I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the topic of forgiveness. It’s an appropriate subject for the Lenten season as we explore our personal need both to be forgiven (something accomplished by Christ on the cross) and to forgive others (accomplished by us as we imitate Christ). But to suggest that it’s an easy topic for discussion would be outright foolishness.
To be honest (and as a pastor, I think I should be), I don’t have to think long to identify at least six people who if God were to strike with lightning, resurrect, torture, and strike with lightning again… well, I just wouldn’t be that disappointed. In fact, I might even feel some smug satisfaction that they finally got what was coming to them. The problem is that if I really am being totally honest, I can think of at least six people who feel exactly the same way about me. And they wouldn’t be wrong.
I’ve done some things that I’m not that proud of. And as much as I may wish I could undo them – keep the promise I broke, take back the unkind words I said, expose the truth I left hidden – I simply can’t. To make things worse, my feelings of repentance over these sins are often a bit unstable. There are days when I look at what I’ve done and feel 100% committed to never doing that particular wrong again. I usually feel quite confident in my resolve until the moment when… well, I do it again. This is exactly what the Apostle Paul is warning us about in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
Then there are other days when I look at my sins and realize I’ve fallen so many times that I’ll never get it right. So I swing in the opposite direction and simply give up trying. The Apostle Paul warns us about this too in Romans 3:8 when he mocks the belief that if God is going to forgive us all our sins in Christ, there really isn’t any reason for us to continue to try to overcome them.
Repentance, it seems, is not a once and for all singular event in which I simply quit doing wrong and never fail again, but a process in which sometimes I succeed more frequently than I fail… and sometimes I don’t. For this reason, I’m immensely grateful for Jesus’ instructions to His followers regarding forgiveness:
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?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-times seventy.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 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.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The 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 silver coins. 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 it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged 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. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed 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 or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:21-35 (NIV)).
If you look closely at the passage, you’ll notice that this isn’t just a command for other believers to repeatedly forgive us (Jesus’ use of ‘seventy times seventy’ is an idiom meaning “infinitely”), but for us to repeatedly forgive them. And Jesus doesn’t put any parameters on the types of things we are to forgive. There’s no sin scale where some crimes are more heinous than others. We are simply to forgive them all. Every time. End of story. Period.
If remaining consistent in my efforts to repent is difficult, remaining consistent in my efforts to forgive is even more so. The truth is that we all do things that rupture our relationship with God and with one another and some of those things have more severe consequences than others. While it’s worth noting that Jesus never equates forgiving with forgetting (He still bears the scars of His own choice to forgive us) or with knowingly placing ourselves in a situation where we are endangering our lives or the lives of others, He does make it clear that we need to release the vengeful anger, bitterness, and fear that hold us hostage. Why? Because these are the things that lead to death.
When we cling to unforgiveness, we ensure that neither we nor the person we refuse to forgive have the opportunity to experience God’s transformative power. In other words, we cut off our nose to spite our face. We condemn both ourselves and others to a half-life deprived of the joy and peace God offers, free of reconciliation and healing. Unforgiveness is like a cancer; it destroys our bodies and our souls. In its worst manifestations (murder and suicide), it destroys life itself. This is why the Scriptures put such emphasis on our need for forgiveness – both from God and from others. And it is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:4).
I’d like to say that in the process of writing this, I’ve managed to forgive those six people I mentioned at the beginning. For the moment, I don’t feel so set on their utter destruction. I hope and pray that come tomorrow, I feel the same. But if I don’t, I’ll take a moment to remind myself of Jesus’ words and encourage myself to choose forgiveness. To choose life. Because that is why Christ died.