At the beginning of my walk with Christ, I can remember devouring Scripture, learning how to pray, and figuring out how to navigate the new social network I was surrounded by.
Before I committed my life to Christ, my relational world was made up of childhood friends and athletes. I cannot remember, in those pre-Jesus high school days, having one committed Christian as a friend. Many of my friends went to church, but our focus was on self and fun. Once I committed to Christ, the changes triggered in my relational world were staggering. It is not that I no longer enjoyed my former friends nor that I sought to avoid them; I just discovered I could not do with them the things we had done in the past. Over time, a very few of those friends also joined the Jesus-follower ranks, but most of my friends remained distant.
I had thought my new friends, most of whom I was meeting at Bible studies, were too sheltered, too legalistic, unable to have fun, and held down by controlling restrictions. I remember sitting in a Bible study one night thinking, “These are my new friends, and I have so little in common with them." Looking back, it seemed like most were understandably distrustful of me, which made friendship-building slow.
I did go back and try to hang out a few times with my old friends, but our activities were far from Christ-honoring and were absolutely faith-destroying. I couldn't walk committed to Christ and continue to walk in that lifestyle, as well.
To this day, I can remember the night I decided to jump all in and make those who were following Christ my new world of friends.
I had been reading about the "new commandment" to love one another. Jesus' command had heightened significance to me because I thought there would be no way to love these new friends I was obligated to love without being commanded by Jesus Himself to do so.
My attempt to fulfill that command and embrace my new world of friends was to publicly declare my love. At the next Bible study, before the meeting, I went around the room and informally hugged everyone and then told them I loved them. I will never forget their stares. It was the look of, “What is wrong with this guy; is he losing it?" After that Bible study, I went to another prayer meeting and did the same thing. It all seemed to break the ice in my cold soul. I did come to find out later, to my surprise, that Christians, who were given this command to love, did not actually tell each other they loved each other.
I was now a part of a family that all began, as sought, to keep the "new commandment" to love people with whom it seemed you had little in common.
I became surprised—the command to love, over time, resulted in a deep heartfelt love for those students I had at one time felt no rapport with.
One thing really surprised me about Christians once I joined their ranks: they were not really all that unified. I had imagined all true followers, no matter what church they went to, had this common bond and admiration for each other, a sense of belonging to the same team. It was shocking to find out there was not some kind of hidden handshake, wink, or password where they would all be saying, no matter their differences, "I love you, I love Jesus, and we are in this together.”
I was shocked. I met people who really did love Jesus but didn't like other Christians. I was soon baptized in the knowledge of who was lovable and who was not. Yes, that knowledge was just like eating straight from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Every bite makes the soul a bit more dead.
One day, one of those believers whom I had hugged and told I loved him, in response to Christ's command to love, spread some horrible rumors about me. The rumor was that I had started a rumor. The claim was mostly fictitious. The truth part of the accusation was that I had actually heard the juicy tidbit about someone else. The fictitious part of the rumor was that I had been the source; I had not even passed the information along and have not to this day.
I was not guiltless, however, because when I had heard the gossip, I did not express any discomfort in the gossip’s being shared. I was fully aware it was a sin to gossip—I knew it was both wrong to share and to participate—but I just sat by and, in neutral, enjoyed knowing something I shouldn't have.
The person who labeled me the source of the story shrouded me with needing to be trusted—a new believer with an old, sinful character. Because the person who was seeking my demise was highly esteemed among the believers in my high school, I found relationships chilling toward me.
This was my first major Christian challenge, within the first few weeks of my walk.
My first response was to avoid the person who had made the claim, which caused bitterness to creep into my heart. I then started my own gossip campaign, making it clear to others that I did not care for the person who had offended me. Oddly, the only one in misery over the entire event was me. I was so new to the group and had built no relationships, and most would not have cared if I came or went.
I had committed my heart to Christ in April; the offense occurred within weeks, and it wasn't until October that I decided to go on a three-day fast in response to Scriptures I’d been reading about fasting.
During those months, I had few friends from the group who had already been Christians when I committed my life to Christ. Most of my friends became Christians after I did. The hurt from the offense and feelings against the offending accuser faded away and no longer had a hold on my thoughts.
During the fast, the Holy Spirit led me to consider my bitterness, albeit hidden, toward the person who had been spreading the rumor. I was mostly trying not to eat for three days, mixed in with a bit of praying. I was not trying to become more forgiving, nor was I reading Scripture on forgiveness, nor did I even want or think I had anyone I needed to forgive. It was all the Holy Spirit's doing. In fact, I must admit I didn't even think my attitude toward the person was all that bad considering I was sure he had a demon.
Before beginning the fast, I had just recently been to a youth seminar where forgiveness was one of the major themes. During the teaching on forgiveness, not one time did I think I needed to forgive the guy who deemed me the source of that rumor. I do think, however, that the seminar teaching was spilling over into my fasting and my thinking.
One thing I know for sure: the Holy Spirit had me under His lights, convicting me of my bitterness. He showed me how I did everything I could to avoid the one who had started the rumor. In a sense, with all those students coming to Christ, he had become insignificant to me. I remember the Holy Spirit’s taking me to two Scriptures. The first one was quite simple to understand:
"Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8 NASB).
This is the translation I would have read, the translation in which I would have memorized this verse. The Holy Spirit simply asked me if I thought my love fervent if it was not capable of covering a multitude of sins. I imagined "covering" to mean “forgive." I had to admit I had not forgiven the man who had begun the lie about me, and it showed in my avoidance and disregard of him.
Then I was taken to a second passage: "See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled ..." (Hebrews 12:15 NASB). This again would have been the translation in which I read this passage and memorized it. I do remember first seeing this verse at the seminar and then asking the teacher to explain the meaning of this verse. His teaching has stuck with me to this day.
Here was the Holy Spirit's question from this passage: how many people do you think your bitterness has defiled? I can still remember giving Him a number and then coming the haunting question, don't you think you are one person short?
Yes, I had forgotten to add myself to the number of people who had been defiled by my own bitterness. Then the Holy Spirit asked me if I thought I could walk and enjoy His grace if I had fallen short of it in my bitter response to some offense. Odd, isn't it? I was feeling so close to God, even fasting, when in reality I was short of God's grace.
Yes, bitterness is the only poison we drink expecting it not to kill us.
Isn’t this the fast I choose: To break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? Isaiah 58:6 CSB
We might mistakenly assume God is wanting us to deny food, work on our diet, and have a few hunger pangs in payment for our sinful lives. God is not interested, however, in our food denials and is not impressed with our dietary self-discipline. He is far more interested in what happens during a fast. He is seeking to make us more sensitive to His voice and more open to our hearts becoming like His.
There are two things Jesus wishes to accomplish in our hearts as we fast. One we will look at today.
1. Liberate Those in Debt to Us
During a fast, it is God's hope that we would hear His Spirit's voice convicting us of what Isaiah called the "chains of wickedness." "Chains of wickedness" would mean gaining something in a slightly dishonest way. Being chained to wickedness would mean the heart had been chained to doing something slightly dishonest for so long that it had become desensitized to its own deviousness.
The greatest of all dishonest acts would be to assume someone too wicked to be forgiven. People who love Jesus can actually get to the point where a hurt done to them is so painful, they demonize the offender and assess him/her as unworthy of forgiveness.
To withhold forgiveness is nothing less, at the heart level, than practicing slavery.
Slavery is demanding a person be indebted to serve because that person is not worthy to be set free. The institution of slavery that smothered the world for centuries was able to do so because one group demonized another group as being unworthy to set free.
To "untie the ropes of the yoke" was to free others from being harnessed to something in order to pay a debt off.
To "let the oppressed go free" was to let those who have been dealt with harshly to go free.
There is no greater yoke and no greater oppression than to dub one not forgiven, not worthy of compassion.
To "tear off every yoke" is a call to utterly destroy all forms of slavery, any institution of the heart that makes another person indebted to us.
Slavery is, at the heart level, a form of non-forgiveness. By making a person a slave, you validate not forgiving someone's differences from you, enemy status, or debt they owe. Here is the hell of our hearts: we can actually withhold forgiveness from someone who has not sinned but whom we deem a sinner.
Forgiveness breaks the chains of dishonesty by becoming honest about whom we have not forgiven. Forgiveness is unleashing someone from trying to serve off their debt. It is recognizing the harsh and oppressive nature of non-forgiveness and setting the offender free.
Today begins the challenging work of forgiving those who have hurt and offended us. As we fast, there will be an anointing on us to set people free. The story I told earlier resolved. I never went to the person and said, “You did such and such." I decided to cover that sin. I decided to bear it without remark.
I began to honor and compliment the man who began the rumor until we became friends. I did ask him to forgive me for my less-than-friendly and loving attitude.
I am not aware of ever talking to him about what he had said, but since that day, the same person has paid me many compliments and spoken of me in honoring ways to others.
Some would ask, should you not have brought up the old offense? I didn't need to. I was more concerned about being able to cover and bear the sin than letting him know what he had done. The person who did the damage has turned out to be an amazing man, very honoring with his tongue and a genuine lover of Jesus.
My part was doing the impossible for me: covering his sin and letting the Holy Spirit cleanse me of the poison of bitterness and offense.
Here is your decision: will you forgive, will you list out those who have hurt and offended you, those you know you are avoiding and not speaking well of, and do the amazing work of forgiveness?
On your "Prayer and Fasting Commitments” page, write down the date.
Next, write your commitment; it might be worded something like this:
“Jesus, I seek by Your grace to open my heart and face anyone I may not be forgiving.”
Finally, go to your "Daily Journal," and write the date at the top of the page.
Begin by asking the Holy Spirit to enable you to write down anyone you have not forgiven.
Let God bring to mind those you have negative feelings about, those you try to avoid, and those you have a hard time honoring or complimenting.
After you write their names, write a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to lead you in forgiving each one.
We will talk about all this more later.