Coffee in the morning. A haircut during the pandemic. Exercise. Companionship. We all need it. Add “forgiveness” to that list. We need to receive it and we need to offer it. Without forgiveness it is impossible to experience healthy relationships, to be reconciled to one another, and to live in peace - both personally and as a community.
A great story of forgiveness is the life of Corrie Ten Boom. When Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Corrie and her family began to hide Jews. They were eventually discovered and the whole family was sent to prison. Corrie spent time in three different concentration camps, watching her family die around her.
After the war ended, she began to speak all over Europe and the US. She wrote a book, The Hiding Place, telling her story of God’s faithfulness through those dark days. At one such meeting she was startled to see a former guard standing at the back of the room. To make a long story short (read the book - I highly recommend it!), she was eventually convicted in her own heart to forgive her former captor and abuser no matter how horrific his crimes and offenses against her. She worked through that and was reconciled to this one who caused so much pain and grief.
Jesus told us the reason we struggle with forgiving others is because we don’t realize how much we have been forgiven.
He told the story of a king who wanted to bring his accounts-receivable up to date. He called in everyone who owed him money. One particular man appeared who owed a huge debt, roughly equivalent to $750K in today’s money. After much begging and explaining how desperate his situation was, the man was forgiven by the king. Inspired by his experience, this individual decided it would be a good idea to collect on his own accounts-receivable. He found a colleague who owed him about $7500. That’s ONE percent of his personal debt. When the colleague couldn’t pay it back and despite begging for mercy in the same way, this one who received such magnanimous forgiveness had no mercy and threw his colleague in jail. Eventually the king heard about this and had the first man arrested. The king’s anger burned, and he had this unkind, merciless individual thrown into the debtor’s prison until he could repay everything. (Read the story in Matthew 18:21-35.)
Jesus’ statement about forgiveness is on the king’s lips when he confronts the forgiven-yet-unwilling-to-forgive man. The king calls him “evil.” “Yeah,” we may think, “he was evil for that despicable act of greed.” But Jesus is a master story-teller. Throughout the Gospels Jesus uses this word “evil” to describe all those who are opposed to His Kingdom, to murderers, to adulterers, to the religious leaders who were deceiving and perverting justice, and even to Satan himself. Unwillingness to forgive is “evil.”
We cheer the king both for his mercy and then his sense of justice. The underdog wins. All is right with the world! And then the poetic twist: we realize that Jesus’ audience wasn’t the big, bad, powerhouses of injustice. He was speaking to His followers, and in particular, to Peter who started the whole conversation by asking Jesus, “How often do I forgive my brother?” Jesus is speaking to us, to those who are forgiven an overwhelming debt yet so often find it hard to forgive the offenses against us. Forgiveness, Jesus says, is obligatory. Unwillingness to forgive is evil.
True forgiveness cannot happen without true repentance. Jesus’ focus, however, is on the attitude of being forgiving toward others, having a disposition to forgive and ready to do so when asked. The king did not forgive without engaging with those who asked for forgiveness. The first man demonstrated his lack of repentance by being unwilling to forgive others. But the king is still known for his enormous heart of mercy and generosity toward this one whose need was so great. And for justice toward his lack of repentance.
If we understood the size of our offense against God, the horror and ugliness of sin and the immeasurable love, grace, and mercy that has been extended to us, then we would more quickly extend forgiveness to one another. And, we would be that much quicker to be repentant to those whom we have offended. There is no proverbial “high road” when it comes to forgiving each other. It doesn’t make us the “bigger person” to forgive because each of us are in constant need of forgiveness.
A heart sensitive to God’s grace and mercy is where it all begins. The psalmist put it this way,
O Lord, open my lips,
That my mouth may declare Your praise.
For You do not delight in sacrifice,
otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart,
O God, You will not despise.
(Psa. 51:15-17 NASB)
Forgiveness - to extend, to receive, and to request it - may be the hardest thing we do as God’s image-bearers. But few things proclaim God’s goodness and model His grace as powerfully as being gracious, forgiving, and repentant to one another.