We know that we can't live in this world very long without being hurt. If I were to ask who here has been hurt, every hand would go up, including mine. We've all been wronged. As a pastor and teacher, I can't begin to count the times I've heard from people about how they've been wounded, mistreated, or victimized. I've sat in restaurants and heard stories of betrayal and heartbreak that have wrecked me. I've had students sit in my office and share about things that have happened to them that have broken my heart.
You may have walked through the doors of this church today carrying the weight of a serious wrong that was done to you this past week, this past year, or years ago. If that's your situation today, and that has been me at points, the message I want to share is going to be hard to hear because it involves spiritual surgery. While surgery is never fun, the good news is that God wants to remove what's toxic to our hearts so we live our lives with love and joy. That surgery is called forgiveness.
Christ Calls us to reverse the Law of Lamech
Let's begin by recognizing the Law of Lamech.
(Read Genesis 4:23-24)
Lamech killed a man for wounding him and then said that he would seek revenge 77 times over against anyone who hurts him. That became known as the Law of Lamech. It's the idea that if anyone inflicts pain on me I will make them pay. It's natural for us to want to respond that way when we're hurt and sometimes, unfortunately, people act it out. That's how life goes and how life ends when we live by the Law of Lamech. Christ calls us to reverse that.
(Read Matthew 18:21)
In the middle of this discussion and relationships in the church, Peter comes to Jesus and says, "Someone hurt me. He's done me wrong; and not just once. Lord, I know I'm your disciple, and I know that I'm supposed to forgive the person who hurt me, but it feels unfair. Why should I be the one who is always forgiving people? How often do I have to forgive him? Do I forgive him up to seven times?"
Rabbinic teaching during Jesus' time was to forgive someone up to three times and then after that you could seek revenge. Peter was being charitable by asking if he should forgive seven times because he doubled the rabbinic three times to six times and added one more time to get the perfect biblical number of seven, thinking Jesus would commend him.
If you've ever been hurt and you call yourself a Christian, you know in your head that you're called to be a forgiver. Forgiveness looks and feels pretty risky. Forgiveness sounds like one of those spiritual things to do that Jesus is talking about but doesn't work too well for those of us who live in the real world.
Jesus tells Peter to forgive not just seven times but seventy-seven times. Imagine Peter's surprise when Jesus goes way beyond Peter's offer of forgiving seven times. Jesus is not condemning Peter; he's simply reversing the Law of Lamech.
When it comes to life and relationships there are two paths to go down. We can choose the Law of Lamech, the law of revenge which leads to death; or, we can choose Jesus' call to forgiveness that leads to life.
What is it that we're being invited to do by Jesus? Why is forgiveness the way to life? What is forgiveness? Perhaps we should start with considering what forgiveness is not.
What forgiveness is not
Forgiveness is not excusing. We excuse small children for misbehaving in the grocery store and expectant fathers for breaking the speed limit as they try to get their pregnant wives to the delivery room, and we excuse 10-year-old boys for making certain bodily noises. When an action is excusable, it doesn't require forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. Sometimes I forget where I placed a book, article, or DVD; that's a lapse of my memory. That's very different from forgetting a serious hurt that someone has caused me. I may still remember the hurt even if I've forgiven someone. Doesn't Jeremiah say, "God will remember our sins no more"? Yes, but that doesn't mean God has amnesia. It means God feels about us the way he would feel if he had forgotten. Here's the key: We can find the power to forgive what we still remember.
Forgiveness is not reconciling. Reconciliation is always the best case scenario that happens after people hurt each other and then sit down, talk it out, take responsibility, and apologize. Reconciliation takes place in good marriages, good families, and good churches when all is forgiven and relationships are restored. Sometimes you can have forgiveness without a restored relationship, especially if the experience was life-shattering and trust is removed.
Years ago, I went through a very painful professional situation which had many personal ramifications. While the situation didn't have the moral implications of a divorce, it felt like it did. Relationships were severely damaged, trust was broken, and a great deal of pain was inflicted. It took me a long time to work through that; in fact, at one point, I even had to get some counseling, a good decision, to process my way through things. Over time, I finally started to get to the point of forgiveness. I don't think I'm carrying around a lot of hurt or anger or the Law of Lamech in my heart. Still, those wounded relationships are not reconciled; they may never be.
C.S. Lewis said he finally forgave the schoolmaster who abused both he and his brother, but it was 30 years after the schoolmaster died. For Lewis, reconciliation wasn't possible because reconciliation requires the rebuilding of trust and good faith on the part of both parties.
What forgiveness is
Having seen that forgiveness is not excusing, forgetting, or necessarily reconciling, let's look at what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is a decision, an act of the will by the grace of God.
You may find yourself saying, "This person really hurt me. I want to forgive this person. Lord, please give me the grace to do that." You could say, "She ripped me off. My heart is broken. Lord, heal my heart, and give me the grace to let her off the hook." You may say, "They took that thing from me. Lord, that was a big loss, but please give me the mercy to forgive them."
To forgive, you begin to let go of the desire for vengeance.
Dave lives in Boulder and works as an umpire in a summer recreational league. A couple of winters ago, he was pulled over by a police officer for going too fast in the snow. Dave tried to talk to the police officer and reason his way out of a ticket. The police officer said if Dave didn't like the ticket, Dave could just go to court.
The next summer in the first game of the summer league, Dave was umping and the first batter up was the policeman. The officer and Dave recognized each other as the officer stepped into the batter's box. The officer asked Dave, "So, how'd the thing with the ticket go?" Dave looked at the officer and said, "You'd better swing at everything."
That's sweet revenge, but in a more serious vein, some hurts are far more serious and painful, so we desire revenge. Forgiveness means giving that up because God is judge; we're not. It means we don't try to get even because that never works.
The third step, and this one takes time, sometimes a lot of it, you begin to wish the person well. You see them as a fallen creature who needs grace, just like you. You see the individual as someone who God loves just as God loves you. You hope that their life and their relationship with God is good just as you hope for yourself.
There will be the backslidden moments, and I speak as an expert here, when you'd like to hear that the person who has committed a wrong has gone bald, was turned down by a dating service, or has the IRS after them. Overall, those thoughts diminish and the trajectory of your heart is headed in the right direction because God's grace is at work in your heart. It's transforming you, and you will align your life with the way God's kingdom operates. To make this clear, Jesus tells us a story.
God's kingdom is grounded in his grace
(Read Matthew 18:23-26)
In Jesus's stories, the characters often represent God and people; that's the case here. In this story the king represents God, and we're represented by the servant who owes 10,000 talents. A talent was a measure of wealth. Most historians believe that during Jesus' lifetime the entire wealth of the Roman Empire was somewhere between four to five thousand talents. In other words, this is an enormous, unthinkable number; it's like our national debt or maybe your mortgage.
Jesus' point is that because of our sin, we all owe God an unpayable moral and spiritual debt. Under the law, the rule was "We owe" therefore "We pay." God loves us so much, and because he knows there's no way we could ever get out of our moral and spiritual dilemma on our own, he canceled our debt when Jesus died on the cross. That's why the cross always has been and always will be at the heart of Christianity. It's the ultimate expression that God's kingdom is always grounded in his gracious forgiveness.
The logic of grace and forgiveness is that since God's kingdom is founded on it; it empowers those of us who claim to be part of Christ's kingdom to forgive those who are in debt to us. As a friend of mine likes to say, "Forgiven people forgive because they've experienced the gracious forgiveness of God." That's not the way it always works, is it? Sometimes forgiveness never flows. Jesus spotlights the problem in the rest of the story.
Forgiveness not shown is forgiveness unknown
(Read Matthew 18:28-30)
The servant has received pure grace, and he owes his life, his freedom, his family, his possessions, and everything he has to the grace of the master. But the servant goes out and finds a man who owes him a debt of roughly $10,000; it's repayable. Unlike the king, the servant thinks, "I'm not going to make the same mistake as the silly old king. I'm not going to take the hit on this! This man who owes me is going pay what he owes!"
Here's the problem: We have a strong tendency to think we can receive forgiveness from God but not give it to others.
The Journal of Adult Development says: 75 percent of people surveyed believe they have been forgiven by God for past sins, mistakes, and wrong doing but only 52 percent say they have forgiven others. Even fewer, 43 percent, say they have sought forgiveness for a wrong they did to someone else.
Jesus doesn't call the idea that we think we can get forgiveness from God without giving forgiveness to others a bad idea, insufficient theology, or weak thinking; he calls it impossible.
Anne Lamott, says:
I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of the Christians who is heavily into forgiveness … that I am one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay this way … In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.
Forgiveness isn't natural, and that's why it's essential to let God's grace take root in our hearts. Otherwise, when we get hurt, and we will be hurt, we'll get stuck in the emotional and spiritual cement of bitterness, hatred, and revenge and that will ruin our lives. Jesus' knows that, and he drives it home.
(Read Matthew 18:31-34)
Word gets through the royal court about the servant's bad behavior and eventually gets to the king because he's a pretty sharp guy. He calls the servant in and says, "You just don't get it, do you? You thought grace meant that I was a fuzzy-minded, incompetent old fool who would let you get away with whatever you want and then go and abuse whomever you want." The servant had made a big mistake. The king said, "I offered you a huge amount of grace and forgiveness, but you wouldn't live in it. You wanted to receive it for yourself and then selfishly deny it to others."
That's not how it works here (Jesus would now say, "That's not how it works in my kingdom!").
The king turned to the guards and said, "Take this servant away and throw him in prison; leave him there until he pays back the unpayable debt."
Jesus ends with this statement in verse 35: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." Jesus isn't saying that if you fail to forgive you'll be thrown into a torture chamber forever. Jesus is saying that forgiveness not shown means that forgiveness is unknown!
Jesus is telling us that if we're not willing to endure the spiritual surgery of forgiveness, we'll die emotionally, spiritually, and relationally because it reveals we have never received the grace and forgiveness of the Father.
Let's look at this from the other way around. Tim Keller says, "We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope." Our sins are innumerable, but God's grace in Christ washes away each one if we'll receive it.
If his grace takes root in our hearts we will, by the power of his Spirit, forgive those who have hurt us because forgiven people forgive. That's not going to be easy; it's going to take prayer and spiritual work, and it will probably take some time, but we'll get there.
You all remember that horrible murder of our African-American brothers and sisters at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Like all those mass shootings, it was evil, but what came out of the tragedy in Charleston was forgiveness. The friends and family of those who were killed went to court and spoke to the shooter. They did not excuse, forget, or reconcile. They did tell him that they were going to seek justice under the law. Then they did what forgiven people who have internalized the grace of God do: They told him that they forgave him for his racism, hatred, and violence. They called him to repent, receive Jesus, and be forgiven!
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.