How can we forgive big transgressions? America forgave Japan and Germany and helped rebuild them. What a wonderful example! But, how often should we forgive an enemy? What about our current enemies?
I want us to explore the difficulty and necessity of forgiveness.
We will look at Matthew 18:21-35 and compare God’s forgiveness of our sins and the difficulty we have of forgiving others from the heart.
The Forgiveness Limit
After we confront someone caught up in gross sin what attitude ought we to have? How often must we forgive a habitual sin? Are we to be suckers? Jesus taught about forgiveness, but how often should we let ourselves be taken advantage of and subsequently forgive those who seem to make a habit of hurting us? That is essentially Peter's question in Matthew 18:21. Ancient Jewish teaching may have suggested with forgiveness, 3 strikes and you're out. So, Peter's suggestion of 7 times, may have seemed generous to him. A question in response to Peter might be, how often ought we imitate God's forgiveness? If the answer is only 7 times, then we are all in trouble. Jesus' answer is 70x7, a hyperbola for countless times. True generosity in forgiveness does not keep count. Christian forgiveness is given extravagantly.
Must we Forgive Terrorists
What debt to society does a terrorist responsible for thousands of deaths owe? Could we say that the only repayment that would satisfy us would be revenge? Matthew 18:21, 35 describes a forgiven man who was unable to forgive. Who do we find it hard to forgive — terrorists? What about abusive spouses? What about gang bangers, politicians, identity thieves, greedy company executives, church conferences and fellow church members? Are there any exceptions? Some crimes are so despicable that even the thought of forgiveness can make us angry. Yet, still Jesus does not flinch. He asks us to forgive our enemies and he dares to ask us to pray for them. However, forgiveness does not mean that we allow terrorists, abusers and criminals to continue. We must also show love to all by seeking to put a stop to such wrongdoing.
Forgiveness Despite the Pain
Forgiveness is probably one of the hardest things in life to do, yet it is a requirement of the Christian life (Matthew 18:22). It is a decision, but it is not an easy one. With forgiveness comes all kinds of deep personal pain. We want justice, but when it comes to our own wrongs we want mercy. Offenses and great injustices happen inside and outside of the church. Many times forgiveness comes hard. Do we look to blame the perpetrators or ourselves for allowing it? It’s the past and we can’t go back. We do have a choice though. We can live lives of bitterness and resentment or choose forgiveness despite the pain. It’s easy to harbor a grudge for life, but the consequences are hard. It’s hard to forgive from the heart, but the consequences are renewed life.
Forgiving when the Line is Crossed
“I’ll forgive you this time but...” Fill in the blank. We each draw an imaginary line in the sand beyond which forgiveness is not available. In Matthew 18:22 Jesus challenged that kind of thinking after Peter suggested a very generous line in the sand, seven times. Perhaps he had thought if Jesus said go the extra mile that may also apply to forgiveness, twice only. But perhaps he rethought that and asked Jesus about seven times, a number we could easily keep track of. But, who could keep track of seventy seven or four hundred and ninety times? No matter the translation, it is a number that is normally not as easily tracked. If we would be so pedantic as to track the number of times we gave someone forgiveness, then perhaps we have not really forgiven at all.
What Stopped Viking Terrorism
The Vikings terrorized Europe for 300 years, but that is all forgiven and few hold a grudge against the Nordic peoples today. What brought the Viking Age to an end was their conversion to Christianity. It is hard to imagine people from some of the world’s most liberal democracies having been once terrorists. We are faced with a new terrorist threat today and we all pray that it does not last 300 years. How long would we harbor grudges against those who perform such ghastly deeds, a lifetime, two lifetimes? In Matthew 18:22 Jesus seemed to indicate that we ought to harbor no grudges, but forgive over and over again. That is a very hard thing to do. Elsewhere, he asked us to pray for our enemies. Perhaps we can pray that like the Vikings they too become Christians.
Effect of Being Forgiven
A business executive lost about 5,000 lifetimes worth of income. He was a trusted slave (Matthew 18:22-28). He was forgiven by his king. The king not only had compassion on him, but forgave an astronomical debt. The slave then confronted a fellow who owed him only the equivalent of a few month's wages by comparison. The recently forgiven slave, whose debt had been 600,000 times greater, became violent and threw his fellow slave into prison. The king was so incensed at this lack of mercy, that he jailed him and handed him over to those who would torture him. Torture was not allowed under Jewish law, but Roman prison guards were well known for it. Hell will be torture. God will not tolerate anything less than forgiveness. The effect of being forgiven ought to be forgiving others.
Forgive before an Apology
Should we only forgive those who apologize? It seems that Jesus’ prayer on the cross contradicted that kind of thinking. He prayed, Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing. In Matthew 18:33 Jesus spoke about an atmosphere in the church of mercy. Imagine an atmosphere where forgiveness was not so readily given out, or you sensed that every mistake was being cataloged and critiqued. Perhaps you sense that you are not forgiven for some mistake that you may even be unaware of. An atmosphere like that would be a church killer. Would we find excuses why we could not attend anymore? Forgiveness before repentance, simply because none of us really knows what we are doing, is a hallmark of a church which follows Jesus. A church with an atmosphere of forgiveness is a wonderful place to be.
Forgiveness Every Day
How many people do we have to forgive? Do we need to forgive the church? What about church leaders creating new Talmuds and binding heavy burdens on us like the Pharisees which Jesus criticized? We cannot say that legalism is exclusively a Jewish problem. It is a human one. Grace is risky. Legalism is the normal human way. What about politicians? They are easier to forgive. All we have to do is realize that no human is capable of solving human problems. What about the jerk on the freeway, who cuts you off and threatens your life with a deadly weapon because you dare to obey the law? Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing. Forgiveness is needed every day and in every place. And the hardest thing of all is forgiving from the heart (Matthew 18:35).
Forgiveness makes a Church
Some people are loners because they refuse to forgive. A healthy local church is an ideal place for anyone to heal and begin to learn to love again. Notice I did not say "trust again." The Bible teaches us that it is foolish to trust any human being, even ourselves. We must learn to trust the only one who is completely trustworthy, God. What we need to learn in community life is forgiveness. In Matthew 18:22-35 Jesus gave one of the most memorable parables regarding forgiveness. A servant who owed a sum as large as several million in today’s money would not forgive the debt of someone who owed only a few hundred. How wonderful it is when we are in a group of Christians and forgiveness is there. Human trustworthiness is an unrealistic expectation. Forgiveness makes a church.
Forgiveness a Rare Gift
In Matthew 18:35 Jesus spoke of a rare gift. It is a gift we give others and ourselves. It is the gift of forgiveness. It is hard to find this gift. Most people hold unhealthy grudges and refuse to let them go. We carefully keep resentments of hurts against all kinds of people as one would preserve a precious treasure. Yet that treasure is a stinking carcass. We not only preserve this corpse, but we bow down to caress it with our words as we remember the past. The dead carcass is our egos and hurt feelings and we refuse to let go of them. Instead of forgiving and getting over it, we imprison ourselves in bitterness and inward anger. Jesus said to forgive from the heart, because only by doing so will our hearts experience freedom and healing.
Christianity is a very different religion. There are religions where a person must go through endless lives of good deeds to eventually reach heaven. There are religions that teach their followers not to forgive but to kill and terrorize. No religion offers a free pardon for our misdeeds like Christianity. Forgiveness is a surprise to those who believe that we must earn our way into God’s favor. Forgiveness is completely undeserved. It is given because of love. It is given freely though we sin seventy times seven and to those who also forgive. We are not Christians because we wear a badge saying so, or because we go to church weekly. We are Christians because we participate in God’s kingdom of forgiveness and we are learning to be like Jesus and forgiving (Matthew 18:35). It starts in the heart.
Ever had a free pass? Heaven's forgiveness is like a free pass, but with a difference. Heaven expects us to pass the free pass along to those who sin against us. We forgive even our worst enemies, not naively allowing them to continue to hurt others, and not because we are stupid, but because we are forgiven.