Matthew 18: 21 - 35
This is the first of a few messages on the topic of forgiveness, but everything I say will be no more than this sentence: Release them, and you will be set free. The moment we say those words, our mind begin to argue: “But you don’t know what he did to me.” “They lied about me over and over.” “She intended to destroy my career - and she did.” “You can’t imagine the hell I’ve been through.” “If you knew what this has done to my family.” “They deserve to suffer.” “I’m going to make them pay.” “My daughter was raped.” “I was sexually abused by a priest.” “I will never forgive those people. Never!”
C. S. Lewis: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” 2 parts to that -
1. Forgiveness is a truly Christian virtue.
Jesus - “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6: 37). Sermon on the Mount - “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6: 14, 15).
Apostle Paul - Ephesians 4: 32: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Colossians 3: 13: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
“Love … keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13: 5). The Message - “Love … doesn’t keep score of the sins of others.” Love doesn’t keep score because love has a bad memory. It finds a way to forget the sins of others.
We have the purest, highest example of forgiveness. When Jesus hung on the cross, condemned to death by evil men - produced lying witnesses to convict him, as he surveyed the howling mob assembled to cheer his suffering, Jesus the Son of God, the One who knew no sin, the only truly innocent man who ever walked this sin-cursed planet, in his dying moments uttered words that still ring across the centuries: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34). Those 11 tortured words sweep away all our shabby excuses. They reveal the barrenness of our heart; they rip the cover off our unrighteous anger and show it for what it is. Many of us say, “If only the people who hurt me would show some remorse, then maybe I would forgive them.” We use that as an excuse to continue in our bitterness, our anger, and our desire to get even.
Consider Jesus on the cross. No one seemed very sorry. The crowd laughed, mocked, jeered. They hurled insults at him. They taunted him. “If you are the King, come down from the cross and save yourself.” Let us be clear - when he died, the people who put him to death were quite pleased with themselves. Pilate washed his hands of the whole affair. The Jewish leaders hated him with a fierce hatred. They were happy to see him suffer and die. Evil was in the air that day. The forces of darkness had done their work and the Son of God would soon be in the tomb. No one said, “I was wrong. This is a mistake. We were such fools.” Yet he said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
That is what we must say if we are going to follow Jesus. We must say it to people who hurt us deliberately and repeatedly - to those who intentionally attack us - to those who casually and thoughtlessly wound us - to those closest to us, to our husband or wife, to our children, to our parents, to our friends, to our neighbours, to our brothers and sisters, to our fellow Christians.
2. Forgiveness is difficult because we do not understand it properly.
Let’s clear up some of the misconceptions about forgiveness. In some ways, it is easier to say what forgiveness is not than what it is. Sometimes when we say we can’t or won’t forgive, we are actually talking about something other than biblical forgiveness. Let me list a few things forgiveness does not mean: It does not mean approving of what someone else did - pretending that evil never took place - making excuses for other people’s bad behaviour - justifying evil so that sin somehow becomes less sinful - overlooking abuse - denying that others tried to hurt you repeatedly - letting others walk all over you - refusing to press charges when a crime has been committed - forgetting the wrong that was done - pretending that you were never hurt - that you must restore the relationship to what it was before - that you must become best friends again - there must be a total reconciliation as if nothing ever happened - that you must tell the person that you have forgiven them - all negative consequences are cancelled.
A Matter of the Heart
Most of us think forgiveness is about what we do or what we say. But it is quite possible to mouth words of forgiveness while harbouring anger and bitterness within. Forgiveness begins in the heart and eventually works its way outward. There is a profound sense in which all forgiveness is between you and God. Other people may or may not understand it, or recognise it, or own up to their need to receive it.
Forgiveness is a decision made on the inside to refuse to live in the past. It’s a conscious choice to release others from their sins against you so that you can be set free. It doesn’t deny the pain or change the past, but it does break the cycle of bitterness that binds you to the wounds of yesterday. Forgiveness allows you to let go and move on. You can forgive even when other people make no confession. You can forgive without a restoration of the relationship. You can forgive when the other person has done nothing to earn forgiveness because forgiveness is like salvation -it is a gift that is freely given, it cannot be earned. You can forgive and the other person may never even know about it. You can forgive without saying, “I forgive you” because forgiveness is a matter of the heart.
Seventy Times Seven
Back to C. S. Lewis: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” Then it becomes difficult. One day Peter asked Jesus how many times should we forgive someone who sins against us (Matthew 18:21-35). Jesus told him, “70 times 7.” That’s 490 times. That’s a lot of sin and a lot of pain and a whole lot of forgiveness. It seems impossible and definitely impractical but that’s what Jesus said.
Jesus told a story about a man who owed his boss a vast debt that in today’s terms would be R400 million. Somehow he had run up this enormous debt and he had managed to spend all the money. When the boss demanded his money, the man begged to be forgiven. He even promised to pay the money back. But the boss forgave him the whole debt - wiped the slate clean. Soon after that, the man who had been forgiven so much saw a guy who owed him a tiny debt - something like R800. When he couldn’t pay, he had him thrown into jail. But people heard about it and told the boss who got angry and had the first man thrown into jail to be tortured until he paid back the amount that previously had been forgiven. The moral of the story is very clear: “This is how my Heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18: 35). These words are for believers. Jesus said, “What happened to that man will happen to you unless you learn to forgive.” The tormentors will come and torture you. What tormentors? The hidden tormentors of anger and bitterness that eat your insides out, the tormentors of frustration that give you ulcers, high blood pressure, migraine headaches and back pain, the tormentors that make you lie awake at night stewing over every rotten thing that happens to you. The tormentors of an unforgiving heart that stalk you, that never leave your side, that suck every bit of joy from your life.
Why? Because you will not forgive from the heart. It is happening to you just as Jesus said because you refuse to forgive. We are like the unforgiving servant. We stand before Almighty God with our sins piled up high. Our sins are like a R50 million debt we could never pay in our lifetime. We come as debtors to God, come with empty hands, and we say, “I cannot pay.” God who is rich in mercy replies, “I forgive all your sins. My Son has paid the debt. You owe me nothing.” Then we get up, leave the communion table, walk outside the church humming “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High.” Before we get to our car we see a man who has done us wrong and we want to grab him and say, “Pay me right now!”
No wonder we are so tormented. No wonder we are so angry and bitter. No wonder we have problems. No wonder our friendships don’t last. No wonder we can’t get along. We have never learned the secret of unlimited forgiveness.
Three Levels of Forgiveness
1. We rediscover the humanity of the person who hurt us. Without diminishing their sin, we admit that they are sinners just like we are sinners.
2. We surrender our right to get even. This is hard because it is natural to want someone else to pay for all the pain they caused us. But in the end, we must leave all judgment in the hands of a just and merciful God.
3. We revise our feelings toward the other person. This means giving up our hatred and letting go of our bitterness. Ultimately, it means taking Jesus seriously - “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5: 44). You’ll know you have reached total forgiveness when you are able to ask God to bless those who have hurt you so deeply. This is indeed a high standard, so high that without God it is impossible. Total forgiveness is nothing less than a miracle of God. It is the miracle we desperately need.
Two Final Thoughts
There is much more to be said and much more we all can learn together about the miracle of forgiveness.
1. Forgiveness is not an optional part of the Christian life. It is a necessary part of what it means to be a Christian. If we are going to follow Jesus, we must forgive. We have no other choice. We must forgive as God has forgiven us - freely, graciously, totally. The miracle we have received is a miracle we pass on to others.
2. We will forgive to the extent we appreciate how much we have been forgiven. The best incentive to forgiveness is to remember how much God has already forgiven you. Think of how many sins he has covered for you. Think of the punishment you deserved that did not happen because of God’s grace. Jesus said, “He who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). Your willingness to forgive is in direct proportion to your remembrance of how much you have been forgiven. You are never more like Jesus than when you forgive. You will never be set free until you forgive. Release them, and you will be set free.
The only question that remains is the most basic one: Have you ever been forgiven by God or are you still carrying the heavy burden of your own sin?
Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Are you fully trusting in his grace this hour?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin,
And be washed in the blood of the Lamb!
There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean,
O be washed in the blood of the Lamb.
You can be forgiven here and now. If you want to know what forgiveness is all about, trust Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour. It occurred to me that we need 2 things: soft hearts and courage. Some of us have been deeply hurt by the things others have done to us. People have attacked us, mistreated us, abused us, sexually assaulted us, ridiculed us, publicly humiliated us, physically beaten us - they have done it deliberately, repeatedly, viciously. In response we chose to become hard on the inside to protect ourselves from any further pain. But that hardness has made it difficult for us to hear the gentle call of the Holy Spirit. We need soft hearts to hear his voice. Then we need courage. The timid will never forgive. Only the brave will forgive. Only the strong will have the courage to let go of the past. May God soften our hearts to hear the truth. May God give us courage do the hard thing and let go of our bitterness, give up our anger, turn away from our resentment, stop keeping score, and enter into the miracle of forgiveness.
“Father, go now where my words cannot go - deep into the hearts of those who hear these words. Grant that we may discover the freedom that comes from being great forgivers. Break the chain of remembered hurts that binds us to the past. Lord, we want to do it but we lack the courage. Show us what we must do and then give us the courage to do it. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.”