As Christians we make much of our forgiveness by God, and that is indeed a wonderful truth, essential for our salvation.
But the New Testament links our experience of God’s forgiveness with our own forgiveness of others. Peter asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ (Matthew 18:21). Peter knew that when people treat us badly we are expected to forgive them when they ask us to. Peter also knew that it is not easy.
Forgiving is necessary
However, forgiveness is not optional; it is commanded. Jesus said, ‘When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him’ (Mark 11:25). It is as much a command as ‘You shall not steal’. We sometimes hear people say, ‘I can’t forgive that person’, but what would we think if someone said, ‘I can’t stop stealing’ or ‘I can’t stop committing adultery’?
Furthermore, forgiveness is evidence of salvation. Following the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus said, ‘If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins’ (Matthew 5:15).
On the surface, it looks as if God only forgives us when we forgive others. That would amount to salvation by works. What the verse is saying is that if we do not forgive others it shows that we have never experienced God’s forgiveness. Our forgiveness of others is a mark of our own salvation.
Forgiveness is also necessary for our well-being. The alternative to forgiving is to harbour bitterness and resentment. Some let bitterness so consume them that it drives them out of their minds. Refusing to forgive can eat us up emotionally and hinder our fellowship with God.
To forgive someone once is hard, but to keep doing it is even harder. Peter thought that to forgive seven times would be wonderfully gracious. Jesus’ reply must have shocked him; seven times was not enough, he must do it seventy-seven times. (The AV has ‘seventy times seven’).
The exact number is not the point; Jesus is saying we must be willing to keep on forgiving those who wrong us. Strictly speaking, of course, we cannot forgive someone unless they ask us to. After all, even God doesn’t forgive us until we ask him. But even if people don’t ask, we must have a forgiving spirit.
But that is difficult. It is humbling, embarrassing; and emotionally draining. Here are some of the snares.
.We can forgive just in words. It is hard to say ‘I forgive you’, but it is even harder to mean it.
.We can make excuses: ‘If I forgive that person they may take their sins too lightly, specially if I do it several times’.
.We might judge that the request for forgiveness is not sincere and that we are justified in withholding forgiveness.
.We could gloat. We knew they were wrong and have just been waiting for them to come grovelling to us.
.We could even regret that they have asked forgiveness. The person is not easy to get along with and we felt comfortable keeping our distance. If we forgive we will have to rebuild the relationship.
But even when the person is sincere, and we don’t judge their motives, it is still hard to forgive. That is why Jesus told the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18.
The problem of forgiving could be submitted to psychological analysis, but basically it comes down to a single principle – we forgive others by looking at God’s forgiveness.
The parable tells of two men who were in debt. The first man owed the king 10,000 talents. The size of the debt boggles the mind. A labourer would take twenty years to earn a single talent! We are not talking millions in our currency but billions. We might ask how a man could run up such a debt. We are not told; perhaps he had an important position in the king’s treasury. The fact remains that there was no prospect of repayment.
The king’s threat to sell him into slavery wouldn’t help the debtor because a slave would only fetch one talent at most. The man begs for time, but that would only postpone the inevitable. What did the king do?
He had pity on the man and forgave him freely. Imagine the relief and joy of the man and his family! Think of the biggest debt you have ever had being written off just like that. Perhaps you struggle to pay your mortgage and are suddenly told that the debt no longer exists.
In the parable this servant then leaves the king and goes to another servant who owes him 100 denarii (about four months wages for a labourer). What would you expect him to say? ‘The king has forgiven my huge debt and I want to do the same for you’. But no! He grabs him by the throat and demands payment.
For years when I read this parable I wondered why Jesus didn’t make the contrast between the debts even more striking – say 10,000 talents and one denarius. However, Jesus knew what he was doing. The second debt, while small compared to the first, was still significant. Four months wages is a lot of money.
The things we are called upon to forgive are not trivial. They are real offences, real hurts, and the size of the debt reflects that. But what words could we use to describe one who, having had such an enormous debt cancelled, was unwilling to forgive a much smaller debt?
He was a scoundrel, a cad, a rotter, a monster, a vile, mean ungrateful creature. Surely he should be despised and punished. Yet that is exactly what we are like, and what we deserve, when we refuse to forgive others.
If the story were told slowly, and a lengthy pause taken before bringing home the application, we can imagine people in the crowd feeling angry towards that servant. Likewise, it is good if we pause and think how mean and despicable is our own conduct when we refuse to forgive others.
What we have received
What have we, as believers, received from our heavenly Father? The forgiveness of all our sins. Things that we were ashamed of; things no one else knew about; sins of deed, word and thought. Millions of them: 10,000 talents worth of sins; a debt we could never repay.
Yet if we have sincerely asked him, our Father has forgiven all for Jesus’ sake. If now we refuse to forgive others, we are just like that ungrateful, wicked servant. Shame on us!
To be honest, we all have problems forgiving those who have wronged us, particularly if the offence was serious and deeply hurtful. After all, we are only human. But that is no excuse. An unforgiving spirit is sinful and we need to treat it as such.
The cure is a long, hard look at God’s gracious forgiveness. When you feel bitterness, look at the cross. When you feel you can’t forgive someone, turn your eyes to the Son of God dying in agony for your sins. Then you will be able to forgive, not just once, but again and again. Even if the same person offends repeatedly in the same way, we will be able, by God’s grace, to forgive repeatedly, just as God does.
But suppose someone has hurt us and doesn’t ask forgiveness? Sometimes people do not realise they have hurt us. If you feel deeply hurt, tell them graciously. Tell them and not someone else! If they do not see their fault and will not apologise, then at least retain a forgiving spirit and be ready to forgive. It may also be appropriate to search our own hearts to see whether we are too sensitive and touchy.
Secondly, supposing we cannot get the offence out of our minds? It may happen that the offending party has asked for forgiveness and we have given it, but we find that the offence keeps bothering us and we are constantly thinking about it.
It is to be expected that it will come to mind on occasions, and Satan will do his best to ensure that. To think about it is not wrong. But should we not forgive and forget?
Just think again of God’s forgiveness. The Bible says that he remembers our sins no more (Jeremiah 31:34). Does that mean that God has no recollection of our sins? God knows everything, and our sins cannot be erased from his memory. But he does not hold them against us!
If we are reminded of an offence that we have forgiven, then remember just that – we have forgiven. Let us not dwell upon the offence but on the forgiveness, and also on the forgiveness we have received from the Lord.