Note: This post is part of a series about building a personal relationship with God by reading the parables of Jesus. You can browse the entire series here.
Forgiveness is powerful.
In high school and college, I remember feeling like I wanted to have close friends, but I couldn’t figure out how. Eventually, I began to study the Bible with a few students from school. From reading passages of the Bible and talking about life with these friends, it slowly became clear to me that I had been holding on to a lot of anger and bitterness from past hurts in my family. My decision not to forgive them had created a hard and unloving heart within me, and that’s why I was incapable of making any close friends.
Forgiving those who had hurt me wasn’t easy, but as I read the Bible I learned that God loved me so much that he would forgive me for everything I had ever done. His forgiveness and love became personal to me; my heart softened, and I became ready to extend that same forgiveness to my family.
Though I wanted close relationships, I needed God to teach me to love, just as this verse says:
Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.1 Thessalonians 4:9 NIV
I am grateful that God taught me how to forgive and love, because I wanted to be close to friends but could not do so by myself.
When God’s love becomes personal to us, it changes our lives and our relationships. This is what happened to me when I began to understand God’s unconditional love, and it’s something that can and should happen to us on a regular basis as Christians. Becoming aware of our mistakes, shortcomings, and sins can actually be a good thing because it helps us appreciate God’s undeserved kindness and extend that kindness to others.
In Luke 7, we learn about a woman who had a very personal understanding of God’s love and forgiveness. God’s love made her bold, grateful, and kind. She was far from perfect, but she had a close, powerful, and personal relationship with God. Prompted by his interaction with her, Jesus took the opportunity to teach an important spiritual lesson about the power of forgiveness in the Parable of the Forgiven Debt.
In this devotional, we’ll look at a few key ways we can make God’s love personal, like the Forgiven Woman in Luke 7 did. We’ll learn to focus on connection instead of criticism, being grateful instead of being good, and letting God teach us to love.
Who is someone in your life who genuinely loves you? What are some ways they have loved you that you are grateful for?
Choose connection instead of criticism
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him. Jesus went into the Pharisee’s house and took a place at the table. There was a sinful woman in that town. She knew that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house. So the woman brought some expensive perfume in an alabaster jar.
She stood at Jesus’ feet, crying. Then she began to wash his feet with her tears. She dried his feet with her hair. She kissed his feet many times and rubbed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who asked Jesus to come to his house saw this, he thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know that the woman who is touching him is a sinner!”Luke 7:36-39 ERV
God is interested in connection
One of the first things we can learn from this story is that Jesus accepted an invitation to enjoy a meal in someone’s home. Jesus was interested in connection; he wasn’t too busy to spend time with people. In fact, he spent time with people of all backgrounds, from experts in religious law like this Pharisee to notorious sinners, which was very unusual in Jesus’ day.
Jesus was not critical of this woman, or of the Pharisee; he didn’t look at either of them with disapproval, focusing only on their faults. That’s an important thing to understand about God; he doesn’t look at us with criticism or fault-finding, and when we understand that we’ll feel just as loving toward him as the woman did.
Jesus was a people-person; he cared about people, and was the kind of friend any of us would love to have over at our house to talk to and relax with. When this woman with a reputation that preceded her walked right up to him in tears, Jesus didn’t flinch or push her away. This guest was a woman with a bad reputation, but a great desire for connection and an example of humility that all of us can learn from.
The religious criticize instead of connecting
Let’s look at the very different ways the Pharisee and the “sinful” woman interacted with Jesus. The Pharisee in this story was more focused on criticizing Jesus and the woman than connecting with or caring about them. Pharisees tried to maintain their own purity and spirituality by separating themselves from “sinners.”
This made them not only critical of people who were spiritually lost, but also selfish, ignoring and distancing themselves from those in need out of a desire to protect their own religious status (see Matthew 23). Criticism is inherently self-focused; it’s all about finding and expressing disapproval of the faults of others with the implication that we don’t have those faults ourselves.
Read more: From Me-Centric to Others-Focused
The woman, on the other hand, spent her energy connecting with Jesus. She didn’t seem to have any room in her heart for criticism of other people or even for worrying about other people’s opinions of her; instead she was so grateful for Jesus’ love and forgiveness that she seemed to be only thinking about how she could express her love boldly, freely, and vulnerably.
She must have known what other people thought of her, but she did not let any fear or self-focus keep her from coming to express appreciation to Jesus. She did things that would have been culturally shocking as a woman in that day: she walked right up to Jesus, let down her hair, and showed intimacy by kissing his feet.
She brought an expensive gift, showing Jesus how valuable he was to her, and she was vulnerable. She brought him her whole heart, tears, and all. Her desire to connect with Jesus was greater than her desire to preserve her self-image or please the people around her.
I (Michele) relate so much to the Pharisee in this story. I attended church occasionally throughout my high school years, but I rarely read the Bible and I certainly didn’t understand who God was or how he felt about me. I did know some of the rules that I thought Christians were supposed to follow, and I thought God was mostly interested in good behavior.
This focus on behavior led me to criticize and think I was better than others who did not seem to follow the same rules. I looked down on one of the girls in my class because she didn’t go to church and went out drinking with her friends. Looking back, I realize I was actually envious of her friendships and competitive with her because of her good grades, so criticizing her “sinfulness” was a way I was trying to feel better about myself.
I may have attended church more often than she did, but I didn’t have any real faith in or connection with God. My lack of understanding of God’s care led to a lack of care for others.
Once I got help from friends to read the Bible, I started to see that God was interested in me and wanted to be connected and close. The more I read the Bible the more I saw God for who he really was, and his love for me changed the way I looked at myself and at others. I later was able to go back to this friend of mine from high school that I was critical of and ask her for help in looking for a job at the company where she worked. She helped me with my resume, networking, and getting a great position.
I realized that all that time I spent being critical, I could have spent connecting with and making a friend. Being secure with God helped me to be humble with my friend and learn from her strengths.
Pause and reflect
- Which do you tend to do more—connect or criticize? Why?
- What do you think your level of love and security in relationships says about your relationship with God?
Here are some ways we can choose connection instead of criticism:
- Connect with God by letting down about your own insecurities, desires, and sins in prayer. Then find verses of the Bible that help you see the truth about how God really feels about you. Criticism can be rooted in negative feelings about ourselves, so if we take these feelings to God in a healthy way we will be less tempted to criticize people around us.
- Learn to see criticism as a sign that you need to spend more time with someone. When we spend time with people and build memories with them, we begin to understand them better and appreciate their friendship instead of finding faults with them.
- Pray about the things you appreciate about people around you. What qualities do they have that encourage you? What would you like to learn from them? Everyone has unique gifts, and we are meant to rely on each other (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-26).
Pick one of these things and put it into practice this week. Talk to God about how your relationships with him and others change when you connect instead of criticizing.
Try to be grateful, not good
When the Pharisee who asked Jesus to come to his house saw this, he thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know that the woman who is touching him is a sinner!” In response, Jesus said to the Pharisee, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Simon said, “Let me hear it, Teacher.”
Jesus said, “There were two men. Both men owed money to the same banker. One man owed him 500 silver coins. The other man owed him 50 silver coins. The men had no money, so they could not pay their debt. But the banker told the men that they did not have to pay him. Which one of those two men will love him more?” Simon answered, “I think it would be the one who owed him the most money.” Jesus said to him, “You are right.”Luke 7:39-43 ERV
Jesus knew what the Pharisee, Simon, was thinking and took the opportunity to teach him a spiritual lesson about forgiveness and gratitude. Using a parable about a forgiving debtor, Jesus explained that the person who has a greater debt canceled will be more grateful than the person who has a smaller debt canceled.
Our sins can be compared to debt, and becoming aware of our specific sins helps us to be more grateful for the forgiveness that Jesus offers. Our hearts get softer when we see the damaging effect we have had on God and the people around us, along with the opportunity God gives us to change and to make things right.
The Pharisee was not as aware of his sin as the woman was of hers, and so he was not grateful for the forgiveness that Jesus could have given him. He spent his time and energy trying to be “good” (separating himself from sinful people, looking down on the woman, and hiding his doubtful thoughts about whether Jesus was really a prophet), but he wasn’t grateful or loving. He grumbled about Jesus and his mercy toward the sinful woman, and he grumbled about the woman’s love for Jesus.
When we are not aware of and grateful for the specific ways God is merciful to us, we will grumble. We will criticize people and grumble at God. When we are aware of God’s great forgiveness and how undeserving we are of it, we will be grateful and loving.
The Pharisee teaches us that when we try to earn God’s approval with rule-following and perfect behavior, we’ll become critical, unbelieving, and unloving.
I studied the Bible to learn about God shortly after graduating from college, and I realized that although I knew I had some sins, I didn’t know how God felt about them or how they had affected others. When I became more aware of my selfish motives and desires to be better than others and gain more for myself, I realized that I was not that person I was trying to make everyone believe I was.
Read more: How Do I Become Emotionally Aware?
I wanted people to see me as caring and compassionate, but I was really only trying to appear kind so that I could win people’s respect and approval. I would ask questions to make it seem like I was interested in people’s lives, but instead of listening I was thinking about myself and what I needed to do next.
I felt more for myself than anyone else and my selfishness made me cold and unfeeling towards the people in my life. Though I tried to act nice in front of people, I would grumble and complain behind their backs because I wasn’t doing it out of genuine love or care.
Once I saw the damaging impact of my sin on my family and friends, I was amazed that God wanted to be close to me, to forgive me, and still had a vision for my life. I read about Jesus’ death on the cross and learned that Jesus died so that I could be forgiven and so that he could have a close relationship with me. The unconditional love that God was offering me was motivation to stop grumbling and complaining about my life and to instead become grateful.
Pause and reflect
- What are the specific sins you have a hard time being honest and humble about?
- How has your sin affected friends and family and how can you show gratitude to God for the forgiveness he gives?
If you relate to trying to be good instead of being grateful, choose one of these practical things to do this week to grow in your gratitude for God and his love:
- Read the book of Romans to understand how God’s kindness to us through Jesus is completely undeserved.
- Pray about forgiveness. Tell God the sins in your life that you are most grateful to be forgiven for. If you need help identifying sins in your life, read through Galatians 5:19-20 or Romans 1:18-32. Remember that the goal of this is not to feel down on yourself but to appreciate that God knows all these things already and wants to clear away your guilt so you can be close to him.
- Pray about gratitude. Spend time each day praying only about the things you are grateful for. Start with setting aside five minutes for only expressing gratitude in prayer. What good gifts has God given you (James 1:17)? What are some things about him you are grateful for?
Let God teach you to love
Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I came into your house, you gave me no water for my feet. But she washed my feet with her tears and dried my feet with her hair. You did not greet me with a kiss, but she has been kissing my feet since I came in. You did not honor me with oil for my head, but she rubbed my feet with her sweet-smelling oil. I tell you that her many sins are forgiven. This is clear, because she showed great love. People who are forgiven only a little will love only a little.”  Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”  The people sitting at the table began to think to themselves, “Who does this man think he is? How can he forgive sins?”  Jesus said to the woman, “Because you believed, you are saved from your sins. Go in peace.” Luke 7:44-50 ERV
Jesus helped Simon (the Pharisee) see he did not show respect or love to Jesus but the woman Simon considered to be “sinful” was actually loving and kind. Jesus revealed to the host and others that her acts of love, care, and giving came from her awareness of her sins and how much she needed God’s forgiveness. She felt she had been forgiven of a lot of sins so she had a lot of gratitude for Jesus.
Knowing what we need to be forgiven for helps us to be humble, seeing that we need God to forgive us and love us and help us change. It also helps us understand God’s incredible, unlimited mercy. The woman believed Jesus loved her enough to wipe away even her “many” sins, and her gratitude for this made her incredibly loving.
In graduate school, one of my (Jason’s) friends began studying the Bible with me so he could know God. He began to build faith in knowing who God was intellectually, but had difficulty feeling about how much God cared about him. I shared verses of the Bible with him, but I did not share about the sins I had committed that God had forgiven me for.
One of my friends encouraged me to share about God’s forgiveness in my life, including all the things God had done and was continually doing in my life to help me change.
This immediately impacted my friend, and he shared that he could relate to me. Right away he began letting down about his life and people he believed he sinned toward. The verses of the Bible we studied led him to believe he needed forgiveness and that God had the love and power to forgive him. He was baptized soon after that!
Remembering and sharing about God’s love for me was actually more loving than just trying to tell my friend what to do. As we both became more vulnerable about our sins and need for forgiveness, we became spiritual friends who could help each other walk with God. It was humility, not my intellectual knowledge of the Bible, that enabled me to help my friend understand and experience God’s love and forgiveness.
Jesus wanted to be connected to the host of this party and to the guests. He was willing to sacrifice his life so that he could have a close relationship with them and also with us. The woman in the story shows us how God’s love can become personal to us, changing our lives and flowing over into the way we treat people.
We can experience God’s love in this personal and powerful way too, by choosing to connect instead of criticizing, being grateful instead of trying to be good, and letting God teach us how to love.