Forgiveness – Holding On Keeps Us From Moving On
So here we are at week 5 of Freeway.
We began by looking at what Freedom is and isn’t: Freedom is not about doing whatever you want. Freedom is about living into your identity as God’s child, as made in the image of God. Even though the world will try to throw us off the tracks of our identity, God is waiting with open arms to put us back on track and welcome us home. And the journey to freedom is the journey home to God.
You start the road home by becoming aware. You pull back the curtain of your life to see what’s hidden just beneath the surface – emotions, fears and other things that make you tick. You can’t be free from these hidden emotions and fears until you know they are there.
But awareness doesn’t just magically happen. We have to create awareness through discovery. We have to dig deep and ask “why?” What you find may be uncomfortable, it may feel not okay, but it’s okay to not be okay. And when we know it’s okay then we are a little freer to be curious about our lives. And that’s the key to discovery.
The next step is owning whatever we find in our lives. And taking responsibility for it. And that can be tricky because when we want jump to blame and fault. But ownership and responsibility are not about pointing fingers. They are about dealing with the situation right in front of you. And if you are going to deal with the painful situations in front of you, you’re probably going to need some forgiveness. And that is where we come to today.
If we are honest with ourselves, forgiveness is probably the hardest step. Don’t fool yourself that forgiveness is easy. We are going to look at a story in Matthew about forgiveness today (The story of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:21-35) which is set up with some tough words from Jesus:
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.
I imagine jaws dropping in the room when folks heard this. Complete silence. As if to say: “What? You gotta be kidding?”
Peter asks about forgiveness – how many times. I’m thinking like 3 strikes right? Once, twice three strikes your out. Surely three is enough! But Peter goes further to seven times. And that number 7 about is really about forgiving wholly and completely. It’s the biblical number of completion. The whole earth completed in 7 days, for example.
But Jesus says, “Nope, that’s not enough. More like 77 (or 70 times 7 as some translation say).” Mind blown! How in the world? What does that kind of forgiveness look like? Almost seems irresponsible to forgive someone that much….where’s the accountability in that? Doesn’t the buck stop somewhere? Isn’t there some boundary so people don’t just get taken advantage of?
Well, it would seem not. If you have forgiven, then keep on forgiving until someone is wholly forgiven and then keep on forgiving even more until forgiveness is complete and perfect. Impossible, right?
So let’s try to break it down: imagine our mistakes, our wrongs, our sins as debts. And picture your heart as a bank. Now when someone hurts you or harms you or ignores you, disrespects you, betrays you…it’s like taking an unauthorized withdrawal. Essentially they have stolen from you and if it’s this wrong is going to be righted then they have to pay you back, right?
So you have a couple of options. You can:
- Deal with it
- Adjust to it
- Live in denial about it
Most of the time we say we forgive, but we really only adjust to it or deny it’s there. When I say adjust to it, I mean we adjust our lives around this debt and it becomes something that eats at us. You may blow up in anger about it from time to time. You try extracting payment for it in ways that you aren’t even aware of. Your relationship with the person who took this unauthorized withdrawal begins to center around the debt and this ends up causing a lot of damage and leading to more and more debt.
For some of us adjusting is too confrontational. So we just deny it, pretend it’s not there. We don’t want conflict so we don’t talk about it, don’t create a fuss about it. But over time denying the debt actually increases the debt until eventually you go off…exploding like a bomb!
Both adjusting and denying never deal with the debt, never acknowledge the unauthorized transaction, never end up paying anything off. And they end up creating suspicion destroying trust and further and further damaging not just the one relationship, but all our relationships. Because mistrust breeds more mistrust. If I cannot trust this person who I once trusted, then can I really trust anyone?
Some months ago I shared a Richard Rohr quote with you that spoke to the damage that unresolved pain can cause cause in our lives:
If we don’t transform our pain, we will transmit it.
And this is where forgiveness steps in. Forgiveness is meant to transform the pain we experience from unauthorized transactions and relational debts.
Too often we say we forgive, but we haven’t been transformed. We forgive in word and maybe even action, but our pain has not been transformed and so we keep on transmitting in ways we are mostly unaware of.
- We may become inflexible, blaming and petty with the person who took from us.
- We may use blunt, harsh, mean words with them in order to expel our inner negativity.
- We may play the victim over and over again with the person
- We may build walls with that person.
- And at worse we may end up passing on our pain and hurt to others – family and friends.
Acknowledge the debt
So let’s pick up after Jesus words about forgiveness and read a story pain, transformation and transmitting which we call the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant:
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold.
Right off the bat, what happens? There is a debt, they bring in the debtor and name the debt. And we have to do the same thing. That is, we have to acknowledge the debt and face it.
Why? Because you cannot forgive a debt that you do not acknowledge
But when we talk about relational debts in our lives, we often sideswipe acknowledgement. We argue about the bill, the amount, the terms, the conditions. So if you want to transmit your pain, keep on arguing about the debt. But if you want to transform it, then practice acknowledgement. And I know this can be hard. It takes vulnerability: someone has to admit they received a wound and another has to acknowledge they inflicted a wound.
And typically in any situation, everyone involved has done some receiving and also some inflicting. We all contribute something to a painful situation, and if we can realize and acknowledge our contribution, then we can begin to shift from blame through ownership to forgiveness.
Release the debt
So forgiveness begins with acknowledgement, but that is really just the start. Let’s look back at the story of the debtor:
Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.
There are consequences for not being able to repay debts, right? Penalties, higher interest rates, foreclosure, repossession. In biblical times, not being able to repay a debt typically meant becoming indentured, that is, you became a servant or slave until you had work off the debt. And in this story, the king was going to force the man to sell everything he had – even his family – to pay back this debt.
But then something happens: There is a call for mercy and a move towards compassion. Instead of ruining the man’s through bankruptcy and slavery, the king released the man from his debt! And this is the second step of forgiveness. We have to decide not to ruin someone’s life by demanding payment. And this is a huge step, right? Because forgiving a debt means that somewhere someone has to absorb the loss. Someone has to take the hit.
I think about kids on a playground. If someone start s fight, the only way to stop the violence is if someone refuses to hit. Someone has to take a hit and then not retaliate. But our culture loves revenge and retaliation and payback when there are unpaid relational debts. Just think about how many movies out there are about these themes!
And this is because absorbing a debt is one the hardest things to do in life. We aren’t good at this because we think to ourselves: that’s not justice, it’s not fair, they will just go out and take advantage of someone else if I let them off the hook, people have to be responsible, pay the consequences of their actions.
Let me ask you this: is that what Jesus died on the cross for? Did he die so that you would pay the consequences for your actions? Or did he die so that you would know grace, so that you would be saved, so that you would see a different way of dealing with debt?
You see, God is not about retaliation. God doesn’t hit back. God hears your call for mercy and God has compassion and releases your debt. Because God knows what forgiveness is. And God is calling you to forgive as well.
Too often we say we forgive, but we still try to make someone pay – by bringing up the mistake, by reliving it, complaining about them. We don’t really have compassion for someone. We don’t really release them. We just don’t want to feel bad and we know we should forgive, so we say it, but we don’t really do it. Forgiveness involves more than words….it involves release.
Now let me be clear here: Release means wiping clean the debt. It does not mean that you immediately trust someone again, that you opened the door right back up so that there can easily be another unauthorized transaction. That takes trust and once trust is broken, it has to be built back.
What release and forgiveness do is restore a foundation on which trust can again be built. And what we do with that foundation makes a big different. We can move forward with grace and humility, or we can keep going on taking more and more unauthorized transactions.
Practice Mercy – Live Debt Free
Just look at what happens in Jesus story:
“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’
“Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.
“When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
Shouldn’t you have mercy on others just as I had mercy on you? The kings words….and God’s words to us. Mercy begs for mercy. Release one debt should lead to the releasing of other debts. One good turn deserves another, right?
And pay attention here: the king sent the servant to prison after he had forgiven the debt. If the debt was forgiven, how can the king lock the man up?
Well, it wasn’t his debt that sent him to prison. It was his hard, un-forgiving heart that took his freedom away. He refused to live debt-free and ended up un-free.
In other words, hard hearts lead to hard lives. If you don’t forgive others, it is the hardness of your heart that will lock you up. And You prevent yourself from being free.
And remember the whole point of this story is to describe the kingdom of God and to explain why we should forgive seventy times seven times.
We forgive because we have been forgiven. We forgive because forgiving leads to freedom.
You were given a stone today when you came in. Hold on to it right now. A stone is a great symbol of the things we hold on to.
Remember the story of the woman caught in adultery? She took an unauthorized withdrawal and it impacted a husband, a family, their friends…and who knows how many people. And so the entire community wanted to extract payment from her for this debt. You remember…they were going to do what to her? Stone her. They wanted payback, they were literally going to transmit their pain by throwing stones.
But what did Jesus say to them: Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. This was a call to forgive based on the rationale that none of us are without fault. In other words, if we all transmit our pain, we’ll have to stone everyone of us.
Jesus acknowledges aloud that everyone of them has some sin to contribute to this community. And when they listened to that acknowledgement, every person put down their stones. They release the woman from her debt they released their want for vengeance, they released their pain by dropping the stones. No one condemned her because each one knew they had sinned too.
The unforgiving servant refused to drop the stone he held, he tried to exact payment….and insodoing he walked away from freedom, he wrote his own sentence.
You have a choice: you can be the unforgiving servant. Or you can be one of those folks with a stone who listens to Jesus. And you can put down the stone you are holding, release whatever debt is owed to you, release your pain…and walk towards freedom right now.