Relational Landmines: Unforgiveness by John Burke

At Gateway Church in Austin, we are looking at Relational Landmines. Week one at our North Campus, John Burke dealt with “Hurts.”

Next Steps

Discussion questions for your family, running partners, or life group.

Watch the message John shared here:

Here are notes from the message John shared:

While most have seen Wizard of Oz, never really thought about the underlying story. Dorthy’s dog Toto bit the nasty mean neighbor, Ms Gulch, who wants to kill the dog. Her uncle Henry and Auntie Em who she lives with initially protect Toto, but when the wicked witch woman threatens to sue and take their farm, they give Toto up. Dorothy feels hurt and betrayed by her aunt and uncle and runs away with Toto—sending her into the path of a tornado and into a redemptive journey.

In life, people hurt us, wrong us, do things against us—what do we do with those wrongs?

Some of you have been running from the relational hurts done to you for a long time. And God wants to take you on a redemptive journey to discover some things that can set you free relationally.

In relationships, we hurt and wrong each other, we do, the question is…what do we do with it?

We all know what if feels like to be sinned against. To have people hurt us, let us down, betray us, act unloving or uncaring, say hurtful or spiteful things, cheat us, be unfaithful to us, reject us, cuss at us, use us, try to dominate, control, or coerce us…I could go on and on. We all know what it feels like to be sinned against.

The truth is, we all get hurt, we all get wronged,
because we all sin against God and each other.

The question is what do you do when you’re the one whose been wronged or hurt?

Do you hold onto it, or do you let it go and forgive?

That’s what I want us to consider today because nothing will blow up your current relationships like unforgiveness and bitterness caused by hurts or wrongs we hold onto.

So think with me today. I want to make this message really practical, because we need it—we all want relational health. We all want to be loving, joyful people. We all want relationships that give life to us and them, yet if there’s unforgiveness hidden in our hearts, if we’re still holding onto things, it will actually destroy the people we love the most—even if the original hurts or wounds we haven’t forgiven have nothing to do with our current relationships—your current relationships will suffer. The path to relational health and making things right is forgiveness. But Christians can sometimes be like people who say the think stop signs are good, they believe in stop signs, yet they keep ignoring them and running through them, then blame God for all the accidents that keep happening. Jesus told us forgiveness is the path to make things right, but that’s not intuitive. Which is why we don’t pay attention.

So let’s make this practical today. Think of someone who has wronged you in the past, and you have not let it go or forgiven them, write it down. On that piece of paper—write down the following:

“I was wronged/hurt by _____ and the issue was ____.

The Grocery Store Test

Now, maybe no one comes to mind right away—I always suggest the grocery store test. Imagine yourself turning the corner down the isle at the grocery store, and down at the end—not looking at you is someone with whom you’ve had conflict? They don’t see you, and you have the following responses:

  • Turn around and run away before they see you.
  • Your first emotion is intense anger—you want to run at them with your cart.

If either of these are your first response, ask yourself:

  • Did they hurt you?
  • What’s unresolved?

Maybe it’s your current spouse, or your parent—maybe it’s been many years of tiny paper cut wounds you’ve taken, but now they’ve added up—it’s hard. Or maybe it’s much, much deeper than that—a relative or friend sexually abused you, or someone deceived you or used you, or someone just did all they could to slander and destroy you.

Think about the biggest or most prominent wrong or hurt—if it’s still unresolved, write it down now.

You’re going to find freedom starting today if you’ll do this.

Jesus on Forgiveness

Jesus talks about forgiveness in Matthew 18. Matthew chapter 18 is all about hurts, wrongs, and Healthy Forgiveness.

Then Peter came to [Jesus] and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” “No!” Jesus replied, “seventy times seven!
– Matthew 18:21-22

They had a 3 strikes you’re out rule, like we do—so Peter’s doubling it and adding one thinking that’s magnanimous. Jesus says—70x that! In other words—forgiveness should be a lifestyle.

In any close relationship, we sin against each other. Even when we don’t mean to, we do. If that person is sorry, if they admit their wrongs, we must forgive and let it go. We can’t have healthy relationships otherwise.

But what if they aren’t sorry? What if they blame you? What if they don’t admit their wrongs? Or keep doing it? Well, interestingly Jesus doesn’t say “If they repent, forgive.” He instead tells a story to get us to reframe everything from God’s perspective.

“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.  He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt. – Matthew 18:23-25

Hit pause just a second. In that day, this was justice—this was the law—if you couldn’t pay your debts, you and all you had would be sold into slavery until you had paid what you owed to your Master. It’s the same today—why do you think it’s called “Master-card?” But in that day, the law said your debtor had the right to sell you to get his money back. This is not horrible, it’s justice. You owe, you pay—Justice.

As an important aside: Slavery in the Scriptures is different than what we think of when we think of the early history of the United States of America or even those who are forced into slavery today. Slaves were more like indentured servants. They were not taken captive and put on a boat and separated from their loved ones.

In the Bible many of those enslaved were paying off a debt. They chose servitude as a way to get out of their difficult circumstances. The Bible calls for those who were enslaved to be freed every 7 years (very different than forced slavery).

The Bible does not advocate slavery. Even still, there is a trajectory towards freedom in the Bible. For example, Paul’s letter to Philemon was a letter asking him to free his slave Onesimus. The early church leaders knew that as people were freed from spiritual slavery, then the end of physical enslavement was soon to follow.

Paul even writes an incredible declaration of freedom and equality for women and those who were slaves. He writes:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28

This is revolutionary!!

The reality is that all nations informed by Christianity (informed by the Bible) have moved towards women in leadership and away from slavery throughout history. Sure, we still have a long way to go, but the trajectory that began in the Scriptures moves towards value and worth and love beyond what any culture would be like naturally.

“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt. – Matthew 18:26

Pause again—so the guy who owed 1 million debt, begs for mercy promising to pay it. The Master could have said, “Okay, I’ll give you 6 more months to repay it. Go work harder, try harder to pay for your debts, but he doesn’t do this—what the Master does is shocking. He cancels all the debt. He doesn’t give him justice, he doesn’t give him more time, he sets him free from having to pay at all. This is unbelievable. He cancels millions of dollars of debt.

This, by the way, is what God has done for us—Amazing Grace–for all who recognize that we’ve wronged God and our fellow man, that we’ve broken our own moral code and much more God’s, that we’ve tried to play God of life, getting people and God to obey us and do our will instead of seeking the will of our Creator—we’ve committed treason against the King of the Universe. We’ve all racked up a HUGE debt, millions more than we could ever pay by trying harder to be good. Do you see that this is Jesus’ point in his parable?

This is such a crucial point to understand in Jesus’ parable, because most of our unforgiveness and bitterness that poisons other relationships comes from not truly understanding ourselves from God’s vantage point. Just think about your life—have you ever considered that all the times you rebelled against God’s will, you wronged and hurt God? I think about if God were going to make a list of my debts–all the times I broke God’s moral law, all the times I said something mean or hurtful to my sister, lashed out at my mom, disrespected my father, stole from a store, ran away, got drunk, lusted, said mean or hurtful things, betrayed a friend…and I haven’t even gotten out of Middle School yet. I was just gaining momentum for High School. And God sees all the selfish thoughts, all the bad motives, all the rebellious attitudes—millions of them over a lifetime. See, We all tend to think, “Well, but I’ve done a lot of good things too—maybe my good deeds will cover for the bad things.” But that’s not actually how justice works in God’s economy.

It’s more like this—think of every rotten deed, every stinky motive, every nasty thought like a rotten egg that you crack and put in a big barrel called life. Think of all the putrid eggs you’ve put in there over a lifetime. Now, how many good eggs will you need to put in there to get rid of the horrific smell? There aren’t enough. Adding the good to the putrid will never take away the stench—you need someone to remove the bad eggs so the good ones will not be tainted. Friends, that’s what Jesus came to do for you, and me, and every human:

You were dead [spiritually] because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 2:13-14

God cancelled his long list, he removed the rotten, smelly eggs from our lives—not because we deserved it. Justice would be that we pay our debts. But God loves us so much, He paid our debts for us, so that they wouldn’t keep us separated from Him. Have you recognized the truth about your life from God’s perspective—that you have a debt you cannot pay, and have you asked His mercy—that He would forgive you and lead you? That’s all he needs to set you free—debts cancelled forever. He did that so you’ll live with him now and forever. BUT…if you’ve been forgiven so much—how can you not forgive others? Jesus continues. The King forgives the guy millions:

“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.” – Matthew 18: 28-35

 Jesus says something terribly shocking that we need to let rock our world today: “That’s what will happen to those who refuse to forgive when you’ve been forgiven.” Now, what does this mean? We need to return to the Land of Oz because we need some of the same things Dorothy needed on her relational journey. Dorothy meets the Scarecrow—who has no brain. But really this is what Dorothy needs, and what all of us need in this relational journey.

We Need a Brain to Think

We need to think about unforgiveness and what it really does—it tortures us. When someone hurts or wrongs us, we want Justice. We want them to pay to make it right, or we at least want them to recognize their wrong. But what if they won’t? We think withholding forgiveness will insure that things are made right—that justice is done. But Jesus is telling us—all it insures is that act will keep torturing you [more?]

Imagine this weight represents that evil act—that thing that happened, or that series of wrongs. We think “It’s not right to just let them off the hook. I want them to know what they did hurt me. I want them to pay for all the hurt they caused me. I want Justice. I want Vengeance. I want things made right.” That’s often what we think. And so we won’t forgive or let it go, instead we hold onto this Rope called “Justice, Vengence” tied to that incident—pulling for the day when we feel better because they’ve paid or justice has been done.

Here’s the problem with this—holding onto this rope does not insure Justice will be done or that they’ll own their wrongs or repent or pay—lots of people in this life get away with horrific things and never pay or admit their wrongs. And when we hold onto this rope, it doesn’t punish them, it keeps us tied to that poisonous hurt or wound, and it ends up infecting our current relationships—it may be totally unrelated to our current family, but if we don’t let it go and forgive, it will destroy the relationships you love. That’s exactly what Jesus means, I believe, when he says we will be turned over to the torturers. I don’t think he means we will be sent to hell, or that God tortures us–I think He’s lovingly warning us that unforgiveness gives evil a foothold in our lives. Bitterness and unforgiveness are us giving Evil permission to torture us—poking and prodding and jabbing our thoughts over and over with that painful memory, and keeping that hurt reeking havoc in our current relational world.

Elizabeth was sitting up late one night waiting for her son to come home. Ted was a freshman in college, home for Christmas Break and working a temp job at the mall. At 10:40 pm, Elizabeth got the phone call all parents dread. It was the hospital, Ted had been in a car accident. It turned out, another college student had been driving drunk—with blood alcohol level was 3 times the legal limit—and he’d crossed the center line and smashed head-on into Ted coming the other way. He survived with minor injuries, but Ted died. Elizabeth and Frank, her husband, were devastated. Their only son had been ripped out of their lives. When the 23 year old man who killed their son, Tommy, was given probation—Elizabeth found herself enflamed with hatred and anger. She said, “It was like a wildfire sweeping down a dry canyon—it consumed every part of me.” She began replaying the mental video of that night like a horror movie, over and over. She ached for revenge. She fantasized about seeing Tommy on the street and running him down in her car—pinning him against a tree or wall, watching him suffer in agony as she slowly crushed him to death. She even spent much of her time actually tracking Tommy to see if she could catch him violating his probation. But over time, her Toxic Anger and unforgiveness drove a wedge between her and her husband—it started to chase away her friends—she lost the ability to laugh and enjoy life. She described it as a cancer eating away at her soul. So we need a Brain to think about what unforgiveness really does to our soul.

We Need a New Heart

Just like Dorothy met the Tin Man who represented the need for a new heart, we too need a new heart. We need to realize that if we’ve given our heart to Christ—he is making us new.

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! – 2 Corinthians 5:17

The phrasing in the original language is that old life, whatever was done to you, whatever happened in the past—it’s past. And the new has come and keeps on coming—that’s how it’s phrased. God can take anything, no matter how bad it was, and make something new and good from it—nothing is impossible with God. But we have to let him mold and shape our hearts into the new heart, the new life He’s going to keep leading us into as we’re willing. But that means our hearts must be open to his leadership—we must move in His way, and let go of the way of the hard-heart that tells us—make them pay, or don’t let them off, get revenge.

But how? We want Justice, Vengenence. God tells us:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. – Romans 12:18-19

God promises, Justice will be done. It’s not done most of the time this side of eternity—people get away with all kinds of things and they don’t admit it, aren’t found out, don’t have to pay. But God will be just. He paid to forgive and take back every heart that turns to Him admitting their own guilt and wrongs, because we never hurt each other without first hurting God. So every human will either pay for all their wrongs themselves—and justice will be done—or they will see and admit they’ve sinned against God and others and allow God to pay (the price of His justice) and begin to restore us and change us.

Now, a couple important points. To forgive does not mean to forget. If your spouse cheated on you multiple times, lied and hid it from you, to forgive does not mean it didn’t happen and if you’re gonna work it out, he or she will need to rebuild trust. If you forgive the person who sexually abused you, and it was a relative who has never repented and turned to God and changed their ways—to forgive does not mean to trust or that you should be around that person if they’re not safe. To forgive means to let go of the rope of Justice and punishment—to say to God “You paid for my debts to forgive me, it should have been me paying. And I will trust you with these debts owed me—either they will pay or you will pay, but it’s not mine to make them pay. I let go of the need to make them see, pay, or change.

So you can trust God—someone will pay for what was done to you—Justice will be done. By holding onto this rope, you’re not insuring Justice, you’re insuring that the evil from that event or those events still has you bound to it. It will destroy you and those you love. God wants to heal your heart, restore love and joy in your heart. But you must hand the rope to God and say, “Justice is Yours Lord—I will not play God, I will trust You to be just.” Then ask him to heal your heart—like we talked about last week.

Unforgiveness of Tommy was poisoning Elizabeth’s marriage and friendships. She desperately wanted help, but didn’t know where to turn. Then one day, she was confronted with God’s own story—that he too had lost his only Son—as the payment for her own wrongdoing. She read about Jesus looking at the merciless soldiers pounding nails into his hands, and saying, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” She realized—she needed to be forgiven and forgive. She had to give the rope of anger and punishment into the hands of God, and forgive Tommy Pigage—to let go of her need to exact Justice or vengeance. So she went to him, and told him she forgave him. Though she didn’t feel it at first—it was an act of obedience, yet over time her caustic bitterness changed to the point of seeing Tommy as a broken, wounded boy.

We Need Courage to Overcome Evil.

Just like Dorothy and the Lion—it takes spiritual courage to not only forgive those who hurt you, but then do what the rest of Romans 12 says:

“It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:20-21

Some of you are struggling with this, you’re saying, “Can you explain the Heaping burning coals on their head part – I think I can do that!”

Here’s what this means—if you want to get back at evil, if you want to make evil pay for how hurt or wounded or angry you feel—ask God for the Courage to repay your enemy, or even your spouse or parent or coworker…with kindness. That’s what will melt evil like water did the wicked witch—See God is overcoming evil as we resist evil manipulating us through hurts and lies to do with more evil. Because remember, behind the real people are real forces of evil manipulating them to hurt you—don’t be a pawn in the hands of evil—Ask God for Courage to overcome evil with Good.

Elizabeth and her husband found so much freedom in forgiveness, they had the courage to actually start being kind to Tommy—seeing him as a wounded pawn of evil. They built a relationship with her son’s killer, and it was this friendship that influenced Tommy to begin following Jesus and turn his life around. And as unbelievable as it sounds, Elizabeth’s husband, ended up baptizing Tommy. And as he emerged from the water—symbolizing the cleansing forgiveness of God and new life offered in Christ—they hugged and sobbed. Elisabeth and her husband were at Tommy’s wedding, and for years they rode to church together every Sunday with Tommy and his wife, and together worshipped the God who overcomes Evil with Good—for everyone who finds and offers forgiveness.



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