(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
Six Words to Set You Free
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
Seeking and accepting forgiveness starts with being honest. Often our first challenge is to be honest with ourselves. Most of us are expert at rationalizing even our biggest failings. But, as we repeatedly see in the lives of public figures, even if we know we’ve missed the mark, we think we can hide that from others, even from God. The psalmist found that keeping silent and trying to hide the truth was draining him of energy and life.
2 Samuel 12:1-13, Psalm 51:1-10
In one of the Bible’s best-known stories, Israel’s King David took Bathsheba, wife of his loyal soldier Uriah, for himself. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David had her husband killed to cover up his deed. He thought he’d gotten away with it, until the prophet Nathan’s brave confrontation forced him to face what he had done. In Psalm 51, we see that David made no excuses, but owned his failure and asked God to forgive and cleanse him.
Joseph’s jealous brothers sold him into slavery (cf. Genesis 37:14-28). Despite this awful wrong, Joseph’s gifts and character (with God’s blessing) led to him rising to second in command in Egypt. He saved his family (and all of Egypt) from starvation, but his brothers still feared Joseph would take revenge for what they’d done. But by then Joseph chose to forgive, freeing his brothers (and himself) from the fearsome cycle of revenge.
Matthew 5:23-24, Matthew 18:15-22
In Matthew 5 Jesus used hyperbole to show that we need to seek forgiveness when we’ve wronged another. In Matthew 18, he laid out a process for dealing with hurts among church members. Pastor Hamilton wrote, “When Jesus spoke of the church, he was referring to a rather small group. He was saying, ‘Peter, when John says or does something that wounds you, if he doesn’t see it or acknowledge it, go and speak to him in private and tell him’” (Hamilton, Forgiveness, p. 88).
Forgiveness is not simply a natural quality of the human heart. Paul and the other apostles echoed what Jesus said in the Lord’s Prayer (cf. Matthew 6:12): the spirit of forgiveness begins with God forgiving us. It doesn’t just stop there, however—we cannot accept God’s forgiveness while remaining angry and vengeful ourselves. God’s forgiveness changes us, and makes us willing to forgive one another.
Luke 23:32-34, Acts 7:54-60, Ephesians 4:31-32
The world has changed since New Testament times. Thankfully, it’s unlikely any of us will ever die on a cross, or be stoned to death. Jesus and his follower Stephen, however, faced those terrible deaths. Yet both of them asked God to forgive even the people who were killing them, people who didn’t even want to be forgiven. Their prayers showed how the kind of forgiving spirit Ephesians called all of us to can permeate our lives.
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
Lord Jesus, have mercy on us. We join David in praying, “Wash me and I will be whiter than snow.” “Create a clean heart for me; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!” Continue shaping us into people of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, with hearts that are resilient and free of bitterness. Amen.
CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)
The Hatfields and the McCoys conducted a famous (or infamous) multi-generational feud. Closer to home, have you ever seen people carry on a feud that disrupted relationships long after the original offense lost any connection to the feud?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
Read Psalm 32:1-5. The psalmist wrote, “When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became daylong groans” (Psalm 32:3, The Message). What are some of the main forces that make humans want to keep our wrongdoing “all inside”? How can criticism and judging keep people trapped in guilt, rather than helping them to move into greater wholeness and freedom in life? When have you experienced the freedom of honestly confessing to God, and perhaps to other trustworthy people? Have you as a group developed enough trust and honesty that you can talk about your failures as well as your successes?
Read 2 Samuel 12:1-13, Psalm 51:1-10. David’s confession did not bring Uriah back to life, or stop his son Absalom from leading a rebellion against him. If confession and forgiveness don’t wipe out the negative consequences of bad actions, then why bother to do them? Or are there some, perhaps more profound, negative consequences that confession and forgiveness do deal with? Did Nathan help or hurt David by confronting him about what he had done? Is there anyone from whom you will accept a challenge you when you have missed the mark?
Read Genesis 50:15-21. Joseph’s brothers didn’t make fun of his colorful coat, or call him names. They sold him into slavery! As Pastor Hamilton wrote in his book, “This wasn’t the kind of thing where you say, ‘Oh, good. I read a book on forgiveness. I’m going to let it go now. I’ll just pray about it and it’ll all be gone.’ It doesn’t work that way. We chip away slowly at these giant stones and pray that God will help us let go of the pain” (Hamilton, Forgiveness, p. 115). In what ways is the process different for dealing with small hurts and large injuries? How can God (perhaps working through other members of your group) support and strengthen you when you are “in process” in dealing with issues of forgiveness?
Read Matthew 5:23-24, Matthew 18:15-22. We know Jesus used hyperbole in his teaching (e.g. “Cut off your hand or put out your eye rather than sin with it”). To what extent do you believe he was doing that in Matthew 5:23-24? How big a deal is it, really, to worship when we’ve hurt someone else and not sought to make it right? Do you find it easier or harder to talk one-on-one with someone who has hurt you than to tell other people about the hurt? What are the benefits of proceeding as Jesus taught in Matthew 18?
Read Colossians 3:12-15. Paul listed five qualities he wanted Christ’s followers to show: “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Which of those five is easiest and most natural for you for you to exercise? Which do you find hardest? In what ways has God showed that “hardest” quality toward you?
Read Luke 23:32-34, Acts 7:54-60, Ephesians 4:31-32. When Jesus asked God to forgive the Roman soldiers and Jewish religious leaders for crucifying him, he revealed a profound reality about God’s heart. Stephen clearly had learned from Jesus’ example. Does it ever cross your mind to ask God to forgive, say, the Boston marathon bombers, or someone at work or in your neighborhood who acts in ways you find hurtful? What do you believe it means to “Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ”?
From last week: Did you think about how you hope your own home is somehow a reflection to others of who you are and what you believe? Were you able to think of changes that might make it a better reflection of your faith? Will you make any of the changes you thought of?
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, May 5, 2013:
Let’s begin with the art of apologizing. Some of you are old enough to remember the scene in the 1970 film Love Story with Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal. There is a line in there in which McGraw’s character says, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But, as Ryan O’Neal himself would say in the 1972 film, What’s Up Doc?, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The inability to offer sincere apologies is a form of narcissism or emotional, psychological and spiritual immaturity. This is why three of the most important words we can say in life are, “I am sorry.” We can’t stay married, we can’t retain friendships, we’ll never be effective leaders or managers if we don’t learn how to say, “I am sorry.”…
Lousy apologies are inauthentic, self-serving, cheap. We’ve all given them. “I’m sorry you felt hurt by what I did.” “I’m sorry you are so sensitive.” “I’m sorry if you felt I did something wrong.” “I’m sorry if something I may have done hurt you.” “I’m sorry but…”
What does a good apology look like? Four things, I think: 1. An Awareness of How You’ve Wronged the Other, 2. An Earnest Feeling of Regret or Remorse, 3. A Confession Accepting Responsibility for the Action, 4. A Commitment to Change. One other note—often going directly to the person, in person, is the best way to apologize, but sometimes doing this first in a letter with a follow-up call to get together is a better approach. The Biblical word for the kind of apology we’ve just described is “repentance”….
Our response to authentic repentance is meant to be forgiveness. What is forgiveness? It is relinquishing the right to get even (retribution, revenge), choosing to pardon and releasing the person from their burden of guilt. It is choosing to let go of the bag full of resentment that you carry, the right to retaliate, or at least to hold the wrong over the head of the other.
Forgiveness is a huge theme in the New Testament. Usually when you find something spoken of frequently in the Bible it’s because the issue is something people really struggle with. Again in the Sermon on the Mount we find Jesus including the act of extending forgiveness in something as important as the pattern for our daily prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I want you to notice what you are praying when you pray the Lord’s Prayer. You are literally praying, “Lord, please forgive me in the same way and to the same degree that I’ve forgiven those who’ve wronged me.”
That is a dangerous and frightening prayer! If you are prone to withhold mercy you are inviting God to withhold mercy for you. The word for trespasses is actually the Greek word for debts—someone wrongs us, they owe us, just as we wrong God and owe God recompense. In this prayer we pray for God to let go of the obligation justice makes for us to repay our wrongs to the degree that we release the debts others owe us.
In Matthew 18 Peter asks, “Lord, how should I forgive? Is seven times enough?” To which Jesus replied: “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Other ancient versions have seventy times seven times. In essence, how many times do you want God to forgive you when you’ve sinned? Do you want his mercy to ever run out?
Now let me mention that you might be called to continue to forgive, but that does not mean there are no consequences. I had a friend who I learned through experience could not keep a confidence. I still love the guy, but I no longer trust him with my confidences. Likewise you might forgive an abusive spouse, but that doesn’t mean that you must stay in an abusive situation….
That leads me to the final point. Among the big messages of forgiveness in the Bible is that the God that we serve is willing to forgive. This is God’s answer to the question implied in our existence. God made provision for the Jews in the sacrifices. He spoke to it again and again through the Psalms. Among the most beautiful of these passages are verses like Psalm 103:8-12:
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.”
Jesus came and was known as a friend of sinners: prostitutes, thieves, drunkards, adulterers. The people he broke bread with—remember, the word for breaking bread with in Latin is companion—Jesus’ companions were people who were no worse than any of you. They had all lied, cheated, struggled with sexual addictions, or alcoholism, or had mistreated others. But Jesus noted that his mission was to “seek and to save those who are lost.” His death on the cross was meant as a dramatic act demonstrating humanity’s sin and God’s redemptive mercy.
This is the central focus of the Christian faith—God stands ready to forgive us. He seeks authentic repentance. Baptism and the Eucharist both point to God’s desire to forgive you. And which of us does not need this gift? So I’ll ask our third question, “Have you repented and accepted God’s mercy?” If you have not, today is the perfect day to confess your need, and trust in his mercy.
From C. S. Lewis’ writings on forgiveness:
“There is no use in talking as if forgiveness were easy. We all know the old joke, ‘You’ve given up smoking once; I’ve give it up a dozen times.’ In the same way I could say of a certain man, ‘Have I forgiven him for what he did that day? I’ve forgiven him more times than I can count.’ For we find that the work of forgiveness has to be done over and over again.” (Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 24-25)
“I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.” (Letters of C. S. Lewis, p. 230
“If you had a perfect excuse you would not need forgiveness: if the whole of your action needs forgiveness then there was no excuse for it. But the trouble is that what we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses. What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, so ‘extenuating circumstances.’ We are so very anxious to point these out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the really important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which the excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable.
…What we have got to take to him is the inexcusable bit, the sin. We are only wasting time by talking about all the parts which can (we think) be excused. When you go to a doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong—say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and eyes and throat are all right. You may be mistaken in thinking so; and anyway, if they are really all right, the doctor will know that….
As regards my own sins it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are not really so good as I think: as regards other men’s sins against me it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are better than I think. One must therefore begin by attending carefully to everything which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought. But even if he absolutely fully to blame we still have to forgive him; and even if ninety-nine per cent of his apparent guilt can be explained away by really good excuses, the problem of forgiveness beings with the one per cent of guilt which is left over. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” (The Weight of Glory, “On Forgiveness” (1947), pp. 122-125)
“We must forgive all our enemies or be damned.” (God in the Dock, p. 191)
This week, identify one person who has hurt you, and has never apologized to you for doing so. In light of this study, begin the process of thinking about what the value would be to you to forgive that person. Make it a matter of prayer, perhaps of deeper study, perhaps of working through the situation in-depth with a counselor or pastor. Choose someone you trust, tell them what you’re struggling with, and ask them to get together with you for regular updates on your process of forgiveness.