Our debt to God is jaw-dropping. Take a moment to consider just how deep God’s forgiveness is for you. What debts has God released you from? What sins have you committed against your Creator? Consider the cost of that forgiveness. Spend time reading the accounts of Christ on the cross and see the love of your loving God who loved you so much he gave his Son to pay the price of your sins (Matt 27:27–55; John 19:1–37; Heb. 12:1–17).
“How can I forgive them?” It’s a question spoken out of a yearning to release the one who has inflicted injury. It’s a question that is said out of hurt and sometimes anger.
How do we forgive the person who keeps sinning against us? How do we forgive the one who sins against us in a grievous way? How do we forgive the individual who sins against us and isn’t repentant?
And when I ask, How, I do not so much have the mere mechanics of forgiveness in mind—although I mean this too—but the resources of the heart that might enable one to forgive. Where do these resources come from? We need to know because forgiveness, we read in Scripture, is mandatory for a Christian. In his depiction of how we ought to pray, Jesus seems to bind our forgiveness from God with the forgiveness we offer others, saying, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12).
Knowing that we might choke on that commandment, Jesus offers an explanation for the stakes of our forgiveness at the end of his prayer. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14–15). Yikes. There it is, in black and white. We must forgive the one who has offended us.
Now, to be clear, this is no spiritual tit-for-tat. Jesus is not saying that God will withhold forgiveness from us until we grant it to others. Rather, what Jesus is saying is that the forgiveness we receive from him is demonstrated in our forgiveness of others. Those who have received forgiveness will forgive.
Jesus is also not saying that forgiveness is the same as reconciliation. We might forgive someone, but their lack of repentance or change in behavior might mean that we are unable to trust them again. Jesus does not command that we reconcile with everyone (although, in Christ, that of course is our hope). But Jesus unhesitatingly does demand that we forgive.
But how can we muster forgiveness for everyone? Jesus tells one of the most unforgettable short stories ever told that points us to how we can possibly forgive those who have hurt us badly. The story goes like this:
Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, “Pay what you owe.” So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. (Matt 18:23–35)