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Helping Others Forgive in Light of the Cross

“I hate you!”

In the past, have you ever heard those words, thought those words, or said those words? They sting. The apostle Paul talks about this and other sins to his protege Titus,

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:3–5).

If we are honest, we still struggle from time to time with feelings of anger, hurt, resentment, and perhaps even hate. Sanctification is a journey of conformity to Christ day-by-day and step-by-step. When your counselees face conflict or we face conflict, how do we move to forgiveness and love? As we approach Easter, Jesus’ last words have an answer.

Point to Jesus

The first thing Jesus said as he died on the cross was, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). He came to the earth to offer forgiveness. As he suffered injustice, he was an example, par excellence, of granting forgiveness. Pointing your people to Jesus helps inspire forgiveness.

However, what if they feel they don’t have it in them to forgive? What if the person you counsel sees Jesus’ example and concludes, “I could never do that. Jesus is God. I am not. I can’t forgive. My hurt is too big.”? How do you help a person move from hatred, anger, resentment, and hurt to loving forgiveness when it seems impossible?

If they see their inability, that is not bad. Point them back to Jesus and his words. In John 15, he said, that we are the branches and he is the vine. We can’t do any good thing apart form him. Jesus knew it is impossible to obey on our own; that is why he came and died and rose again. We can’t love and forgive without God’s help. We need his help. Direct their gaze to Jesus and the help he offers.

Identify Barriers

In pointing them to Jesus, help them identify his or her barriers to follow Christ. What holds them back? Do they hang on to an offense? What hurts and injustices do they carry? What is their motivation for not wanting to forgive someone? Often people are unaware of what is going on inside of themselves.

Have your counselees describe what they are thinking and feeling, not just what others have done to them. Sometimes those emotions are indicative of desires that are out of balance. James 4 tells us what causes quarrels. Conflict arises from expectations and wishes and longings that exceed what God would have. We want our way, our plan, and our vision, so we do whatever we can to get it. We cut corners. That drive begins to rule us, control us, and dictate our lives, not God’s Word. Understanding when that happens helps move the counselee to the next step: confession.

Confess Sin

Another name for unbalanced desires is idolatry. Seeing one’s idolatry is an opportunity. Help them step back and reflect on what is going on in them and how that impacts their relationships and situation is critical. This is not saying they are to blame for the wrong done to them. However, Jesus made it clear that addressing your own sin is the first step in moving forward, before trying to resolve a circumstance through confrontation. He said something to the effect of, take the two-by-four out of your own eye before doing Lasik surgery on your neighbor (Matthew 7:5). Two-by-fours get in the way of eye surgery.

How does one follow Christ’s example of love and forgiveness? Knowing one’s barriers and confession helps. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story that illustrates the irony of unforgiveness. A forgiven person grasping what Jesus has done for their specific wrongs helps one grow in mercy.

Embrace faith 

That leads to the second saying of Christ on the cross, which also deals with forgiveness. In Jesus’ first saying, he asked the Father to forgive because of ignorance. In his second, he extended grace and mercy to a single sinner based on faith.

Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Two thieves died next to him. One verbally mocked Jesus while the other defended him. The mocking thief didn’t believe Jesus, while the defending one did. The defender asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. He had nothing to offer Jesus. He had no religious pedigree that we know of, only immorality. He knew Jesus had done nothing wrong, unlike himself. Yet, he asked Jesus for mercy. That request demonstrated his faith that death wouldn’t hold Jesus back. His focus was not on those who hurt him, but his own need for mercy.

Help your counselees see Jesus as this believing criminal did. If they don’t believe, helping them love and forgive will be like stapling fruit on a fruit tree. It won’t get at the root of their issue. Recognition of one’s sin and sinful nature is critical. Seeing their need, point them to the hope of Scripture. Jesus conquered sin at the cross. He provided forgiveness and grace in his death. He was and is the only hope for change. His promise to the thief can become your counselee’s by faith.

Does the person believe Jesus? Does he or she believe the Scripture? It is sufficient to help them move from hatred to love. Applied rightly, through the Spirit, the Bible opens blind eyes and softens hearts. Help them embrace faith in God’s grace in their lives to empower them to offer grace to others. Paul says it this way, “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

Join me in using the Word of God to minister to the souls of men for God’s glory and everyone’s joy this Easter.