In This House: We Forgive

Original Date: 
Sunday, September 30, 2012

Matthew 18:21-35 In this House: We Forgive

In the Sand
I looked for stories on forgiveness this week. I’m not sure this first one is about forgiveness per se, but it’s funny:

A woman bought a parrot for a pet. All the parrot did was treat her bad. It insulted her and every time she tried to pick it up, it would peck at her arm.

One day she got fed up with the parrot and as it was insulting her she picked it up. It continued with the insults.."You're ugly! I can't stand you!" and it pecked at her arm as she carried it. She opened the freezer door, threw him in and closed the door. From inside, the parrot was still going on for about 5 seconds and then it was suddenly quiet.

She thought, "Oh no, I killed it!" She opened the door and the parrot just looked at her. She picked it up. Then the parrot said:

"I'm very sorry. I apologize for my bad behavior and promise you there will be no more of that. From now on, I will be a respectful, obedient parrot."

"Well OK" she said. "apology accepted. I forgive you."

The parrot said "Thank you.” Then he said, "Can I ask you something?" She said, "Yes, What?"

And the parrot looked at the freezer and asked, "What did the Chicken do?"

Here’s another one:

Once upon a time two friends were walking through a desert. At one point, they had an argument that led one of them to slap the other in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, but he didn’t say anything as he knelt down and wrote in the sand:

Today my best friend slapped me in the face.

They kept walking until they found an oasis. They decided to take a bath. As they were wading in the water, the one who got slapped got stuck in the mire and began to drown. His friend saved him. When they got out, the man who had almost drowned wrote on a stone:

Today my best friend saved my life.

The man who had slapped his friend and saved him asked: “When I hurt you, you wrote on the sand. Now you write on the rock. Why?”

His friend answered: “Whenever someone does good for us, we must write it in stone so that it is never forgotten. But whenever someone hurts us, we must write in on the sand where winds of forgiveness can wipe it away.”

Today we are concluding a sermon series called “In This House: Grace.” For the last several weeks we’ve been looking at how the principles of grace apply to our families. We’ve talked about how important it is to use gracious words rather than rotten fruit words. We’ve talked about God’s design for marriage to be a permanent union. We talked about blessing one another. We talked about thinking of others in your family as more important than yourself. We talked about saying sorry when you mess up.

And today, we talk about one of the hardest, and at the same time most gracious, aspects of family life: forgiveness. When a member of our family makes a mistake or hurts us, and they come to us with a sincere apology, then it is up to us to forgive. The continuation of the relationship now lies in our willingness to write it in the sand.

I’ve heard it said that as Christians, we are the most forgiven people in the world. Therefore, we should be the most forgiving people in the world. Because we understand the enormous grace God has shown to us, we should be prepared to show grace to others. Jesus illustrates this with a story in Matthew 18. Matthew 18:21-35:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

The story begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times he needs to forgive somebody when they sin against him. “My brother” he says. Maybe Peter means it literally. Have you ever had a family member who kept repeating the same mistake, and then kept apologizing for it? If you have a brother, you probably have. If you are married, then you know the pattern as well.

So Peter says, “How often must I forgive?” How many times does he get to mess up and say “sorry”, and I’m supposed to forgive him? The rabbis of the day said: “Forgive three times, but not the fourth.” So Peter takes their number, multiplies it by 2, and then adds one more for good measure. He thinks he’s being generous.

But Jesus blows His numbers wide open. “Not seven times, seventy-seven times.” Or, seventy times seven. The point is not that Jesus is giving a specific number—hit seventy-eight and you can wash your hands of the relationship—but that Jesus is saying if your brother keeps sinning against you, but he keeps repenting (cf. Luke 17:4), then you should keep forgiving. There’s no limit.

And then he tells the story, and the point is pretty obvious. If we think of the king in this story as Jesus, and us as the servant, then we realize we all owe a pretty big debt to Jesus. A talent was the highest denomination of currency in the Roman world. And ten thousand was the highest named numeral (Craig Blomberg, Preaching the Parables, p. 71). So ten thousand talents was a huge amount of money. Like a bazillion dollars.

And that’s what we owe Jesus. Every sin we’ve ever committed is an offense against Him. We owe God an enormous debt. But He has chosen to forgive us. At the cross, He has mercy on us and takes our sins upon himself. That’s grace.

But if we then go out and demand repayment from everybody who has ever sinned against us—even when their debt is barely a fraction of what we owe Jesus—then we are demonstrating that we don’t really get it. We love to receive grace, but it is much harder to give grace to others.

The Apostle Paul makes it clear what a Christ-follower should do. In Colossians 3:13 he says:

Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

That’s a pretty high standard. Jesus has forgiven us quite a bit. If we are going to follow Jesus, then we need to be prepared to offer the same forgiveness to others who hurt us.

I want to tell you about the scariest word in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the scariest word in that Colossians verse as well.

Most of us have said the Lord’s Prayer hundreds if not thousands of times. But I wonder if you’ve ever noticed how scary this word is. It’s right in the middle of the prayer, and it’s just a tiny little word. Just two letters. It’s the word “as”.

Here’s what I mean. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say:

Forgive us our debts,
AS we forgive our debtors.

Do you see how scary that is? We’re basically telling God that we want Him to forgive us the same way we forgive people who have hurt us.

Now think about that… Think about people you might be holding a grudge against right now... Think about just how well you have forgiven them… And ask yourself: do you really want God to forgive you like that? That’s what happens to the man in the parable. He is unwilling to show mercy to his fellow servant, and in the end the king decides not to show mercy to him.

So the standard is set pretty high. As followers of Jesus, we need to be prepared to forgive.

Forgiveness is Not
So let’s talk about forgiveness. I want to begin by talking about what forgiveness is, and what forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness is not a feeling. If we waited until we felt like forgiving, we probably never would. The whole point of forgiveness is that somebody has hurt you, and you don’t feel particularly good about them at the moment, or what they did.

Instead of a feeling then, forgiveness is a decision. Forgiveness is an act of will. You choose to forgive, even when you don’t feel like it. And sometimes, that decision can drastically improve the way you feel.

Or, again, forgiveness is not forgetting. This might surprise you. We’re all familiar with the phrase “forgive and forget.” But forgetting is a very passive activity that happens over time. It is remarkably hard to just forget.

Instead, forgiveness is choosing not to remember. This is an active process where, every time a painful experience comes to mind, we choose not to dwell on it or talk about it. It requires effort, but when we decide to forgive someone and stop dwelling on an offense, painful memories usually begin to fade.

Or, again, forgiveness is not excusing. Excusing implies that what happened wasn’t that bad or that the other person didn’t do anything wrong.

Forgiveness is the opposite of excusing. It deals with sin honestly. It’s saying: This was wrong, we both know it, but I’m going to forgive you anyway. Because forgiveness deals honestly with sin, it brings a freedom that no amount of excusing could ever hope to provide.

Which brings up another point: it is only moral failures that require forgiveness. When we are talking about forgiveness, we’re talking about matters of right and wrong. But sometimes the irritations in our relationships are just that—irritations.

An example given in a book I was reading this week is loading the dishwasher. That struck me, because Beth doesn’t like the way I load the dishwasher. She doesn’t think I am maximizing the space. But as the book points out, this is not a moral failing on my part. She can request that I change, I can try to change, but even if I don’t it’s not something that requires forgiveness (unless I’m being a jerk about it). It might be: I’m just not very good at loading the dishwasher. And it might be an irritation Beth just has to live with.

The point is: forgiveness only comes into play when there is a sin that needs to be forgiven.

And then, one more, forgiveness is not the absence of consequences. Sometimes when we forgive, that’s the end of it. Nothing more needs to be said. Nothing more happens. But some offenses still have consequences. A murderer may be forgiven by the victims’ family, but that doesn’t mean he gets out of jail

Instead, forgiveness often means the natural result of sin must still run its course. Parents deal with this a lot. If your child lies to you, as a loving parent you accept the apology and let go of the hurt the lie caused.

But also, as a loving parent, you still need to allow your child to experience the consequences of his or her actions. If you don’t, the child doesn’t learn. They will think that they can lie anytime they want as long as they say sorry when they are caught. It’s part of a parent’s job to help them see the consequences of their actions.

5 Promises
So now, let’s change gears a bit. Let’s talk about what happens when you forgive someone. What exactly does it mean when you say: “I forgive you.” I’m going to put this in terms of promises. When you offer forgiveness to someone who has hurt you, you are implicitly promising these 5 things:

First, when you say “I forgive you” you are promising: “I will not dwell on this.” This is the choosing not to remember part. When you forgive someone, you are saying that you are not going to sit and stew about what happened to you. You aren’t going to think about it all the time.

When someone sins against us it can feel like we’ve been handed a gunny sack full of heavy rocks. That sin—that hurt—is a heavy burden that we carry around with us. It’s what we mean when we say that we “have a heavy heart.” We’re always thinking about it, we’re always dwelling on it.

But when we say “I forgive you” we are making a choice to set our sack of rocks down. We are choosing not to remember. We’re releasing the hurt to God.

This would be a good time to mention that sometimes we will be hurt by people who are not sorry for what they have done to us. Sometimes, such as in cases of abuse, it is not safe for us to be around the person who has hurt us. In such cases, where repentance is absent, this decision not to dwell on it is still important for us to make. For our own mental health, we may need to release the sin to God.

We might still need to protect ourselves. If someone is a chronic abuser we still keep our distance. If someone refuses to acknowledge that they are wrong, we might not even be able to tell them we forgive them—or they might not want to hear it. But for our own good, and in obedience to our Lord, we need to work through this issue of forgiveness and choosing not to remember.

Second, saying “I forgive you” is a promise not to get even. When you forgive, you give up the need to balance out the scales.

I read this week about a mother who ran into the bedroom when she heard her seven-year-old son scream. She found his two-year-old sister pulling his hair. She gently released the little girl’s grip and said comfortingly to the boy, "There, there. She didn’t mean it. She doesn’t know that hurts." He nodded his acknowledgement, and she left the room.

As she started down the hall the little girl screamed. Rushing back in, she asked, "What happened?" The little boy replied, "She knows now."

It’s human nature to want to pay back one hurt with another hurt. It’s very tempting, especially in marriage or sibling relationships, to keep score. You hurt me here, now it’s my turn to hurt you. A tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye.

But when we forgive we’re promising to give that right up. The scorekeeping ends with the pardon.

Third, a decision to forgive means a promise not to bring the sin up again and again.
When we tell somebody we forgive him or her, then we are saying that this incident is gone. We’re not going to hold it over their heads to throw at them every time we get a little grouchy.

This is especially important in a relationship like marriage. Sometimes during the course of a day Beth will say something or do something that kind of bothers me, but it isn’t worth fighting about, so I let it go. Overlooking a sin is the same as forgiving. It bothered me, I made a conscious decision not to make a big deal out it, I let it go.

But then, a week or two later, some sort of argument will come up and I’ll go back to all those little things that I let pass and start throwing them out. That’s not real forgiveness. And it’s not fighting fair.

Fourth, when you forgive you are promising “I will not gossip about this.” This is big. It’s so easy for us to say to our friend or our spouse, “I forgive you”; but then we are out with another group of people and we say something like: “You can’t believe what so and so did this time.”

That’s not forgiveness. If you are going to forgive, then you are giving up your right to go around trashing somebody else’s character.

And really, that’s a right you never had in the first place.

And then, fifth promise: “I will work to restore our relationship.” Have you ever had it where you had a fight with a friend, realized you were wrong, said you were sorry, and been told you were forgiven; and yet the next time the two of you were in a room together it was icy cold?

If you are going to forgive someone, then you are making a promise that, as much as possible, you’re not going to let this thing stand in the way of your relationship. You’re not going to avoid the other person. You’re not going to give the silent treatment. You’re going to try to take the relationship back to where it was before the incident happened; or hopefully, make the relationship even stronger than it was before.

Of course, if there is no repentance from the other person, or if it isn’t safe for you to go back to the way things were before, then this promise might not be one you can make. Personal safety is something you have to protect.

But in most situations, genuine repentance should be responded to with unconditional forgiveness. And that means no longer holding a person at arms length. How would we feel if God forgave us, but still didn’t want us around?

How do we do it?
So that’s what forgiveness is. 5 promises. Not to think about it, get even, bring it up, gossip about it, or let it get in the way of your continued relationship.

But I’ll be the first to admit, forgiveness is a lot easier to talk about then to do. Sometimes people can hurt us pretty bad. Sometimes people take advantage of us. We forgive them once, and they just go right back and do it again. And again.

Jesus told Peter we shouldn’t just forgive 7 times, but seventy-seven. And what he meant is there is no limit on our forgiveness, just as there is no limit on God’s grace. That’s setting the bar pretty high.

So how do we do it? How do we find the strength to forgive? Let me give you a couple of suggestions:

Remember what your King has done for you.
Go back to Jesus’ parable. If you are a Christian, then you have been forgiven far more than you’ll ever have the chance to forgive. And that’s not to make light of some of the hurts you may have experienced, but it is a reminder of just how serious our sin is against the ruler of the universe. And yet, He has forgiven you.

How then, when your husband or wife or child or sibling or parent comes to you and begs forgiveness can you justify holding it back?

Repent of your own part.
We have keep in mind that we all have our own baggage. No conflict is 100% one sided. We have to recognize where we’ve made mistakes and own up to them. We need to take responsibility for our failures.

In a lot of conflict, if we can just set the emotion aside and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we might find it a little easier to understand why they did the things they did. Again, that’s not to excuse what they did. Wrong is still wrong. But if we can picture ourselves making the same bad choices, it might be easier to forgive.

Replace anger with love.
It can really help if we practice the “replacement principle.” That means, as we work on forgiving somebody, whenever we think or talk about them, we should replace our negative thoughts with positive ones.

Here’s what I mean. Suppose Jay does something that makes mad. We talk it out and I say that I forgive him. Now, that’s all well and good. But still, it’s going to happen that during the course of my day Jay is going to pop into my head, and I’m going to think about what he did, and it’s going to bother me. I can’t help that. I’m human.

But what I can choose to do is this. Every time Jay pops into my head and I want to think about how bad he made me feel, I can choose instead to think about the things I appreciate about Jay. I can replace my negative thoughts with positive ones.

Or, again, if I’m talking to somebody and Jay’s name comes up—I might be tempted to say some mean things. But I can choose, instead, to say nice things about him. And when I talk to him, I can go out of my way to thank him for his hard work.

This even works in my actions. Instead of holding onto bitterness and avoiding Jay, if I go out of my way to hang out with him and give him a hand on whatever he’s working on, I can start to feel better about him.

I like what C.S. Lewis said:

Don’t waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.

Rely on God’s strength.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to remember that true forgiveness depends on God’s grace. If you try to forgive others on your own, you are in for a long and frustrating battle. But if you continually ask for and rely on God’s strength, you can forgive even the most painful offenses.