• Ephesians 4:22-32; Philemon 8-10,15-18
Forgiveness is the hallmark of the Christian faith. It is modeled for us, and we know instinctively it is a key to unlocking our best relationships. Yet we struggle to forgive. Why?
In this week’s lesson, we’re going to examine how relating to others in Christ like ways—including seeking reconciliation with those we’ve wronged and being ready to forgive—builds the relationships God intends us to have.
Through this week’s study, we’ll work to evaluate the status of fractured relationships and discern steps to take at renewing and restoring that relationship.
Remember, you’re a new person (Ephesians 4:22-24)
The first and best step we can take when we recognize a fractured relationship is to remember who we are. As the father of three, I probably over-lecture on their identity as members of our family and what our values are. Thus, when they leave home for a date, a sleep over or some social event, I say to them “Remember who you are!” They are known by their last name, but they are also to be known by the values we share as a family.
Paul taught the Ephesians the same lesson—that through Christ’s redemption, God created them into new people who are to live a totally new way of life. Their very identity was to be framed by the new person they’d become because of Christ’s work on the cross and in their lives.
Paul teaches in this section that Christianity demands a radical and total break from the past way of life and calls believers to a different direction. The reason for this should be obvious from our experiences in trying to forgive others.
Simply put, it is not naturally in human nature to be forgiving. The new people that have come to be because of Christ are capable of living forgiveness because are both recipients of said forgiveness and have seen our hero—Jesus—model that for us.
Because we recognize that we must be forgiven repeatedly for our failings as humans, we also can see that others will need our forgiveness. At each step along life’s journey, believers experience renewal of their innermost core. Basic conversion to Christ must be followed by daily renewal of life, and as this shapes our identity, only then can we begin to grow our capacity for forgiveness.
Relate to others unselfishly (Ephesians 4:25-31)
Paul continued to exhort the Ephesian believers to be done with the old and adopt the new. In doing so, he gave commands relating to contrasts between the old life without Christ and the new life in Christ. This becomes the basis for relating to others in less and less selfish ways as we mature in our identity as Jesus follower. As this identity grows, our capacity for forgiveness grows in tandem with our declining selfishness.
Evidence of salvation in a believer’s life is not only a past experience of trusting Christ but a present life of reflecting Christ. This matters in how we handle our anger. Paul says rightly that anger that goes without being dealt with gives the Evil One a foothold in our lives. Not only do we act unkindly to others, we find that anger festers inside us and eats away at our souls, leaving a bitter shell of a person in untended long enough.
Paul continues his ethics exhortation for the believers in Ephesus. Stop unwholesome talk (a huge barrier to forgiveness!), put off falsehood, speak truthfully to your neighbor, work hard and build each other up in community. Paul urges them to rid themselves of brawling (at church?!!?), slander, bitterness, rage and malice.
But it is the final sentence that slams home this week’s lesson—forgive each other, just as Christ forgave you. What does that look like practically? To forgive as God in Christ forgave believers is to forgive freely, wholeheartedly, eagerly and spontaneously.
The sins referred to in this passage break fellowship and destroy relationship. The Christ-like act of forgiveness brings the destructive power of those sins to a grinding halt, even when it may not restore fully fellowship between disgruntled folk.
Resolve to forgive (Ephesians 4:32)
Paul reminded the Ephesians that because God in Christ reconciled them to himself, they too should restore fractured relationships by forgiving others. Christ shines brightest in believers’ lives when they forgive, and the decision to forgive is simply that—a decision.
Too often Christians make forgiveness about penance. We say “I’ll forgive him when he makes the situation right.” But that’s not the model of forgiveness shown us in Christ. This passage is a good reminder that we must work at forgiving others.
This is a great time in the lesson to ask your students to silently reflect on their relationships, to consider the ones most fractured. What an opportunity this coming week holds for them to evaluate that relationship and make a move toward reconciliation and forgiveness.
Why not take a few minutes at this juncture to pray for your learners and offer a guided prayer they can join in on to determine if giving our accepting forgiveness is needed in their fractured relationships.
Restoration or revenge? A case study (Philemon 8-10,15-18)
Paul appealed to Philemon to accept and restore to his household Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave whom Paul had met while in prison and led to faith in Christ. Be careful to note that reconciling with others does not mean we minimize what was done wrong, nor do we pretend to overlook it. Forgiveness does not mean an immediate return to normal or just as it was before the sin. Instead, what we need to consider is a process of restoration, depending on the severity of the fractured relationship.
The bottom line is that wrongdoers can have a change of heart but still need help finding a path to wholeness and reconciliation with others. It is only through God’s gracious dealings with us and with others that we can find the motivation to forgive and the power to continue sharing life together. The idea is not to “forgive and forget” as the old cliché goes, but to rather “forgive and learn to live with it.”
The bottom line is that holding grudges is inappropriate for God’s people. Paul’s desire for restoration between Philemon and Onesimus was so deep he was willing to pay the debt Onesimus owed to Philemon in order that his act might reflect Christ’s greater work of reconciling sinners to God by his death on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:18-19, 21).
Bonus teaching aids
1. For a secular view of forgiveness, take a look at the website for the “Campaign for Forgiveness Research” at www.forgiving.org. They monitor the research behind the benefits of forgiving others, as well as the social good gained by forgiving others. Some heady stuff, but also a few interesting tidbits like why forgiving others is good for your own physical health.
2. A currently popular song that illustrates the inability to forgive and the pain that unforgiving attitudes bring is found in the Timbaland song “Too Late to Apologize.” You can hear the song for free at www.youtube.com.
3. An older song that will be popular with your learners who like The Eagles is Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter.” It portrays the strong disappointment of a love gone bad, but that the “heart of the matter” for the singer is forgiveness, even if the other person doesn’t love him anymore. You can find a concert version of this at www.youtube.com.