And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.
Some of the best teachers are those who remember what it was like to learn.
A few years back, I started to take up fly fishing (which hobby I regrettably haven’t pursued as I should have). The man who taught me to tie the flies and to cast them was a fine teacher: young, but able to communicate patiently the lessons I needed to absorb. He laughed; he was caring; he didn’t give up on me – and I soaked up his lesson.
But there are those teachers – and they seem so prevalent in golf – who don’t think they truly have time for you. They don’t remember what it was like to shank the ball or to make silly mistakes, so they’re antsy and impatient with you. Their voices are tinged with irritation. The experience, therefore, is downright unpleasant and unsuccessful.
Christians and entire churches sometimes forget what it means to be forgiven. You and I spend time in the church, and as the years pass we forget our early experiences with conviction for sin and with God’s mercy in Christ. As a result, we tend to be less forgiving and compassionate. We grow stern and impatient with the “lesser” people around us. And the whole experience is unpleasant and unsuccessful, because those “lesser people” see our pride and, understandably, DON’T want to see the Lord we supposedly serve.
The solution? Remembering where you came from – remembering the mercy God has shown and does show you daily in Christ.
This morning St. James instructs you and me that we – advanced, erudite, “perfect” Christians that we are – desperately need the mercy of Christ. James secondly teaches us that those who’ve experienced God’s mercy will themselves be merciful.
This church can glorify her Savior, but only when we remember the vast mercy God has shown you and me in Christ – and when we show that same kind of mercy to a hurting world.
Let’s be frank: you and I tend to hold ourselves in lofty esteem. We tend to think a lot better of ourselves than we really should.
That’s why James first teaches that you and I need mercy.
To understand verses 8-13, we actually have to begin at verse 12. There, James says our joy is that we will be judged by our Maker according to His mercy in our Savior Christ and not according to our own (evil) works. Thus James’ first point: you need God’s mercy.
To understand why you need mercy, you’ve got to recognize that God has a holy law; that He expects you to abide by it perfectly in order to be with Him in heaven (Jesus said that we must be “perfect, as (our) Father in heaven is perfect”); and that you and I obviously haven’t kept His whole law perfectly.
The God who made those pine trees outside that window also made you. And He gave a moral law, written on your heart but summarized in the Ten Commandments, for you to obey. Indeed, He gave ALL of that law to us; the law is a unity because the same Lord spoke all those words.
Now, you and I delight in dividing the law of God. We identify certain “bad” sins, don’t commit them, and therefore judge ourselves “pretty good” before the face of Almighty God. Oh, we might have a minor glitch here or there – but nothing too serious, and nothing as serious as “those awful sinners over there.”
But here’s the problem: as Anselm of Canterbury, a great Christian thinker of several centuries ago, once observed, God is infinite – so when you offend His law, you offend His holy character infinitely. James tells us that when you and I refuse to be merciful to others, we’re failing to love them as we love ourselves. We’re being partial and prideful, and we’re setting ourselves above God. That one offense is an infinite offense against the infinitely holy Lord, and it reckons you and me to be lawbreakers.
St. Paul, quoting the Old Testament, says in his letter to the Romans that there is not one single human being who is righteous, or in perfect conformity to the law of God. Not one. You might never have committed murder with your hands, but what about your heart? And what about that arrogant spirit? Isn’t it an equally prideful effort to reject God’s law and to set yourself up as your sole lawgiver?
Each of us has assaulted God’s authority over our lives, and each of us therefore is in violation of His entire law. You and I are guilty. It’s not a popular concept in the world today; nor has it ever been. But you and I have been guilty of playing God and of rejecting the Lord’s authority. What we really need, then, is mercy.
Before we move on, remember that Jesus came not to destroy the law but, he said, to fulfill the least jot and tittle of the law of God. Not only did he fulfill the demands of God for you; he also paid the price at Calvary for your lawlessness.
You don’t need to be judged on your own miserable efforts to keep God’s law. You don’t WANT to be judged on that basis! More than judgment, you and I need God’s mercy in Christ.
James secondly teaches that those who truly have experienced the mercy of God and who will be judged by God’s grace in Christ (referred to in verse 12 as the “law of liberty”) will themselves be merciful. If you are truly forgiven, you will forgive others.
A real Christian doesn’t think that he’s a pretty decent person who just needs a little cleaning in certain spots. A real Christian, rather, recognizes what he deserved from a holy God – and appreciates, with all his heart, what God gave him in Jesus Christ. A real Christian says with St. James in verse 13, “Mercy rejoices over judgment.”
There is a deep humility involved in true Christianity. True followers of Christ don’t tolerate sin; but they also don’t pretend as though they were sinless or superior to others. Thus when the time comes, they forgive those who have trespassed against them – lest they show themselves to be merciless, and call into question their own experience with the mercy of God. A self-righteous person doesn’t show mercy because he’s never though he needed to be shown mercy. In his own mind, he’s already perfect.
Forgiving and showing mercy are the hallmarks of authentic faith in Jesus. Of course, you’ve got to be nuanced and mature in your understanding of Christian forgiveness; forgiveness doesn’t mean that you look past murder in a court of law, or that you invite a serial killer into your home. You must use common sense.
Forgiveness instead means that you don’t bear grudges against that murderer. It means you desire that those who hurt you might repent and be restored to spiritual health. It means that you seek their healing – NOT revenge.
How to get there? Central to forgiving others and to showing mercy, James informs us, is that you remember your own sinfulness. As with our teacher illustration, you must recall what it was like to be a student in order to be a successful teacher.
Forgiveness is hard business. It requires God’s Spirit working in your heart daily, hourly, moment-by-moment, to show pity on others – especially on those who’ve harmed you.
Yet the Lord requires that you show mercy to others. And the best way to show mercy is to remember just how dependent you are on the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
The higher you and I think of ourselves, the worse off our church will be.
Christianity – in its true sense – leaves no room for haughtiness. When broken sinners come through those doors behind you, they aren’t coming in search of a collection of high-minded judges.
They need helpers. They need teachers.
They need to see Jesus.
You need to be a good teacher: so don’t forget your roots. Don’t forget what it was like to be a student, learning just how much you need God’s grace and compassion. Every day, remember that the mercy of Christ is your lifeline.
Know more and more of God’s mercy. If you will, you cannot help but show more and more of God’s mercy.