Outside of the purely physical — food, shelter, and water — what is your most basic need? Is it love? Is it a sense of belonging? Is it transcendent meaning? Is it companionship? One of our most basic needs, and one we don’t often think about, is the need to be forgiven. We have all said and done things that have hurt other people. Oftentimes the victims of our careless words or selfish actions are among the very dearest in our lives. Without forgiveness, relationships are simply not sustainable. After all, there is always some measure of transgression.
It’s not surprising then, given our need for it, that forgiveness is a major theme throughout the Bible. There are many excellent examples woven through scripture, from Joseph forgiving his brothers, to the very profound words of the Lord’s Prayer, to Jesus forgiving the thief on the cross. But one of my favorite passages on forgiveness is the parable of the unmerciful servant, found in Matthew 18. It needs to be read in its entirety, but in essence, after being forgiven a debt on the order of $5 Billion (yes, that’s Billion with a B), the unmerciful servant immediately goes out and starts choking a man who owes him $7500. (These figures are the U.S. currency estimates of Lon Solomon at Mclean Bible Church)
And we’ve all seen these two scenarios played out in life, haven’t we? We’ve witnessed beautiful acts of forgiveness, and we have tremendous respect for anyone who has mercy on someone who has wronged them and caused them great pain. Unfortunately, we are more familiar with the refusal to forgive, and we know all too well the ugly mark of bitterness and the disfigurement, inwardly and outwardly, wrought by acidic grudges. Of course the telling signs are easy to see in others, but how often do we examine the depths of our own hearts to root out these destructive feelings and attitudes?
And how does a person forgive deep hurts anyway? You cannot just decide as a matter of the will to forgive, can you? As a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe forgiveness is a supernatural work of God Almighty. The more earth-shattering the hurt, the more we need God’s help to forgive. But we can learn a lot from the parable as well. The first part, where the servant is forgiven a staggering, downright mind-boggling debt, represents how much God has forgiven us. Certainly the sum that is cancelled is there to illustrate a point. How could this servant repay a debt of $5 Billion? Well, clearly the answer is that he couldn’t, just as nothing we could do in this life could possibly make up for how we’ve wronged our loving Creator.
But the part of the story that is so compelling and instructive, in terms of us trying to be merciful to others, is easily missed. When the king in the parable heard the servant’s plea for mercy, his heart went out to him. In other words, he had compassion on him; he took pity on him. How often when you are wronged does your heart go out to the wrongdoer? It’s profound, isn’t it? You have to really humanize that person. You have to put yourself in their shoes; you have to consider that as a person with a fallen little mind and a dark heart, that you could even do what they did. C.S. Lewis said, “As regards my own sin it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are not really so good as I think: as regards other men’s sins against me it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are better than I think.” The Weight of Glory
So what does it mean then when we won’t humanize the wrongdoer, when we won’t have compassion? What about when we go out and start figuratively choking the wrongdoers in our lives just like the unmerciful servant? Is it just a character flaw? Is it just something we need to work on? I don’t think so. A person who truly embraces the grace extended to them extends grace to others. The capacity to forgive is actually a mark, a necessary mark, of true Christian belief. If we aren’t able to forgive, we’ve missed what Jesus did on the cross. As Lewis said, “We must forgive all our enemies or be damned.” Maybe that sounds a little harsh; maybe it sounds a little oversimplified. The truth often does.
So my prayer this week, leading up to Palm Sunday, is that I will take seriously my call to forgive. May God forgive me, as I forgive others, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is the link to a great sermon on forgiveness from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.