Thursday, March 18, 2010

Forgive. . . or Else!

Forgive. It's a biblical teaching that is absolutely clear. Read these verses:
12 'And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 'And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.]' 14 "For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 "But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:12–15, NASB95)
21 Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21–22, NASB95)
32 "Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 'Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?' 34 "And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:32–35, NASB95)
If those were the only verses about forgiveness, it would still be quite clear that God intends that we forgive people who sin against us. There are three questions about forgiveness that deserve consideration. They certainly aren't the only questions, but they are three that touch on the major issues we must work through to succeed at forgiving.

The first question goes something like this: "Since only God can actually forgive sins, is it really our responsibility to forgive anyone?" There is a sense in which only God can forgive sins. Taken this way, it really doesn't matter what you or I do with the sins of other people. If I choose to forgive or not to forgive, what matters is whether God forgives. It wouldn't matter whether or not we forgive at all, except for the fact that the Bible teaches that we should forgive. That alone settles this question. That we are to forgive may puzzle or confuse you as to the reasons or other questions, but scripture is clear that we are to forgive.

The second question reflects variations on Peter's question about forgiveness. "How many times must I forgive someone?" That simplified answer is easy enough. Take however many times you think would be gracious plenty and multiply it by seventy. Even then, most scholars would probably say the point isn't the specific number of opportunities taken to offer forgiveness to a person, but that however often forgiveness is needed, that's how many times forgiveness is to be given. But I said "variations" on Peter's question because other questions about forgiveness are related to this one. For example, there is the question about the nature of the sin and the extent of forgiveness. Here's what I mean. "Isn't that sin so bad, it's just hard to forgive?" It's a variation on the 'how many times' question. There may be other ways to ask this question, but the basic idea is that a particular person, because of the nature of their sins, somehow has gone beyond forgiveness. This is particularly true if the sin has affected us seriously, or if it's one of those sins that we dislike very much.

The third question begs a difference between our sins and the sins of others. This is reflected in the story Jesus told about the two servants. The first owed a debt to his master that he would never be able to repay, yet the master forgave his debt. That servant was owed a much smaller sum by another servant, but the forgiven servant was unwilling to forgive his fellow slave. Instead he demanded that this fellow pay up. Because of his unwillingness to forgive as he had been forgiven, the master ultimately withdrew his forgiveness.

Possibly, this third problem is the greatest of all. Not that either of the first two are minor in any respect, but the idea of comparing one's own sins to the sins of others is a huge problem. Each of us wants to view our own sins as minor, but the sins of others are enormous. It's the way we tend to look at things. I've offered this idea on several occasions and often it has been met with skepticism. It seems that people would rather deny that it's true. Even if they accept the basic idea, they prefer to think that other people may have this problem, but not them. I would humbly suggest that we think hard on this one, and be willing to accept something we don't want to admit.

We struggle with each of the three questions. We all would like to think it doesn't matter whether we forgive or not. After all, God will take care of all the forgiving that's needed. Well, except for the fact that God himself teaches us that's not true. He expects us to forgive. Yes, God's forgiveness will ultimately matter far more, but it doesn't mean our forgiveness is without purpose.

We also struggle with variations on the theme of 'how many times must I forgive.' After all, some people just don't seem to deserve it, or have exceeded any reasonable expectation of being forgiven, or they've stressed us to the breaking point and we feel we don't have any forgiveness left. Whenever we reach that point, remember to multiply your forgiveness efforts. That is what Jesus expected.

We also struggle with thinking that our sins are minor and other's sins are major. Because of that, we struggle to offer to them the forgiveness they need. We don't seem to recognize the nature of sin. We love to categorize sins into big ones and little ones. Read passages where sins are listed and quite often you'll see some that we consider minor right beside others we consider awful. Division into big sins and little sins is an artificial thing.

I can illustrate from the Ten Commandments. One of the commands was to remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Two others are do not murder and do not commit adultery. Those last two are huge. The first doesn't seem nearly as bad. Failing to observe the Sabbath Day and keep it holy was on par with murder. Listen to James' observation on violating the Law:
10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 For He who said, "DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY," also said, "DO NOT COMMIT MURDER." Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10–11, NASB95)
All I did was use one of the other of the ten commands. The point being simply that each sinner ought to consider the serious nature of their sins. We all need forgiveness. We cannot excuse ourselves as less needy, when our sins result in the same need of forgiveness. If God is willing to forgive us, why are we so unwilling to forgive others? Is it because our sin is less offensive than theirs?

Here's the bottom line on forgiveness according to the Bible: either we forgive or we will not be forgiven. Stated another way, It's forgive, or else! Perhaps forgiving is more important than we think.