Summary: Unforgiveness is the cancer of the soul. It’s a spiritual prison, enslaving the one who refuses to let go, to leave behind, to forgive.
Unforgiveness is the cancer of the soul. It’s a spiritual prison, enslaving the one who refuses to let go, to leave behind, to forgive. We in stubborn blindness don’t see the good God is doing when He teaches us to forgive. Instead, we see ourselves as losing out in some way, not getting the last word, not being on top of the pile like we think we should be.
That’s what drove Peter to look for limits, loopholes, for some way to put forgiveness into a little box that he controlled. “How many times, Lord? How many times must I forgive the same sin? How about seven times?” When is enough enough? The rabbis of Jesus’ day said three. Peter wanted to do one better, and so he moved up to seven.
Forgiveness that has limits is really no forgiveness at all. Forgiveness has no limits, no bounds, no mathematics, no sharp-penciled balancing of the books. Forgiveness is lavish, outrageous, and even insane. “I tell you, not seven, but seventy times seven.”
Jesus sees Peter’s seven and raises him seventy times. And just about the time you begin to lose count, you’re on your way to learning what it means to live under the Gospel instead of the Law.
To forgive means to leave behind the wounding words of another, to let go of how someone else has wronged you. Forgiveness isn’t a bargaining chip: “I’ll forgive you if you promise not to do it again.” That’s our way of forgiving, not God’s.
Forgiveness has no ifs, ands, or buts. To forgive is to die to the whole matter. It’s to go on as if what has so incensed you had never happened. When that happens, it has no effect on you, no power over you. To forgive is to step into freedom, the freedom that is yours as a blood-bought, baptized child of God.
Responding to Peter’s wish to restrain and leash God’s forgiving Word, Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant. The parable is Jesus’ commentary on the fifth petition of His prayer: “Forgive us our debts, in the same way that we forgive our debtors.”
A king is settling accounts with his servants. A certain fellow has a multi-million dollar debt hanging over his head, a debt he could only pay when hell freezes over. The king demands that the debtor sells all that he has, just to begin to pay off the debt.
Falling on his face, the debtor begs, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you back.” There was no way he could ever pay the king back. He was beyond bargaining, but grasping at straws, he tried anyway.
And the king for a moment lost his mind and did the outrageous, crazy, reckless, insanely Gospel thing. He forgave the entire debt. He let it go. He died to the books and the bookkeepers. And the servant walked away free and clear.
Well, the forgiven servant went out in his freedom and found a fellow servant who owed him a few bucks. It was mere pocket change compared with what he owed the king. Finding this man who owed him, he grabbed him by the throat, growling, “Pay me what you owe!” The man pleaded, using the same words the servant used with the king: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”
“The man refused to give what was given to himself” (Augustine). The one who had received outlandish mercy, hoarded within himself, instead of lavishing it on others. Forgiveness looks different from the forgiver’s side, doesn’t it? And so instead of forgiving him, he threw the man into prison.
When word reached the king’s ear, he called the scoundrel on the carpet: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt simply because you asked. Shouldn’t you also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?”
In blazing anger, the king sent him to the torturers until he could pay all that was owed him. But here’s the rub--he could never pay what was owed! And so the man had an eternity of torture, literally, hell to pay. And it was all his own fault. He was a free man, until he started choking his debtors.
When we refuse to forgive as God has forgiven us, we put ourselves in prison; and the King isn’t happy. Nothing angers Him so much as when we refuse to forgive. We throw away our freedom in Jesus; we enslave ourselves away from God: isolated, alone, cut off. When we refuse to forgive as God has forgiven us, we aren’t acting like the free children of God that we are in Christ, but like the spawn of Satan.
The forgiveness our Lord’s speaks to us is not something we are to hoard. It’s to be active and living. It’s meant to be spoken to others. The forgiveness our Lord speaks is a lively Word, a living Word. It has movement and motion. It causes feet to go, and hands to serve, and mouths to open. Our Lord’s forgiveness not only takes root in the heart. It also gives life and energy to our own speaking. For it begs to be repeated.