Forgiveness Is Costly, But Not Forgiving Is More Costly
No matter how you spin it, forgiveness is costly. Regardless of how big or small the offense, canceling a debt and absorbing the cost is going to hurt. But the parable shows us that not forgiving also has a price, and it is higher than the price forgiveness demands. This is where we must let the truth override our feelings since it often feels good to hold onto an offense. That good feeling, contrasted with the pain of forgiving, blinds us to the bill we're running up spiritually. Jesus clearly says that an abiding unwillingness to forgive will cost you eternally! God will treat you the same way you treat others. An entrenched refusal to forgive is a sign that you have not known God's amazing forgiveness yourself. Your ugly behavior reveals the ugly condition of your heart. In addition, holding onto an offense will make you a bitter and unloving person, and you will inevitably damage all your relationships. No matter which way you choose, you will pay a price. Which price are you willing to pay?
A failure to forgive someone will change you
Notice what the unmerciful servant does after he refuses to cancel the other servant's debt. He "seized him by the throat" (v. 28) and had him thrown into jail (v. 30)! Before the king, he was the victim of his own negligence, but his unwarranted bitterness and anger turned him into a victimizer. Do you see how easily this happens? It feels so natural to make someone pay. A sense of justice quickly goes into overdrive and turns into revenge. You may not choke anyone, but you may shut someone out of your life. Bitterness gets its foot in the door and eventually, if the situation is not addressed and forgiveness is not granted, it takes over your life. That's why it is so important to practice forgiveness on a daily basis when an offense is committed against you. If you don't start with the little skirmishes, you'll begin to lose the battles, which will eventually cost you the war.
Forgiveness is an event and a process
When Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone, he thinks he is being rather noble by suggesting seven times. But Jesus rebukes Peter and says that forgiveness has no limits. There is no way around Jesus' words, and no use trying to soften the implications. The principle applies to countless offenses and even the same, endlessly repeated offense. We're tempted to think that once we have forgiven someone, we're done. But forgiving someone is not just a past event. It's something we must continue to practice, even when we are dealing with an offense we have already forgiven. Even if I have forgiven you for something you have done in the past. I need to be careful that I don't slip into bitterness some time in the future. I need to keep practicing forgiveness every time I see you or think of you.
Why is the process of forgiveness so important? Because even if you have forgiven someone for an offense, you will be tempted to think about it the next time you see her, or the next time she sins against you. Without realizing it, you will pile that sin on top of the old sins. This makes it harder and harder to forgive someone.
Forgiveness is not forgetting
Too often people say that the evidence of having truly forgiven someone is to forget what he has done to you. The passage that is often quoted is Jeremiah 31:34, where God says, "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." This verse, some say, is how we should forgive.
There are at least two problems with this understanding of forgiveness. First, it is not realistic. Our minds don't function this way, and our ability to remember is powerful. Trying to forget a sin someone has committed against you will only encourage you to remember it. It's like being told not to think about a pink elephant. What did you do the moment you read that sentence? Completely erasing an offense from your memory is not realistic. Second, it is not biblical. The passage in Jeremiah does not say that God has amnesia when he looks at you. Our omniscient God does not forget anything! The word remember is not a "memory" word, but a "promise" word, a covenant word. God is promising that when we confess our sins, "I will not treat you as your sins deserve. Instead, I will forgive you."
This is why forgiveness is both a past event and an ongoing process into the future. It is a past promise you keep in the future. When this is done, the memory of small offenses usually dissipates. Larger offenses probably will not. Grace will never forget about John's affair. Heather will never forget her abuse. Melissa and Andy will always be aware that they have sinned against each other. Michael will remember the times his father was sinfully angry. But each individual can still practice biblical forgiveness. They can make a promise and remain faithful to that promise over time.
It is very important to understand these two dimensions of forgiveness. If you don't, you will veer off in one of two opposite but equally wrong directions: (1) You will be plagued with doubts about whether or not you have forgiven someone because you think that forgiving equals forgetting. Or (2) you will give in to bitterness without realizing it because you think that, since you have forgiven someone in the past, you are allowed to hold onto the vestiges of hurt in the present. Grace, for example, may be plagued by doubts if she thinks that forgiving John means she should forget what he did. Or she may become subtly bitter, thinking she did all she needs to do when she granted forgiveness in the past. Neither reflects the way God has forgiven us.
Forgiveness has a vertical and a horizontal dimension
In addition to this parable, the Bible is full of calls to forgive. There are two that almost seem contradictory: Mark 11:25 and Luke 17:3. Mark 11:25 says, "And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." Luke 17:3 says, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him" (authors' emphasis). Mark 11:25 seems to say that we are to forgive someone no matter what, while Luke 17:3 seems to say that you only forgive someone if he repents. Which one of these verses is right? They're both right!
The verses are talking about two different aspects of forgiveness. Mark 11:25 is talking about forgiveness as a heart attitude before God. The context is worship. When I consider someone's sin as I stand before the Lord, I am called to have an attitude of forgiveness toward the person who sinned against me. This is non-negotiable. I do not have the right to withhold forgiveness and harbor bitterness in my heart. Luke 17:3, on the other hand, is talking about forgiveness as a horizontal transaction between me and the offender. This is often referred to as reconciliation. The point Luke 17:3 makes is that, while I am to have an attitude of forgiveness before the Lord, I can only grant forgiveness to the other person if he repents and admits he has sinned against me. Even if he never does this, I am called to maintain an attitude of forgiveness toward the offender. The vertical aspect of forgiveness is unconditional, but the horizontal aspect depends upon the offender admitting guilt and asking for forgiveness.
This means that Grace can say to John, "Before the Lord, I have forgiven you and I will not make you pay for what you have done." But she can only grant forgiveness to John and pursue reconciliation if he admits he has sinned and asks for her forgiveness. This is where the Bible is so realistic and nuanced. These two dimensions bring clarity to what it means to forgive. Grace may long for reconciliation between her and John. She can pave the way for reconciliation as she practices an attitude of forgiveness. But ultimately she cannot make reconciliation happen. For Grace, the vertical aspect of forgiveness is never optional, but she can't single-handedly bring about reconciliation.
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