Forgiveness takes work. It’s hard to forgive. But what if there’s a work which takes place inside of us before we’re able to genuinely engage in the work of forgiving someone else?
Maybe that’s why the Bible says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32 ESV). Or, “… as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13 ESV).
There’s a work before forgiveness. It’s called being forgiven. And while forgiving another person takes work, being forgiven by God doesn’t take any work on our part.
God has taken upon Himself the work of forgiving sinners like me and you. As Paul writes, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14 ESV).
God doesn’t call us to forgive without first giving us an example of what forgiveness looks like. And there’s never a time when God asks us to forgive someone more than we ourselves have been forgiven.
It’s the wonderful grace of God. The work of Christ in our hearts. And only after embracing the reality of this work can we genuinely forgive others. But here’s the problem: most of us struggle to forgive because we forget what it’s like to be forgiven.
Have we become like the Pharisee in Luke 18 who, rather than recognizing the sin in his own life, criticizes the tax collector asking for forgiveness nearby? While the Pharisee thanks God for his self-righteousness, the tax collector “… beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (v. 13 ESV).
Or, consider the sinful woman in Luke 7 who comes to Jesus as He reclines at a table in the home of a Pharisee. She wets His feet with her tears and dries them with her hair as the Pharisee looks on in disgust. But she anoints the feet of the Lord because she knows who He is. And Jesus tells the Pharisee, “‘… her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little’” (v. 47 ESV).
The more we are forgiven, the more forgiving we should be. And in Christ, we’ve been forgiven far more than we even realize. Which means we should forgive more than we currently are.
So, for the next four weeks, we’re going to study Paul’s letter to Philemon. It’s a little book with a big lesson on forgiveness. In it, Paul asks Philemon to forgive his runaway slave named Onesimus.
The letter begins, “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (v. 1-7 ESV).
As we study the 25 verses of Philemon, we’re going to see the difficulty involved in forgiveness. We’re going to feel the weight of Philemon’s call to forgive Onesimus. But the way Paul begins his letter already teaches us something about forgiveness. Before he ever asks Philemon to forgive, he celebrates the work of God’s forgiveness in Philemon’s own life.
In verse 1, Paul calls Philemon his “beloved fellow worker.” In verse 5, Paul acknowledges the love and loyalty with which Philemon loves God and people. And in verses 6 and 7, Paul asks God to bless Philemon as he shares his resources with others. The faith of Philemon is evident. His life is an example of faith expressing itself through love (see Gal. 5:6). And the soil of his heart is prepared for what Paul is about to say next.
Philemon has experienced the work before forgiveness. The grace of God. The work of Christ on his behalf. But have you?
We’re not only called to forgive. We’re called to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. By Christ. On the cross. For our sins. And that, my friends, is the work before forgiveness.