Deep down we each have a quota of pain. Each of us has been sinned against by someone—in our family, in our church, or in the world. It could have been a one-off event of sin, or an ongoing sin against us, that requires our forgiveness. The thing we need to forgive could have been done thoughtlessly or maliciously. But however it got there, it is now there. There is some sin against us that needs forgiveness.
At some point, we all have put a fence around our pain. We have said to ourselves, to others, and even to God, “This is so bad, what was done to me so wrong, the wounds are so deep, that not even God would ask me to ever consider forgiving the one who wounded me.
Let me say up front that first, forgiveness is rarely a one-off decision. It’s an ongoing process. Second, you can forgive a person who you report to the police. Third, you can forgive a person you set boundaries around. Fourth, you can forgive and still not be reconciled with the person because there is no repentance.
But what makes it forgiveness—real, true, and genuine forgiveiness—is that you will eventually and from the heart want to do good to the person who wounded you.
No Limits on Forgiveness
The apostle Peter was aware that sin happens, both inside and outside the church. And so he asks Jesus a question: how often must I forgive? Matthew 18:21:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (NIV)
Peter is trying to out-grace Jesus. Rabbis required people to forgive only three times. Peter himself offers the perfect number, seven times.
I think I would have asked Jesus another question with Peter’s one. I would have asked not just, “How many times?” but “How bad does the sin have to get before I can say, that’s it, no more forgiveness?”
Jesus’ answer haunts us in our pain even today. Matthew 18:22, “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”
The phrase translated “seventy-seven times” might more accurately be rendered “seventy times seven”—that is, 490 times. Both are ways of saying unlimited, never ending forgiveness.
You can almost feel abandoned by God in your pain. But the word is for us to never stop forgiving. There is to be no limit to the forgiveness we offer.
Here, Jesus is reversing the language of Lamech, a descendant of Cain. In Genesis 4:23, Lamech boasts to his wives, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” And so it is clear that the opposite of revenge is forgiveness, and the opposite of forgiveness is payback!
Forgiveness is where you choose to absorb the sin and not retaliate. It involves enduring and bearing the pain of injustice of being in the right, and yet suffering, and not lashing back at the one who caused the injustice. Not only is Jesus saying to conquer the urge for revenge, but he is also saying, “Don’t ever stop fighting that impulse to retaliate”.
At MBM, we have twice interviewed Gladys Staines. Her husband and two sons were burned alive in India by radical Hindus. They were medics and Christian missionaries in India, helping lepers and the poor. Gladys said, “I have no anger, I have no hatred.” I asked Gladys how she was able to forgive, and so quickly. She said, “I think it was because I learned to forgive the little things.” What wise words! We are either cancelling debts or holding on to them.
There are two reasons given by Jesus for us to forgive in his story. The first is tied to the amount of forgiveness we have received. The second is tied to amount of judgment that will fall upon us if we don’t forgive.
First, we live in light of a breathtaking forgiveness. Matthew 18:23-25:
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since 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.
The man’s debt to the king was enormous. Some say the debt was the equivalent to a national debt of a country—15 billion dollars. Others say it was the wages of 60,000 working days. This was a time when you couldn’t file for bankruptcy. You and your family were personally responsible for your debt.
Like this man, you and I owe a debt to God which we cannot pay, and we face a punishment we cannot bear as we stand at the edge of hell and stare into the place of utter darkness, facing our own hopeless eternity.
With the enormous debt before him, the man cries out, Matthew 18:26:
At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.”
He has no idea how much he owes. He thinks he can pay the king off, like so many who think that they can buy God off with their good works. And yet in a God-like way, the king had mercy on him. Matthew 18:27:
The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.
Can you feel the relief? Imagine I came to your home this afternoon and paid off your car loan, or the mortgage on your house, or your credit card debt. Imagine all of that debt gone! This is a picture of God`s forgiveness. The whole debt is wiped away. The king does not postpone the payment of the debt. The king does not ask for 10 cents in the dollar. The king wipe the slate clean.
It’s why Paul says that “Love keeps no record of wrongs”. To forgive is to release someone from a debt.
In 1991, some time ago now, I read in the Telegraph that “Australia forgave Egypt a 200 million debt”. Australia said to Egypt that Egypt didn’t ever have to pay that 200 million dollars back.
So why doesn’t Jesus put limits on how many times we ought to forgive? I will tell you why: because God puts no limit on the amount of sins that he forgive us. Every day we grieve his Spirit and every day he forgives them. By not forgiving we show that we have absolutely no idea of what it cost Jesus, the innocent Son of God, to enter the horror of the cross to win our forgiveness. By not forgiving we show we have no idea how bad the hell is that we have been delivered from. By not forgiving we show we have no idea how bad we all are. We might sing, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”, but what we really mean is “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a rascal like me”. We have no idea that forgiveness is just not an optional extra. Matthew 18:28-30:
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.” But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
This guy is often called ‘the unmerciful servant’. He also is called ‘the ungrateful servant’. He was forgiven so much, but now he refuses to forgive so little. What he had to forgive was just loose change compared to what he had been forgiven. He didn’t hear that the man begging for mercy used the same words as he had not long before used with the king. Matthew 18:29:
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.”
His name was Albert Tetzler. He won the lottery a while a back in the US. The amount he pocketed was 7 million dollars. That’s alot of money: 7 million dollars. Two years after winning the 7 million dollars, he was sent to prison because he failed to pay child support which totaled just $35,000. He got 7 million dollars but couldn’t pay $35,000. You reckon that’s bad. Try telling God why you don’t have to forgive when he has forgiven you so much.
He is the ungrateful servant, and so are you when you allow our pain to swamp the grace of God. Freely you have received, freely forgive.
This is not saying that you haven’t been sinned against and that the sin you suffered was not wrong. This is not saying that the pain you suffer is not real, or that God doesn’t care. This is not saying that church discipline should not be applied or in some cases that the cops should not be called. This is not saying that comfort can’t be found in knowing that God will punish those who refuse to repent.
What it is saying is that when you set limits on forgiveness you deny the full extent of your own sin against God, and the full extent of God’s kindness to you.
Too often revenge conquers us instead of us conquering revenge by the grace of God. We must stop playing God, who alone says, “Vengance is mine […] I will repay.”
When the king finds out that the man he forgave refused to forgive another so little, he is angry. Matthew 18:32-34:
Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
Do you understand what Jesus is saying? Forgiveness is not an optional extra for those who follow Christ—it’s a must. Think back to ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Jesus has thrown us a curve ball. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking God to treat us in the same way we treat others. By not forgiving others you are inviting God to not forgive you.
So both God’s grace and God’s coming judgement demand that we show forgiveness to those who’ve sinned against us.
Jesus ends the story with the stinging warning. Matthew 18:35:
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
Take the grace of God lightly and you will end up taking his judgment severely. If the grace of God won’t move you to forgive, then maybe the fear of God will.
It’s as clear as a bell, isn’t it? Don’t wallow in the pain. Now is the time to start to forgive. Seize the moment and conquer the urge to punish. Let the Spirit do his work in your right now.
Do you know why I think forgiveness is not an optional extra, but necessary? It’s because God loves us. He is saying, “I don’t want you to waste your life filled with bitterness, where you spend your days replaying those stories in your mind over and over again to feed your rage. Jesus says, “I don’t want you to let those who sinned against you keep punishing you. I want you to know the freedom of forgiveness.”
But that won’t happen unless you forgive from the heart. It is not a pretend forgiveness where we play games and say, “I don’t care, it doesn’t bother me, I can laugh it off”. Living in denial is not forgiveness. It’s not even a duty where you go through the motions while you curse your enemy from the heart, or find some joy in their suffering.
You may say, “Ray, you don’t understand! I can’t even pray that God would help me forgive!” The journey to forgiveness may begin further back for you. You may need to pray to want to pray, or pray to even want to forgive. But at some point you have to get on that train, even if it’s in the last carriage.
Aren’t you tired of not forgiving? I know you are.
There was a year when I held on to a hurt in my marriage. I noticed I was sulking for longer periods of time. On one occasion I sulked for five long weeks, but Sandy barely noticed. No eye contact, a slight shift in tone, for five weeks I was aloof. It went for so long that I forgot why I was sulking.
Then I had to make myself remember. I was exhausted and ashamed. When I eventually did forgive, I was so relieved. My refusal to forgive caused me have a growing bitter heart. Has it not weighed you down long enough?
One of the messages to Australia from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse captured the importance of not holding onto the hurt but progressing to forgiveness.
“It’s my choice to be a victim or a survivor. It’s my choice to forgive or hate. It’s my choice to look forward or back. So I have chosen to love the life I have. I have chosen to forgive those who hurt me, because I don’t know who hurt them. My ‘Message to Australia’: I ask you to do the same. The action of hate fixes nothing.”
I have been in awe of so many at MBM who have endured so much suffering and who eventually decide to forgive and enjoy the freedom it brings. This reminding us yet again that God’s way is the best way.