The Sting in Forgiveness
While going through a sermon series on Jonah recently, the pastor used an excellent illustration which served to build his message and also to introduce me to the story of Gordon Wilson. Gordon owned a small business in Northern Ireland during the 1980’s. While living amongst the unrest in his country, Gordon did not support the Irish Republican Army and their quest to be independent of British rule. While honoring fallen British soldiers at a Remembrance Day ceremony in 1987, Gordon and his daughter Marie quickly became victims of an IRA bomb. The bomb trapped them underneath rubble for several hours until they were rescued. Gordon would recover from his wounds, but his daughter would not make it through the night. Gordon was interviewed shortly after he recovered and his response to those who should have become his enemies was astounding.
“I will bear no ill will. I will bear no grudge. Bitter talk is not going to bring her back to life. I will pray tonight, and every night for the men who did this that God will forgive them.”
Gordon’s words of forgiveness would speak louder than any of the violence that took place that year. His response was so contrary to the normal attitude of everyone around him, that all felt shame for their hatred.
Since our world is a broken place hampered by sin, forgiveness is a necessity in practically every human relationship that we have. Forgiveness is needed because it is the means by which friendships are repaired and enhanced. Without it, relationships deteriorate and never come to reconciliation for any hurt that has been caused.
At its core, forgiveness is the act of granting a pardon for an offense. Often times it is also viewed as the cancelling of a debt. Both of these ideas are very similar and have much overlap, even to the degree that they are inseparable. For me, it is both helpful to define the terms being used and to see them played out practically. In this case, Gordon Wilson’s actions and words convey the definition of forgiveness to me just as well as a precise definition. Gordon’s expression of forgiveness does not just line up with the dictionary definition of forgiveness; it also lines up with the biblical definition.
Matthew 18 is the chapter that people run to when matters of church discipline arise, as it should be, but this portion has much more to say about forgiveness than it does about church discipline. Verse 15 portrays a situation of one person seeking reconciliation by offering forgiveness to someone who has sinned against them. This is followed by two more steps to take if things do not end in reconciliation. In essence, this portion is about how we are to proceed when we want to offer forgiveness to our neighbour.
However, the conversation and parable that come next deal with the attitude we have when we do not want to offer forgiveness. I would also argue that the point of this section is to bring us to a place where we want to give forgiveness like in verse 15, by showing us the surpassing greatness of God’s forgiveness. The following parable of the unforgiving servant can easily lose its edge in Christian circles because it seems to be so commonplace and simple. While the principle of forgiveness may be easily seen and grasped by reading this passage, its depth is far from commonplace.
The parable begins with a king settling accounts with his servants. Perhaps he owed wages to some while required payment from others. During this process, a servant enters the room that has a loan out from the king of ten thousand talents. This may not seem like a lot at first, but considering that one talent was worth twenty years’ worth of labour, it quickly adds up to a considerable sum. Assuming a yearly salary of $40,000 it would be equivalent to $8 trillion in our currency. So in his desperation, the servant falls to the ground and asks for patience in repaying the debt, which he promises to do. The king sees his servant’s pitiable situation and has mercy upon him and completely forgives the massive amount that he owed. Just like that, the massive burden that was upon the servant is lifted.
With the prospect of spending life in the debtor’s prison behind him, the servant can now enjoy a life of relative freedom and ease. But rather than do this, he knocks on the door of somebody who owes him money. This fellow servant owes him the equivalent of $15,000 by the same pay scale as before. This is still a considerable sum, but rather than forgive the debt as the king did for him, the servant is out to receive every penny of the loan. He is even willing to ruin the life of his fellow servant in order to get that money. The parable ends with a reversal as the king receives word of his servant’s unforgiveness and lays the $8,000,000,000,000 debt back upon him.
This parable of Jesus reveals the classic tendency of mankind to withhold forgiveness. While we know and believe that forgiveness is a good thing and that it leads to the best possible outcome, we still easily justify our way out of forgiving another person. We can do this is a variety of ways, but ultimately any way we get around forgiving others is sin. I am not saying that every situation needs a face to face conversation in order to be free of sin, but just as Jesus said in Matthew 18, we need to forgive each other from the heart first and foremost.
The part that stops us oftentimes is that forgiving someone bothers us. It is there and oftentimes we don’t even know why. True forgiveness requires us to deny ourselves the desire to keep bitterness and anger against those we have forgiven. Keeping a grudge may indicate that true forgiveness never actually took place. This idea stings us and quite often keeps us from offering forgiveness in the first place. Deep down, the real problem that we have with forgiveness is that we have to accept the fact that we are actually no better than the person we are forgiving. We are all fallen people in a fallen world that are in need of God’s grace. Indeed, we are all just castaways in need of rope. This makes forgiving one another a true act of humility because it destroys any pride that we thought we were entitled to. And this hurts because we are all prone to pride, and far too often this stops many people from ever experiencing reconciliation.
The very way we overcome this sting in forgiving one another is not found in a set of rules or legal steps, but rather it is found in the heart of the gospel. Those whose faith is in Jesus have been forgiven the tremendous debt that they owed to God, even greater than $8 trillion could ever be. God redeemed our eternal souls from sin and death while we were still enemies of Him. Even after being redeemed we still act in rebellion towards Him and yet we do not exceed the depths of God’s great forgiveness towards us. It is upon this gospel truth that we go into the world and forgive others generously. This is the only way by which Gordon Wilson could have forgiven those responsible for the death of his daughter. It is also the only way in which we will forgive others in a way that is pleasing to God, and by which we will overcome the sting of forgiveness.