“I need to ask for your forgiveness,” the voice on the other end of the phone said to me. This friend from many years ago called to seek reconciliation with me for an old offense. We had worked together, and in the course of our working-relationship our friendship was damaged. More often than I care to admit, I am the one who needs to ask for forgiveness. But in this case, I was the offended party.
I was surprised by this phone call, of course, since it came out of the blue and concerned events from quite some time ago. But I was more surprised by my own response. “Of course,” I intoned, “I forgive you.” And for the duration of the conversation, I really believed that I had forgiven my friend. But as I thought about the exchange, I brought back into the present what I had carefully stored away in my memory. Feelings of hurt and betrayal emerged just as if the event was happening all over again. In my heart, instead of feeling relief as a result of my friend’s phone call, I felt bitterness and anger choke me. And the desire to punish my friend—by withholding genuine affection or by issuing words of condemnation—became preeminent in my thoughts and feelings.
As a Christian, I am pained to admit that I have these feelings at all. After all, forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity. Instead, I felt more like the servant in Matthew’s gospel who even though forgiven of an enormous debt—a debt too large to ever repay—in turn, goes out, finds one who owes him a miniscule amount, and begins to choke this lesser debtor demanding immediate repayment. Instead, of extending the same generosity shown to him, this ungrateful servant punishes the other servant by throwing him in prison.(1)
My unforgiving spirit imprisoned my friend. But it also imprisoned me. An unwillingness to forgive locks us all up in bitterness, and throws away the key. It enslaves us to ingratitude, and chokes out gratefulness. It prevents us from experiencing the freedom that comes with free-flowing grace—both received and given—just as the ungrateful servant neither received nor extended grace in Jesus’ parable. The ensuing desire to punish those who have hurt us belies our smug, moral superiority that designates punishment as more fitting than grace.
Jesus tells this parable of the unforgiving servant in response to a question from his disciple Peter. Peter asks the question, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus answers, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”(2) In other words, Jesus is saying that forgiveness is unlimited, and forgiveness by nature is something that cannot be measured in its appropriation. When we fail to forgive, we fail to recognize our own debt, and we fail to appreciate the reality of the limitless scope of forgiving grace on our account. Peter wanted to know at what point he could cease from offering forgiveness—after the seventh offense. But in answering Peter’s question by telling this story, Jesus demonstrates that none of us are in the position to withhold forgiveness from each other. In the end, we are all in need of forgiveness, and to withhold it demonstrates unparalleled ungratefulness for God’s gracious action towards the debt we could never repay to God.
To be sure, dealing with our human hurts and offenses and becoming generous people who freely forgive takes time and effort. And for some of us, the hurts we have suffered and endured may never result in phone calls that attempt to reconcile and restore relationship. Nevertheless, the cultivation of a forgiving heart frees us from bondage and opens us to the possibilities of giving forgiveness instead of punishment. For the one who understands first and foremost her own need for forgiveness, and the one who then opens his heart up to forgive others, enters (perhaps even unknowingly) into the very heart of God. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven us.”(3)
(1) Matthew 18:21-35
(2) Matthew 18:21.
(3) Ephesians 4:32
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