“For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
When was the last time someone offended you? Don’t worry about the so-called “snowflakes” on college campuses across the country. Neither am I talking about your seeing something on the news happening in some other part of the country or world that made you angry. I’m talking about just you. When was the last time you were deeply, truly offended by something another person in your social circle did? Have you forgiven the person for that offense? Or, are you holding onto it for one reason or another? Forgiveness is a tough topic to tackle and for a number of reasons. And yet, if you would confess to being a follower of Jesus, it’s one you can’t avoid. Let’s talk this morning about forgiveness and why it matters so much.
We live in a culture where forgiveness isn’t really practiced. Oh, we occasionally see tremendous examples of it. Consider the grace offered to the young man who murdered nine members of the Emmanuel African AME Church in Charleston a few years ago by the surviving members. They forgave him publicly. What’s more, they did so when no one around them expected it. Everyone else was focused on blaming and anger and decrying this or that as the reason for the shooting. Members of the church, however, forgave him. Amish families in the Nickel Mines community in Pennsylvania did the same a few years before that when a man burst into one of their school houses and shot ten girls, murdering five of them. Examples like these are always received with shock by the culture precisely because they are so unexpected.
The kick is, though, this kind of thing is the exception to the rule. It is the exception because forgiveness is weakness and weakness cannot be a part of the response to violence like that. At least that is the mindset a growing segment of our culture has. When we are hurt, we need to show strength, not put ourselves in a place to get hurt again. So, no, forgiveness isn’t a common feature of our broken world. The much more commonly embraced rule is anger and vengeance where we can get it within the means of the law. Sometimes the law itself is used as a means of accomplishing vengeance instead of settling for justice. A people primed for anger look for any reason to express it they can find. Forgiveness naturally diffuses anger. When the world wants to be angry, forgiveness is an even less likely virtue to be practiced.
And if we’re not careful, this kind of thing can begin to seep into the church. The church is not without its faults and failings. Church members are still broken by sin as long as they are in this world. Sanctification is a slow journey for some and we behave like it. As the world comes after the church in this country in more frequent and aggressive ways, our natural tendency will be to take the offenses coming our way and hold on to them instead of forgiving them. After all, that’s what the world around us does.
But then we have verses like this one messing up all of our plans. What on earth are we supposed to do with this? Well, in a word, forgive. As for the why, what Jesus says here would seem to make that as clear is it could possibly be. We must forgive others because if we don’t, God won’t forgive us. And if this was the only time Jesus said something like this, we could try and wiggle out from under its weight, or else conveniently ignore it in most instances. Maybe Matthew got it wrong. Maybe this was something an editor added in later. But it wasn’t the only time He said something like this. In fact, this notion that we must forgive to be forgiven is one that comes back again and again in the Gospels. Jesus actually said it a lot. The context here was His explaining the model prayer to the crowd in the Sermon on the Mount. It appears other places in other contexts. The basic sentiment is the same, though, no matter where it appears. We must forgive to be forgiven.
Let’s start by understanding what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is the releasing of another person from the debt they owe us because of an offense they’ve dealt us. This doesn’t mean the offense wasn’t real or didn’t really hurt or shouldn’t still be avoided in the future. It simply means what I said: that we are releasing the person who dealt us the offense from the debt they owe us because of it. We can and in some circumstances should take the steps necessary to prevent the offense from happening again in the future. In some situations the relationship between us and them may be sufficiently damaged by the offense that its restoration is going to range from difficult to nearly impossible. But forgiveness doesn’t imply the restoration of the relationship. It is simply that we aren’t holding them to the debt they owe us because of the offense they’ve dealt us. We’re letting that go.
Why should refusing to do such a thing imperil our own relationship with God, though? Well, think about it. In fact, let’s think about it on both sides of the cross. First on the side Jesus spoke these words. If we refuse to forgive another person, what we are communicating is that their sins against us are of a sufficiently severe nature that they are not worthy of our forgiveness. Yet if that is truly the case, how are our sins against God any less severe than their sins against us? Even if they have sinned against us multiple times, does that really compare with a whole lifetime of our sins against God? The only way to even attempt such a self-justification is if we take our sins entirely less seriously than God clearly does throughout the Old Testament. The penalty for our sins against God is death. Before the cross it was the death of an animal, but a death all the same. Does this other person’s sins against us warrant their death? If it is anything less than that, it is hard to see how they could be worse than our sins against God. Yet we have pronounced them unworthy of our forgiveness. If that is truly the case, then our judgment must be consistent, and we are not worthy of God’s forgiveness of our own sins.
How about on this side of the cross? This gets even more difficult for us to make a cogent case we should be forgiven and not them. The reason here is that God in Christ has pronounced all sins as worthy of His forgiveness. Jesus paid the price for the sins of the world. Every single sin that has ever been committed or will yet be committed can be forgiven in Christ. His death satisfied the justice of God for the whole world. If we refuse to forgive another person on this side of the cross, we are declaring that we know better than God. Well, the only person who can know better than God would be God Himself. In other words, by refusing forgiveness, we are plunking ourselves down on God’s throne and declaring ourselves to be God in His place. God doesn’t need to be forgiven. He is of a sufficient rank that others being offended by His actions is their issue, not His. If you are offended by God, it is simply because you don’t possess the necessary knowledge or wisdom to properly comprehend what He has done. If you did, you would understand there is no need to be offended at all. The point, though, is that in refusing forgiveness and making yourself into God, the real God can’t forgive you. And this is not because He won’t, but because you can’t receive it.
So, whether we’re talking about that side of the cross or the one on which we live our lives, forgiveness is a must. If you want to be forgiven by God in Christ and by that able to enjoy a right relationship with Him, you must forgive everyone of everything. Anything less and such a relationship is impossible. Unforgiving people are unforgiven people. And unforgiven people have no place in God’s kingdom.
It’s time, then, to ask the hard question: Is there anyone in your life from whom you are withholding forgiveness? Think long and hard about that. Let the Holy Spirit bring to mind feelings you thought were buried so deeply you wouldn’t have to address them any longer. Maybe your accounts are clean. But if they’re not, what are you going to do about it? What you need to do Jesus made clear. Forgive. Forgive and be forgiven. It won’t be an easy road, but it will be the one that leads to life. I hope you’ll take it.