrong. Because He has already paid the price, God can forgive us and we can forgive each other.
Were it not for the cross, I couldn’t let it go. But because of the cross, I must let it go and I will let it go, for I want to be like my Lord and Savior.
And I will not let anger color my heart with bitterness.
Forgive – we can do no other.
Who is it for you?