Sometimes God plants difficult people directly in our paths in order to help us grow. Like thorns in our flesh, these people prick and poke at us until they rub us raw. We learn, painfully, that we just can’t live with them. We have to forgive them. If we don’t, we find that same kind of person further on down our paths, ready to prick us yet again.
For me, this person was someone I’ll call the “Nosy Neighbor.” Shortly, she’s going to help me illustrate how to apply the “3-fold test of forgiveness.” To set the stage, let’s look at our key scripture:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making His appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
God has entrusted us with His message of reconciliation. Most believers are aware of this and are eager to share God’s gift of forgiveness with the world. Yet ironically, the only way we can preach this message is if we also become “forgivers” ourselves. Our message of reconciliation loses its power when we don’t walk our talk, and pre-believers are quick to spot hypocrisy.
Is it any wonder, then, that shortly after writing to the Corinthian believers about the ministry of reconciliation, Paul asks them to “open wide your hearts also?” Paul perceived that the Corinthians were holding back their affections for him. Perhaps he knew that their reservations would be problematic for them in ministry as well.
As I read through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I noticed that Paul inadvertently described a three-fold test of forgiveness that we can use today to help us discern whether our forgiveness process is complete. To show you how this works in real life, let me describe the process, followed by our story.
We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.
The 3-Fold Test
Forgiveness is more than simply saying, “I forgive you,” and moving on. That kind of quick answer will not go deep enough to heal the wounds of our hearts. Neither is forgiveness the ability to “stuff it” or “forget” what happened. Rarely do people forget offenses (although God does), and it’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to completely obliterate our memories as “proof” that we have forgiven. Here’s what real forgiveness looks like, according to Paul:
1. You are able to speak the truth in love.
2. Your heart is open wide; you’re ready to share, serve or give anything to the offender, without withholding in an act of self-protection.
3. There is no restriction in your affections; i.e., your soul and emotions are no longer guarded or hesitant when dealing with the offender.
#1: Speaking the Truth in Love
Notice that Paul doesn’t mince words when speaking to the Corinthians. He lets them know that while his heart is wide open, theirs is not. Far from being angry or trying to offend them, Paul hopes to point out a valid truth: that the Corinthians have not received him as freely as they should have. He is showing them that the one they perceive to be an “imposter” is actually the real thing. And he’s concerned that they’ll miss out on all God has to offer them if they continue to doubt Paul’s integrity.
True forgiveness is able to name and speak of an offense in a loving way, without punishing the offender for the wrong done. Its goals are reconciliation and growth. Too often we skip this step, believing that if we simply “overlook” every offense done to us, we’ll get through it just fine.
There’s a place for covering the sins of another, but “covering” offenses refers to the mandate to protect, not slander, our brothers and sisters in the Lord. In most cases, we are to keep others’ sins to ourselves. However, that does not mean that we don’t deal directly with others about what offends us. Truth, spoken in love, sets both you and your offender free.
It can be intimidating to confront – after all, what if he won’t listen? What if she writes us off as a friend? That’s a chance we must take, and the willingness to listen and change shows us a great deal about a person’s character. I’d prefer to be friends with someone who is mature enough to hear hard things, not just good things, when I’m talking with them. Our relationship will be a lot stronger for it.
#2: A Wide-Open Heart
What does an open heart look like? In its simplest form, it’s a heart of generosity. A giver holds nothing back. She lives the Acts 4 dream, sharing whatever she has with those in need. He walks one mile instead of two when asked, and serves even his enemies with kindness.
How is this kind of giving possible? When we see the full extent of God’s protective love for us, we no longer need to hold onto things. We trust that God can supply all of our needs, physical or otherwise. We recognize that everything – even our hearts – belongs to Him, and we’re not afraid to let it go. In fact, we get excited about giving to our enemies, because we know there’s an even greater potential for blessing when that person falls in love with the Lord as a result!
We need not even fully trust the person we are giving to. It’s that we trust God to take care of everything. When we find it difficult to give freely to someone, it may be an indicator of unforgiveness in our own heart.
#3: Affection without Restriction
Lest we fall into the trap of giving out of a sense of duty or legalism, this last test is a true test of the condition of our souls. Our giving may be 100%, but are our hearts in it 100%? Hesitancy or guardedness in our emotions is a key indicator that forgiveness is not complete. We can usually tell the condition of our souls by the words we speak.
The Nosy Neighbor
For over 16 years, our family has had what we politely call a “difficult neighbor.” Elderly and retired, she complains regularly about minor “issues” she sees in her neighbors around her – including us. Worse, she doesn’t address these issues directly, but often calls the town hall to “investigate” her complaints. We have had more than one instance of a town administrator showing up apologetically at our door in response to one of her complaints. Even the town doesn’t take her seriously.
Things had gotten to the place where I was about ready to give this nosy neighbor something a little more serious to complain about! But God gently reminded me that if I love only those who love me, I haven’t really behaved like a child of the Kingdom. So I made it my goal to forgive her.
Based on Paul’s idea of direct confrontation, (#1 above: Speak the Truth in Love), I thought perhaps a letter to my neighbor might help. After all, if she knew who we really were instead of having to guess at our intentions all the time, she might see the light. Maybe she was just a control freak; a little information might help.
Sounded good – until I started “drafting” the letter in my head. Invariably, it took shape in my mind something like this:
Obviously, I didn’t send any letters. I hadn’t reached forgiveness yet. Test #1 failed.
Instead, I decided I would give up the letter-writing idea and simply take Nosy Neighbor a cake instead. After all, who could resist homemade sweetness, right?
The only problem was, I realized that if I showed up at Nosy Neighbor’s door with a cake, I’d have to talk to her when she opened the door. While I might be able to freely give of what I owned, I still hesitated to give of myself. I knew if I saw her face I’d probably have some choice words for her, cake or no cake. So while I felt free enough to get past test #2, I was still stuck on test #3. My affections were definitely restricted. Out of the heart the mouth speaks. I lacked the unhindered flow of love I needed from the Holy Spirit.
It would take a lot more prayer on my behalf to reach not only my neighbor, but also a place of true forgiveness. I’m still working on it, and I hope one day to have a story of reconciliation to share – not just of me with my Nosy Neighbor, but of Nosy Neighbor with God.
I don’t believe it’s an accident that Paul listed these three indicators of a heart of forgiveness. Remember, he was addressing believers! It’s not always easy to forgive, especially when we are treated unfairly. Amazingly, God has still entrusted the message of reconciliation to people like us. He believes that we can forgive the nosy neighbors who torment us. He says that when we do, He himself will make His appeal through us, so that they might come to know Him.
God is reconciling the world to Himself. He’s not counting men’s trespasses against them, as we do. The question is: is your heart ready to forgive?
Deborah Perkins is passionate about helping others connect with God. She writes about knowing God and hearing His voice at HisInscriptions.com. When she's not writing, you can find her outside enjoying her chickens - and her neighbors! Follow her on Twitter orFacebook, or to reach her directly, click here.
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A severe hearing loss from childhood caused Deborah Perkins to develop what she now calls her secret weapon: tuning in to God's voice. A Wellesley College graduate and an award-winning writer, Deborah is now a wife and mother of 3 boys. Deborah has devoted over 25 years to professional and lay Christian ministry in New England and beyond. Her passion is inspiring people to cultivate greater intimacy with God.