Focal Passage: Matthew 18:21-28, 32-33
Today’s Bible Study applies to everybody. It does not matter if you are 4 years old or 104. Everyone knows the experience of being hurt by someone else. Often it is just your feelings that are wounded. But we also can experience damage financially and physically at the hands of another person. As a young preacher I was counseled to remember that there was a broken heart in every pew and that much of this pain is inflicted by others. Therefore, the topic of forgiveness is universally relevant.
Jesus told the parable of the Unforgiving Servant as a response to Peter’s inquiry, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” (Matthew 18:21). Essentially, Jesus prescribes unlimited forgiveness. This is one of the greatest challenges of Christian living. In order to be forgiving, to understand what it takes to forgive, we must understand our own forgiveness.
It takes strength to forgive. Some equate forgiveness with “weakness.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Forgiving means going against our usual inclinations to seek out revenge. Thus, forgiveness requires strength and discipline. Greater accomplishments require greater effort. So “buckle up!” Extending forgiveness is not for “wimps.“
Being a forgiving person is not easy. It is not supposed to be easy. The ability to forgive distinguishes Jesus’ followers from folks within the general surrounding culture. If you want what everybody else has, do what everybody else does. If you want what few people have, do what few people do. And only the exceptionally strong can practice profound forgiveness.
It takes wisdom to forgive. Wisdom means having a sound perspective. In Jesus’ parable we meet a man with a very poor perspective about forgiveness. He did not understand that unforgiving people actually hurt themselves. The writer of Hebrews warns, “Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many” (Hebrews 12:15b NLT).
So many people live with a root of bitterness. Often they are not aware of it because they have learned to function with a grudge. Scripture says that “(Love) keeps no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5b NIV). Bitterness, on the other hand, keeps very detailed records. We remember the pains people cause us in vivid detail.
This root of bitterness is like a cancer to the soul. It eats away at us. It hurts our relationships with other people and it hurts our relationship with God. A familiar adage declares: ¨Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping it kills the other person.” I cannot do anything about the cost of how someone hurt me. But as long as I have a grudge, it keeps costing me more and more. It may feel good somehow to nurse that grudge. But the wise person understands that it is better to let it go. Forgiveness sets a prisoner free and that prisoner is me.
Unforgiving folks also fail to grasp that they need forgiving too. The irony of the story is that a man would not forgive a small debt even though he knew what it was to be desperately in need of forgiveness.
It takes grace to forgive. Forgiveness is great to receive, but it is costly to give. Think of Jesus’ story from the ruler’s perspective: forgiving his servant cost him a fortune. Any relationship with longevity endures because people absorb the cost of the pain we put each other through. Jesus said to keep showing grace even 70 times seven times (Matthew 18:22). The grace of consistent forgiveness grants strength and depth to a relationship.
On Nov. 14, 1940 the English town of Coventry was bombed by Nazi Germany. Among the properties damaged was the town’s beautiful cathedral. Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins. At the foot of that charred cross someone wrote out the words, “Father Forgive.” From that time forward, this church is identified with the ministry of reconciliation. Today, as you visit the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral, a cross of charred beams stands at the place of the altar with the moving words, “Father Forgive” inscribed on the wall behind.
Jesus prayed “Father Forgive” on the cross and He asks us to pray those words for others. He summarized His parable with these sober words: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV). Our capacity to extend grace is directly related to our appreciation of our own forgiveness. And there is no offense we ever pardon that is greater than the cost of our own forgiveness from the Lord.
One of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes puts it well: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
— McCluskey is pastor of North Cleveland Baptist Church, Cleveland.