No Record Of Wrongs
[Adapted from a message given at the Heart-Cry for Revival Conference in April 2013 at The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina U.S.A. Used by permission.]
One of the great hindrances to revival is the issue of unforgiveness. Although we are forgiven by God and are thankful for His forgiveness, there is at the same time a prevalent attitude of unforgiveness in our churches. We want God to take our skeletons and throw them away, but we like to bring the skeletons of others who have offended us or hurt us out into the open and tell everybody what they did to us because that makes us feel better about ourselves. One of the reasons we do not have revival is because we have not understood the significance of forgiveness.
The Lord declares through Isaiah, "I have wiped out your transgressions like a thick cloud and your sins like a heavy mist. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you" (Isa. 44:22). Isaiah preached at a time when the people of God, in a covenant relationship with God, worshipped false gods, and as a result of their unfaithfulness and disobedience, were in captivity. But God breaks in and says, "I have wiped out your transgressions… Return to Me."
Forgiveness Is Essential
I believe the greatest need we have is forgiveness, to know first of all that God has forgiven us. Many believers just cannot quite grasp the fact that God has forgiven them. They listen to the accuser of the brethren more than they listen to their Advocate in heaven. Some people think that God cannot forgive because His laws are nonnegotiable. Other people think God has to forgive because He is love. That is a sloppy understanding of God’s love and of God’s forgiveness. The truth is He has chosen to forgive when we violate His laws when we come to Him in repentance.
There is also the vital issue of forgiveness toward others. Perhaps someone has hurt you deeply or there is someone you have hurt deeply. Maybe you need to go to them, or call them, and ask for forgiveness. Perhaps the person has died and you may have to go stand at a grave and ask for forgiveness or offer forgiveness. I have had to do that. I have had to go stand at a grave and ask for forgiveness for the way I felt about somebody, for the hurt that I harbored toward someone. I am not talking about something that is easy, but I am talking about something that is vital if we want to walk in fellowship with God.
If we are going to walk in victory, we have to learn to forgive. We must forgive others the way God forgives us. "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you" (Eph. 4:32). "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col. 3:13).
The only alternative to forgiveness is to become bitter. Bitterness destroys us. It puts venom inside of us that we cannot even begin to control. We think we can control our attitudes when people hurt us or when we have hurt people, but the reality is we cannot control it because the devil has got his foot in the door.
As best I can tell there are 125 direct references in the Scripture to God’s forgiveness. The references are pretty straightforward in nature and sin is viewed as something that needs to be eradicated and removed, a wall that needs to be broken down, an attitude that needs to be given up, a barrier that needs to be pushed down, a disrupted relationship that needs to be restored.
Almost all the pictures of forgiveness in the Bible are of God’s forgiveness for us, but there are also pictures of man forgiving other men, such as Joseph forgiving his brothers (Gen. 50:15-21) and Esau forgiving Jacob (Gen. 33). Jesus commanded us to forgive seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22). In doing so, He was not asking us to keep track of the number of times we extend forgiveness, but to not number them. There is also the example of the father forgiving his prodigal son (Luke 15:11ff.). Can you imagine a boy who is so self-consumed that he goes out and he squanders all of his inheritance and wastes his life, and yet when he comes home his father puts a robe on him, kills the fatted calf and he puts a ring on his hand? What a powerful picture of God’s lavish forgiveness!
We, on the other hand, have a tendency to hold tight to the desire to not want to forgive. We could have a testimony service about all the things that people have done to us or said about us. We could get all worked up regarding who has been hurt the most. And yet God says to forgive.
Now what has to be forgiven? There are two words in Isaiah 44:22 we must not ignore. The first word is "transgressions." It means rebellion, the rising up of my rebellious will against the law of God. Transgression is pointing my finger in the face of God and saying, "God, I do not care what You say, what You think, or what anybody else thinks. This is a choice I am going to make and the way I am going to act."
Then there is the word "sin." That word means "to miss the mark," like an arrow not hitting the target. The Scripture says all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Sin and transgression are rebellion against God.
Sin blocks our ability to see the face of God. It keeps us from walking in fellowship with Him. "But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear" (Isa. 59:2). Sin darkens our heart, and it darkens our thinking and our understanding. When we sin we go from "I would never do that" to "I cannot believe I just did that."
But look at what God says: "I have wiped out your transgressions…and your sins…." Sin leaves a permanent record that we, on our own, cannot wipe away. But God says, "I have wiped out your transgressions…." It is as though He says, "I have written it all in a book, but I can also wipe it out. I can clean the slate. I can make all things new. I can make you into what you can never make yourself and redeem you from what you can never redeem yourself."
The pages of my heavenly journal have been at times filled with anger, resentment, lust, pride and other transgressions. But by the blood of Jesus they are cancelled. God is able to erase our record and remove the separation. We can live in a cloud of darkness where it seems that there is no way into the light, and no hope, no peace and no joy. But God says, "I can remove that, but you have to return to Me."
The Baggage of Unforgiveness
"Return to Me, for I have redeemed you." It is sad that those of us who are redeemed of the Lord can hold a grudge. In a church I pastored in the late 1980’s, during the first year or so people kept talking negatively about a brother who had been their pastor from 1948-1952. Well, as the preacher I had to decide on a theme for the year, and I announced our theme was going to be "Get Over It." I told them that that particular pastor left in 1952 and some of them still could not get over what he had done to them, and they needed to get over it.
But I will tell you when it broke free at that church. One night a friend of mine and I went to the church for about two or three hours. I got on my face behind the pulpit and I wept until the pulpit below my eyes was soaked with my tears. I prayed and I confessed the sins of the pulpit by every pastor who had ever preached in that church which was almost 100 years old at the time. God began to show me things that I did not even know about. The Spirit of God began to tell me things about what had happened by the abuse of that sacred desk against the people of God. Then my friend walked the room and he began to pray about the sins of the pew against the pulpit – about a lack of respect for the authority of the Word of God and a lack of respect for the man of God. We prayed back and forth between the sins of the pulpit and the sins of the pew. And for the next six weeks we did not have any less than half a dozen adults saved every Sunday because we got rid of the bondage of baggage of unforgiveness.
Our churches cannot have revival because we are living with the bondage of baggage. There are people walking into our churches who have got a ball and chain around their ankle and they are dragging it around. They are carrying baggage with them and are beaten down and bent over. Why? Because they cannot get over what happened in their lives – what somebody did to them or what they did to somebody.
No wonder God cannot work. If you cannot love your brother, you cannot love God. It is pretty simple. God wants us to operate as He operates. He lavishes His forgiveness on us and He wants us to lavish forgiveness on others. "But," someone may say, "they don’t deserve it." Is there anything in God’s Word that says they have to deserve it? We did not deserve the forgiveness God offered to us. If God forgives us we must forgive others; otherwise it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.
The cross shows us what God thinks of sin. The cross also shows us what God thinks of forgiveness and grace. God forgives with no reservations and no hesitations. "Return to Me, for I have redeemed you."
If our old self, our flesh, is dead we can do this. But if we want to have our way and our rights, if we want to be right no matter what and want everybody to know we are right no matter what, then we will hold a grudge and hold resentment and bitterness. It will begin to build up inside of us and create a barrier in our heart and life, darkening and clouding our thinking. And we will not have the freedom that we should have in our walk with God.
C. S. Lewis says, "Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until he has something to forgive." Forgiving others is tough. Something in all of us wants evidence and proof that the person is not going to do that to us anymore. But forgiveness means no strings attached.
However, it does not mean approval or denial of another’s actions. It is not endorsing sin and excusing what the other did. Nor is it repressing the offense and deciding not to think about it. That can become a root of bitterness that grows in our lives. We know that God does not literally forget our sins, but chooses to not remember them anymore. He casts them into the depths of the sea and as far as the east is from the west.
So what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is an act of the will. "[Love] keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Cor. 13:5). Secondly, forgiveness is showing mercy. "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (Matt. 5:7). Thirdly, it is a heart issue. Forgiveness is not dependent on the other person’s response, but it is dependent on you doing what God tells you to do.
When I was 39 years old I found out I was adopted and that everybody in my home church knew it but me. I would be less than honest if I did not tell you that unforgiveness, anger and bitterness immediately began to fill my heart. Many were the lies my parents, my grandparents, my uncles, and everybody told me all those years to keep me from finding out. But that did not justify my attitude about it. So one day I had to stand beside the bed of my adopted mother who was in a diabetic coma and I had to confess, whether she could hear me or not. I had to confess because God told me I had to do it. I confessed that I had been blessed to be raised in a home where I was taken to church where I learned about the love of the Lord. I confessed the things that changed my life because of where God put me.
A few months ago, I found out that my birth mother had died and that she had lived only one and a half hours away from where I now live. She knew everything about me – who had adopted me, everything I did, everywhere I had served. She knew everything about me and I knew nothing about her. And so I had to say to the church, "Apparently I’m not far enough along with the Lord that God can trust me with the reason right now." And once again the devil raised his head and said, "That just ticks you off, doesn’t it? Bet you wish you could tell her and her family what you really think." And again, I had to let it go.
I have been fired twice by churches. I have had to make some decisions that literally made people hate me. Like other pastors, I have received anonymous letters calling me things that nobody should be called. I have had negative letters to the editor written about me in the newspaper.
And in every instance God has reminded me that what I really deserve is hell, but what I have received is forgiveness. He has also reminded me that if I am going to model the life of Jesus, then I have to forgive the way He forgives me. That is not what I want to do – I want to prove I am right and they are wrong. I want to prove it is not fair. I want somebody to give me recompense for the suffering, the hurt and the pain. But that is not what God told me to do. He says to forgive and to get over it.
I would like to stand before you and say, "I have got it all together." But I do not even know where "all together" is. I am a pilgrim on a journey. And part of that journey is learning to forgive the way God forgives because it is not the way I want to do it. But it is the way God commands me to do it. It is not about my feelings, or about who is right and who is wrong, but it is about my obedience to Him.
Is there anyone you need to forgive? Is there someone you need to love the way Jesus loves you? Is there something you need to get over and move beyond?
Jesus says, "Truly I say to you whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you" (Mark 11:23-24). Let us say there is a mountain, an obstacle, an immovable object, and it is keeping us from having revival. Jesus says that if you say to the mountain, "Be moved," it will be moved. He goes right on to say in the next verse, "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions" (v. 25). If you want to live in the flow of God’s forgiveness, then forgive "anything against anyone."
Michael Catt is the senior pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.
[At the end of this message, Michael Catt asked Bill Elliff to share his testimony on overcoming bitterness. We include that testimony on pages 5-6, and also some of his teaching on this topic on pages 6-7.]