It’s the hardest thing to give away
And the last thing on your mind today
It always goes to those who don’t deserve
It’s the opposite of how you feel
When the pain they caused is just too real
Takes everything you have to say the word
– Matthew West, Forgiveness
Jesus taught about forgiveness right after reconciliation (Matthew 18:15-35) because the two are so closely related.
The habit of forgiving others and ourselves leads to spiritual, emotional and physical health, while the habit of unforgiveness leads to unhealthy resentment and bondage. tweet
But how do we forgive?
People are often opposed to forgiveness because they have an inaccurate understanding of what forgiveness is, so we first must establish what forgiveness is not, and then define what it is.
What Forgiveness Isn’t
Forgiveness is not empty words to avoid conflict. Those who wish to avoid conflict will often say “Sorry” just to move on, but being conflict avoidant is not forgiveness. Forgiveness is also not the equivalent of trust, or forgetting. Consequences should still follow many offenses, even though the person is truly forgiven. If someone steals from us, we can forgive them, but continue to lock up our belongings to prevent them from stealing from us again. One of the common consequences that accompanies an offense is distrust. Like the scars that come from a physical injury, broken trust takes time to heal and rebuild. Those who say things like: “Why don’t you trust me? I thought you forgave me?”, confuse and conflate two separate issues—forgiveness and accountability.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, forgiveness is not a feeling. Forgiving someone doesn’t remove the pain of what that person did; nor should we withhold forgiveness until we feel like offering it. Just as we often do things like go to work or school even when we don’t feel like it—choosing to forgive is an act that goes well beyond feeling.
Now that we have established what forgiveness isn’t, we can define what forgiveness is. The parable that Jesus tells in Matthew 18:21-35 illustrates it perfectly.
Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone
who sins against me? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!
“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters[m] from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)
What Forgiveness Is:
Forgiving is the act of releasing a person or people from an offense, as well as the resentment that you have for them as a result of the offense. From the parable that Jesus told we see that there are four key components to what forgiveness is:
- Costly. In Jesus’ parable, the king’s pardon removed any chance of reclaiming the millions of dollars the servant owed him. He chose to lay down his rights in light of the servant, his wife, and the servant’s children. It also cost him the opportunity to hold on to rage and his desire for vengeance. The choice to forgive meant choosing to let go of this prisoner, and the emotions that kept the king bitter toward the man.
- A Gift. Forgiveness was something the king gave the servant freely. The servant could not earn it. This gift gave a renewed life to the servant and his family. It also gave renewed life to the relationship. Now every time the servant looked at the king or heard his name, he would remember that the king changed his family’s life in showing kindness and giving mercy.
- Commitment. As Ken Sande, of PeaceMaker Ministries, has noted, “Forgiveness is the commitment to no longer bring the incident up and use it against the person.” The servant was free with no strings attached. It is also a commitment not to talk to others about the incident. Lastly, forgiveness is a commitment to remove the distance that exists in the relationship, and continue building a new one.
- Act of the will. Forgiveness is an action, not a feeling. It’s a choice to remove the barriers and lift the penalty of someone else’s transgressions against you. We can choose, in spite of our anger, hurt and sadness, to remove the barriers and free someone from the prison they are locked in, in our minds and hearts.
The servant in the parable also teaches what the consequences of unforgiveness are.
He saw someone who owed him much less than what he owed the king. Instead of extending the same kindness of the king, he grabbed him by the throat, demanded instant payment, and had him arrested. When we withhold forgiveness, it’s like we are choking someone saying, “You owe me!” There is no gift of grace—only cruel judgment. No commitment to a relationship—simply retribution. Ironically, the servant’s unforgiveness imprisoned him in the very jail that he had avoided because of the king’s mercy. That is perhaps the most vivid aspect of Jesus’ parable. As Lewis B. Smedes (author Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve) writes:
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” tweet
Jesus told this parable in response to Peter asking Him how many times should he forgive someone. The clear point he’s making is that the debt that we owed God was more than we could ever pay. While we were deserving of death, the King of Kings decided not only to cancel our debts but to pay the cost Himself with His own body. Unforgiveness among His subjects is like the ingratitude and hypocrisy of the king’s servant. If we aren’t releasing someone else’s debt, our unforgiveness is proof that we don’t grasp the “millions” of sins we’ve been forgiven. Like the king’s servant, our unforgiveness is proof we are still in bondage—proof that we aren’t truly set free. While being mocked, and murdered on a cross, Jesus said, “Forgive them father, they know not what they do.” How about you?
- What are some misconceptions you have struggled with about forgiveness covered in the section about “What Forgiveness Isn’t?
- What is a meaningful instance of forgiveness you experienced? Write about it, and thank God for the experience right now.
- Who do you relate to in the parable Jesus told? The king, the first servant forgiven much, or the second servant?
- How have you experienced Jesus being the king who forgives the servant?
- Who do you need to forgive? Prayerfully consider releasing them now.
“Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” – Jesus
Suggested Worship Meditation: Hezekiah Walker, I Need You To Survive