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Forgiveness - Key to Freedom

Prisoner

by Dennis Pollock

There is no way you can read the Bible very long without running into the concept of forgiveness. It is pretty much omnipresent throughout the Scriptures both in terms of God's forgiveness of us and His insistence that we forgive those who hurt us. If you are a person with bitter feelings toward others, it will be difficult for you to read the New Testament. Either your reading or your bitterness will likely diminish. Our Lord Jesus made forgiveness a key aspect of walking with Him. In Christ God forgives us and we are commanded to forgive those who sin against us. There is no getting around this, and no amount of creative interpretation can explain it away.

The problem for us is that forgiveness does not really come natural to us; in fact it is distinctly unnatural. If someone wounds you emotionally it is the most natural thing in the world for you to harbor bitter feelings toward them, and perhaps even begin to plan some form of payback. Resentment and bitterness come so easy to us. You don't have to be smart or clever, or have a high IQ or any kind of special skills or formal training.

A Supernatural Life

It's so easy to be angry, to hate the one who has mistreated you, to shut yourself off from that friend who has betrayed you. The problem is, this is not the way of Jesus. In this and so many other aspects of our walk with Christ we are called to live a supernatural life that transcends and overrides our base human instincts. We are called to forgive.

There are many verses and passages about forgiveness, but unquestionably the most powerful and vivid passage comes from a story of a master and his servant. It is a parable told by Jesus, and it follows a question by Peter, who asked the Lord, "How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him – up to seven times?" Peter got one thing right – He knew Jesus stressed forgiveness. He just wasn't clear about its limits. Just how far are we supposed to take this thing? To Peter's mind, seven, a good Bible number, seemed about right. He must have been surprised when Jesus answered, "Not seven times, but seventy times seven." In other words, Jesus was saying, "Peter, just stop counting!"

It's Fundamental

Along with prayer and Bible reading and going to church, forgiving people who mistreat you is a basic component of Christianity. It is part of the package. What would you say to someone who said, "I want to be a Christian, but I don't ever intend to pray? I'll go to church regularly, put a 'God is good all the time' bumper sticker on my car, but I'll never pray. You can ask me to set up chairs for special services, I'll come on Saturday to do lawn work around the church, I'll visit old people in the senior citizen's homes, but I will never talk to God." Such a thought is absurd of course, because we all know that prayer is an indispensable aspect of the Christian life. A Christian who never prays is an oxymoron – or to put it another way, a Christian who never prays is no Christian at all. So it is with forgiveness. Our Lord has made it so plain that we must forgive those who mistreat us, that to suggest that you will keep all the other Christian obligations, but you will never forgive those who have hurt you, is to declare that you are no Christian at all.

Getting back to Jesus and Peter, after Peter's question about how many times we should forgive, Jesus tells a story about a master and his slave which has become one of Jesus most famous parables. The slave has come to owe his master 10,000 talents. The master, getting tired of the man's unwillingness or inability to pay his debt, decides to sell him and all that he has, to recover the debt. The slave falls before his master and begs his master to be patient and promises to pay back the debt. The master is moved with compassion and releases his slave from the debt altogether!

Here is where it gets interesting. The slave has lent a fellow servant a much lesser amount (100 denarii) and when this man can't pay him, the fellow slave begs him for patience. Rather than be merciful to his fellow slave, as his master was with him, he instead has his fellow slave thrown into debtor's prison. When the master hears about this situation he is furious and "uncancels" the slave's own debt and delivers him to the torturers until he pays all, something he would never be able to do.

This parable drips with irony. The slave who has been forgiven so much absolutely refuses to release one of his peers from a far smaller debt. The story revolves around the fact that our relationship with God is based upon forgiveness. The Psalmist declares, "If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared." How could flawed, sinful, selfish, greedy, stumbling humans such as we all are hope to enter into a relationship with the pristine, perfect, holy Creator of heaven and earth, if it weren't for forgiveness? And of course this is where the cross of Jesus comes in. At the heart of the parable is this thought: "forgiven people need to be forgivers."

Our Enormous Debt

It is helpful to get an idea of the amounts of money involved in this story. Few people realize just how enormous the amount is that is owed to the master. Ten thousand talents is a gargantuan sum. It represents 150,000 years of wages. At a rate of $16 an hour, in today's terms this would represent around four and a half billion dollars. Jesus deliberately chose a figure that was utterly beyond anyone's imagination, emphasizing just how great our debt is to the Heavenly Father.

The 100 denarii that the servant was owed by his fellow servant is not a small amount. At today's salaries it might come to around $12,000. But compared to the amount owed the master it is very, very small. The point is this: people who sin against you are in a sense in debt to you, and the amount can be significant. People can do serious damage to one another, and Christ is not making light of that. But whatever that debt is, it cannot possibly compare with the debt you owe your Creator. And if you are in Christ that debt has been forgiven. Through the blood of Jesus, and by His cross and resurrection you don't owe a single penny! And this gracious God who has been so kind to forgive you now asks that you do the same with your fellow servants – with the men and women you work with, your relatives and family members, the people who attend your church, and that annoying neighbor who is driving you crazy.

At the conclusion of this parable Jesus gives us a serious warning: "So My Father will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses." It is fairly easy and not too painful for us to say, "I forgive" but that is not enough. Our forgiveness must be from the heart. This is more than emotions. The heart is the core of our being; it is our "central control room" which governs our choices and the direction of our lives. Emotions are followers; they will never lead the way. We must choose to forgive. Our emotions may take their sweet time in following along, but if the choice is from the heart, and is followed through consistently, over time our emotions will eventually come dragging behind, perhaps grumbling a little as they come.

Our choice to forgive will be reflected in our thought life. No, we cannot always keep negative thoughts from invading our minds, but we can commit ourselves to refusing to allow them room to grow. We can redirect our thoughts when anger and bitterness request permission to "come aboard."

The Heart and the Mouth

But as important as our thoughts are, I am persuaded that the area where the victory is generally won or lost is in the area of our words. This is the true test of whether our forgiveness is real. "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." As Christians we know that we have to forgive those who hurt us. So it is not uncommon to hear someone say, "I have forgiven them." But it is also common for that same individual, at the proverbial drop of a hat, to go into a long tirade of how they were abused and just how much they were abused, making sure their listeners know the full extent of the offense, and how completely innocent they were in the matter. Often you don't have to approach the subject directly; if you say anything that comes anywhere close to the matter you will open up a gushing fountain of resentment and self-pity, and will be forced to endure a soliloquy of more passion and pathos than you could ever hear on stage.

Imagine that a stray dog has somehow forced his way into your house and decided to make his home with you. The stray is mean, he's ugly, and he constantly growls at you and all your family. He messes all over your carpets, chews on your furniture, and is making your life absolutely miserable. Every morning you give him a large bowl filled with the finest dog food and table scraps from last night's dinner, which he eagerly devours. And every night you do the same.


Mean dog

Despite your kindness, he continually growls at you and makes it plain that he will bite you at the least provocation. One day you are complaining to your neighbor about this terrible nuisance, when he gives you a sound piece of advice: "Why don't you stop feeding the dog?" The dog's meals come to an end, and within a few days he has moved on, in a much weaker condition, to look for another, more accommodating home. He cannot live where he is not being fed.

So it is with forgiveness. When we continue to rehearse our hurts and talk about how terribly we have been abused and mistreated, when we look for any and every opportunity to tell others just how horribly we have been wronged, we feed the dog of unforgiveness. We throw fuel onto the fire, and our anger and resentment will burn hotter and hotter. It may be necessary, when the wound is fresh, to share our pain and our story with an understanding friend, but the time will come when we must release that offense and move on. No, it will never be wiped from our memory, but the sting can be. As we, from the heart, choose to forgive those who have wronged us and to release them from their debt, we shall be the better for it.

Restored When He Prayed

After Job's painful ordeal, and the added wounds of having his friends tell him his problems were all due to his sinfulness, we find that the Lord "restored Job's losses when he prayed for his friends." Restoration often comes in partnership with forgiveness. Our Lord tells us, "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you…" We may not always be able to feel gushing warm feelings toward those who have hurt us, but we can bless them, we can do good to them, and we can pray for them. Don't worry about the emotions. They'll follow along later. Healthy emotions always appear eventually when we consistently choose to obey Christ.

Jesus has the right to insist we forgive because He is the ultimate Forgiver. As He hung on the cross in terrible pain, He cried out, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do." And if you are in Christ, He lives in you. He has forgiven you an enormous debt, and He asks you, as you make your way through life, to do the same. Be assured you will get a chance to practice this; we all do. And when the offense comes, His grace, His love, and His forgiveness will be all you need to obey His command. All over the world, in churches of every stripe and flavor, the "Lord's prayer" is prayed. May we never forget that not so subtle reminder of the need to forgive that Jesus placed in the middle of that prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

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