I’m not sure which ideas in my Christian walk I have wrestled with more than the concept of forgiveness. Growing up in church I’m sure I have heard hundreds of messages on it…each with an idea of how it is done and I found myself struggling to make it a reality in my life. Jesus being the ultimate example of forgiveness seemed so hard to measure up to. How do I forgive someone who isn’t sorry? Does anger or pain in my heart indicate that I haven’t truly forgiven? These questions have plagued me at one time or another in my attempts at grasping what forgiveness is.
21Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[f]
23“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents[g] was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.[h] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
The parable that Jesus shares in Matthew 18 gives me a perspective on forgiveness that brings peace to my questions. In this parable there is a cancelling of debt.
When Christ forgave us through his death on the cross, the pain of our wrong was still felt by our Savior. In fact when they speared his side to make sure he was dead, the Bible says that blood and water flowed out–indications of a broken heart. Yet Jesus was able to say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Pain was evident, but His forgiveness was immutable. Could Jesus really forgive even though the pain was still there?
There are people in my life who have inflicted great pain upon me and others that I love. The pain gave way to scars that I still carry. Over and over I have “forgiven” them only to find myself holding onto a bill that I am waiting for them to pay. Sometimes that bill is just the hope that they will one day say that they are sorry. Other bills say “you owe me my childhood back”. Keeping this credit log is like a constant inhale waiting to exhale. My life is locked up in the “waiting”. I say I have forgiven…it’s okay, it’s all behind me now, but I keep carrying this tally sheet.
I once heard someone say “Forgiveness is setting the prisoner free and finding out that the prisoner was you.” How true these words are. When we say we forgive but still keep a tally sheet of what we are owed, we imprison ourselves. We cannot move forward, grow, or love in the capacity that we are created to when we chain ourselves to an unpaid debt.
Cancelling a debt is saying “You owe me nothing”. “I have no other expectations of you and I trust God to fill up the empty places in me.” Forgiveness requires trust–great trust in God. I need to believe that the Lord is my shepherd and because of that fact I have everything I need from Him. My debt catalog is a shallow substitute for the mercy and grace of God that He lavishes on me so freely. To choose to keep the debt record is to stunt my growth, put a cap on my love and keep me in a constant state of bondage to something that may never be reconciled on this side of heaven.
I have found that forgiveness also feels somewhat like a funeral. I have to accept the fact that the recompense I desire from the one who wounded me may never come and I need to let that expectation die. So I hold the funeral in my heart. I say goodbye to my expectations and try to instead find something from the relationship that I can carry with me the rest of my life that has had a positive impact on me. Then I go to God, my Provider, and say “here are my deficits, my broken dreams, and desires. I trust You to make something beautiful out of them.”
Forgiveness on my part is wrapped entirely on the all-sufficiency of Christ. I cannot do it on my own. I have to have the mercy of God and the power of His forgiveness in me.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
Before we could say we were sorry, and in spite of the fact that we have no capacity to pay back the debt we owe Him, he forgave us through His death. The scriptures say that we were not only forgiven of what we have done, but that we were made justified. “Just as if we had never sinned!”
23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement,[a] through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
My prayer is that forgiveness will bring about a reconciliation in relationship with the ones who have offended me, but if that does not happen, I still want to “live free” and trust that what God has done in my heart He will do in their heart as well. Forgiveness doesn’t always cancel pain, but it cancels debt and causes me to place my expectations back onto God where they belong. He alone is able to heal my broken heart.