Summary: If you cannot or will not forgive, you are a puppet in the hands of the one who harmed you.
Actress Molly Ringwold learned Survivor Tip #4 somewhere along the way, saying "From my experience, forgiving is the only way to survive." Obviously, we would be mistaken if we took our survivor tips directly from Hollywood. Unfortunately, many people do. But Molly Ringwold’s survivor tip didn’t originate with her. It originated with the character of God. It became a command of God. And we would do well to listen, especially in these days.
We live in a culture that is horrifically fractured. Children run away from home vowing never to see their parents again. Dads disappear into the night. Divorce splits more than half of our families. Competition and rapidly changing technology can make the darlings of a company obsolete in the blink of a .com.
It’s left many of us bitter and angry. Brothers and sisters don’t speak to each other. Laid off employees bring revenge through the barrel of a 9 m.m. semi-automatic. Victims of crime seek revenge. Neighbors hurl insults and obscene gestures across their yards. Even in the church can be found those who will not associate with one another. There is plenty of unforgiveness to go around.
Ernest Hemingway told the story of a father and his teenage son who had a relationship that had become strained to the point of breaking. Eventually, the son ran away from home. His father began a journey in search of his rebellious son. Finally, in Madrid, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in the newspaper. "Dear Paco, Meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon. All is forgiven. I love you. Your father." The next day, at noon in front of the newspaper office, 800 "Pacos" showed up.
How filled are the streets of Portland with Pacos who are estranged from their mother or father? How filled are the neighborhoods of Gresham with people who are trapped in bitterness and unforgiveness? How filled are the chairs of our own church with people who proclaim the forgiveness of God for their own sins yet reserve the right to hold a grudge against those who have harmed them?
Peter was trying to reserve that right when he approached Jesus (Matt. 18:21): "How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" You know how Peter felt. Jesus had just finished talking about the responsibility to show fault to a brother who sins against you. That might seem reasonable enough, but what about that one who apologizes and keeps wronging you. Surely there comes a time when enough is enough!
But Jesus’ response doesn’t set well with us. "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." Other translations say "seventy times seven." Either way, the command is to forgive and not look for a reason to stop forgiving.
That goes against our natural desire for revenge. We understand the families of Timothy McVeigh’s victims lining up to watch him be executed this week. Forgiveness also goes against our desire to be in control. Roberta Bondi writes, "It seems as though the power to forgive is the only leverage we have in a relationship, and so to forgive means to give up power in that relationship." Both the desire for revenge and the desire for control, however, come out of the flesh. They are the epitomy of the rebellion demonstrated by the devil himself.
To make his point, Jesus tells the disciples a parable (Matthew 28:23-35, NLT)
The point of this parable is about as plain as any we find. If our Father has forgiven such a great debt as our own sin account, then we we should be like him in forgiving others the far less that has been done to us. Isaiah spoke God’s mercy on Israel’s debt years earlier, noting on God’s behalf, "You have not bought any fragrant calamus for me, or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses. I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more." (Isaiah 43:24-25) We too have had our debts blotted out for the sake of God’s name. So in God’s name, we ought to forgive.
How does this benefit God’s name? It benefits God by reflecting his character. Even more, it benefits God when we enjoy him as free men and women.
Jesus pointed out that if we refuse to forgive in our hearts, the heavenly Father will do to us what the king did to the unmerciful servant—he’ll have us jailed. Not that God will literally bind us, but the consequences of our unforgiveness will. Think about the "jailers" that will keep us locked up: bitterness, rage, anger, jealousy--these are the very things that God’s word instructs us to rid ourselves of! We rid ourselves of these things through forgiveness.