As I began digging into the topic of forgiveness in the Bible, I discovered that the word forgive, forgiven, or forgiveness is used 79 times in the New Testament, 50 times by Jesus alone. That tells me it’s probably way more important than I realized.
Let’s look at the Parable of the Prodigal Son: Luke 15:11-32. In this parable, Jesus describes a rebellious younger brother who got tired of doing his chores and living a boring life on the farm. He went to his dad and demanded his inheritance so he could go out into the world and have some fun. Amazingly enough, the father did as his son asked. The father puts up no argument, which to me makes it very hard to take seriously, but that’s because we are looking at it from our own perspective and not God’s. What Jesus is trying to say is that “I” am the younger son, and God is the Father, who allows me to turn my back on Him and do what I want, knowing that it isn’t what He wants for me. I know this because this was the life I lived for most of my life. But the real point is at the end of the story: it does not matter to the father what the son had been doing or that he had squandered his inheritance. The Father loves him so UN-conditionally that forgiveness was part of His nature. Not only did He forgive, but He brought him back into the family as if he had never left. However, there was an older brother–the obedient, straight-as-an-arrow brother, but we’ll talk about him a little later.
Another example of forgiveness is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is regarding Onesimus who was a servant who had stolen from Philemon and ran off. Somehow Onesimus ended up with Paul, who lead him into a relationship with Christ. The letter is a formal request from Paul asking Philemon to not only forgive Onesimus, but to accept him as a brother and treat him as he would treat Paul if he were there. And, whatever debt was owed by Onesimus was to be charged to Paul. That sounds familiar. Not only is it similar to the Prodigal Son parable, but it is what Jesus was sent to accomplish here on earth. More about that later also.
This is where it gets tough. The first two parables were about “being forgiven”. Now Jesus wants to teach us about “forgiving others”.
Let’s look at another parable, this one from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18: The Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. Just before Jesus tells this parable, he is asked by Peter how many times he should forgive someone. Before Jesus can answer, Peter tries to quickly guess the correct answer by saying: “Seven times?”, probably hoping the Teacher would say something like: “Very good Peter; everyone should be as smart as you.” But as always, Jesus answers in a completely unexpected way. He says: “Not seven, but seventy times seven!”, with an exclamation point! Every Bible Commentary I checked says this means we are to forgive each other an unlimited number of times. Wow! Most of us struggle with once or twice for those we supposedly love, much less for our acquaintances and enemies. I’m getting ahead of myself here. OK, back to the parable. Jesus knew that Peter didn’t get it, and that we wouldn’t get it centuries later, so he told a story to explain AND drive home the point. I’ll sum it up: the King is reviewing his books and sees that one of his servants owes him the equivalent of about 10 Million dollars or so. An impossible amount to pay back, so the king was going to have him, his family, and all he owned sold to pay some of it back. However, his servant fell down and begged him, “Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.” Seriously? 10 Million dollars? Amazingly enough, the king had pity on him, released him, and forgave his debt, as in clean slate! Think about that. This guy is in debt to the king for more money than he could earn in 20 lifetimes. He is about to lose everything, and in the blink of an eye, he is debt-free, and back with his family. Even Dave Ramsey would be impressed. Wow, just having my mortgage debt “forgiven” would make me happy beyond words. But here is the point of the story and what Jesus wants so much for us to understand. After this man is released, he goes to a fellow servant who owes him money, grabs him by the throat and demands the couple of thousand he owes. Ironically, the fellow servant asks the same thing: “Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.” But, he decides to have the guy thrown in to prison. As it turns out, he should have been looking over his shoulder because those who witnessed this went and told the King. The King was very angry at hearing this news. He brings him in and says: “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. Here’s the thing, this is a debt that can NEVER be repaid, especially if the guy is being tortured and can’t work to pay it off. Sound familiar? WE have a debt that we can never repay! Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging on this. His next statement is the scary one:
“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.” Matthew 18:35 (NLT)
Jesus leaves no room in that statement for misunderstanding, or an “I don’t get it” excuse. This is not the first time Jesus has taught this principle. He taught his disciples this earlier in the same book, but without the whole torture thing. In Matthew chapter 6, towards the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, He is teaching about Prayer. Those of us who grew up in church probably memorized this as children:
Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need,
and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. Matthew 6:9-13 (NLT)
I’m betting the next two verses are the ones we chose not to memorize:
“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. BUT, if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will NOT forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15 (NLT)
There it is. Jesus could not have made it more plain. But of course Peter didn”t “get it” or he wouldn’t have asked the question about how many times to forgive in Chapter 18. But Jesus knew that Peter, the other disciples, as well as all of us, wouldn’t get it the first time (or the second or maybe even the third), so He really drove it home with the parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. I don’t know about you, but the “truth” side of the forgiveness coin scares me to death.
Thank God for Grace! Because of God’s unconditional love for us, He sent Jesus to earth so that we could be redeemed to Him. That happens when we recognize our sin, ask forgiveness for our sin, and turn from that sin, while recognizing that Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Yes, it all starts with “love”, but love and forgiveness are directly and permanently connected to each other. Love can NOT exist without forgiveness. If we say we love someone yet cannot bring ourselves to forgive them when they hurt, betray, or mistreat us, we are lying. Jesus tells us the most important commandment is two-fold: “Love God AND Love others as ourselves!” It is pretty easy to love God, especially in good times. He is perfect, wonderful, and amazing! However, people are not so easy to love, and therefore forgive. They are messy, mean, selfish liars who will eventually hurt us. I’m not saying we are like that all the time, but everyone has the capacity, unfortunately, to act that way.
Those who follow Jesus Christ are called to be different in how we treat each other. Unfortunately, we are not so well known for that. Sometimes we tend to act like the “older brother” from the Prodigal Son story. We look at our friend or neighbor and say: “That’s not fair! I’ve been so good and obedient, going to church every week, and working my tail off. Look what they’ve done! And now they get this or that or some other blessing we feel they don’t deserve.” Sound familiar? Way too familiar to me, I’m ashamed to say. What does that have to do with forgiveness? Once again, LOVE and FORGIVENESS are connected. If we ever act like the “older brother”, even occasionally, odds are that we struggle with truly forgiving others “from our hearts”, as Jesus commands. That means making a conscious decision to look at the person who has wronged you as the child of God they are, and not looking at that person and seeing only the “thing” that they did to hurt you so badly. They may not even know they have hurt you. Two very important things we need to remember: Do NOT wait for an apology to forgive! And, if you know you have wronged someone, ask for their forgiveness as soon as possible no matter how hard it is.
One final thought:
I am of the opinion, based on all of the above, that our spiritual growth and maturity, as well as our personal joy, are directly related to our ability to forgive others. Therefore:
- Every day, I will look for opportunities to forgive those around me, not just for them, but for me, and my relationship with God.
- Every day, I will pray for my own forgiveness, AND:
- Every day, I will pray for the burning desire to love others in such a way that forgiveness becomes second nature.
References used (besides the NLT Bible:)
- The Village Church’s Beau Hughes’ “Forgiveness” podcast (also available free on iTunes)
- North Point Online’s “Losing Your Religion” Part 1 by Andy Stanley