Forgiveness is not pretending that nothing is wrong, or that you weren’t hurt. Forgiveness is saying, “yes, I am hurt. I have been wronged. But I choose not to hold that against the person who wronged me. That person owes me nothing.” The essence of forgiveness is releasing someone else from the “debt” they owe you because of what they did.
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Matthew #64. Matthew 18:21-35
When Leonardo da Vinci was painting the Last Supper, he had an intense, bitter argument with a fellow painter. Da Vinci was so enraged that he decided to paint the face of his enemy into the face of Judas. That way the hated painter’s face would be preserved in the face of the betraying disciple. When the great artist finished Judas, everyone easily recognized the face of the painter with whom da Vinci had quarreled.
Leonardo da Vinci continued to work on the painting. But as much as he tried, he could not paint the face of Christ. Something was holding him back. He finally decided his hatred toward his fellow painter was getting in the way. So he worked through his hatred by repainting Judas’ face, replacing the image of his fellow painter with another face. Only then was he able to paint Jesus’ face and complete the masterpiece.
Let’s set our text in context this week. It began with a discussion of who was the greatest. Jesus encouraged child-like trust, and said greatness was found in that, and in childlike humility. Speaking of childlike humility and trust, Jesus mentions how much he values those who trust him in this way, and warns against making them fall away. Speaking of falling away, he talks about how much he cares for lost sheep and pursues them. Speaking of lost sheep, he describes one way to bring back lost sheep, through what we call “church discipline.” Speaking of church discipline, Peter asks, “how many times should we forgive someone who repents? So now Jesus says: “Let me tell you about forgiving each other when someone wrongs you.”
He uses a parable, describing a servant to a King, who was forgiven an enormous debt – on the order of millions of dollars. The man was not required to pay one cent. This servant then went out, and sought out a fellow servant who owed him maybe five-hundred bucks, and demanded payment. When the second servant could not pay, the first, the one who had been forgiven so much, refused to release the man from his obligation, and had him thrown in jail.
In my mind, this parable begs a question: how could the first servant have been so unmerciful? Seeing what great mercy he has just experienced, how could he be so hard-heated? There are only two possibilities that make any sense to me. The first is that he really didn’t feel obligated for the millions of dollars, and so it was no big deal to have that debt canceled. In other words, he didn’t really believe he owed the debt, so when it was forgiven him, it didn’t touch his heart at all.
The other possibility is that he didn’t really believe in the forgiveness. Somehow, he felt like he was still deep in debt, and so needed the money the other man owed him. Either way, for all practical purposes, he never really received the forgiveness the King offered him. Otherwise his miserliness is almost inconceivable. It is here that we find the key to Jesus’ troubling words in 18:35,
So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart.” (Matt 18:35, HCSB)
I think what Jesus is saying is that if you don’t forgive others, that is an indication that you yourself have not really received God’s forgiveness. Anyone who holds on to a grudge, who is clenching bitterness in their heart, cannot at the same time have a heart that is open to receive God’s forgiveness. Thus, as Jesus says, if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven – you can’t be. Your own un-forgiveness blocks out the forgiveness God offers you. Forgiveness and un-forgiveness cannot reside in the same heart at the same time. Lest we soften the intent of scripture, I think it is also important to realize that our un-forgiveness is offensive to God. When we read that parable and “get into it” there is a sense of outrage at the actions of the unmerciful servant. I think God feels this same outrage when we refuse to forgive those who have wronged us.
Now we need to be very clear about the nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not saying “Oh, that’s OK.” The reason there needs to be forgiveness at all is because whatever happened was not OK. Forgiveness is not pretending that nothing is wrong, or that you weren’t hurt. Forgiveness is saying, “yes, I am hurt. I have been wronged. But I choose not to hold that against the person who wronged me. That person owes me nothing.” The essence of forgiveness is releasing someone else from the “debt” they owe you because of what they did. If you forgive someone, you no longer expect them to make up for what they did. You no longer hold their actions against them. You aren’t saying that what they did was OK, but you are saying that you will no longer require anything from them because of that wrong.
In contrast, un-forgiveness retains the right to some sort of payment. If you are refusing to forgive someone, you probably feel like that person owes you something. Haven’t we all heard the phrase “you owe me an apology!”? That is un-forgiveness in action. You may feel that the person who hurt you has to make it better. You may feel that you have a right to be angry. You may continue trying to get something out the person. The irony is, when we continue to try and get something out of someone, we remain bound to them. In other words, when we don’t forgive, we keep ourselves in bondage to the person we won’t forgive. As long as you are trying to get something from another person, you are bound to them. You can’t let them go, and at the same time, demand something from them. We can’t be free until we let go.
If anyone is in your “doghouse” you can be sure you are harboring un-forgiveness. Now you may indeed be entitled to payment of some sort. But if you want to get what you rightly deserve, then keep in mind that we all rightly deserve to go to hell. If you want to get what’s rightly yours, then be sure to remember everything you’ve got rightfully coming to you.
A lot of people have questions about the differences between forgiving on the one hand, and forgetting or trusting on the other. Jesus did not actually say “forgive and forget.” He said, “forgive.” So in his parable, I doubt the King would have loaned the servant millions of dollars again. He forgave him; that didn’t mean he was going to forget that the servant wasn’t able to handle a debt of millions. The king was not likely to trust him with that kind of money again, not because of unforgiveness, but simply out of common sense. When someone hurts you deeply, Jesus teaches that you must forgive that person and that if you don’t, it will interfere in your relationship with Him. But he does not command that you trust the one who hurt you at the same level you trusted before. You can release someone from his debt, and let him go, and still be wise in the future about how much interaction you have with him. You can do this without demanding something from the person, or holding something against him.
Now, sometimes we bury our un-forgiveness deep, out of our own awareness. A few years ago, there was someone in my life that I had not forgiven. But in my conscious world, I was not holding anything against that person. I wasn’t trying to get anything from that person. Instead, I was trying to get what that person owed me, from other people. At some level, I still felt someone owed me something. And so I was relating to other people as if they had treated me like the very first person. When the Lord showed me this, I forgave the original person who hurt me – even though I had no particular feelings of bitterness or anger against them – and my behavior towards others was radically changed for the better.
Another time, as I struggled to forgive someone else, I said to the Lord, “But he ought to pay for what he did. There needs to be a just punishment for this wrong action.” And in a flash, I saw a picture of Jesus on the cross, nails being driven into his wrists. The sin has been punished. It did not go unnoticed. It was punished on the cross, and the punishment was borne not by the one who wronged me, but by Jesus. If I declare that what satisfied God for that sin does not satisfy me, then I am saying I know better than God! In fact, I am saying that Jesus’ death was not enough! And now we get to the heart of the matter. If I say Jesus’ death was not enough punishment for the one who hurt me, then I cannot seriously believe that Jesus’ death was enough for my own sin. If I want the one who wronged me to pay for his own sin, then surely I also ought to pay for mine! But scripture says: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘it is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord.’”(Romans 12:19). So let God be the judge, and release the hurt and anger to him.
Often the thing we hold against others is an admission of guilt. I don’t want to forgive until the other person admits that he was wrong and I was right. In other words, I am still demanding something of this person for his offenses – I am still holding something against him. This is not the way Jesus forgave us. Romans 5:6-11 says that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. He did not wait for us to admit our sins or to repent and come to him. He sought us out with his forgiveness long before we ever admitted we were wrong. Since scripture tells us we are to forgive as Christ forgave us (Ephesians 4:32, among other verses), we also need to be prepared to forgive someone who never ever admits they are wrong or says sorry.
In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus says:
“So if you are standing before the altar in the Temple, offering a sacrifice to God, and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there beside the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. (New Living Translation)
The concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation are so important that you may interrupt your worship of God to get things straight with your neighbors. In fact, where there is unforgiveness, it will interrupt your worship anyway, whether or not you acknowledge that fact.
Corrie Ten Boom, a veteran of the terrible internment camps in WWII, shares this true story in her book, The Hiding Place. It was after the war, and she had begun to have a ministry traveling and speaking about her experiences, and the grace of God that she found, even in the horror. Then, this happened:
It was a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there — the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.
Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.
I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.
Corrie Ten Boom’s point is extremely important. We can’t forgive without God’s help. Sometimes the hurt we have received is so deep and terrible that it seems we simply cannot release the person who hurt us without trying to get something back from them. But when we ask for God’s help, he can give us what we need to forgive those who hurt us and he will. He is not giving us an impossible command – he will give us his own love and forgiveness with which to love and forgive those who hurt us. All we have to do is ask.
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