A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on January 6, 2013.
To forgive another person from the heart is an act of liberation. We set that person free from the negative bonds that exist between us. We say, “I no longer hold your offense against you.” But there is more. We also free ourselves from the burden of being the “offended one.” As long as we do not forgive those who have wounded us, we carry them with us or, worse, pull them as a heavy load. The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves. It is the way to the freedom of the children of God.
—from Bread for the Journey by Henri J. M. Nouwen
Tucked away in today’s sermon is one of the top two or three lessons that I believe anyone could hope to learn. It is hard to say which is the top one, but later in this sermon, I will tell you what I think is one of the most important things that anyone can come to understand and incorporate into their lives if they want to have a growing and meaningful faith in Jesus Christ.
We have just finished advent and we talked for four weeks about the New World Coming, and today, we find ourselves back to the theme, Great Themes of the Bible, that guided us through the fall and will guide us for six more weeks. If there were a top ten list of great themes then surely forgiveness would be on it. Like all the other great themes, I guess there would not be a great theme if it wasn’t woven throughout the passages of scripture. Whether you are reading in the Prophets, the Psalms, or the law in the Old Testament or in the Gospels, on the lips of Christ or in the Epistles of Paul from the New Testament, the word about forgiveness is constantly there. For Jesus, it is not only a lesson to teach but a life lived as he hangs on the cross. Among his last words were, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” It is a part and parcel of our very relationship in Christ. How would we have a relationship with Christ if it were not for God’s forgiveness of us?
The subject is so broad and wide we could talk about God’s forgiveness of us, our forgiveness of each other, and how the two are related but only one passage of scripture can guide us. Today, the passage is the one where Peter begins with a very magnanimous offer to forgive someone up to seven times. We know how the story turns, but if we did not know, we would have to admit that is a very generous offer to forgive seven times. If someone cheated one of us in business, if someone stole from our home, if someone lied to us or offended us and we forgave them seven times—one after another—we would feel pretty proud. “I have forgiven seven times.” We would probably tell our friends, “You won’t believe this, but I have forgiven him seven times.” They would either think we were crazy or inspired, but like Peter we would feel we had done the most magnanimous thing possible—to forgive seven times. It is hard enough to forgive once. If we did that, like Peter, we would find ourselves in the cross hairs of Jesus. Jesus said, “Not seven, but seven times seventy.” That’s 490.
In the Bible, numbers often have special meanings. Seven is a divinely perfect number. It comes to us across the centuries as a lucky number. That’s because in the Hebrew age, it was considered divine and perfect. Ten is complete. It does not take too much imagination to figure that out. By the time I have counted on all my fingers, I have used them all up. That is complete and that is ten. They multiply for emphasis, so I get 7 x 7 x 10, and it is intensified until I understand that I have a perfectly divine number and you might as well say “infinity.” Jesus said you need to forgive your brother or your sister to infinity.
Even if we wanted to say, “I can’t forgive infinitely so I am going to take it literally. That would be 490.” If we are one of the people who have forgiven someone seven times, we are 1/70th of the way there.
In most tasks of life, to be 1/70th of the way is to be nowhere, isn’t it? If at the very least, if we take it literally, we have done absolutely nothing. As magnanimous as we think our forgiveness would be after seven times, it is paltry in comparison to what Jesus tells us.
The real point of what Jesus is saying to us through Peter is that there is no stopping when it comes to forgiveness. We ask ourselves, Wow! What kind of life is that if I have to forgive forever?
Let’s understand a couple of things that forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting. There are a couple of passages in the Old Testament that are parallel statements something to the effect, “I will forgive their sin and remember their iniquity no more.” God has the power to forgive and to forget, but none of us do. It is impossible to say, “I am just going to forget that.” We will always remember. The point is not about the past. The point is about the future. It does not mean that we must allow, condone, or indulge someone to continually do the thing to us that they have been doing.
One of the questions that often comes up when teaching or preaching on this particular passage is, “What about something like abuse?” If a spouse, typically the woman, is being abused, does this mean that you have to allow yourself to be abused forever, if we are to forgive continuously? No. It does not mean that you have to allow someone to continue to do harm.
If someone were stealing from you, does it mean that you have to trust them with your money again and again? No. It doesn’t mean that. You do that person no good to encourage, allow, or fail to challenge that kind of behavior but it is not about allowing it. It is about what’s in my heart because they do it.
Here is the point that I promised: Forgiveness is never about the offender. It is never about the person who has done something to me. It is never about whether or not the person is deserving. It is always about what goes on in the heart of the person who has been injured.
It is this way with God. Isn’t this the Gospel? It is not that I have somehow become this wonderfully righteous person and, of course, God would forgive me. No, the Gospel says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” as a part of God’s demonstration of forgiveness. It is always about what is in the heart of the person forgiving. This is the point of the parable. Jesus says, in reaction to Peter’s magnanimous offer, to forgive seven times seventy.
The unforgiving servant doesn’t understand. It was not that he did something so well, but it was because the king said, “I choose to forgive you.” It was debt and we could translate the amount into modern money, but it is an un-repayable debt. It was millions and millions of dollars in today’s currency. There was no way he could ever be paid back, but he said, “I choose to let it go.” The point is that once we have come into God’s love, once we have chosen to receive God’s love, to accept God’s forgiveness, we have entered into a world where we can’t stop loving. Once we have chosen to love, we can’t stop forgiving. To demand that someone crawl back to us through the needle’s eye of our demand or else they don’t deserve it and we won’t give it to them is to fail to understand the Gospel at all.
This is the point. Remember, it is not about the person who has done the offense. It is about the person who has been hurt. If I offend you, it is about what is going on in your heart toward me. The principles never change in forgiveness. It does not matter if God is forgiving us or if we are forgiving someone else. It is always a choice based on love. How can I say that I love in the spirit of Christ and not forgive?
What happens is that it does not change the past. I cannot go back and pretend that something I have done to someone else did not happen or does not count. What happens when you forgive me changes our possibility for the future. It means that what has been in your heart toward me does not any longer define what is possible in our relationship in the future? Isn’t that what God’s forgiveness means to us? If you have offended me, I am now going to treat you the way I treat anybody that I love. The possibility now exists that you might turn, accept my forgiveness, and we might be reconciled together. If you don’t, it is still on me to forgive you. It is not about you. It is about what is in my heart.
I would guess that in my library I probably have 15 illustrations from people on whom it dawns that the only person who has been hurt by harboring a grudge against someone is the person who has the grudge. I have used the illustration that one of my members gave me several years ago that refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting that person to get sick. It doesn’t work that way. The only thing that happens when we stop drinking poison is we stop getting sick.
The meditation text is one where we are reminded that it is a gift of freedom to be able to let it go and forgive. Anne Lamotte, an unusual Christian writer, in her book, Traveling Mercy, says: “I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of those 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. They say we are not punished for the sin but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive.” She got this valuable lesson that her unwillingness to forgive was killing her. It wasn’t doing anything to anybody else.
Forgiveness is always about the attitude in my heart. It is always about the way I am going to feel. Have you ever carried a grudge against somebody for a long time? When you finally let it go, it is like the weight of the world has been lifted and it is healing. Forgiveness while, in part, is a moral obligation that comes to us as being disciples of Jesus Christ is a wonderful gift. If we could list all the people today for whom there is some anger in our hearts, all the people who have offended us and hurt us, all the people for whom we carry some weight of anger toward, and if all of that were let go, what would we worry about? What would we be cynical about? What would hold us down? Wouldn’t it be like having wings where we could fly and our spirits would be light? We could do this all because we finally got the point: Forgiveness is about what goes on inside of us.
Forgiveness is about healing. It is a gift of God for his children, and for all who will practice it, it is an opportunity to be able to be free of all those hindrances based on bad relationships once and for all.
In this New Year, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that gift and to know that freedom? All we have to do is forgive.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.