“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.