Apparently, the Spanish have a story about a father and son who fell out. No one really knows if, in the end, the son decided to run away from home or if he was kicked out by his father. Either way he left and found himself on the streets of Madrid. But the Father came to his senses and set out to find him. He searched the streets for many months with no success. Realising this tactic was bearing no fruit he made one last ditch effort to find his son. He placed an ad in a newspaper that read "Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon tomorrow. All is forgiven! I love you. Papa." Now you need to know that in Spain, Paco is as common a name as Jon or Jonathan is in Jesmond! And so the story goes that the very next day, when the father went to the hotel, hundreds of young men named Paco were there waiting for their fathers… waiting for the forgiveness they never thought was possible!
Forgiveness. We all need it. Without exception. Why? Because of our nature. Our nature means that each and every one of us will do wrong things that affect others and sadly all of us will experience wrong things done to us. From the seemingly innocuous at one level – like inappropriate sarcasm or careless speech, to the devastatingly obvious at another level – when we're dealing with physical and emotional abuse. And everything in between. It all has consequences: hurt, conflict, fractured relationships, and ultimately, left unchecked, death. And so - because it is the solution to all that - forgiveness is a universal need.
So before we go any further, just pause to think of one situation right now, where we either need to ask for forgiveness, or we need offer forgiveness. And let's bear that situation in mind over the next 20 minutes or so.
So, if you can take your Bible and turn, initially, to Ephesians 4. Over the last few Sunday evenings we've been learning how to serve, welcome, and bear with one another… and this evening we're going to think about forgiving one another. In Ephesians 4, Paul makes clear that if you have become a Christian, there has to be change. Look at verse 17. He says that we:
"must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds."
Rather, Christians must (v.22):
"put off your old self"
"put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."
If we are to walk faithfully with the Lord then we must get to grips with forgiving each other. God, through Paul, is not offering optional advice here. Look at verses 31-32:
"Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another [no caveats], tender-hearted [no caveats], forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you [no caveats]."
And so our first main point is that to forgive is not an optional extra for a Christian. It is command!
1. 'Forgive!': The Command
But in order to obey that command, first of all we need to understand what it means – don't we? What does it mean to forgive? You see all too easily we can look at forgiveness through the world's eyes and misunderstand it. So what I would like to do in this first section, is to tackle a few misconceptions about what the command to forgive is and isn't! Firstly,
a. Biblical forgiveness is more than saying sorry
I recently read of a banner hung along the wall of a florist's shop. Beneath the banner was an assortment of various bunches of flowers. They ranged in price from just a few pounds for a handful of freesias to £70 for dazzling bouquet of 100 red roses. The banner asked the question: "How Sorry Are You?" You see what they were trying to do? But we've all been there haven't we… there's no point trying to deny it. We've all overstepped the mark and caused damage; we've hurt someone, insulted someone, devalued someone. The question isn't so much whether we've done it, it's more to do with what we've done about it. And so often we simply think we can do something like buy some flowers and say 'I'm sorry'. But on its own that is just tokenism! Now please hear me – I'm not advocating we don't do that or say that, it's just that on its own 'sorry' isn't enough and it's not biblical!
One author makes the observation that simple apologizing is the world's substitute for forgiving. He points out that there is not a single reference in the Bible to apologizing. Consider the following scenario. We're out together and I make a joke at your expense, in front of others. It's quite nasty (funny) and you're obviously hurt. "Oh I'm sorry!" I quickly say realising I was out of line. "Oh don't worry about it, we all make mistakes!" you graciously and quickly reply. On one level, that's great, isn't it? But on another level, it so isn't, at least not between Christians. You see the problem with me simply saying sorry is that I'm just expressing how I feel, I'm not acknowledging my guilt and I'm not asking for your forgiveness. And by you saying, "Don't worry about it", you are minimising my sin and just brushing it aside! But sin, whether careless words or deliberate evil action (whatever in your mind), must never be brushed aside.
Think back to the prodigal son. What does that young man say when he comes to his senses - "I'll go back home and say sorry"? No, he says (Luke 15.18-19):
"I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your servants!"
Biblical forgiveness is more than saying sorry – it's naming the sin, addressing it and dealing with it. Secondly,
b. Biblical forgiveness does not always mean forgetting
And straight away I can hear a few of you saying 'That's not right Jon! God tells us in Hebrews he will remember our sins no more. God is our inspiration and model so if we forgive we must also forget.' You've heard it before, right? 'Forgive and forget'! But, whilst sounding snappy, that is a gross over-simplification. God is God – he doesn't forget anything, but he chooses not to remember the sins of the repentant – and that is a very different thing indeed. In this life, it is virtually impossible to forget some sins that have been committed against us. I can think of some now that have left deep, deep scars on me. As much as I want to I can't just selectively delete those. But if, by God's grace and power, I follow his example and choose not to dwell on them, choose not to keep dredging them up every time I want to point score; if I choose to look forward more than look back, pressing on to what is ahead; if I choose not to allow bitterness to spring up within me… then that kind of forgetting is a wise and godly course of action.
However, if by "forgive and forget" we really mean that we will act as if the sin had never happened and we live pretending it didn't, then we are going to run into a whole world of hurt and trouble. So for example, and I choose my example carefully here, it may be that the sin committed against you puts you in danger. It may be that you are the victim of physical or sexual or some other kind of abuse and either you or those close to you are in danger. If that is you, choosing to forgive your abuser does not mean that you should act as if that sin never happened. To spend time alone with your abuser, especially if they are unrepentant, is not what Scripture teaches. Proverbs 22.3 says this:
"The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it."
In other words, it is wise to take precautions, remove yourself from the danger and sometimes the dynamics of the relationship will have to change. And consider Jesus himself (Matthew 10.16):
"I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."
In the context of spending time with unrepentant sinners, we must be "innocent" (willing to forgive) yet at the same time "wise" (being cautious).
So yes, the ideal is to forgive and forget. Love after all, keeps no record of wrongs and covers a multitude of sins. God can, in his grace, make it so that the sins become but a distant memory. But sometimes the sin committed is so great that trust is destroyed. And while forgiveness can be granted freely and graciously, trust is earned over time. So, to take another example, if a husband is unfaithful to his wife, she may forgive him freely, but she doesn't trust him. That is not a contradiction! He must demonstrate repentance and integrity to earn back her trust and that will take time… sometimes years even. Think of it a bit like those horrific images of war-torn cities that we see on our TVs. Aleppo, Mosul. Ruined, deserted, soulless. It will take years to rebuild those cities. But, we also know when we look at cities such as Coventry and Dresden that, over time, such rebuilding and healing is possible. Do you see why 'forgive and forget' can be a gross over-simplification?
Biblical forgiveness is more than saying sorry; it does not always mean forgetting; and thirdly:
c. Biblical forgiveness is not limited
How many times have you heard something like this: "He said 'I'm sorry, please forgive me', but it's at least the tenth time he's done this! I don't know what to do now! I know I'm commanded to forgive, and the Lord knows I've tried. But each time I forgive him, he changes for a bit and then he does it again. Is it my fault? He never really changes, and I'm just getting angrier. What should I do?"
I think I can confidently say that my family (parents, wife and kids) know a little something of this sentiment. I think we all know something of it, don't we? We love someone dearly and yet the same hurt keeps happening. It was an issue that bothered Jesus' disciples too. Peter actually asks Jesus at one point (Matthew 18.21),
"Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?"
Peter here thinks he's being special. Conventional teaching said forgive three times, and on the fourth you don't need to! But he thinks he's being holy and patient. So Jesus' answer must have floored him (Matthew 18.22):
"I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven."
And of course Jesus isn't being literal here. He isn't expecting Peter to keep a tally. What he means is that real forgiveness is unlimited – both in frequency and quantity. And that means that real forgiveness is costly and painful. It's not easy to keep forgiving the same sin over and over and over again, but for his followers, Jesus doesn't leave open the option of any kind of cap on the amount of times we need to forgive each other. But please do hear me on this. As I've already said biblical forgiveness means addressing and confronting sin. It means doing all we can to ensure that it doesn't happen again and so, in reality, we may need to make changes to the nature of our relationship with a repeated offender, for their good and our own. Which is why, fourthly,
d. Biblical forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation
Remember, God forgives us so that we may be reconciled to Him. If you like, reconciliation is the goal that forgiveness is trying to score, but it can't do it without repentance. Both forgiveness and repentance are necessary for reconciliation. That means that while sometimes reconciliation is impossible (for example through death or an unrepentant sinner) forgiveness is always possible.
Just last night I saw a powerful example of that, watching the film Unbroken. For those who have not seen it, it tells the story of American Olympian Louis Zamperini who is captured by the Japanese in World War 2 and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp where he becomes the favourite target of a particularly cruel prison commander. His treatment is brutal and horrific. Sadly, the film ends with him reunited with family post war! I say sadly because the real quality of the story takes place after that. It's covered in mini documentaries on the DVD. Zamperini is in a downward spiral, consumed by hate and drinking when he is radically transformed at a Billy Graham crusade in the 1950s. In an instant he forgives his brutal captors and he decides to travel to Japan to be reconciled. Sadly though, the prison commander refused to meet him. But you see forgiveness was possible, even without it blossoming into reconciliation.
And so you may be saying – 'well what is forgiveness then Jon?!' I'll tell you what I think is a really good definition... biblical forgiveness is giving up the right to get even… it is giving up the right to strike back… it is, to use Paul's language in Ephesians 4:32, choosing kindness and tender-heartedness in spite of all that has happened. And is that not exactly what God has done for us? He has every right to punish us for our sins. He is a just God, and yet he chooses to give up that right.
So… Biblical forgiveness is more than saying sorry, it doesn't always mean forgetting, it's unlimited in scope, not the same as reconciliation… but it always gives up the right to get even. What does this mean in practice? Well Paul tells us that we should apply this understanding to 'one another', which is our second main point:
2. One Another: The Application
As with all the other major 'one another' commands – they are not abstract! We are only commanded to do that which has been done to us. Just as served, welcomed and supported people are to follow that example and serve, welcome and support each other, so forgiven people are to forgive each other. It's the impact of the vertical making a difference in the horizontal. What God has done for us, we are to do for and to each other. So that… we do exactly what the people of God are supposed to do – point an unbelieving world to the Lord Jesus! So in practice this cashes out in an attitude that says "I forgive you… I'm not going to try and pay you back"; "I forgive you… I'm not going to hold it against you, I'm not going to keep bringing it up, I'm not going to talk about it inappropriately with others."; "I forgive you… and I'm going to pray for your true repentance and our restoration, and I will be overjoyed when that happens, but until then certain changes may be necessary."
And you may say to me 'Jon, that's all too difficult. I just don't think I can go there again. If you only knew what he really did. If you could only hear exactly what she said and how she said it. You'd realise I can't do that.' To which I would reply 'You're right – but God knows and he wants to remind you of the motivation to do as he commands'. Ephesians 4:32 for our third main heading: "forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."
3. 'As God In Christ Forgave You': The Motivation
Perhaps the best way to remind ourselves how God in Christ forgave us is to briefly look back at our New Testament reading from tonight. So please turn to Matthew 18.23. This is a story that Jesus told, designed to highlight the unlimited nature of God's forgiveness to us. It comes right after that exchange between Peter and Jesus about how many times we should forgive someone. Verses 23-24:
"the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents."
Now they reckon in today's money, that's a few billion pounds! In other words an amount that, in the normal scheme of things is impossible to repay in a lifetime – we might say today – he owed him a gazillion pounds! Verse 25:
"And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made."
In other words, this man had no resources to pay his debt – his situation was utterly hopeless. Sound familiar? That's us isn't it? That's us in our unsaved state isn't it? Have you thought about the scale of your debt before God recently? Does it come close to this man's debt? All our anger, gossip, lies, deception, manipulation, pride, adultery, drunkenness, murder, lust, sexual promiscuity, hatred, abortion, abuse, selfishness, impatience, I could go on… Lord if you marked our transgressions who would stand? And like the man in this story, there is a payment to be made for that enormous debt of sin…death. Verses 26-27:
"So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt."
Friends – that is grace. Complete, full, wonderful, amazing grace. Everything I've just said… forgiven! There is no way he could pay it back and the master knew it – but out of pity (love/mercy) the master releases him and forgives him. Oh friends isn't God's love for us astounding? It's spirit-lifting, too-good-to-be-true, joyous news! And if this isn't stirring your soul, then yes, it could me, but… if you are in any way understanding the nature of this arrangement and not moved to action in response, then be warned…
4. The Warning
"But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, [still a significant amount – but by no means unpayable, we're talking a few months' wages] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, 'Pay what you owe.' So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt."
How do you react to that? I think we are meant to be appalled at the injustice, aren't we? I think we are meant to be appalled at the man's hypocrisy, his short-sightedness, his lack of love, his lack of mercy, aren't we? And then I think we're supposed to hear the warning - is this me? Because if it is, we need to take heed of how Jesus finishes the story. Verse 34:
"…his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt."
In other words, never – that's him jailed forever. And just in case we've been slow on the uptake… Jesus spells it out for us in verse 35:
"So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."
Oh JPC – that is the warning: if we don't forgive… again and again; if we don't compassionately show the same endless mercy that we have been shown… we're not part of the Kingdom, we're heading for an eternal jail. This is why Paul pleads with us: don't be like the world…be transformed…
"Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Ephesians 4.32)