The Difficulty & Importance of Forgiveness

Work is often stressful.

I, like many of you, sometimes have to bottle up and take every word and “thought captive ” in order to survive a day at work (Rom. 12:21). Getting home is often the final escape from the drudgery of a long day but then I “clock in” at home and begin the chores that I have neglected. Cut the grass, fix the drawer, do the dishes, and read to the kids that have missed daddy who has been at work all day.

One of my kids in particular is very fun . . . and loud. She is always singing, usually songs that she is ad libbing and sometimes she hits those notes that push her exhausted father over the edge. She, in her innocence, has taken the brunt of my frustrations and stress at times. I’ve struggled most of my paternal tenure struggling with the noise of my children and my feelings of inadequacy as a father.

In these moments I’m overcome with so much shame and guilt. In some of these hard moments I have had to take a knee, so that I can look my sweet daughter in the eye, and I have had to ask for forgiveness. My almost four year old, without fail, will earn her middle name of Grace and tell me, “It’s okay, I love you dad.” Overwhelmed by the ever faithful forgiveness of my daughter, I have been brought to tears a number of times and better understand why Jesus tells us to have child-like faith.

When we understand the depth of our sin and wrongness, the preceding forgiveness can be overwhelming and humbling. The depth of the forgiveness often is relational. If a person holds a particular significance or authority in your life then the desire to receive forgiveness from them can be substantial.

In the following parable there is an example of forgiveness and unforgiveness that is given to the Apostle Peter by Jesus. Jesus, using this earthly metaphor, is trying to teach Peter a very heavenly reality. This is one of the few parables that are directed at one person, especially a disciple. This parable is given directly to Peter who asked, “How often should I forgive someone?” This is a fair question and one that many of us have had to ponder. Jesus answered, “77 times” or in the KJV “Seventy times seven.” ‘The number seven was a holy number, a number of completeness in Jesus’ time.

Jesus is trying to teach Peter, who is known to be hot headed, that forgiveness should have no limit. That the forgiveness a follower of Christ offers to another is radical and unreasonable. Peter is no exception when it comes to needing to be told things in simple and understandable terms.

Matthew 18:21-35

21 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?” 

22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 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. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 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.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Remember Matthew? He is the author that penned this parable and was a tax collector. Tax collectors were considered sinners on the scale of robbers, murderers, and prostitutes during the first century. Matthew would have identified very personally with this story of depth and forgiveness because of his desire for forgiveness from his people who he taxed on behalf of the Roman Empire.

If we are trying to forgive in our own strength we will fail.

The appreciation or yearning for forgiveness is dependent on the debt owed, the degree of offense, and who has been offended. Forgiveness is one of the hardest commandments for us to wrap our minds around. We like to be forgiven, if we can bring ourselves to admit fault, but we all too often struggle to extend that to others. It is against our sin nature to extend grace. If we are trying to forgive in our own strength we will fail. However, if we rely on the gravity of the Cross, we cannot help but be compelled to forgive one another.

This passage has several key details to teach us. 

Christ Extended Forgiveness to Us.

The debt owed to the manager would have realistically been unpayable (v.23-25). He would not have the time or means to ever repay the debt and there is no discussion as to whether or not the debt was unfair. The debt was earned and as a result the servant humbled himself down and pleaded for his master’s mercy (v.26). Shockingly, despite the sum owed, the master forgave the debt in full (v.27). It doesn’t take a theologian of much expertise or pedigree to see the Gospel on display. We are able to see our sin debt forgiven in full by the death, burial, and resurrection of our Master. That the debt we owed was earned. The forgiveness given to us unmerited.

We Extend Forgiveness to Others.

We often learn by both positive and negative examples. Jesus is masterfully teaching the principle of forgiveness by showing us both. Jesus illustrates how incredible and radical his own forgiveness can be but how absurd it is for someone who was forgiven of so much, to in turn forgive so little of others (v.28-29) Jesus is stressing the hypocrisy of being forgiven and not forgiving (v.28)

What I find particularly difficult about this passage is the that this story includes witnesses to the events outside our three main characters (v.31). This is to remind both Peter, and ourselves, that we do not sin in a vacuum. When we withhold forgiveness that has been extended to us we fail to reflect the mercy of our Master to others. Others, both redeemed and not, are affected by the fact that our hearts go unchanged. We cannot misrepresent the mercies of our Master.

Failure to Extended Forgiveness

The manager punished the unforgiving servant with his original, earned penalty he could not pay (v.32-34) The original debt that the servant was so excited to be forgiven of was returned to him because he abused and learned nothing from what was done for him. Jesus explicitly tells us that “34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” We should be motivated by a healthy, reverential fear of the Father giving us what we owe. If we withhold forgiveness from someone else we clearly do not understand the Gospel.  

Forgiveness is not easy; in fact forgiveness is a heavenly attribute that can really only be done in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is very straightforward. If we have been forgiven, we will forgive others. It is a defining trait of who we are as followers of the King of Forgiveness. We each bear an unpayable debt that is owed to the Father. For the wages of sin is death but God, in sending his Son to die on our behalf, has forgiven our debt.

We have to forgive others because this is how the world sees Christ in us and it is an extension of our obedience and worship to our Redeemer. It is blatantly hypocritical to do otherwise and it will cause division with other servants of the King and create barriers to a lost world that needs to catch a glimpse of the forgiveness of King Jesus. Similarly, we sometimes are the offender. Like the first servant initially did, we must be able to acknowledge what we have done wrong and seek forgiveness.

Asking for forgiveness from God will always be given if it is genuine. However, if we request forgiveness from someone and they withhold it we have still done what we have been called to do. You are called to do the right thing regardless of whether or not other parties involved also do the right thing. Walk this hard road of mercy and grace knowing that the Father has promised to never leave you nor forsake you. You honor him most when you imitate his character to those who do not deserve it.