the secret to forgiveness: Matthew 18

read Matthew 18.  Most magazines these days proclaim the benefits of forgiveness.  You’ll live longer, the pop psychologists advise.  You’ll get sick less, the scientists discover.  You’ll be free of those draggy toxins, the spiritual advisers promise.  Just do it, they all say, paraphrasing Nike.

The problem is: just doing it eludes most of us.  Perhaps there are a sainted few for whom forgiving is easy.  But for the rest of us, we may know that forgiveness is the better way, but forgiveness is hard.  The deeper the injustice, the harder it is.  I would maintain that, humanly speaking, forgiveness is impossible.  That’s why you sometimes hear people minimize abuse: “oh, they didn’t really mean it,” they say.  Really?  Because sometimes they do mean it.  Sometimes people do really bad things – truly evil things – with their eyes wide open.  People do things the consequences of which we suffer the rest of our lives.  So how are we supposed to forgive that?  I don’t mean forget it.  I mean actually forgive it?

Most of us can all relate to Peter’s question in this chapter: “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me?  Seven times?”  v. 21.  Peter probably thought he was being magnanimous when he mentioned the number seven.  He may have even hoped Christ would praise him for his generosity.  Peter’s heart must have sunk at Christ’s answer: forgive 70 times 7.  For even the most literal among us, if you tried to keep track of 70 times 7, you’d lose count somewhere along the way.  And maybe that’s the point.  God, as we know from 1 Cor. 13, doesn’t keep track of our wrongs.

How does God do that?  How does God do the impossible?  The answer is the same as the answer to every question: the cross.  God can forgive us, because Christ took the punishment.  As Tim Keller likes to point out in his seminal sermons on forgiveness, someone always has to pay for a wrong.  To use Tim’s analogy: if I break a lamp in your house, one of us has to pay for it.  Either I will hand over my cash, or you’ll tell me not to worry, (secretly think I’m a cad) and go buy a new one with your own money.  But one of us has to pay for my clumsiness.  And because Christ paid the price for our sins, God looks at us and sees Christ.  He looks at us and sees perfect beauty.

In order to have that kind of “covering” from Christ, we must be willing to admit our faults. As Christ said in an earlier chapter, only the sick need a doctor.  We must admit, for instance, that if we were to take literally Christ’s admonition here that we should cut out our eyes and off our feet if they cause us to sin, we should all be blind and lame by now.  Spiritually, Christ says, we are blind and lame.

We can hear Christ’s words about our imperfections because he says them in love. As the parable of the lost sheep in this chapter shows, Christ is the shepherd who loves us so much that he will leave the 99 other sheep and go in search of the lost one.  It is not God’s will “that even one of these little ones should perish.”  v. 14. If we accept Christ’s words about how loved we are, and yet how flawed, and become as humble as a child, we become greatest in the kingdom of God.

But to receive God’s forgiveness, we must forgive, Christ says.  We must forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts, or God will not forgive us.  It is stated as a prerequisite.

Why?  Why does God require that we forgive in order to receive forgiveness?  Isn’t his all encompassing forgiveness enough?  I’m not sure.  All I know is that if you reach the place where you’re sick of doing things your own way, because they’re not working, you become willing to try to do things God’s way.  And when you obey him not because you want to, but because you’ve accepted that his ways are not our ways, and his ways are better, you get blessed in ways you never could have anticipated.

So how do we do forgive?  How do we do the impossible?  We are not, after all, God.

One part of the solution to the impossibility of forgiveness suggested here is group prayer.  Christ here says that there is something special about agreeing in prayer with two or three others, gathered in Christ’s name.  We know that Christ is with us when we pray alone.  Therefore the key to this statement must be the word “agree.”  When two or three “agree” concerning what we ask, God will do it.  Perhaps the word “for” in the next verse, therefore, is explaining the “agree.”  It is only when Christ is there among us that we can truly “agree.”  Such group prayer, focused in on God’s presence and God’s will, marks the demise of selfishness.

For it is a selfish blindness to our own faults that blocks our ability to forgive.  The other part of the solution to forgiveness lies in understanding the parable of the unforgiving servant.  Look at the story.  The unforgiving servant owed “millions of dollars.”  But his fellow servant “owed him a few thousand dollars.”  In this discrepancy is the key to the story.  We see someone whom the king has released from an enormous debt, going round punishing another for a tiny debt.  That, in essence, is what each of us do when we don’t forgive.  We forget the eternal debt we owe God – we probably don’t even see it, because it’s hard to see our own flaws – and we get bent out of shape over a crime perpetrated on us by others.

The parable of the unforgiving debtor can melt our hearts.  It convicts my heart every single time I read it.  But that phenomenon points to the deeper issue.  We can’t forgive because no matter how conscious we are of our debt to God, blindness creeps in.  We keep forgetting.  We have some kind of internal block: we see our own faults as small, and those of others as big.

Here, perhaps, is why Christ cried out on the cross: “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”  Even if someone who murders knows they’re taking a life, they don’t really know what they’re doing – not on a spiritual level.  They don’t know that their actions caused God to die for them.  They don’t know that every sin, no matter how big, no matter how small, drove the nails deeper into the palms of Christ’s hands.  They don’t know that even if they were the only human being in the entire universe, God loves them so much he would have died for them, just them.  He would have died over and over again, if that’s what it had taken, but it didn’t.  It just took the cross – because on the cross Christ suffered all the furies of hell.  That’s what we didn’t know.  God doesn’t want anyone to perish.  The biggest tragedy is that none of us really knows how deeply we are loved.

And so, the solution lies in grace.  The solution lies in crying out to God: “help me.  I know I’m supposed to forgive, but I just can’t do it.”  We can ask others to pray with us.  We can ask alone.  And there, in our moments of true childlike humility, grace comes in to meet our deepest needs.  There is no truer and better story of how this works than the following, told by Corrie ten Boom in her own words:

    “IT WAS IN A CHURCH in Munich where I was speaking in 1947 that I saw him – a balding heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat, the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.

    Memories of the concentration camp came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment of skin.

    Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland. This man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.

    Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”

    It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

    “You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk, ” he was saying. “I was a guard therre. But since that time, ” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein-” again the hand came out -“will you forgive me?”

    And I stood there – and could not. Betsie had died in that place – could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

    It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

    For I had to do it – I knew that. The message that God forgives has has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in Heaven forgive your trespasses.”

    Still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

    And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this jealing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

    For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”  

Corrie ten Boom’s story is a living testimony to how if you obey God – and forgive even when you don’t want to – you are blessed in unexpected ways.  When we offer mercy to those who deserve condemnation, God’s love floods us.  Perhaps it’s because in forgiving the concentration camp guard, Corrie had to confront the million dollar question:  could he erase his actions just for the asking?

The answer, as she discovered, was yes.  And when we confront that terrible spectacular truth, it begins to dawn on us that the same thing is true for us vis a vis God:  we can erase our actions just for the asking.  No matter what we’ve done, God can erase it.  It’s not a cheap grace; it’s the costliest grace of all.  God sacrificed his most beloved Son so that he can look at us and see perfection.

We can each of us know God’s love as intensely as Corrie ten Boom did.  All we have to do is ask him to help us to do the impossible.  We can ask that God should forgive us; and that he should, in turn, help us to forgive others.  It’s that simple.  And that impossible.

posted by Caroline Coleman, in, on October 31, 2011

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