Praying for the Grace to Forgive
by Dr. Tom Elliff
Senior Pastor, First Southern Baptist Church,
Del City, Oklahoma
Past President, Southern Baptist Convention
Dr. Elliff has pastored First Southern in Del City since 1985.
He has served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention, a
16 million member denomination with over 40,000 churches. He and
his family have served as missionaries with the International Mission
Board in Zimbabwe, Africa.
Dr. Elliff authored Praying for Others, The Pathway to
God's Presence, America on the Edge, A Passion for
Prayer, and was a contributing author for Masterlife,
The Disciple Study Bible, and numerous other publications.
Praying for the Grace
by Dr. Tom Elliff
"So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you from
his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses."
you ever wondered how much of your present behavior is a reaction
to bitter experiences in your past? I have talked with individuals
whose obsession with clothing stemmed from an embarrassing comment
made by a grade school friend. I know of marriages that have crumbled
because of hurtful circumstances and the laceration of soul that
accompanied them. I have met ministers who have been crowded into
dark corners of uselessness because they are unwilling to deal properly
with wounds inflicted by some church, committee, or individual.
A missionary once confessed that her was perhaps serving overseas
merely to disprove the criticism of a lady who told him, "You
don't care about missions at all!"
in which we deal with hurtful events from our past affects us physically
and emotionally. Even if separated by years and miles, that rejection,
that scalding of emotions, that wounding of heart can render us
useless and bitter if we fail to deal with it in a scriptural manner.
Difficult circumstances of yesteryear or yesterday can cause our
adrenaline to flow, our pulse rate to climb, our food to taste bitter.
On sleepless nights they can cause our mind to reel with what others
have said or done to us and what we should have done or said in
Bitter experiences of the past also affect us spiritually. If we
refuse to forgive, we will find our fellowship with God disrupted
and our prayers rendered powerless. That is why our Lord spoke so
often and so passionately about forgiveness.
At some point
in our lives each of us must deal with the issue of forgiveness.
But what does it mean to forgive? If you have said, "I forgive,
but I cannot forget." Have you forgiven at all? Are some offenses
so terrible that God will excuse your inability or refusal to forgive?
Will forgiving an offender send a wrong signal, somehow indicating
not only acceptance, but approval of the offense> What do these
matters have to do with our relationship with God, and our prayer
life in particular?
Each of us
is aware that the Lord has commanded us to forgive. But how are
we to do it? Is forgiving simply a mind game, intellectual gymnastics?
Or is there some way to genuinely wash our souls of hurt and release
ourselves and the other person from the offense and its effects?
Is there some way we can stop reacting angrily and start cooperating
with God's design for our lives, receiving and passing on His forgiveness?
years ago God showed me my deficiency in the area of forgiveness.
Since He calls His Children to be conformed to the image of Christ,
He set a program in motion to deal with that shortcoming in my life.
Today He is still teaching me about forgiveness. Class is still
in session; the pilgrimage is not over! But here is my story.
ago, not long after my family and I went to Africa, my wife and
children were involved in a very serious accident, leaving my eldest
daughter critically injured. Lying in a hospital, she was for a
time at the very point of death. The third day following the accident,
I received a phone call from a police officer in a town not far
from where the accident occurred. He asked me to come to his office
so we could discuss some matters regarding the incident.
that the purpose of our discussion was to inform me that since it
was a single vehicle accident, my wife was going to be charged with
negligence. Instead he said, "We believe the accident occurred
because someone tampered with your vehicle." He then proceeded
to show me photographs and other evidence to support his conclusion.
He believed that the accident was caused by individuals wanting
to steal the vehicle. We agreed that a search for the guilty parties
would be fruitless.
as I traveled back to our hometown, I felt anger boiling in my heart.
I wanted to scream out to God, "Where were You when we needed
You?" Upon arriving at our house, I fell on my knees and said,
"Dear God, I came to this country to minister to these people,
but I feel so angry. You are going to have to teach me how to forgive."
God answered that prayer, and during the following weeks He led
me to Jesus' parable in Matthew 18:23-35.
Forgiven -- Forgiving
of a certain king whose servant owed him an enormous sum. His debt,
in fact, would have been absolutely unpayable had he lived several
lifetimes. Angry over the unpaid debt, the king commanded that the
debtor's children and wife be sold and the man himself put into
prison until the debt was paid. The man prostrated himself before
the king, begging him to give him more time to pay what he owed.
the king responded with compassion. With a heart of mercy (perhaps
knowing he did not need the money anyway), the king did more than
grant the man a few more days -- he forgave him for the entire debt!
But sadly, this same servant went out, found a fellow servant who
owed him a small amount -- pocket change! -- grabbed the servant
by the neck, shook him, and said, "Give me what you owe me
let me have just a few days and I will pay you," pled the man.
But the wicked servant refused, saying, "I will have you cast
into jail until all you owe is paid to me."
fellow servants, told the king, "Do you remember that servant
whose enormous debt you forgave? We just saw him threaten our fellow
servant over a small amount of money owed to him."
anger flashed! He called for the servant to be brought to him and
asked why he wouldn't forgive his fellow servant just as the king
had forgiven him. The king then put the man in jail and delivered
him over to the tormentors until he could pay all that was due.
reveals the two sides of forgiveness -- the practical side, or what
it means to forgive, and the personal side, or what forgiving will
do for you and those whom you forgive. And finally, that parable
speaks volumes about the manner in which your willingness to forgive
affects your fellowship in prayer with the Father. Christ said,
"So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you,
from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses"
is forgiveness? As used in this parable, the word 'forgive'
means to send someone away or to go away yourself, leaving all claims
behind. At its heart, forgiveness is not basically an act of the
emotions. It is a deliberate, volitional decision by which you way,
"This person is no longer indebted to me. I choose to hold
no more claims against him or her."
day, those hearing the parable for the first time undoubtedly associated
the king's forgiveness with a very specific picture. The king called
the servant before a court witness in order to forgive him the debt.
Proper documents were prepared in duplicate, one set for the forgiven
man, and one for the files of the kingdom. These documents recorded
the name of the man, the name of the king, the amount the man owed,
and the statement, "Forgiven!' or "Paid in full,"
The king signed them, then the man. Finally a representative sealed
them. The forgiven man kept one copy, and the other was filed away.
a specific reason for following such a procedure. Imagine that some
months later the king must contemplate a costly building project.
As he considers the cost, his advisors counsel him, "We know
where you can obtain the money for the project. Remember that servant
with that enormous debt? Make him pay. He owes it to you."
man finds himself standing before the king. "But," he
protests, "you forgave me for that!" Looking through the
files, the court clerk confirms that at a specific time in the past
the king had indeed forgiven the servant. The king might be disgusted,
his anger might boil, but there is nothing he can do. Perhaps such
a scene might even be repeated as time blurs the king's memory.
But on each occasion he would return to the fact that he had forgiven
the point: Even if we decide to forgive someone, we might on future
occasions be tempted to bring that person's case back into the courtroom
of our emotions and try to demand payment all over again. But with
the Holy Spirit's assistance, we will be able to recall that at
a specific moment in the past we chose to forgive, and we have no
further claim on the offending party.
tempts us to hold the forgiven person in our debt, we can say, "There
is no sense in pursuing this. The record may be frayed and dog-eared
from my repeated reference to it, but I do not need to drag it out.
On a specific day in the past I chose to forgive, I relinquished
all claims against this person, and I refuse to go back on my decision."
That is forgiveness!
must be distinguished from other practices closely associated with
it. Forgiving does not mean, for instance, that we approve of
another's actions. Once a troubled young wife and mother asked
whether forgiving her father for molesting her as a child meant
that she accepted and approved of his perverted activities. I told
her no, noting that Christ forgives us but does not approve of our
is forgiveness the same as reconciliation or restitution. It
is wonderful when either of these happens, But if they had to precede
forgiving, we could be hopelessly trapped in bitterness -- if, for
example, the offending party died before either could be accomplished.
At the same time, forgiveness does, in fact, pave the way for both
of these to occur.
speaking on this issue of forgiveness, I asked those who would choose
to forgive to stand up as an indication of their intent. One man
stood, grieving over the fact that his unforgiven brother has disappeared
and he might never have the opportunity to share what was in his
heart. But as he turned to be seated, he discovered his offending
brother standing directly behind him. What a joyous reconciliation!
And it happened because two men were willing to say, "As of
this day, the debt is paid. I am owed nothing. I forgive!"
But what does forgiveness do for the persons we forgive -- and for
When we forgive
someone, we remover ourselves as a controlling factor in that individuals'
behavior. No longer can that person say, "My life could be
different, but he will not forgive me," Remember, when we refuse
to forgive someone, we are retaining that person's case in our
courtroom! We have yet to turn it over to God. We are saying in
essences, "I have a higher standard of justice than God!"
ever wondered why people who have committed injustice and wrong
against us sometimes seem to prosper in this world? Perhaps an individual
has mistreated us, and in our heart we might have said, "That
does it! You have mistreated God's anointed, His innocent child.
Now God is going to let the hammer fall!" but instead the offender
prospers! He is driving a new car, he is living in a new house,
and he may wear better clothed than we do! We protest, "Lord,
he offended me. When are You going to let him have it!" And
God gently reminds us, "You have not release him to Me yet!
Quit trying to be judge and jury. Pray that I will treat him as
graciously as you would want to be treated yourself."
to forgive is a subtle way of saying, "I am afraid that if
I forgive this individual, God will not treat him as I think he
should be treated." In contrast, the forgiving person says,
"Dear God, I rest my case. That individual is Yours to deal
with, not mine. I have no further claims, I set him free."
what forgiveness does for the person whom we forgive. We no longer
give him or her an excuse for an improper response. But what will
choosing to forgive some offense from our past do for us? Forgiveness
has five positive results.
we refuse to forgive others, we also believe they deserve something
more from us -- a lecture, a cold shoulder, criticism, rudeness.
We believe we should punish the offender, that we must somehow balance
the scales. When we forgive, we are released form that debt -- we
are set free. Biblically, we owe the person nothing but love (Rom.
this act of forgiveness, the king in Jesus' parable wanted to never
again consider the servant his adversary. In fact, he hoped they
could enjoy their restored fellowship. Only that servant's unwillingness
to forgive a fellow servant brought him once again under the king's
people always feel it is necessary to get even. They sense there
is an unpaid debt and they must set the record straight. But when
we forgive, those feelings are removed. And fellowship can be restored.
We are released from our unholy burden.
second positive result of forgiveness is that it helps us to rely
fully on the Lord. An unforgiving person subconsciously feels that
others hold the key to his happiness and success. But when we forgive
someone, we are saying God meets all of our needs. A forgiving spirit
casts us totally on the resources of God!
could forgive the servant's debt because he did not need the man's
money. The huge debt was not greatly urgent to him. Similarly, we
can forgive other people for what we feel they owe us because we
do not need it. We have more than enough because we have Christ.
When we say,
"I will not forgive," we are saying, "something
is missing. The offending party holds the key to my joy. I need
a certain something from someone on this earth. Something that God
above cannot provide."
we forgive, we are saying, "My God supplies all my need
according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus my Lord!"
(see Phil. 4:19). By forgiving others, relinquishing any hold we
have on them, we lean wholly on God. Such faith pleases the Lord
will also restore us to ministry and fellowship. Unforgiving people
are often perplexed when God takes them out of the mainstream of
usefulness. Their theology is precise: we cannot fault them on their
Christian character; everything about them seems exactly right.,
Yet they are on the shelf, rarely called upon by others, and in
fact often avoided.
their refusal to forgive has brought them into a prison of uselessness.
God has shut down their ministry and focused His attention on their
discipline. Why should He exalt someone whose life is a direct contradiction
to what He wants others to see in Himself -- His love and forgiveness?
servant in the parable was put in prison, where he was totally ineffective,
as is everyone who refuses to forgive. But when we forgive, our
usefulness is restored.
brings deliverance from those who mistreat or oppress us. A person
who will not forgive lives in agony. "And his master was angry,
and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that
was due to him." This kind of torment can come in various ways.
ago I visited with a lady who had received the frightening diagnosis
of a terminal illness. As we talked and I sought to comfort her,
she said, "If God ever shows you anything about my situation,
please let me know."
a time of Bible study and prayer, God directed me to Proverbs 17:22
with its solemn reminder that "a broken spirit dries the bones."
Knowing that her illness was directly related to the failure of
her bone marrow to produce life-giving blood, I decided to direct
her attention to this passage of Scripture.
met, I asked her if some past event had brought great bitterness
to her heart. She began to weep while recounting an event that had
virtually devastated her. Choking back the tears, she asked why
I thought such a thing existed in her past. I showed her Proverbs
17:22 and asked is she was willing to forgive.
In a moving
prayer she chose to consider the offending party as no longer indebted
to her. As a result, God moved remarkably in the life of this lady,
restoring her to health and usefulness for many more years.
the very people against whom we harbor a vindictive spirit usually
do not know it. Unforgiving people suffer the most from their bitterness.
When we forgive, we are released form such torture.
does more than open the door for restored relationships with others.
By forgiving others a believer regains fellowship with God. In His
parable Jesus emphatically stated that a refusal to forgive others
brings a similar response from God toward us: "So my Heavenly
Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does
not forgive his brother his trespasses" (Matt. 18:35). The
forgiving to which Jesus refers is not the forgiveness that brings
salvation, but fellowship instead.
of mine once related that he had offended his wife with a critical
remark, and she was finding it difficult to forgive him. "There's
a chill in the air," he said as he tried to describe the atmosphere
in his home. Many people sense a similar chill in their relationship
with God. Their sins are covered by the death of Christ. But they
know their behavior is not appropriate for blood-bought children
of God; they are not living consistently with their calling. A major
interruption of fellowship with God stems from an unforgiving spirit.
God is known
for His forgiveness. How strange it must seem when we, the forgiven,
refuse to forgive others. The Lord's parable shows the serious effects
of such an unforgiving spirit. When we choose to forgive someone
else. We are applying the grace of God to human lives. We are thus
pleasing, serving, and worshipping Him.
The facets of forgiveness we have been examining closely relate
to prayer. The failure to forgive results in the loss of the five
personal benefits discussed above, each of which is crucial if we
are to pray effectively, "If I regard iniquity in my heart,
the LORD will not hear" (Ps 66:18), and that includes the sin
of refusing to forgive someone else. If we are not only to pray
but to persevere in prayer, to pray effectively, we must be forgiving.
has always been my hero. Like his father before him, he served many
years in gospel ministry. I have received his permission to relate
the following story.
One day my
father decided he would leave my mother, a devastating act with
consequence that can be imagined only those who have experience
At the time
my parents were in their mid-sixties, having celebrated forty-three
years of marriage, when he decided he would leave. I do not understand,
nor did he, all the dynamics of the spiritual and moral dementia
that brought about the divorce. I do know that even now he shakes
his head in sad wonderment over what occurred., Today he cautions
everyone he meets regarding the importance of "daily bread,":
regular intake of the Word of God. He says, ":I have discovered
that you cannot build up enough 'points' with God so that you can
never afford to simply coast in your spiritual life> The moment
you set aside the Word of God, you become vulnerable to whatever
Satan sets before you."
own family departed for the mission field, I sensed the difficulties
mounting in my father's life and tried desperately to do something
about it. I vividly remember calling my parents before we boarded
the plane in New York only to discover that my father has left my
mother! I had previously counseled with many people whose parents
had gone through divorce. But until that moment I never really understood
the situation. If divorce deeply hurts a grown man, which it does,
I cannot imagine what it does to a three-year-old or a nine-year-old
or a fifteen-year-old or a college student!
of his departure, my father remarried and moved to a distant state.
Communication, strained at best, was virtually nonexistent. We all
sought to comfort and encourage my godly yet grieving mother, who
struggled to understand how her beautiful family had been broken
after the divorce, my mother began to exhibit the early signs of
Alzheimer's. A lovely, godly, wonderful woman attacked with Alzheimer's!
I cried out, "God, this doesn't seem fair! She isn't; the one
who's supposed to have the problems! Why should my mother have to
One day I
received a call from my brother, who lived very close to my mother.
"Mother has had a cerebral hemorrhage," he said. "She's
in the hospital and is at the point of death. Come quickly."
All the family gathers at her besides to hear the doctor say. "There
is really no way she can live. She is going to die -- soon, I think,
although we can never be certain about such things." When he
said that, we could see my mother literally dig in, in spite of
the fact that she lay there in a coma. We did not realize then all
the God had in store for us over the next few weeks.
A week passed,
then a second week. Toward the end of he second week, Mother stirred
a little, and she uttered three words: "Want! Want! Want!"
My brother, who was by her beside, said, "Mother, what do you
want? Do you want ice? Do you want a drink of water? Do you want
your pillow changed? What do you want? Do you want to be turned?"
When none of his suggestions seemed to satisfy her, he began to
call the names of friends and family, finally asking, "Is it
Dad?" She then uttered three more words: "Forgive! Forgive!
"Mother, we have forgiven him, and we know you have too."
But there was no response. Once again my mother had lapsed into
day our family gathered around her bed, thinking our Mother was
going to die anytime. As we sang, prayed, cried, and read the Word
of God, the phone rang. It was my father, who had not spoken to
my mother in almost two and a half years. Weeping, he said "Can
I speak to Mama?" I said, "Dad, she's in a coma."
"Well," he said, "I need to talk to her."
When I put
the phone to Mother's ear, her eyes opened, her body came to attention,
tears ran from the corner of her eyes, and she said "I forgive
you. I love you."
about a poem I had seen.
He drew a circle that shut me out,
Daunted, rebel -- a thing to flout,
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that shut him in.
has remarkable restorative power. For twenty-four hours my mother
remained lucid. She said, "Isn't that something, Dad calling?
You know, I have to witness for Jesus even more." Then she
quietly slipped into a coma.
more weeks passed with Mother lying there in a coma. Dad called
almost every day inquiring, "What do you think?" Finally
we said, "Dad, we don't know what's she's waiting for, Maybe
she's waiting for you."
day our entire family, including my father, stood in a circle around
her bed holding hands. In only a few days Mother peacefully went
to be with the Lord.
and I had the wit to win, We drew a circle that shut him in.
my mother's determined love and prayers and her forgiving spirit
to restore relationships in our family. My father and his wife now
live back at home surrounded by their relatives and friends. We
have talked openly and candidly about the events that led to the
divorce and subsequent marriage. While no one can undo the events
of the past, God has shown us the sufficiency for His grace. Since
then the Lord has used my father on more than one occasion to dissuade
others from making the same tragic choices he made. And all of us
in the family share a genuine God-given love for one another.
understood, "Forgive! Forgive! Forgive!" Then we can pray
and keep on praying, serve and keep on serving, worship and keep
for Reflection and Prayer
Is there anyone whom you need to forgive? Ask God to bring such
persons to mind right now. Why have you not forgiven him or her
or them? Will you choose to do so today? Talk with God further
about all this now.
Release from debt -- reliance on the Lord -- restored usefulness
-- relief from torment -- recovered fellowship with the Father
-- which of these benefits of forgiving others means the most
to you? Why? Which do you need the most these days? Why? Discuss
all this with God now.
3. How do forgiveness and prayer
relate to each other? How has this been true in your life? Are
your prayers being hindered by bitterness at this time? Converse
with God honestly and specifically about this now.