Many years ago, I heard the true story of a young Christian woman who was raped. Many who suffer rape keep their identity secret, but this woman rushed to her church for support and told the story.
The support came in this form: ‘Have you forgiven him?’
Job’s comforters, indeed.
We believe in forgiveness, and this parable makes clear that it is paramount in discipleship. But do we always handle forgiveness well? Is it really a choice between denying the opportunity to express your pain -as happened to the woman who was raped – and being bitter?
Today, rather than expound the parable of the unforgiving servant in my normal style, I’d like us to explore what forgiveness is and why we need to forgive.
What Is Forgiveness?
What do we make of Peter’s question about how often we should forgive? Seven times? Seventy times seven? (Or should that just be seventy-seven times – so much easier!)
I think we generally accept that Jesus is not putting a ceiling on forgiveness when we reach four hundred and ninety. Forgiveness is something we keep having to do – and I’ll come back to that question later.
But I think Jesus is also showing us that forgiveness is the permanent refusal to exercise vengeance. The numbers ‘seven’ and ‘seventy’ are connected with vengeance in Genesis chapter four. In that chapter, Cain kills Abel. The Lord chooses not to kill Cain, but makes him a wanderer, and threatens seven-fold vengeance on anyone who kills him. Later, one of Cain’s grandsons, Lamech, kills a man who wounded him, and says, ‘If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold’ (Genesis 4:24).
So when Jesus says, ‘Not seven times but seventy times seven,’ he is withdrawing the vengeance option. That is what forgiveness is. True forgiveness never says, ‘I forgive you, it was nothing,’ it says, ‘Yes, you hurt me, but I choose to lay aside my desire for vengeance.’
This is probably one of the most important ways in which we can be witnesses to Christ today. Most people will not read a Bible, but they will read our lives. So when we refrain from the option to press the vengeance button, we are allowing them to read about Jesus.
Of course, there is much more to what forgiveness is. Just to examine the Greek word employed here by Matthew and other New Testament writers tells us something. The word,aphiémi, means to set free. It’s what you do when you cancel a debt: you set the debtor free from their obligation to repay you. Forgiveness is like that. You release the one who has hurt you from the obligation to pay for what they have done. You allow them to walk away. You choose not to exercise your right of punishment.
But forgiveness is much more than setting free the offender. In a wonderful way, forgiveness sets us free, too. If we harbour resentment, then we become bound up, as if ropes have been wrapped around us. When we forgive someone, then the ropes of bitterness fall away. Forgiveness sets everyone free.
Perhaps another image of forgiveness will help. The Psalmist says, ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he [God] removed our transgressions from us.’ To forgive is to remove. It is to take sin away. Think of the hurt from sin as a large object that you cannot put in the wheelie bin for your normal rubbish collection. Instead, you open up the rear doors of your car and fold down the rear seats. You open up the hatch and remove the parcel shelf. Then you put the large object in the back, take it to the council depot at Drovers Way and dispose of it. How do you feel? Considerable relief, I expect.
So it is with God’s forgiveness. Sin is landfill. That may not be a good illustration environmentally, but I’m sure you get the point. It’s buried. He doesn’t dig it up again. I think that’s why R T Kendall in his book Total Forgiveness says that if you keep talking about a wrong that has been done to you, then you probably haven’t forgiven. I’m not sure I entirely agree with him, but I take the general point. Forgiveness takes away sin. There is a sense in which it isn’t here any more.
One thing that is often said about forgiveness is that if we truly forgive, then we forget as well. ‘Forgive and forget’ are put together. Perhaps that’s a development of the idea that forgiveness is about the removal of sin. Others say, ‘I can forgive but I can’t forget’, and feel condemned by those who associate forgiveness with forgetting what happened. So does forgiveness necessarily involve forgetting the offence?
I am in the middle of reading a book by an Anglican priest containing his reflections on divorce, having been through a divorce himself. Early on in the book he gives one definition of forgiveness. He doesn’t describe it as forgetting at all. He calls it ‘remembering well’. Humanly, we are unlikely to forget bad things that have been done to us. The more we try to forget, the more they are entrenched in our memory – much like the proverbial flying elephant. But we can come to a point where we hold the memory in a holy way. When the memory comes back to us, we choose not to bitter. One way of doing this is by praying that God will bless the person who hurt us.
Some years ago, I heard a tape from Spring Harvest of a sermon by Caesar Molebatsi. If you haven’t heard of him, Molebatsi is a black South African pastor much involved in justice and reconciliation issues. During the terrible years of apartheid, he was hit by a white car driver and lost a leg. Although the driver was caught, he never apologised. Molebatsi has a permanent reminder of the violence in that he has only one leg. He regularly has to choose to forgive, because it is impossible to forget when the sin done to him meant he is without one of his limbs. His only choice is ‘remembering well’.
And that links with one other observation I’d like to make about forgiveness. One of our great mistakes when it comes to forgiveness is to think that it is instant, or a one-off. The moment we have said, ‘I forgive you,’ everything is fine. It isn’t. Someone like Caesar Molebatsi knows that. Bob Mayo, the author of the book on divorce I mentioned, also knows that. Whatever happened between him and his wife, he has the permanent reminder that she is no longer there, but living somewhere else.
No: forgiveness, says Bob Mayo, is a journey. It may take time and practice. We may long for reconciliation with the one who wronged us, but often forgiveness precedes reconciliation. It may be a long time before we can face seeing someone who hurt us deeply, even though we hold no bitterness against them.
Miroslav Volf is a Croatian theologian who has written much on forgiveness and reconciliation, especially in the light of his experiences through the wars in the Balkans after the collapse of communism. One of his books, ‘Free Of Charge‘, was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book in 2006. In it, he says that forgiveness means we blame but do not punish. We do not pretend about the offence. It is real. But we choose not to punish, or press for punishment.
That is rather like God’s treatment of us with regard to our own sin. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin so that we might repent and follow Jesus. The Spirit of God never pretends that the sin was a fiction. Otherwise, we could never repent and walk in the ways of God’s kingdom. But having convicted us, there is no sentence and we are treated as if we had never sinned, even though we have. If this is how God treats us, then it is also the goal we seek in our journey of forgiveness.
Having explored in quite a few ways what forgiveness is, I’m sure it’s already evident to a large extent why we need to forgive.
First of all, because it is consistent with the character of God. The Lord may say, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ but that is surely because God is the only one to whom vengeance may safely be trusted. In our hands, vengeance becomes revenge, not justice. But ‘the Lord is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love’, and the work of the Holy Spirit within us is to make us slower to anger and more ready to be rich in love.
It’s central to our calling to become more Christ-like. Whatever the word ‘Christian’ means today, it started out as meaning ‘little Christ’. Debbie and I say that Rebekah is her mini-me and Mark is my mini-me. Notwithstanding the fact that the ‘mini-me’ language comes from the Austin Powers films, where Mini-Me is the son of Doctor Evil, I nevertheless assume that Jesus is longing to see a vast crowd of his ‘mini-me’s on earth. A central way in which we can be more like him is in adopting the practice and discipline of forgiveness.
For of course Jesus often called his would-be disciples with the words, ‘Follow me’. He didn’t simply mean a geographical following of him, but following his lifestyle. It’s what Jewish rabbis did: they expected their disciples to follow them in the sense of imitating their life. So if discipleship is about following Jesus and Jesus modelled forgiveness, then it’s of the essence of Christian faith to forgive.
But this approach poses questions, and one is this: another strand of the call to faith is what Paul emphasises, namely that God saves us in Christ entirely by his own work, and not on the merits of our good deeds. How then can it be essential to forgive? Wouldn’t that be salvation by good works, rather than by faith?
I believe the answer is something along these lines. God does indeed save us entirely by his own work in Christ. We receive that by faith, and faith itself is not a good work, either: it is the holding out of empty hands in trust to receive all that God has done for us. However, the test of faith is whether we are grateful for God’s gifts – or as Paul put it to the Galatians, ‘faith working by love’. It’s therefore reasonable and logical to expect that those who by faith receive what God gives us in Christ demonstrate that by showing grateful love. And since Christ shows us the love of God supremely in forgiveness, it behoves us to show true faith by being forgiving people. That is what makes sense of the parable. That is why at the end the master is angry with the unforgiving servant. He has not demonstrated this.
One other question occurs to me, and it is the question of justice in society. If forgiveness means blaming but not punishing, how do we keep good order in society? Won’t criminals run rampant, free from concern about being imprisoned? Perhaps a story I have told before might help.
On the night of my thirtieth birthday, I was in Manchester training for the ministry and was invited to a friend’s house for a celebratory meal of – beans on toast. My friend and his wife offered to call a taxi to take me back to college, but – feeling I knew city life as a Londoner and being too stingy to pay for a ride – I declined. That was my mistake. On the way back, I was mugged by a teenager. He smashed my glasses and took cash. I had no hesitation after the attack in calling the police. As it turned out, they didn’t catch my assailant (even though he was clearly known in the area), but I resolved that if they had, I would have co-operated with a prosecution. However, I felt I could only do that as a Christian once I had committed to forgiving the thug. Society needed justice, and the criminal needed forgiveness. I felt that was a fair balance.
And that ties up some of the other reasons why we forgive, which I hinted at earlier: forgiveness is good and indeed authentic witness. If there is one thing we can do in society to show Christ, it is to forgive.
So may God who is rich in mercy fill us with the knowledge and experience of his mercy, that we too may be rich in mercy to others.