In my last post, I looked at the means and process of seeking reconciliation when someone causes us offence. Jesus’ teaching continues in today’s reading in which he shares the parable of the unmerciful servant. Peter, as pragmatic as ever, must have been giving a lot of thought to Jesus’ teaching and we are told in today’s reading that he “came to Jesus and asked, “LORD, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?”” (Matthew 18:21)
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood areas of discipleship is the nature of forgiveness. Some common misunderstandings and fallacies are as follows:
- Forgiveness means ‘forgetting’
You might be surprised if I told you that this isn’t actually a phrase that finds its origins in the Bible. It apparently dates from the 1300’s and was a common proverb by the mid-1500’s and ended up being part of our commonplace everyday sayings. But does forgiving really equate to forgetting? And if we do “forgive and forget” what exactly is it that we should forget?
- Forgiveness means ‘cancelling of debts and obligations’
I think this narrows and overly simplifies our understanding of forgiveness and implies that we can simply ignore the consequences. For example, if I am assaulted by a criminal and as a result, I lose my sight, then there is nothing that can be done to restore my sight – there are consequences. It is not as if I can say “I forgive you; it is as if it never happened” when I will have lost my sight for the rest of my life. If we simply say we should cancel debts and obligations, it has a tendency to diminish the wrongdoing and not allow a working through of those consequences. In the case of our reading today, the debtor’s acknowledgement of the debt and heart attitude was sufficient to evoke a super-abundance of grace. In today’s terms that debt is equivalent to $20 million; there is no way that the debtor could ever have paid back the debt.
- Forgiveness means being treated as wholly reformed and good
The difficulty here is that some offenders go on to reoffend. How often have we committed some sin, repented, only to go on and commit the self-same sin again?
One author’s view is that there are three parallel forms of forgiveness that resolve anxiety, shame, and guilt which may be summarised as follows:
- Punitive forgiveness. This involves either physical or emotional (such as incarceration) repayment.
- Inclusive forgiveness. This moves in the direction of embracing the sinner and restoring the feared forfeited relationship.
- Reconciliatory forgiveness. The author’s opinion is that this form of forgiveness is “true forgiveness and in the process the actual relationship is changed.” He goes on to say that “in true forgiveness the guilt is felt, faced and followed to mutual recognition that repentance is genuine and right relationships – with justice and reciprocity – are now achieved.”
Forgiveness is also something that can be realised at many different levels. Let me explain why. There is a need for:
- The victim to be willing to forgive the offender
- The offender to accept forgiveness from their victim
- The offender to forgive people who in many cases had caused offence to them (which might have contributed to them causing offence in the first place)
- The offender to forgive themselves. If we cannot accept forgiveness, we can live our lives in a prison of our own making.
- The offender to accept forgiveness from God
What seems clear from this and from today’s reading is as follows:
- We need to forgive. We must do everything in our power to forgive. “Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.””
- “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We forgive because we ourselves have been and known forgiveness. The grace that we have received is the grace that we must extend to others.
- We need to acknowledge our wretchedness, the poverty of our spirit and that in and of ourselves there is nothing that can commend us to God “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) This leaves us no wriggle room – we cannot stand on any moral high ground.
- All parties need to acknowledge the wrongdoing and the extent and severity of the consequences. This is one reason why restorative justice can be so effective.
- If the offender is unwilling or incapable of owning and taking responsibility for the offence, then it is practically impossible to maintain a relationship with that person. Their unwillingness effectively causes them to isolate themselves from grace and healing due to their wilful stubbornness and hardness of heart. We can and must still pray for them though.
- Forgiveness is something that we cannot necessarily always do in our own strength. Sometimes, we can only forgive in and through the power and grace of God. It helps to think about forgiveness as declaring to ourselves: “I will no longer allow this wrong to have a hold on me and inhibit my life and walk with God.”
- Forgiveness involves transformation in which both the person receiving forgiveness and the person giving forgiveness are transformed. In this it is God who is doing the transformation and enabling the restoration and the strength to forgive. A poignant example of transformation in which God’s light shines out of the depths of depravity is a prayer that was found many years ago on a piece of wrapping paper near the body of a dead child in Ravensbruck Nazi Concentration Camp, where it is estimated that 92,000 women and children died.
“O Lord, Remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us, remember the fruits we bought, thanks to this suffering, our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgement, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.”
- I think that it is only a sovereign act of God which can blot out our transgressions, wash us from iniquity, cleanse us from sin and bring about that transformation (Psalm 51). True forgiveness has at its source Christ and the cross. God’s mercy triumphs over judgement…a merciful God who forgives all our iniquity, redeems our life from the Pit, works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed, who is gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who removes our transgressions from us as far as the east it from the west (Psalm 103, and Zechariah 3:9). “To forgive means to be willing to release someone from the ultimate punishment that is rightly due to that person for the hurt that he or she has caused.”
- God is a God who delivers from trouble, brings out of darkness and gloom, and breaks bonds asunder (Psalm 107)
- The fruit of Godly forgiveness is reverence of God (Psalm 130:4) “The human response to God’s forgiveness is also love of God—a love that Jesus claimed was proportionate to the magnitude of the forgiveness that the penitent has received (Luke 7:36–50).”
- In light of the forgiveness from God we have experienced because of the sin in our lives, how much more we should be prepared to show forgiveness to others. If we don’t it is bad witness and no wonder the Jesus said “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart.”
How many times must we be prepared to forgive? In Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, as many times as it takes to bring grace and space in the hope of lives transformed. Amen