Forebear, Forgive, Love
I have no doubt that if we more sincerely believed in forbearance, forgiveness, and love, if we lived them more consistently by the power of Christ, we would find bitterness quenched in our marriages. Relationships with other believers would begin to reach their potential for mutual edification and unity. The Lord would bless fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, to resolve conflicts before the home is consumed with the fires of hurt and division. Above all, our Savior would be glorified, his cross held high, and his transforming power brought to bear upon our lives.
We find these words together in Colossians 3:13-14, but let us not move too quickly past verse 12: “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering.” In this beautiful sentence, the whole of the gospel is presented to us, a foundation given for relational health, a heavenly way of life revealed.
“As the elect of God” shows us that his grace alone can turn us from haters to lovers, from fault finders to patient servants and friends. Our Father’s electing grace in Christ, his choosing of us in Christ as our Mediator and Redeemer, is the fountain of all other gifts and graces. Our faith is not first about our personal salvation but about what God has done for us in Christ and the glory of our Redeemer. His will, not ours, is the source of our salvation and of all our strength to love one another. Because he chose us to be his own, we are to put on the very life of our Savior.
“Bowels of mercies” is the deepest, sincerest compassion. It reflects what the holy God has extended to us in his Son. We had no claim upon his pity and mercy, but he is “rich in mercy and great in love” (Eph. 2:4). His love is not shown to the deserving, otherwise none would receive mercy. His mercy comes to the dead and filthy, the corrupt and depraved, men and women who deserve his everlasting wrath but instead receive his covenant of peace and grace. As Christians, we are to put on his deep compassion for one another. Compassion is not optional for us, else we deny God’s mercy, forget what we are, and despise our Savior’s love. Compassion is not toleration of sin but saving sympathy toward sinners so that they are delivered by the grace of Jesus Christ.
With compassion, we are to put on “humility of mind.” Gospel humility is the personal appropriation of what God has done for us in his Son. We are to think of ourselves as men and women who have been forgiven. We stand before the cross, remembering Jesus’ sufferings, his great love for us, and the weight of our curse and judgment that he bore that we might become the children of God. A Christian with a humble mind does not insist upon having his own opinions dominate others. He does not insist upon being right in every circumstance. He does not push himself forward to the center of every conversation. He values love and mercy; when he speaks the truth, he endeavors to do so in love. From this, meekness and kindness flow and flourish like trees planted by the rivers of God’s life-giving grace. The Christian is gentle with others because his soul has felt God’s gentle touch. We have provoked him often, but he has been slow to anger and abundant in mercy.
Upon this gospel foundation, we are able to forebear with one another. Forebear means to bear up under injuries without being provoked – because God has been forbearing with us. Forbearance is closely related to longsuffering (v. 12); forbearance is endurance in not avenging wrongs. If we think of the harshest treatment we have received from another, we have treated God much more harshly. Often we have spit in his face. We are the ones who plucked out our Savior’s beard and crucified him by our wicked works. And yet, he was patient with us, even when we were unbelievers. As believers, his endurance with us is no less magnificent, perhaps more so, for the provocations we now give to him are against the light of his love. And yet, he remains meek and lowly with us, chastening us, to be sure, but always with an eye to our recovery and joy in his love and grace. Even when we are sinning, he prays for us that our faith fail not.
Should we not therefore be very gentle and patient with one another? As a husband or wife, you must draw from Jesus Christ the grace of forbearance, enduring injury and disappointment without becoming angry or bitter (Col. 3:19). Only in a living union with Jesus Christ is this possible. If you are bitter against your spouse, parents, children, or with other members of the church, if you are provoked with them and simply wish they would go away, you must remember the great forbearance of God with you, be humbled and stand amazed by his longsuffering, and then seek to walk in closer fellowship with him who has endured so many injuries from us that it is a wonder he does not walk away from us.
But he does not, for he delights in mercy and is ever ready to forgive. We forgive one another because Christ Jesus has forgiven us. This is the great secret of the Christian’s ability to forgive, freely bestowing mercy even upon those whom we do not think deserve mercy. Again and again, we are brought back to Jesus our Forgiver. It is a bit of a shock that we are so little moved by that line in the Lord’s Prayer: forgive our debts as we forgive others. Or his statement: “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:26). Or the convicting conclusion to his parable of the unforgiving servant: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if you from your hearts forgive not each one his brother their trespasses” (Matt. 18:35). His disciples felt the challenge of mercy keenly. His calls us to forgive “seventy times seven” was met by, “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). But it is not more faith that we need as much as a deeper sense of having been forgiven. “As Christ has forgiven you” is love’s battering ram that beats down every grudge, quenches every hurt, and empowers true forgiveness. How can I not forgive my wife – or parent, child, pastor, or boss – since I have been forgiven a hellish pit of wickedness?
But the apostle goes one step further. After forbearance and forgiveness, he says, “But above all things, put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.” If we endure injury and forgive, this is not the last step. You see, God is not only longsuffering and ready to forgive, but he actively loves us despite our many provocations to his majesty. It might be that we look at another person and say, “Well, that poor fool. He can do no better, so I will put up with him. I will forgive him.” How magnanimous! But this is not the whole gospel. The whole gospel is that we are to think kindly upon one another, help one another overcome sin, and die to ourselves to put others first. Mere toleration is not gospel charity. Like God for us in Christ, he knew all the reasons that we were unworthy of his love, worthy of his wrath, unfit for his friendship, never measuring up or even beginning to be truly thankful, but he was kindly moved toward us and loved us anyway. This is what we are to put on toward one another. We are to put on God, be like God, and be transformed into God’s loving children.
What a different creature the Christian is – a new creation in Christ – a new lover like Christ and his Father, one with the Father and the Son by the sealing of the Holy Spirit – so that heavenly love begins to mark us out in the world as God’s children. This is not the love of sentimentality or toleration of sin. None can entertain such a deception who looks honestly at the cross and sees a Savior suffering not to affirm sinners in their sins, but to deliver them; not to make light of God’s holy law but to uphold it with the last ounce of his lifeblood. Here at the cross – even as Christ forgave us – we see true love. He endured our provocations and shame and spitting while loving us to the end; he suffered for our sins but forgave our sins, not castigating us for them but blotting them out by his precious blood. And he now calls us, in our particular times and circumstances, to love as we have been loved. The great challenge of this love is that John 3:16 never truly confronts the world unless it is lived out by those who profess to know God’s love in Christ.