Six of Life’s Most Important Words
Today we continue in a series of sermons on the simple truths that help us through life. These are seven essential truths that if we fail to get these we will find that life is much harder. It’s more difficult and we end up with less joy and more pain because you’ve just missed it, they’re that important. They are all rooted and grounded in Scripture and the teachings of Jesus. They are all lessons that we kind of already know, but we somehow tend to forget and we find them difficult to live out even though we know them.
We began last week by focusing on something that most of us learned when we were little children. We reminded ourselves of the Golden rule which says that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Today we are going to focus our attention on six simple words. These are two sets of three words that should readily flow from our lips. These are words that we should be saying on a regular basis and yet so often we forget to say them or we can’t find the strength to say them. I want to see if you can guess what the first three are and I will give you a few hints.
The first hint comes from a study that looked at couples whose marriages ended in divorce and compared those to marriages that last a lifetime. What they found is that those couples who remained married used these three words more than twice as often as those whose marriages failed. In case you are still not certain about those first three words let me give you another hint.
Several years ago the University of Michigan Healthcare System instructed their physicians to say these three words to all of their patients in certain situations. When doctors began to use these three words regularly with their patients the number of letters of intent to sue for malpractice reduced by 50% and the legal fees declined from $3 million a year to $1 million a year. Just because they taught doctors to say these three simple words. Have you figured out what they are yet?
I - Am - Sorry
I am sorry. Those three words are huge and they are simple words. And if you are going to succeed in life and have any joy these three words need to flow from your mouth on a regular basis. I am sorry.
Paul Meyer, founder of Success Motivation Inc. has done many studies of successful people and here's what he found. One of the most important success factors was the willingness to admit that you were wrong. Successful people regularly admit that they are wrong and they apologize on a frequent basis for those mistakes.
At this time I’d like to invite you to take out of your bulletin your GPS. There you will find an outline of today’s message. I hope you will use some of the space to write down what you’d like to remember and reflect on. You’ll also find our scripture memory verse there at the top. And then additional scriptures to read and reflect on during the week. This sheet will be the basis of our sermon talkback session on Wednesday evening at CrossWalk.
One of the basic principles in Scripture is that before we ask God to forgive us of our shortcomings and broken places, we're supposed to ask for forgiveness from those that we have hurt or offended. So here’s the big idea: If you are going to ask for forgiveness from a God that for most of us is unseen, we must learn to ask for forgiveness from those that we can actually see and interact with in the world.
So God makes this a principle throughout scripture. Now the challenge by the New Testament period is that people really wanted to short-circuit or circumvent this principle. So here’s what they’d do. They would offend or hurt other people and then they would go and ask for God's forgiveness, but they wouldn't ask the person they had offended for forgiveness. So in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus looked at them and said, “It doesn’t work that way.” And then He gives them this word. He says:
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Let me remind you that the gifts they were offering were animal and grain sacrifices which they brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as offerings of atonement which expressed a desire for forgiveness and to be reconciled with God. Jesus says that before you bring that offering of atonement or you're asking for forgiveness, while you were in the midst of worship, stop, leave it there and go and be reconciled and then come back because it doesn’t work the other way.
So the invitation was; the command was for us to regularly be apologizing to other people. It doesn’t work to simply ask God to forgive you if you haven’t asked the other person to forgive you when you have wronged them.
Now it’s also interesting to note when He’s saying this it’s in the context of worship. Here’s what I find. Many times during the week and I’m not really paying attention to whether I’ve hurt somebody or said something, I miss it sometimes. But when I come to worship – what’s supposed to happen in worship is we open ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit pricks our hearts and all of the sudden we find ourselves remembering. “You know, “There is that person.”
As I was preparing this sermon this week I became aware of a couple of people that I need to apologize to myself. As I was spending my own time in personal prayer and worship on several mornings this week I became aware of some things I needed to make right. My guess is that during worship today this will happen for each of you, that you will think of people who come to your mind and you need to ask them for forgiveness for one reason or another. This is what happens for us as we worship and as we open ourselves up to work of the Holy Spirit and that's a good thing because we’re going to realize we’re carrying this stuff with us. Some of you have been carrying something with you for way too long and it's time to let go and we begin by learning to say, "I am sorry."
Let me give you an image of what this looks like. (Helper) When we hurt somebody else, such as when we wound them with our words or with our actions, we give them baggage that they are going to carry around with them and it will weigh them down. And it is visually represented by these stones. If I have hurt (Helper) with my words or actions it begins to weigh down (helper’s) heart. (Helper) might become angry or bitter or upset. I've given these things to (Helper) and (helper) begins to carry them around and (helper) might find it hard to pray because of (helper’s) feelings. (Helper) might find it hard to look at me because (helper) is upset. (Helper’s) struggling and carrying this weight with (helper),and I’ve given (helper) this weight, I’ve placed it on (helper) because of those things that I did that wronged (helper).
(Helper sit down)
What I find however is that I also begin carrying my own baggage around. My baggage is every time I look at (Helper) I feel bad and I don't feel very good. I don't like having a person who's mad at me but at the same time I don't want to apologize yet, but I’m feeling this; I’m carrying this around. So when it comes time for me to pray I am really feeling the weight of this. How can I pray when I realize God might not be happy with me for what I did to (helper)? I’m struggling with my prayer life and I am beginning to carry these things around like this bag of rocks.
So I'm going to carry these things around and I’m going to try and pretend like I don't have this. And I’m going to try to go on with my life as normal but you know I can feel 35 pounds of rocks hanging off my arm. I can't move quite as fast as I used to move. I can't enjoy life as much because it seems like everything is harder as I carry this baggage around my heart. Because I know I hurt somebody and I haven't tried to make it right.
It’s funny; you know most of my sermons I feel like are for me before they are for you.
Every other Friday we have our cleaning people come to the house. Of course the night before there’s work to do to pick up and straighten up so the folks can clean. Thursday had been a very busy day; working on my message and then 3 different meetings on Thursday night. So when I got home I was worn out and tired and I didn’t feel like having to do anything like chores. Robin had gotten right much of it done by the time I got home, but the boy’s rooms were – well they were boy’s rooms. I changed and started doing what I had to do but I wasn’t happy about it. I didn’t think I was getting the help I needed to get everything done.
I came upstairs and saw Robbie sitting in his room engrossed in a game of Madden. It was getting late and nothing had been done. I let him know I wasn’t happy about it. “Do you know what time it is? Are you going to help us out here?” He said something like, “Yeah, yeah. I’ll get it done.”
And then the longer I walked around doing my stuff the angrier I got. I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to get back to working on my sermon on saying you're sorry and asking for forgiveness. I stomped around a while longer and then I went back upstairs with a load of laundry and he was still sitting there. And I said some things that were not very nice to him.
I know some of you are really disappointed to hear that your pastor would act this way and if you need a perfect pastor then you will need to find a different church because your pastor is a real loser sometimes. I'm preparing this sermon and I can feel that weight around my heart because I was not very nice to my son that night. And he didn’t deserve that from me. I got up the next morning and as he promised he got his work done. I couldn't wait to see him that afternoon to tell him, "I'm really sorry that I acted that way. I'm sorry I raised my voice with you."
He told me that he was sorry and we shared a bro hug. You know what? That's life. That's how it works. We get stressed and we say and do things because we rub each other the wrong way. We sometimes hurt each other and then we come back and we say, "I am sorry." We reconnect and that is how life works. So apologizing is really important.
Sometimes it's hard to apologize. One of the shows we watch when I was a kid was Happy Days with the character on it played Henry Winkler, "The Fonz.” He was so cool he couldn't apologize. You remember he’d say, “I’m ssss…” He just couldn't get the words out.
Why couldn't he say he was sorry? He was too cool for it? It was a sign of weakness, he thought? His ego was too big? Or maybe his ego was too fragile and he was afraid to admit that he was wrong because he already suffered from low self-esteem and it just felt like one more sign that he was a failure in life?
I don’t know, but for whatever reason. You know oftentimes we fail to say, “I’m sorry,” because we are still irritated or we don't think we were wrong. "I'm not going to say I'm sorry until you say that you're sorry." We feel justified in what we've done and we hold onto it. And if we don't mind carrying the 35 pounds of stone around our heart, I guess you can do that forever. It just doesn’t seem a very effective way to live your life?
So maybe you say, “Maybe I do want to apologize.” How do you go about it? You know there’s a lot of ways that really don’t work. Like when you roll your eyes and say, "Sorry"? Or the non-apology, apology, "I'm sorry that you feel that way. I hope you get over it."
So maybe there’s a better way to apologize. Gary Chapman, who wrote the book, The Five Love Languages, that we talked about last week, wrote another book with Jennifer Thomas called, The Five Languages of Apology. They mention in their book 5 things that are included in a great apology. My guess is that you know these already but I thought I would mention to you today because it might be good to hear again.
The first one is heartfelt regret. That is, “I’m sorry. I really am sorry.” It's conveyed by the look in our eyes and our body posture. It's communicated in our tone of voice a heartfelt regret, "I am sorry."
The second is Accepting Responsibility; "I was wrong.” I was wrong in this area or for this part of this. I take responsibility for this part of this."
Third - Making Restitution: What can I do to make it right? I'm sorry and I was wrong and now what can I do to make this right with you?
Number Four: Genuine Repentance: To repent literally means to turn around from the direction that you have been going and go in a different direction. Genuine repentance means I am going to try to not do that thing again. I'm sorry. I was wrong and I regret it. This is my part in what happened and what can I do to make it right. I'm going to try and never do that again.
Then finally is simply requesting forgiveness. Would you please forgive me?
Now often, in order to effectively apologize you’ve got to see things through the eyes of the person that's been wounded. We sometimes might look at a situation and wonder, "Why are you upset about that?” This happens all the time. “What's the big deal? Why does that upset you so much? “Until you see it through the eyes of the other person.
So you have to be willing to put yourself in the other’s shoes and try to understand what they were thinking. Then when it comes time to apologize, we sometimes could not have done anything differently, and in that case we can say something like, "I don't think I had any other choice, but I realize that this hurt you. I really care about you and I'm sorry that what I did hurt you. I would love to find a different way to have done this and I'm so sorry that my action caused the hurt. I want to try and make my actions right from this time forward."
So maybe you couldn’t have done anything differently, but you can apologize for the impact and for the feelings that were hurt and then look for a way forward.
When we finally do that and learn to apologize it’s amazing how things really change.
I was reading about one of the women patients involved in the University of Michigan Healthcare System study. She was on the operating table and the doctor made a mistake and she almost died.
Afterwards, the lawyers contacted her about filing suit but before the lawyers had called her doctor had called her, he met with her in person and looked her in the eyes and told her, "I am so sorry for what happened. I can't even sleep at night thinking about how you nearly died and it would have been my fault. I'm glad things worked out so far, and I want to tell you that whatever we can do to make things better for you during this healing period, we want to do that. I will come to your house. I will do anything. I’m going to ask you to please forgive me. I missed this thing during the operation and I can't tell you how bad I feel about that."
And she indicated in the interviews that it was because her doctor called her and met with her to apologize, she chose not to file suit. She accepted his apology and saw it as sincere.
I think about a man I knew a number of years ago who bought a new car and he was so excited about this new car because he had never had one that was brand-new, right off the lot. While he was away on a business trip his wife took his new car out for a drive and guess what happened? She wrecked his baby. And thankfully it was a very safe and sturdy car and she was fine, but his car was not in very good shape.
He was so angry and he criticized her driving and he criticized why she even used the car. He was not very nice to her. Then he decided to be a big man about it and he never brought it up again. She never brought it up again either. But over time, as months turned into years, he realized that she wasn't the same towards him as she was before. Something different happened in their relationship.
He wrestled for months and years as to why they were distant and then one day it dawned on him. He had never told her that he was sorry for how he treated her after the accident. He went back to her and said, "Honey, I was thinking about that time, and the accident, and my new car. My actions were totally inappropriate and unwarranted. I know I said some hurtful things and it was wrong of me to do that. I was the biggest jerk to you. I'm so sorry. Would you please forgive me?"
She wept at his apology and offered him forgiveness and from that time forward their relationship was different and they became close again. There was this baggage she had been carrying with her all those years and she didn't even realize it. He didn't understand it either, but the moment he apologized the baggage slipped away; not only from her heart but also from his. That's the power of an apology and genuine forgiveness.
(Get helper back)
Assuming that I have effectively apologized for what I did and how I hurt (helper) and tried to make it right, something begins to happen for (helper). (Helper) is able to let go of some of these stones. The guilt and shame and the sense of alienation that I’ve had for a while, I get to let go of that too. But not all of it. Because at this point the rest of it’s in (helper’s) court.
(Helper) has got to decide if (helper) is going to let go of (helper’s) right to retribution. (Helper’s) got to decide if (helper) is actually going to forgive me. So while I have given (helper) an apology - and that’s helped (helper) because you know what? Even if (helper) doesn’t forgive me yet it feels better to know that I acknowledged what I did wrong. Don’t we really feel better when that happens? And I feel better because I acknowledged it.
But I’m still carrying around 15 pounds of rocks. And so is (helper), until (helper) decides to forgive.
The next three words that every person needs to allow to flow freely from their lips?
I – forgive – you
So when we think about these words, it’s easy for us to think about how hard it is for us to receive them. You know sometimes it's hard to give those words to people. Sometimes it’s hard to forgive. Sometimes it takes time to forgive. For some people it can take as long as five or six years, depending on what happened and the depth of hurt.
There was a preacher whose sermon one week was on Forgiving Your Enemies. Toward the end of his sermon, he asked his congregation, "How many of you have forgiven their enemies?” About half held up their hands.
The preacher went on for a few more minutes and then repeated his question. This time about 80 percent held up their hands. He went on some more and now it was after lunch time and he repeated his question again. All raised their hand, except one small elderly lady.
“Mrs. Jones, are you not willing to forgive your enemies?” asked the preacher.
She replied, smiling sweetly, "I don't have any."
“Mrs. Jones that is very unusual. How old are you?” the preacher asked. “Ninety-three," she replied.
“Oh Mrs. Jones, what a blessing and a lesson to us all you are. Would you please come down in front of this congregation and tell us all how a person can live ninety-three years and not have an enemy in the world.”
The little sweetheart of a lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation, and said, “I outlived all the old hags.”
Sometimes it takes a while for us to finally let go of those feelings and offer forgiveness. Here is where I want to remind you of the words of Paul in Colossians 3. These are words that every couple should have memorized if they want the relationship to last. These are essential words to make any relationships work. We don't remember these words and practice them then we will not have any relationship which will be sustainable. This is our memory verse for the week. Let's say these words together out loud that you see up on the screen.
“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Colossians 3:13
Let's say those words one more time.
Why did Paul have to write these words? He had to write these words of instruction to Christians because we are regularly doing things that irritate one other. We are regularly saying things or doing things or failing to do things and we cause hurt. And the thing is, if you are unwilling to bear with each other, that is to put up with each other and make allowances for each other's faults and forgive each other, it’s not just one person, it’s really everyone else I bump into during the week.
There are little things that people do that irritate me and there are big things that people do that irritate me. And the thing is, if you’re going to take all those things to heart and put them in your bag and carry them around, then even after a week you will be weighed down. Do you really want to carry all of these things with you or are you going to forgive one another, just as God in Christ has forgiven you? How easy it is for the bag to get really heavy once more.
I want to recognize that sometimes we can ask for forgiveness and people can give that to us and there are still consequences. We need to remember that. To ask someone to forgive does not mean we erase the consequences. Sometimes there’s still jail time or a fine or a permanent loss, even though somebody has forgiven us.
If you betray my confidence by telling someone something I shared with you in confidence, I will forgive you because I will always offer forgiveness. But I'm probably not going to trust you with a secret again. That's just the consequence. That’s how it works. If you are unfaithful to your spouse, by God's grace they may forgive you and maybe you can put things back together again and maybe have an even better marriage in the future than you had in the past. But if you do it again at some point they may say, "I forgive you, but I just can't live with you anymore. I can't keep doing this anymore."
You might have an addiction and your significant other might forgive you for relapse once, but if you keep going back to that habit they may tell you, "I forgive you but I can't live this way anymore. I can't live with the uncertainty and the volatility. I need to go and live my life somewhere else." We can offer forgiveness but there are still sometimes consequences.
How do you forgive someone who hasn't asked for forgiveness?
This is a great question that I get often as a pastor. There are several options in front of us when this happens. We can hold onto the grudge and bitterness forever and just keep adding rocks to our sack that we carry around. Some people may hurt us and they don't even know to ask for forgiveness. Some people have hurt us and they are no longer alive. We just keep adding rocks and we hold onto it forever because they never asked us for forgiveness.
The second thing that you can do is to just let it go. People will often do things to irritate you and they don't even realize it and most of us just let those things go. We recognize that life is too short to carry any more stuff in our bag that we need to.
Sometimes we want to let it go, but it’s just too hard. What they’ve done is just too hard to let it go. And we realize they may keep doing this thing and other hurt people. In those cases, Jesus gives us this advice in Matthew 18.
“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.”
Notice that Jesus doesn't say that if another person in the church sins against you go and tell your whole group about. It doesn't say to copy your complaint to your entire e-mail list. Jesus says to go to them when you are alone and have a conversation and explain to them.
Let me suggest to you a way that we can do this. One way to NOT do this is to be accusatory and begin attacking them with your words. Usually the defenses go up and they have a hard time hearing that. What were to happen if you were to begin with something like this, "There is something that happened the other day and it is really been eating at me. I know you've may have not meant it this way, and you probably didn't mean to hurt me, but this thing is really bothering me and I wanted a chance to talk to you about it." This begins the conversation in a way that they might be able to really hear you and you can work towards reconciliation.
Let's say someone has apologized to you but you're having a hard time letting it go as you work through the process of forgiveness. I want to offer a couple of suggestions as to how you might work through this.
One way forward is to simply pray, "God, help me to let go of this and move through this and to forgive so I can love them again. Bless this person who has hurt me."
This is the advice that comes from Jesus and Paul and the book of Proverbs when it comes to those who have wronged us. I’ve used this and it works. And sometimes it takes months of praying through, maybe years to be able to let go.
A number of years ago in my former church there was a particular person someone had done something to me that was really hurtful. It hurt deep and I felt betrayed. They didn't think they had done anything wrong and so there was this distance between us. I began to pray for that person and say, "God, you know how I feel. I don't want to feel this way. I don't like feeling this way. I pray for them and that you would bless them. Give me a heart of love towards them."
I prayed every day for months for that person. One day they came to worship and I finished praying during the pastoral prayer and when I looked up and I saw that person sitting in the congregation and to my surprise I loved them.
Something changed. God changed my heart in that. As we wrap this up, I want to also give you four “R's" that I believe will help you in this.
If you ever struggle with forgiveness I think these things will help.
Remember our own faults and failures
When someone has talked about us behind our backs, we remember our own places of failing and falling short. We ask, "Have I ever done that to somebody else? Have I ever talked about somebody behind their back? Have I ever said anything that was hurtful?"
If someone betrayed your confidence you might ask, "Have you ever betrayed the confidence of someone else?" I know that I by accident something slipped.
When I find myself holding onto a grudge one of the things that I often do is remember all of the things I've done in my life which are not good. I think about the sum total of all the things God has forgiven me for, it makes it a bit easier to forgive somebody else.
The second thing we can do is reframe the other person. I'm not talking about excusing what they did or saying that what they did is okay. When you reframe you begin to look at why they did what they did. I might ask, "What in their upbringing might have caused them to have done this thing?” Or, “What is going on in their life right now that might have led them to react in this way or do this thing?" Or, “What might have been their thinking?” Walk a mile in their shoes. Try to see things from their perspective. And what you try to do is to see them in the best possible light.
Recognize the high cost of holding onto resentment
There is a physical and emotional and spiritual toll that resentment takes on our lives. If you go to the Mayo Clinic website you will find an entire page dedicated to what happens to people physiologically when they hold onto bitterness and resentment. Their research has shown that if you will let go of your resentment and your bitterness, of the baggage you are carrying, you will experience lower blood pressure, stress reduction, lower heart rate, lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse, fewer symptoms of depression, reduction in chronic pain and improved overall psychological well-being.
These are the benefits of letting go of your baggage. Part of what we begin to do is literally say, "I am not going to let this other person kill me. I am going to figure out by prayer and by reframing and remembering, I am going to find a way to let go of my bitterness and resentment because it's killing me and not them."
There is an old, wise saying that holding onto bitterness and resentment is like taking a poison pill and then hoping the other person dies. It just doesn't work.
The final thing that we do is look for the redemptive blessing in our hurt and suffering. Here’s the thing, God promises to take the things which are hurtful and painful in our lives and bring something good from them. He gives us beauty for ashes, a joy for mourning, praise for heaviness. He makes us oaks of righteousness,” the scripture says.
I know the most formative experiences in my life were the ones which were the most painful to walk through. Most of us would not be where we are or who we are without the difficult times, times of hurt and suffering. Those experiences have helped to bring us to where we are today.
When you can begin to see the redemptive blessings in the suffering and hurt that someone else might have afflicted on you, you remember the words that Joseph said in Genesis 50 to his brothers who had sold him into slavery. Joseph said.
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.”
When we finally practice this and we let go of our baggage we’re ready to forgive we find something amazing and liberating.
(Helper) When I’ve apologized to them and they have accepted my apology, we find that we are both able to take the stones that have weighed down our hearts, that make it sometimes difficult to breathe and to live, and to function and we’re able to let them go. That is what happens when we forgive.
Here's my invitation to you. If you want to successfully navigate the game of life, it requires you to regularly say these six words.
“I am sorry”
“I forgive you”
I'm guessing that each one of us knows someone today to whom we need to apologize. My guess is that each one of us today has someone we have to work on forgiving. Today is the day and now is the time.
While your heads are bowed and your eyes are closed, I invite you to think about those names of people who came to your mind and heart during this sermon. You might say something like this.
"God, please to ask for this person's forgiveness..."
If there is someone that you need to forgive, would you pray for that person and ask God to help you forgive so that you let go? You might simply say this.
"Lord, please help me to forgive this person. Help me to let go."
Oh God, we do pray that you would give us courage and strength to say, "I'm sorry," on a regular basis. We ask that you would help us, by your grace and mercy, to demonstrate grace and mercy to others. Help us to forgive and forgive us we pray, in Jesus’ name, Amen.