“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart”(Matthew 18:32-35).
Last week I asked the question: Why is God so bold as to impose his punishment on us if we refuse to forgive?
Because your heavenly Father knows that to refuse to forgive is to live in spiritual defeat. Holding on to anger and bitterness is like shifting into self-destruct, and when we chain ourselves to past hurts, we drag them into all our relationships. Hebrews 12:15 tells us that a bitter root produces a poisonous fruit. Sadly, unreleased injustices become an ongoing part of our identity, and much of life pivots off the pain. The painful moment defines us, then it becomes disruptive, robbing us of the abundant life that Jesus came to bring.
God knew that at Calvary all of us would lose the right to forgive, forever. Despite the wounds humanity inflicted upon him, Jesus chose to die for us anyway. It was the greatest expression of grace the world would ever know.
Steps to Healing
Understand that forgiveness is a process. Jesus says in Luke 17:3-4 that we should forgive “seven times a day” (which adds further understanding to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew). Luke stresses the continued life of discipleship. “Forgiveness must then be not only unlimited, but also daily and repeated. It is a continued practice rather than just a magnanimous action” (Justo Gonzalez, Luke). “The work of God in our lives will never be finished until we meet Jesus face to face . . . . It isn’t about being finished and perfect; spirituality is about trusting God in our unfinishedness” (Michael Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality). Colossians 3:13 says, “Keep on forgiving one another.”
Realize that forgiveness is not forgetting. The Bible never says to forgive and forget. It is not possible, unless we try to seal off the pain by burying it (and the problem with burying it is that its buried alive). The reality is that we all have scars, and there is no magic key within us that can be pushed to delete the pain. So here’s a better strategy: instead of forgetting it, remember it the right way. Remember that your memory can be part of your witness. Clara Barton was a nurse who founded the American Red Cross. A friend of hers tells about an experience she witnessed earlier in life when a particular woman was cruel to Clara. Despite the cruelty, Clara showed great kindness to the woman. Her friend asked her, “Clara, don’t you remember what she did to you?” Clara said, “I distinctly remember forgetting it.” In other words – I recall what she did, but more importantly, I recall the decision I made not to act toward her on the basis of what she did but on the basis of who I am. You can forgive somebody and still remember what the person did. God empowers us to remember rightly. Romans 5:20 says, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” The Gospel allows us to tell a new story. Like Joseph, it allows us to say after we have been hurt, “You intended it to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
Always think of forgiveness in terms of cancelling a debt. Forgiveness is not simply a feeling, it is a daily decision born out of time in the Scriptures and prayer. Like the king in our story, you must decide: I cancel the debt and you don’t owe me anymore. Jesus cancelled your debt, therefore you can cancel the debt of another. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Stop fanning the flames of your unforgiveness. So often we say we bury the hatchet, but we leave the handle sticking up so we can pick it up again. We’ve got to ask God to help us have spiritual mastery over that temptation.A couple of years ago a game came out called Angry Birds. If you haven’t played it, here’s how it works: There are some angry birds—why we don’t know—and they’re angry at pigs who live in structures, and for some reason the pigs need to be punished. With our skill of punching a button, we launch angry birds at the structures that collapse on the pigs, and that’s considered a victory. What happens to the birds? They blow up. Fun game, right? But why do I want to be an angry bird when trying to destroy the person I’m angry at is destroying me? By God’s grace, we must confront our anger, confess it, and give it over to the Lord. None of us are responsible for our wounds, but Jesus gives us the power for overcoming them.
Is there a person you have thought about a lot over the last month?
Do you really like that person?
One day Jesus was explaining how a person who has been wronged by another must work things out by first going to the person, and secondly taking others with him. Peter was listening to the discussion and was apparently reminded of someone who had hurt him in the past, not once but over and over. When Jesus finished, Peter pulled him off to the side and said, I’ve got a question for you. How often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Then, maybe trying to look impressive to the Lord, he said, “How about seven times?” (Matt. 18:21). Seven was a good Bible number. Yet in asking the question, Peter showed some confusion about the nature of forgiveness. (It is a confusion that many of us share). Like us, Peter made some assumptions, that forgiveness is for the benefit of the offender; therefore, if I want to do something nice for the offender, I’ll do them a favor and forgive them, even if it means doing so seven times. The idea is that to forgive is to do someone a favor.
You see, when we’re hurt, there is always the sense that the one who hurt us is a debtor to us. It’s why we make statements like: “You OWE me an apology!” We say of a boss, “She owes me respect,” or of a spouse: “He owes it to me to be more understanding.” When we experience pain there is always the sense that something has been taken from us that must be paid back. It’s the debt we fell we are owed, and we hold on to the debt, often building a case against the offender.
The result is that bitter feelings fill our hearts, and we think about the offending person much of the time.
Some in the counseling profession say there are two primary ways we deal with pain. We either exhibit turtle-like behavior, taking anger and stuffing it deep inside, or we respond more like a skunk, spraying the offending person personally with our words and spreading the news to everyone we know about just how sorry we think the offending person is.
Then, as victims, we ask questions like, “When is enough, enough?” and “When can I say I’ve done my part?”
In Matthew 18, Peter seems to be struggling with the same issue, so in the typical fashion that Jesus often employs, he tells Peter a story. Jesus knows that we listen to stories. They move us to think more deeply about a matter, to decide where we fit in the narrative. So he begins:
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed (23-34, NIV).
We don’t know what Peter was thinking, but it’s likely that about two thirds of the way through the story, Peter realizes that it’s not going in his direction. Perhaps Peter thought that he and God would take care of the person who had wronged him. But as the story goes, it occurs to Peter: God is the KING, I am the WICKED SERVANT; I have been forgiven a lot, yet I can’t forgive the small thing. And the moral is: “Peter, you have to forgive every single time, or God will deal with you.” Furthermore, Jesus ends with these words: This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart (verse 35). So here’s the big question: why is God so bold as to impose his punishment on us if we refuse to forgive? Continued next week . . .
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If you’ve been in ministry very long, you know the expectation. Though largely unwritten, it is nonetheless ever present: when something significant happens to any member, the preacher is expected to be there. From hospital stays to marital crises, it’s the job of the preacher to fix things, to get people through. It’s a congregational contract that says, “If you don’t show up, you are failing to do your job!” And it is precisely this expectation that is overwhelming many of our ministers. It is unreasonable, unsustainable, and may I suggest, unbiblical.
They call routinely. We talk over coffee. We pray. It’s not that they don’t love to care for others, but many of them are tired and haggard, pulled in two at the mercy of the next stumped toe. (One told me that when he asked for a job description, he was told, “We’re just gonna use you.” I told him that was code language for “We’re gonna ride you until you fall over, then go get another horse.”) So how did ministers come to be the primary caregivers in the church?
Greg Ogden (Transformational Discipleship) suggests that ministers have unconsciously been diverted from their primary calling of “equipping the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12). Which is, in fact, the nearest thing to a ministerial job description in Scripture. They are called to use their gifts “for the task of preparing, training, and discipling ordinary believers, referred to as saints, for their place of service in the body of Christ” (42). When equippers perform their role as God intended, the body of Christ is built up, there is unity of faith in the knowledge of God’s Son, and church members “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13). In order to disrupt the developmental maturity of the body, however, Satan diverts ministers from their God-given function of equipping the saints to disproportional amounts of pastoral care. One of his most effective tools is to see that caregiving is assigned to the “professionals.”
I suggest it’s time we got back to the Bible and started a fresh conversation. It’s time to consider (as Alan Hirsch writes in Forgotten Ways) that contrary to the clear witness and teachings of the New Testament, the pastor/priest and the teacher/preacher models have become so dominate that the equipping role of ministry has been neglected in the church. “The net effect is that the whole system [is] thus weighted in favor of doctrinal maintenance and pastoral care” (which is far removed from the New Testament idea of every person a disciple and a priest). “Because we have frozen out other forms of Jesus’s ministry from the original recipe, we have ended up with a profoundly reduced ministry. If we are ever to be the church that Jesus clearly intended us to be (Eph. 4:12-16), then we are going to have to do it according to his specific design (Eph. 4:7-11)” (206-207).
How My Ministry Has Changed
After 30 years of ministry, I tend to be more realistic than I used to be. Like many, I stood by every bedside and tried my best to solve every problem that came my way. Finally, I realized that the most effective work I could ever do was pour myself into a faithful few men and women “qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). I learned that God has not called me to be everyone’s hero, but more of a heromaker that creates a platform where others can stand.
Today, I’m more of an equipper. Maybe it’s because I moved from full time to bi-vocational ministry. (Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”) Yet as I reflect, the most important work I ever did was investing time and energy in capable men and women who learned how to care for the souls of others. Today, these are the men and women who are leading ministries and changing the world. With time, I learned that when ministers fulfill their God-ordained roles, a whole series of dominos fall into place – the body of Christ is built up, there is unity and maturity in the body, and the Kingdom advances. I think it’s time that church leaders ask: How can we restore a biblical understanding of congregational ministry?
Scripture gives a case study of how the apostles handled caregiving expectations (read Acts 6:1-7). “Apparently one of the solutions proposed was that the apostles should add serving the widows to their job description. After all, what better way to show your servant spirit than to care for widows, who are at the center of our Lord’s heart? They saw this solution as the temptation that it was. They could easily be distracted from their call to the ministry of the Word and prayer. In fact, their eventual solution expanded ministry by creating an opportunity for seven Greek-speaking men ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’ (Acts 6:3, NIV) to be added to the ministry force” (Ogden, 44). How does such an understanding give a fresh perspective of what an equipping ministry should look like?
The New Testament portrays a church where everyone is a minister. To the extent that ministers over perform by taking upon themselves responsibilities given to the whole body of believers, how is the ministry of the people of God undermined? In what way should a minister distance himself from everyone relying on him?
Jesus often turned away from the multitude. He would give a sack lunch to the many and give his heart to the few. How can church leaders give ministers permission and protection to reduce pastoral care so they can focus more on “equipping the saints for the works of ministry” (Eph. 4:12)? CONTACT US AND WE WILL BE HAPPY TO SHARE WITH YOU SOME BEST PRACTICES OF CHURCHES WHO ARE CHANGING LIVES BY GETTING BACK TO BASICS!