Forgiving others—and sometimes forgiving ourselves—is among the most difficult things we’re supposed to do as Christians. As I discuss in this sermon, we struggle with it, in part, because we refuse to accept that our relationship with God and with one another should be based on grace, not merit. We don’t deserve the many gifts that God gives us—the gifts of life, eternal life, love, and material possessions.
Sermon Text: Matthew 6:9-15
The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.
Do you feel sorry for Pete Carroll? I sort of do. In case you don’t know, the coach for the Seattle Seahawks had his team poised for victory in last Sunday’s Super Bowl. While the Patriots had taken a late four-point lead, the Seahawks were on the Patriots’ one-yard-line with less than a minute left in the game and one timeout. Meanwhile, they have the best running back in the business, Marshawn Lynch. They had three chances to hand the ball off to Lynch and let him bust his way over the goal line to put his team up by three with seconds remaining.
It seemed so easy to win at that point except… What did they do on second down? Instead of handing the ball off to Lynch, quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass, which was intercepted at the goal line. Game over. The Seahawks managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. For someone like me who was mildly rooting for the Seahawks because I always root for the NFC team, plus the Patriots are—you know—evil, it was frustrating to say the least.
But the question everyone was asking, including the announcers, was, “Why did Pete Carroll call a pass to begin with. You’re on the one-yard-line with the best running back in football! Handing the ball off would have been a thousand times safer than passing and risking an interception.”
But think of how Pete Carroll must feel! He admitted to Matt Lauer on the Today Show that he woke up in the middle of the night crying about it, and he said that he’s confident that that play call will haunt him for years to come—maybe for the rest of his career unless or until his team wins another Super Bowl. Who knows?
What’s for sure is this: Seahawks fans will have a hard time forgiving their coach. And Pete Carroll will probably have a hard time forgiving himself. Forgiveness is hard. Isn’t it? Which is why we all need Jesus to help us with this. Pete Carroll needs Jesus, I need Jesus, you need Jesus. The gospel of Jesus Christ, if we truly understand it, gives us the power to forgive.
But it’s still hard! It’s hard for me.
If Pete Carroll has trouble forgiving himself, I can totally relate! I often struggle to forgive myself for my failures and my sins. I’m hard on myself. I beat myself up about my sins and failures. And last week, when I was reading and researching for this sermon, I think I learned the real reason why! And if you can learn this too, it will help you not only forgive yourself but forgive others as well.
In his classic book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard said that people like me who struggle to forgive themselves do so because of pride. He writes, they “don’t want to accept that they can only live on the basis of pity from others, that the good that comes to them is rarely ‘deserved.’ If they would only do that,”—if they would learn to live on the basis of pity—”it would transform their lives. They would easily stop punishing themselves for what they have done.”
So he says we need to learn to “live on the basis of pity”? I don’t like the sound of that! What Willard means is that I should be O.K. with the fact that in order to get along with me, people have to have pity on me—that people have to have compassion toward me and be patient with me because I’m a sinner. No, I don’t like that one bit! My pride can’t handle that! I want people to look at me and think I’m this amazing person whom they just love being around. I want people to look up to me. I wouldn’t even mind if people looked at my life and my accomplishments and were jealous of me!
And then I come face to face with my sins and failures and think, “I’m not this person that I want to be. I’m not this person that I want other people to think I am. I’m not this image that I’m trying to project to other people.” No wonder I feel guilty, no wonder I struggle to forgive myself, no wonder I beat myself up!
There’s got to be a better basis on which to live! And the good news is that there is. Willard calls it pity. But a better word for it is grace.
Living on the basis of grace means that we know we don’t deserve God’s love. We know we can’t earn God’s love. We know we can never be worthy of God’s love. We know we can never be worthy of all the good gifts that God gives us—like the love of family or spouse or friends. We don’t deserve it. And we’re supposed to be O.K. with that. In fact, if we’re Christians, we have to be O.K. with that! There’s no other way to be a Christian!
Jesus makes this point in his most famous parable, the Prodigal Son. You remember the story: A father has two sons. The younger son decides he doesn’t want to live with his father and brother anymore. So he asks for his share of his father’s inheritance and leaves home, goes to a foreign land, where he squanders all his money on wine, women, and song. He’s a party animal. Until he has nothing left, and he’s starving. Then, Jesus says, he “came to his senses.” So he thinks to himself, “Even the servants in my father’s house are well-fed. I’m going to go back home, fall on my knees, beg for forgiveness, and tell my father that I’m not worthy to be his son, so I’ll gladly live as one of his servants.” And he has this speech all planned out about what he’s going to say to convince his father to have mercy on him. Except his father is so happy when he sees his lost son coming home that he doesn’t even give his son the chance to apologize to his father, to deliver his well-rehearsed speech, before his dad is killing the fatted calf, dressing his son in the finest clothing, giving him an expensive ring, and throwing the biggest party imaginable for this son who was lost but now has been found—this son who obviously had done nothing to deserve all of his father’s forgiveness, love, and mercy.
The father accepted the son on the basis of grace.
But remember the older son—the one who stayed behind and remained faithful to his father for all those years while his younger brother was off being irresponsible? The older brother made the same mistake that I make when I have a hard time forgiving myself—the mistake of believing that I’m actually doing something to earn my Father’s love. The parable ends with the older brother refusing to go into the party. Why? Because his younger brother doesn’t deserve all this love!
And the older brother was right! His younger brother didn’t deserve his father’s love. But guess what? Neither did the older brother! The father loved his older son more than life itself, but it wasn’t because the older son did anything to earn that love—whether he stayed home and served his father faithfully or went off to some foreign land where he squandered all of his father’s money!
The point is, it’s grace from first to last. It’s always only grace. Grace is the only basis on which we become God’s beloved children!
There’s a movie out directed by Angelina Jolie called Unbroken. It’s the true story of a man named Louis Zamperini, who died last year at age 97. Zamperini was an Olympic athlete at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and he became a Master Bombardier in the Pacific during World War II. On one of his missions, his plane crash-landed in the ocean. He survived for weeks on the open sea until being picked up by the Japanese, who sent him to concentration camp where endured over two years of malnourishment and torture at the hands of a notorious prison guard named Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird.” Finally, in August 1945, he was liberated when the war ended.
Back home he was given a hero’s welcome. He married a beautiful debutante. But he suffered nightmares about being back in concentration camp. One night he woke up after he began strangling his wife, thinking she was “The Bird,” and he was getting his revenge. These nightmares continued. He started drinking… hard… to ease the pain. His drinking had gotten so bad that by 1949, his wife filed for divorce. Then she attended a Billy Graham Crusade in 1949 and gave her life to Christ. She was converted. She decided not to divorce and went back to Louie, told him what happened to her, how her life was changed by Jesus Christ and his can be too. So she invited him to come to hear this young evangelist whose message changed her life.
So he reluctantly went, and he was angry and indignant that Billy Graham was telling him that he was a sinner who needed to repent of his sins and receive forgiveness for his sins. It wounded his pride to think of himself that way!
Think about it: Zamperini was a courageous war hero who sacrificed more than most people who ever lived. He watched his friends die in a plane crash; he survived for weeks in a life raft on the open sea; he suffered torture for two years at the hands of a sadistic prison guard. No one else at that Billy Graham Crusade had suffered what he had suffered. Surely if anyone ever had a right to complain to God, to justify himself before God, to offer explanations and excuses for his sins—for his drinking, for his abuse, surely it was Louie Zamperini. Instead of Zamperini apologizing to God, surely God should be apologizing to him! See, it’s that “older brother” mentality creeping in. “You owe me, God! Give me what I deserve!”
But no… That’s not how grace works. Like everyone else who’s ever lived except for Christ, Zamperini had to admit that he, too, was a sinner without excuse. He had to admit that apart from Christ he was lost. He had to admit that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that the “wages of sin is death.” He had to admit that he, too, deserved hell, that “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”—even though he had already experienced so much hell in his life.
And if that’s true for a hero like Louie Zamperini, it’s true for each of us. None of us deserves God’s forgiveness, God’s acceptance, God’s love. We can’t earn it. We can’t pay God back for it. But like Louie Zamperini, we can gratefully acknowledge that we don’t have to—that God in Christ paid it all for us! As the apostle Paul says, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses… God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us… This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
It’s as if God took all of your and my sins—past, present, and future—and nailed them to the cross of his Son Jesus. He suffered the punishment for your sins. He died for your sins. He suffered hell for your sins.
Friends, your sins may be great, but they are no match for the cross of Christ. Amen?
Zamperini realized this truth on that day in 1949, and he prayed a prayer with Billy Graham accepting Christ as Savior and Lord of his life.
And you know what Zamperini did next? He returned to Japan. He went to a prison that housed 850 Japanese war criminals, including some of the same prison guards that had tortured him. And not only did Zamperini forgive them, he shared the gospel with them and offered them the same gift of forgiveness in Christ that he himself had received.
Is it surprising that he would do that? It shouldn’t be. John Stott, an English theologian puts it like this: “Once our eyes have been opened to see the enormity of our offense against God, the injuries which others have done to us appear by comparison extremely trifling. If, on the other hand, we have an exaggerated view of the offenses of others, it proves that we have minimized our own.”
I don’t know much about Dave Ramsey. But years ago I listened to a few minutes of his radio call-in show. And I heard this one caller recounting to Ramsey all these really foolish financial decisions he and his wife had made to get up to their eyeballs in credit card debt—and I’m listening to this caller and guess what I’m doing? I’m judging him! I am feeling superior to him! Not that my financial record is spotless, by any stretch, but at least I haven’t done anything as bad as that guy! You know? And I can’t wait for Ramsey to really let this caller have it! Make fun of him! You know? “How can you be such an idiot?”
Instead, when the caller got finished telling his story, Ramsey calmly asked him a few questions, told him how he’d approach the problem if he were him, what he would do under the same circumstances. Ramsey was kind. He didn’t seem shocked or surprised. He was non-judgmental. He was genuinely pastoral. I was impressed, and I told a friend who had recently gone through Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University” how impressed I was. And my friend said, “Oh, yeah… He was just like his callers! He’s been there. It’s part of his own story. He made a ton of dumb financial decisions and went bankrupt himself. So he can relate to his callers.”
He’s been there… He can relate… It’s part of his own story.
This is how we can have compassion on others. This is how we can have pity on others. This is how we can relate to others on the basis of grace and forgive: By remembering that we, too, are sinners who have been there. We can relate. Sin is part of our own story too.
Here’s the good news: Our God and Savior Jesus Christ can relate to us. He became one of us. He became one with us. The author of Hebrews wrote, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” He sympathizes with our weaknesses because he took them upon himself. He’s been there. He can relate. Our weaknesses, our sins, our failures are now part of his story, and he loves us in spite of them! You haven’t done anything, you can’t do anything, to make him stop loving you.
And our Lord Jesus is ready to forgive you of your sins and give you eternal life if you’ll open your heart to him today. If you’re ready to receive Christ and his gift of salvation, will you pray with me this prayer:
Dear Lord Jesus,
I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. Guide my life and help me to do your will.
In your name, Amen.
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 263-4.
 Romans 3:23; 6:23
 Matthew 25:41
 Colossians 2:13-14