Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Necessary Art of Forgiveness

Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”  “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!  “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him.  In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.  He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.  “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’  Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.  “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars.  He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.  “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time.   ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded.  But his creditor wouldn’t wait.  He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.  “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset.  They went to the king and told him everything that had happened.   Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant!  I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me.  Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’  Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.  “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”  Matthew 18:21-35(NLT)
Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  A Christmas card I once received had this paragraph:
"If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator.  If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.  If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.  But since our greatest need was forgiveness, God sent us a Savior."
There are countless examples of forgiveness in the Old Testament.  Esau forgave his tricky brother, Jacob.  Joseph forgave his nasty brothers who sold him into slavery.  In the New Testament, the Gospel is replete with forgiving.  Jesus forgave sins – he forgave Judas in advance – he forgave his executioners from the cross – he forgave Peter for his denial.
Where does forgiveness start?  The dictionary defines forgiveness as: 
to grant pardon, to cease to blame, to cease feeling resentment towards.
Those are verbal descriptions of what happens when forgiveness is given; however, it doesn't answer the question about where forgiveness begins.  The Bible answers forthrightly (as with every other important question of life), that forgiveness begins in the heart. 
The Jews, God's very special people, were used to write almost our entire Bible.  In Jewish thought the human heart is the hidden spring of the personal life
In the Jewish wisdom library we find the Book of Proverbs, 30 chapters of the collected wit, lore and God-inspired thought of the race.  In those thirty chapters are more than eighty references to the heart as the center of living.
The Jewish concept of the heart is organized into three fields:
Reason or logic is our sense of understanding.  In Western thought we say it is the mind.  It is where intelligent creatures separate from the animal kingdom.  Problem-solving is a matter of the heart.
Emotion is the visceral announcement of the heart's condition and desires.  Much of our lives revolve around such emotions as love, anger, compassion, self-preserving instincts or emotions.
Will or moral choice is the place of the soul. 
·       Reason corresponds to the mental, or spirit capacity. 
·       Emotion corresponds to the body, and the
·       Will is the soulish part of us that makes moral decisions of right and wrong.
When we understand the different concepts of the heart of humans, (reason, emotion, will), it is then much easier to understand that, for the heart to truly forgive, all three must be involved.  It is the surrender of the total, threefold heart.

Surrender of Reason

In our parable the king knew that the debt was not payable.  There was no satisfying such a great sum ($10 million).  The Hatfields and McCoys felt the same way.  The 1880's newspapers were filled with accounts of this family feud.  Nobody seems able to recall how the thing got started.  Reports are that it was either Metaphysical and Philosophical divergence on the Civil War postures, or it was hog stealing.  Either way, nearly 100 men women and children died.  It didn't make a lot of sense.  There was no surrender to reason. 
In 1976 Jim McCoy and Willis Hatfield – the last two survivors who took part in the fighting – shook hands at a public ceremony to dedicate a memorial to the victims.  McCoy died at 99 years old in 1984.  His burial was conducted at the Hatfield Funeral Home in Toler, KY.[ii]
Christian reasoning is different from the worldly reasoning; the Bible tells us to be different.  The world sees unilateral forgiveness as a refreshing exception.  In the Kingdom of God it is the living, breathing norm!
The surrender of our reason means allowing our thinking/mind to be controlled and governed by God's Word.  There are several components to surrendering our “reason”:
Response to the command of Jesus 
   (seventy times seven)
Peter knew the Jewish rule; forgive a wrong once, twice, three times, then take revenge.  He thought he was being magnanimous by more than doubling it to seven times.  Jesus told him to forget his scorecard, and just forgive.  We are also commanded to forgive like that.
And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 
2 Corinthians 5:18(NLT)
Our business as the church is the ministry of reconciling people to Christ.  We cannot imagine to even begin to talk of reconciling others to a God we cannot see if we cannot forgive and be reconciled to the brothers we can see. 
A lack of forgiveness hampers the work of the Holy Spirit of God in us.  There are some things that do not break our fellowship – these hardly need to be considered.  However, if there is something that continually eats away at your insides, it must be dealt with.  A good rule of thumb is:  Anything that can't be forgotten is probably not forgiven either!  It must be driven from your relationship with your Christian brother or sister in open, face-to-face reconciliation.
There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.  James 2:13(NLT)
Surrendering our reason means allowing God to have final say in our thinking process. 
In our text, the unjust steward, who wouldn't forgive his fellow servant who only owed him $20, didn't reason well.  He had been forgiven much; he wouldn't forgive even a little. 
We have always heard how the Father's love is unconditional; this is not the case with His forgiveness.  When we refuse to forgive, we refuse to be forgiven.  A dear friend of mine said to me recently that forgiving others is the hard part of that!  Uh…yeah!
A preacher wrote, Can you humbly beseech God, and with tearful eyes look up to Him for pardon while you have your foot upon your brother's neck or your hand at his throat?"[iii]

Surrender of Emotions

The text says the servant's master took pity (had compassion) on him.  It is not easy to surrender your emotions, especially when you believe you've been wronged or hurt.  It is perhaps the most difficult part of forgiveness to place yourself in the other person's shoes, and feel his pain.  It is not right to fake compassion, attempting to manufacture or manipulate feelings that aren't really there. 
However, The Bible demands (and integrity dictates) that we earnestly seek to surrender our emotions, and let God help us with feeling for those whom we need to forgive. 
There are two disciplines we can enter into in order to help our compassion:
Identify with the Immensity of our debt
The wicked servant owed $10-12 million.  That's a large debt! (Except for our government -- they don't notice anything under sixty billion!) 
George Buttrick said, A cross was raised to forever silence the heresy that forgiveness was easy
When someone has wronged you, it will be easier to surrender your emotions if you first consider how much Jesus has forgiven you before you get all hurt and angry over what your brother has done to you.
Imitate the Intensity of His Love
 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Eph 4:32 (NIV)
The family of God is tied from individual to individual with a bond of love.  Love is verbal, visceral and visible.  To surrender our emotions to each other means we cannot be "cold fish," nor can we be seething hotbeds of anger.  We must seek to imitate the intensity of the love of Christ.  It was He who wept over Jerusalem who stoned the prophets; it was He who wept over Lazarus; it was He who groaned for each of us in the Garden of Gethsemane.
To imitate the intensity of Jesus' love is to act that way until we feel that way.  C.S. Lewis wrote, "It would be quite wrong to think that the way to become 'loving' is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings.  Some people are 'cold' by temperament; that may be a misfortune for them, but it is no more a sin than having a bad digestion is sin, and it does not cut them off from the chance, or excuse them from the duty, of learning 'love.'  The rule for us all is perfectly simple.  Do not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did...When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love them.    If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more.  If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less."[iv]

Surrender of Will

In the story of the wicked servant, the king wiped out the debt and allowed the man to start over.  A church member told me that her family had a dozen children.  When they were grown, whenever one was ill, or had other trouble, the other eleven would band together to help with the bills.  When the trouble or illness was over, there was nothing to repay. 
This is the way God forgives us when we act in faith.  In Exodus we read of God's people being passed over by the death angel.  Moses had instructed the people to kill the lamb and put the blood on the door posts.  Those that did were released from their debt of sin, and the death angel would pass over that household.  Forgiveness demands that we:
Have a Passover
A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.   Prov 19:11 (NIV)
Sometimes you are absolutely right.  Sometimes the other fella is absolutely wrong.  He hurt you, he was wrong, he should be hung!  (At least we think so!)  I want to assure you that the details are less important in the eyes of eternal Almighty God, than the relationship of your brother and you.  In the early part of this chapter the Lord said if your brother offends you (even if he's dead wrong) you go to him and begin to get it straightened out!
Make it a Priority
Experience tells us that reconciling and forgiveness require all three parts of a man's heart.  When we forgive only with the reason, or mind, it will fail us when our emotions flare up.  Forgiveness that is based solely on an emotional tug of the heartstrings will fade with time.  There must be reason, emotion AND a definite choice of the will.  When we submit that will to Christ, and humbly forgive, our prayer is heard in heaven.

How Do You Do It?

How do you forgive with the mind, emotions and will, and actually make it stick?
Five Suggestions:
1.     Pray - Nothing great is ever accomplished without God.
2.     Choose to forgive, and then choose to never again hold it against him/her.  Remember, when God forgives He casts our sin into the deepest part of the sea’ then He puts up a No Fishing sign.
3.     Seek for some good quality in that person on which to dwell.  Consider that person your former adversary.
4.     Relax Don’t judge, and don’t worry.  Let your own goodness be the only thing the Holy Spirit has to use to convict the person of wrongdoing. 
5.     Do something sacrificial for that person.
According to ancient Oriental tradition, whenever a debt was settled, either by payment or forgiveness, the creditor would take the canceled bond and nail it over the door of the one who owed it.  Anyone passing by could then see that it had been fully paid. 
Jesus did that for us.  That is exactly the meaning of the word Jesus cried out from the cross:  tetelestai – it is finished! 
We should do it for each other.  We should do it now!
1 Hand-PenIn the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen

[i] Title image:  By US Air Force Public Affairs, via Wikimedia Commons
[ii] Peter Johnson, USA Today, (4-14-88)  Mrs Naomi Perry of Gainesville, Fl is a descendant of the original McCoy's.  She was married to my father-in-law for a brief time (they didn't get along any better than her ancestors).
[iii] Marcus Dods, The Parables Of Our Lord, (NY, Fleming H. Revell Co, c.1900) 130
[iv] The Bible Illustrator,  (Hiawatha, Ia, Parson's Technology, 1990) 2200-2209

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