Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)
When someone does us wrong or hurts us, they incur a debt against us. Unforgiveness is, very simply, holding on to the demand, consciously or unconsciously, that they pay us back. Forgiveness is the decision to cancel the debt, to declare that they owe us nothing, and to allow them to walk free.
When we don’t forgive, we are putting someone in the “prison” of our anger (internally or externally), in an attempt to punish them until they give us what they owe us. We refuse to release them until they have made up for what they have done, even if that’s impossible. We can hold onto unforgiveness of someone who has died or with whom we have lost touch.
We don’t forgive people because we feel that if we do, we will never get back what they owe us. Forgiveness seems intrinsically unfair, especially when sometimes the debt is so very, very large. How do we forgive the person who molested us? Who killed our child? Who left us for another person? How do we forgive when we live with the pain of what was done to us every day?
This is understandably many people’s main obstacle to forgiveness. The truth is, forgiveness IS unjust. It’s always undeserved. It’s saying that a wrong was done, a debt is owed. It’s letting someone go free for an offense for which they ought to be punished, and absolving them of a debt they ought to pay. It’s not fair. But then, neither is God’s forgiveness of us.
In this parable, the King is God. The debt the first servant owed is the debt all of us owe, a lifetime of sin and rebellion that we can never repay. God has freely and fully forgiven us. In fact, he actually took on the payment of the debt himself at the cross. He suffered the punishment we deserve so we can go free. That’s why God forgives, and that’s why we forgive.
In fact, we must forgive if we desire God’s forgiveness ourselves. Jesus said so just after he taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) This may seem harsh, but how can you demand mercy for yourself, and justice for others? Especially since the debt others owe us is minute compared to the debt we owe God.
I believe the jail and the torment in this parable refers to not being forgiven. We put our fellow servant in “jail” when we refuse to forgive him, and God puts us in “jail” by not forgiving us if we don’t forgive. God is saying, “OK, you want fairness for that person, I’m going to operate the same way with you.”
We forgive in the knowledge that God will take care of the other person. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Romans 12:19) Nothing escapes God’s justice in the end. Even the most terrible crimes that are forgotten on earth will be called to account in God’s court.
However, if we have truly been forgiven a great debt by the King, our heart’s desire ought to be for the person who wronged us to experience the same. Romans 12 goes on to say, “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (12:20-21)
Our forgiveness models on an earthly scale the forgiveness and restoration of God. If we have been redeemed, we recognize that the greatest good for the person is not to suffer God’s punishment, but to experience the same redemption. We forego our demand for justice in the hope that they will accept God’s offer of forgiveness. We can do this because we are secure in the knowledge of God’s forgiveness of us.
Forgiveness is a choice, an act of the will. It’s a decision made to obey God, even if we don’t feel like it. I’ve heard people say, “But I have so much resentment and bitterness, I can’t forgive.” If we wait until we feel like it, we’ll never forgive. We can certainly ask God for help, and admit to him that we can’t do it, but if we wait for the feelings to come before we decide to forgive, it will never happen. By definition, forgiveness is a choice to release those feelings.
It’s empowering to realize we can choose. Even though it may be a struggle, it may take time, and we may have to forgive the same person many times, we can do it. We are no longer locked into the pain that their actions have caused us. We can be free.
Forgiving “from your heart” means fully and sincerely, from the depth of who you are. It means not half-heartedly, not as a religious duty or show, but willingly. It means letting go of every vestige of the demand or expectation that they pay us back, no conditions and no strings attached. They owe us nothing.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean not facing the pain of what was done to us or not grieving it. We can’t skip straight to forgiveness without going through this process. “Forgiveness” which attempts to do so is denial and pretense. True forgiveness involves fully and completely reckoning up the amount of the debt, as enormous as it might be, and recognizing exactly what it is you are releasing them from. It is becoming willing to do this. You will have to grieve and work through the anger of the offense, which is one reason why we are reluctant to do it. It’s painful to face up to the reality of what’s been done to us and accept our loss. It’s easier to hold on to anger and blame in the hope that it will be made up to us.
Forgiveness seems unfair because it releases the other person from the debt that they owe us, but ironically, holding on to what we think will get us what we need (unforgiveness, a demand for justice), keeps us victims of the person and their actions. It keeps us locked into the pain of the original offense, multiplying it and extending its reach into every area of our lives long after it happened. We are on the endless and futile treadmill of demanding that the debt be repaid.
Forgiveness puts things in the past. It allows us to lay them to rest and move on. Forgiveness is costly because it means letting go, but it allows us to heal.
In the next blog post, I’m going to write about how to forgive, using what I’ve found through my own experience.