One of my children has a friend who, after graduating from a Christian college and working in Christian camps, went home, got involved with a guy who landed in prison, and ended up pregnant and unmarried. Her church was very supportive of her and helped her through her pregnancy and single motherhood. But within a couple of years, the same thing happened again, with the same guy. This time the church was kind to her children, but held themselves aloof from her. Their attitude seemed to be “To make one mistake is forgivable, but to repeat it — she must not have been very sincere in her repentance.”
Yet who among us hasn’t sinned at least twice in more than one category?
And while I’m tempted to quick judgment of these church people, I am convicted by by own tendency to hold grudges. I was thoroughly startled one day to realize that a grudge is just continual unforgiveness.
Jesus takes forgiveness seriously. He died to obtain it for us. The prayer He taught contains the line, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:9-13). As we forgive our debtors. He goes on to say, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (verses 14-15). That’s a scary thought.
I used to have trouble with forgiveness when I felt the other person didn’t “deserve” it. But what finally changed my heart was the parable Jesus told in Matthew 18:21-35. Jesus had just talked about lost sheep and the process of church discipline. Then Peter asked, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” He probably thought that was pretty generous. Jesus said it’s more like but seventy times seven. Then He told a story about a man who owed a massive debt that he could not pay to a king. When the king made plans to sell the man, his family, and all he had, the man fell to his knees and begged the king for patience, promising he would pay everything he owed. The king took pity on him and forgave the debt completely.
But when the forgiven man left, he ran into someone who owed him a much smaller amount and demanded repayment. This debtor made the same plea the forgiven man had made the king. But instead of responding in kind, the forgiven man refused to forgive and sent his debtor to prison.
Word got back to the king about this man’s behavior. The king summoned him, rebuked him, and threw him in prison til his debt should be paid. Jesus concluded, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
I realized that I had been forgiven an immense debt when Jesus saved me. No one could sin against me to the extent I sinned against Him. So how could I hold a smaller transgression against anyone else when I had been forgiven so much? As C. S. Lewis said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Yet I still have to remind myself of this often.
The beginning of Matthew 18 (as well as many other places in Scripture) shows that Jesus does not take sin lightly. It’s serious business, and forgiveness doesn’t mean just blowing it off like it doesn’t matter. We acknowledge that there has been a debt, an infraction, which caused pain. But, by God’s grace, we forgive it. We may not feel very forgiving, but forgiveness is not a feeling: it is a decision.
Forgiveness also doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t consequences. In the same passage, Jesus described how people should go about handling an unrepentant sin against them to the point of church discipline. In cases where abuse or other crimes have been committed, the perpetrator still needs to be arrested. There’s a difference between enabling and helping, and it’s not always easy to know the difference when someone is addicted to something. We can’t be naive, and we need to pray for wisdom. Forgiveness also may not mean that now you’re best buds with the other person. Some relationships are toxic. There may be any number of good reasons why the relationship should not be restored. However, that doesn’t mean that treat everyone that way for every infraction.
There are times to separate from someone who persists in wrong doctrine or wrongdoing, but that’s only if they professing Christians who are unrepentant and if everything else has been tried to bring them around. Even that extreme measure is done with the hope that they might return, like the man in 1 Corinthians 5 who repented by 2 Corinthians 2. First Paul had to admonish the Corinthians to deal with the sin in 1 Corinthians. But when the man did repent Paul had to encourage the Corinthians to “forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:7-8).
Sometimes someone with a besetting sin needs counsel rather than aloofness. In a book I recently read, a man kept falling into the same sin, even after he was saved. There was a difference afterward, in that now he loathed his sin, whereas before he didn’t care. But he still felt like he just had to try to “do better.” What he really needed was to learn how to depend on the Lord and not his own strength.
In another book I read this year, a fictional story based on a real one, the female protagonist also had trouble with with sexual relationships. Though she made steady progress in her faith, she had trouble overcoming in this one area. I wondered how many people would dislike the book or would have distanced themselves from her in real life instead of helping her. She reminded me very much of the woman at the well, who had five different husbands and a current live-in boyfriend. She came to draw water from the well alone, not at the time when all the other women in the village came. Was it because she felt ashamed? Or had she suffered their condescending looks and comments before and wanted to avoid them? Either way, Jesus made a special point to be there when she was and to tell her about the water of life available through the Messiah — Himself. A multitude believed through the testimony of one “fallen woman.”
We tend to look down on certain types of sin more than others. But what did Jesus say the greatest commandments are? To love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Doesn’t it follow that if these are the greatest commandments, disobeying them is the greatest sin? And don’t we fall short of them every day of our lives? How then can we look down on any other sinner?
I’ve wondered, in this social media era, about the widespread tendency towards Internet outrage at people. Careers, reputations, and even lives have been ruined because someone started a tangent on Twitter without knowing half what they were talking about, and it spread like wildfire. Or someone did do wrong, but instead of extending grace and hoping they learn from their mistake, we right them off forever. How is this treating others as we would want to be treated?
There is a beautiful passage in Isaiah foretelling the coming Savior. Isaiah had just foretold in Chapter 41 about Cyrus, a conqueror who “tramples kings underfoot; he makes them like dust with his sword, like driven stubble with his bow” and “shall trample on rulers as on mortar, as the potter treads clay (verses 2, 25). By contrast, the Savior:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3, ESV)
This passage is quoted again of Jesus in Matthew 12:15-21, ending with the line, “and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” He’s like the man in the parable he told who stood up for a fruitless fig tree and gave it another chance, working with it to help it bear fruit.
Henry F. Lyte draws on several passages of Scripture to form this stanza in his 1834 hymn, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven“:
Fatherlike He tends and spares us;
Well our feeble frame He knows.
In His hands He gently bears us,
Rescues us from all our foes.
Widely as His mercy flows!
Instead of an atmosphere of haughtiness or superiority, let’s show the same welcome, mercy, gentleness, and grace we have received.