Today we talk about forgiveness.

You may click here for today’s passage which is Matthew 18:21-22


Today we continue our series, “Figuring Out Faith,” in which we are taking phrases from the hymn, “Come Thou Fount,” and looking at them through the lens of the disciple Peter’s life. 

Today the phrase is “teach me.” And I want to combine that phrase with another one, “O to grace how great a debtor.” Teach me that I am indebted to grace and allow that grace to help me understand how I can give grace and forgiveness to others.  

So today we are saying, “Teach me forgiveness.”

Our starting place with forgiveness

Have you ever felt that forgiving someone was a burden for you? You want to be free from the cycle of replaying the wrong done to you repeatedly, but to bring yourself to the point of forgiving them is so painful that it requires you to work through so much additional pain that it is exhausting. Have you ever felt that way? 

We know we would be better off to forgibve, but we also have these deep hurts and these real questions. How can I forgive someone who hurt me so deeply? What do I do with these deep feelings?

When the prophet Isaiah describes the Messiah, he says he is, “a man of sorrows, someone acquainted with grief.” I think that is key to our conversation. 

When we begin the act of forgiving someone, we enter the act of grief, because we acknowledge the truth of our pain and how we really feel. 

Learning to forgive can be painful, but Christ enters our suffering and makes it possible.

If forgiveness feels like a burden to you, Isaiah says Christ is your friend. He is there to deliver you from that cycle of pain and possible bitterness. He identifies with you and enters your suffering. 

When you forgive, you are voluntarily taking up the cross and following Jesus. Jesus enters the suffering with you and helps you say also, “I forgive you. Father, God, forgive them,” which is another way of saying, “I wish them no harm.” That is the root of forgiveness—absorbing the hurt in yourself and not seeking vengeance on the other person.

As we will see, forgiveness is a path to victory because it allows you to reclaim your independence from the emotional control the pain or the person has over you. 

Let’s look at the passage in context, and then talk about what forgiveness is and isn’t.

Jesus Teaches Us to Forgive

Jesus is in the process of teaching his disciples how to live with others. They are about to become major leaders in the Christian church.   

Effective, in the passage before this, Jesus says, “I’m about to leave this world and you are not going to be able to live with God anymore. You are going to have to go live with humans and humans are going to hurt you, so you are going to have to teach others how to live in this world. You must teach them how to forgive.”

And Peter answers in the form of a question, “Okay, so what you are saying is this, if someone hurts me, I should forgive them 7 times, right?”

If we were there at that moment, we would have said, “Good answer, Peter,” because what Peter is saying is good. Seven represents completeness.

Jesus replies, “Seventy times seven.” Peter, you all are to forgive in a never-ending way. You are to never stop learning to forgive someone who has hurt you. You are to put no expiration date, and no limit on your forgiveness.

Hesitations and Roadblocks

Let’s be honest; just because Jesus said it, doesn’t make it easy. It may make it true and instructive, but this is difficult to live out! It is quite possible that “forgive” is the hardest command.

Let’s notice why it’s hard. Sometimes we don’t know how best to go about forgiving someone. Do I talk to them or not talk to them? Does forgiveness require a face-to-face conversation or a conversation at all?

Sometimes we resist forgiveness because we are hurt and forgiveness may call us to revisit the hurt once more, and to feel the pain again is too much. We may need to seek a professional counselor to help us heal and process our trauma so that we can come to a point of forgiveness. That’s okay.

What I’m trying to say to you is this – if you are currently struggling or have ever struggled to forgive someone, that doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a hurt person who is in the healing and forgiving process.  

There are other reasons too why we hesitate to forgive and it is usually due to how we misunderstand what forgiveness is. Let’s talk about several of these.

What Forgiveness Is and Is Not

1. If I forgive someone, I’m letting them off the hook.

We can think that if we forgive someone, we are telling them, “No big deal.” You don’t have to have consequences for your behavior. I’m saying, it’s okay.

You may hear this with your own children when one of them says to the other, “I am mad at you and I will never forgive you, ever.” What they are saying is that you hurt me and I’m really angry at you about it.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you are absolving them of guilt. Forgiveness is NOT saying, “You are innocent.” 

As we will see, forgiveness names the wrong and names it as wrong. Instead of evading the truth, forgiveness speaks the truth. 

2. If I forgive them, then I must stay in a relationship with them.

If I forgive them as God forgives me, then doesn’t that mean I need to continue in a relationship with them? It is true that when God forgives us, God reconciles us. Sin does break relationships apart, but reconciliation between people or groups isn’t automatic or instant. Reconciliation takes time and is often steps in a process that is based on regaining trust. 

In some cases, the relationship should not continue. If there is fear or safety concerns. The idea of forgiveness has been used to manipulate people in to remaining in harmful relationships. Forgiveness does not require a relationship to remain as it was.

In some cases, the act of forgiveness allows open dialogue and you both can work through the matter with one another. Sometimes forgiveness saves the relationship you really want to keep but didn’t think was possible.

3. If I really truly forgave them, then I wouldn’t feel this way.

Forgiveness is not a feeling and forgiveness is not forgetting. You are not a robot. 

We may decide to forgive someone, but then days, week, months, or even years later, remember what happened to us, and feel the same feelings as if it just occurred again.

What do we do?

When the memory of the hurt comes back up, you remind yourself, this is what they did to me. It was wrong. This is how it made me feel. This is how it makes me feel. I chose to forgive them and I acknowledge my forgiveness. I wish them no harm as I bear the emotional pain and give this to God and ask the Lord heal the hurt I feel.“

Instead of fighting these memories and feelings, we can acknowledge the truth of them and also give them to God. Remember Jesus’ words, 70 times 7. Forgiveness is both an act and an ongoing process.

You have forgiven them and you are learning how to forgive them. You have forgiven them and you are learning that you have forgiven them.

4. Forgiveness does not depend on the other person’s response.

Jason, I went to the person, and they didn’t apologize or see that they did anything wrong at all. So now you have two things to forgive!

That happened to me once and if there was some way to reach through the phone, I would have totally poured soy milk into that guy’s coffee. 

I remember it so clearly. I was standing in our driveway talking on my cell phone outside our home in Santa Ana, California. The wind was blowing lightly through that beautiful Chinese Elm next door and the palm trees in our backyard and that guy denied what was self-evident (to which 3 other people were witnesses). And I had to muster the energy of the Big Bang to say, “Nevertheless, so it is clear between us both. I forgive you and I wish you no harm.” 

Forgiveness does not depend on their reaction. Forgiveness is an act you take. 

This is good news.

If forgiveness depended on the other person, you might be chained to that person or that pain for the remainder of your life. Forgiveness allows you to cut yourself free and experience freedom.

You cannot control the past, but you get to decide who influences your future. Some people will never admit they are wrong. Some people leverage their meanness and callousness or their power over you. They do not care if you forgive them or not. If you are basing your future on their response, you could spend the rest of your life being miserable and that is what they want. But thank the Lord, that God has given us the gift of forgiveness that allows us to cut ourselves free from the burden of hurt and pain.

If forgiveness does not depend on the other person’s response, that also means we can make peace with those in our lives who have moved away or passed away.

If someone is unsafe for you, you can forgive them at a distance. Forgiveness does not require a conversation. Sometimes a conversation is helpful for closure, but it is not required.

The Financial Example of Forgiveness/Relational Capital

In banking, in finance, we can have a checking account. I have my account and you have yours. Those two are kept separate. Another type of account is when two people share an account and that is called a joint-checking account. 

When people relate to one another they automatically open up a joint banking account. If you do something positive for me or to me, you make a deposit. If I do something positive for you or to you, then I make a deposit. Over time, we build a lot of capital together, and another name for that capital is trust and love. 

We will occasionally refer to this when we say, “I am rich in friendships.” It makes sense. I have a lot of joint-checking accounts with some very high balances.

In this example, I make a deposit and you make a deposit. However, one day you do something that hurts me. That’s a withdrawal, a debt. The following day, I do something that hurts you. That’s a debt, a withdrawal.

If you and I have a good relationship with plenty of capital (trust), you will say, “I will overlook that.” What you are doing is this–I will not make Jason pay me back. I will absorb the debt in myself and I do not expect him to pay me back.

However, sometimes we hurt each other so deeply that it creates such a withdrawal that it threatens to empty the account altogether, and it jeopardizes the relationship. It cannot go without notice or without someone addressing it.

Let’s stop and think about how we talk about this in our American vernacular. We view relationships as single bank accounts mostly. Someone hurts us and we reply, “You hurt me and I’m going to make you pay for what you did to me.” And we think, when I hurt them back I’m simply taking from their bank account. You are withdrawing from your joint bank account and you only end up creating more debt and end up hurting yourself.

Our human instinct says, “They hurt me,” so I’m going to MAKE YOU PAY to get even and we seek retribution, but there is no getting even because you only create more debt. Violence creates more violence. Hurt creates more hurt. Debt causes more debt.

The BIG question we face is this, “When they hurt me, what will I do with that debt?” Will I seek “pay back?” That’s the definition of retribution, by the way. Tribute was something that was owed. The prefix “re” means again, so retribution is something you make someone pay again or pay back.

What will I do with the hurt, with the debt? Will I act in a way that will create more debt and more harm, or will I act in a way that takes violence and harm out of circulation?

What Jesus teaches is in this passage is this: you absorb the debt emotionally in yourself. This is where we get the word “forgiveness.” It is a financial term. Forgiveness is voluntarily agreeing to absorb the debt of hurt in yourself and not seeking to make the other person pay.         

This does not mean you are absolving them of guilt or excusing their behavior or agreeing to not press criminal charges when appropriate. It means, in essence, when you did this to me, you created a debt. Instead of unfairly harming you back, I will absorb this pain in my emotions and I don’t expect you to pay me back. I wish you no harm.

Forgive us our debts, God, as we forgive those who have debts with us.

Instead of devaluing your feelings, forgiveness validates your feelings and says, “No wonder you feel this way! This is a debt and debts are heavy!”

Instead of offending your sense of justice, forgiveness validates right and wrong and names it as such. It holds the person responsible for their actions and gives you, the victim, your power back.

The Forgiveness of God and Us

This week is a very consequential week for us. This Thursday Jesus will be betrayed. We will reenact that fateful night with The Living Last Supper. Friday, Jesus will be crucified.

There are many ways we can understand the cross and I want to use today to look at the cross through non-retaliatory forgiveness.

The Roman Empire and other folks thought they had power over Jesus. They thought they could strip him of dignity and humanity through verbal abuse, physical abuse, stripping him naked, and humiliating him in public. Think about this for a Rabbi – to be naked in front of the people you taught. It’s degrading and harsh.

Jesus utters seven things from the cross and one of those phrases is, “No, not even your behavior toward me in this kind of way will take my power away. I forgive you. Father, forgive them.” In other words, “I wish you no harm.”

Through Jesus, God is screaming out over the earth, you can hurt me, punch me, malign me, ignore me, misunderstand me, or mischaracterize me, but I refuse to retaliate with violence and make you pay me back. I will absorb the debt in myself. Because God is infinite and eternal, our debts can be infinitely and eternally absorbed by God. That is what is happening on the cross.

In the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 103:10, “God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor does God pay us back according to our iniquities.”

Did you catch that? God does not say, “I’m going to make you pay for what you’ve done!” No, God says, “I will absorb the debt into my eternal and loving self so that the relationship between you and me can continue.”

That is the message of the cross. God says, “I will never strike you back. I absorb the debt so our relationship can continue.” You may have thought your sin would break your relationship with God forever, but forgiveness has saved the relationship.

When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we are saying, Lord, as we have acted in our relationship with you and have hurt you and created debts that you have forgiven, help us to forgive those who have so acted in our lives that they have created debts against us.

Friends, this week, this holy week, search your hearts and consider this message of forgiveness. Pray to the Lord, “Teach me. Teach me how to forgive.” 

Jesus will join you and will help you carry that cross and will liberate you from the sins committed against you so that you may live a new life, resurrected from the grave of harm.

And you will praise the Lord, not seven times, but seventy times seven!

This sermon series on figuring our faith is inspired by the work of The liturgical help and scriptural framing were beneficial for my study and sermon writing. Each week I highlight a phrase from the hymn “Come Thou Fount” and view it through the life of the disciple Peter.

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