Forgive as You Are Forgiven: A Story of Mercy
I forgive you.
Hard words to say, but words that hold incredible healing power; healing to the person who hears them, and healing to the person who speaks them.
Forgiveness is difficult – sometimes it feels impossible. As we dig into a parable about someone who refused to forgive, we’ll see what forgiveness is, what it’s not, why it’s essential, and how we can forgive even the most grievous offenses against us.
In Matthew 18:21-35 is a story Jesus told to teach about the importance of forgiving others.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
How Many Times Should We Forgive?
In the passage just before this story (Matthew 18:15-20), Jesus explained to the disciples how to deal with people in the church who had sinned. Jesus gave them steps to follow to confront them and restore them if possible.
And then Peter asked this question:
“Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Matthew 18:21
The number seven was a number people used to indicate perfection. You know how today people post 💯 on social media to indicate that something is awesome or perfect? That’s what Peter was doing here. Peter thinks he’s being generous asking if he should forgive as many as seven (the perfect number) times. But Jesus responds,
“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Matthew 18:22
Jesus blows Peter’s generous suggestion out of the water. Jesus tells him to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven!
And then Jesus told a story – a parable – to explain what he meant by that.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”
Jesus used parables to teach what the kingdom of heaven was like. This is what forgiveness – and unforgiveness – looks like in the economy of the kingdom of heaven.
An Impossible Debt to Pay
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.”
A talent was the largest monetary unit they had. (Some translations say, “thousand bags of gold”.) The largest monetary unit we print in the U.S. is the $100 bill. In 1969, the Federal Reserve quit issuing the$500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 bills since they were so sparsely circulated.
A talent was equal to 6,000 drachma. A drachma was equal to about a typical day’s wages. So one talent was worth 6,000 days’ wages. This servant owed the king 10,000 talents – about 60 million drachma, or 60 million days’ wages.
It’s like saying he owed a bazillion dollars.
A ridiculously impossible amount to pay.
“But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.”
The servant asked for patience and time to pay back the debt – which was kind of ridiculous because it would have taken him over 100,000 years to repay his debt.
The king surprised them all not only by showing patience, but by showing mercy beyond anything they could imagine.
Instead of simply giving the servant more time to come up with the money he owed, the king cancelled his entire debt and set him free.
An Unmerciful Servant
“But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ “
A dinarius was worth a little less than a drachma, so 100 dinarii was a little less than 100 drachma – or under 100 day’s wages. His fellow servant owed him less than one year’s wages. Not much in comparison to what he had owed the king.
“His fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and threw him in prison until he paid back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened.
Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.”
“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
This man had been shown incredible mercy. One would think he’d show the same mercy to others. But he didn’t. He was forgiven a debt he could never repay, but he refused to forgive a fellow servant who very well could have repaid his debt.
God Forgives a Debt We Can’t Pay
God forgives us the way that king forgave his servant’s debt.
Just like the first servant, we owe a debt we can’t possible repay.
Romans 3:23 reminds us that we have all sinned.
And Romans 6:23 tells us that the wages of that sin, the consequence or the payment for sin, is death.
What we all owe, we could never be repay; and death is the result.
BUT – there’s good news!!
The rest of Romans 6:23 goes on to tell us that the FREE gift of God is eternal life through Jesus. Through Jesus, we’re forgiven our impossible debt. Through Jesus, we receive life instead of death.
Like that king, God is surprisingly generous and merciful.
Forgiving Others as We’re Forgiven
It only makes sense when we are forgiven such an impossible debt and are given such an incredible gift that we would be quick to offer the same to others.
But this is not always the case. Forgiving is not always that easy.
We all have people in our lives that we need to forgive. People who’ve done us wrong or have caused us harm. Some things are not so hard to forgive. Other things are extremely difficult to forgive; especially in a society that preaches,
“Don’t get mad, get even.”
“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
But the kingdom of heaven is not like the kingdom of this world. The kingdom of heaven teaches us to forgive – seventy times seven. In other words, we are to forgive over and over and over again.
Why is it So Hard to Forgive?
My husband abandoned me years ago. He lied to me. He betrayed me. The trust we had was broken when he broke the vows he made. He hurt me. And when my friend and mentor, Luanne, told me, “You know, you’re going to have to forgive him” I said, “I know, but I don’t want to!”
Why don’t we want to forgive?
In his book, The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How, Lewis B. Smedes explains that when we hurt, we want the one who hurt us to experience our pain. We want them to feel what we feel. But making someone feel what we feel can never remove our hurt. Even if they hurt, it will never heal us or truly make us feel better. In the end, it’s very unsatisfying.
Ultimately, when we won’t forgive – or can’t forgive – we either don’t understand (or don’t remember) the infinite forgiveness we’ve received, or we don’t understand what forgiveness really is.
I think I struggled forgiving for all of the above reasons, but it wasn’t until I fully understood what forgiveness is and what it’s not that I was able to begin to forgive.
What Forgiveness Is
Forgiveness can be defined as consciously deciding to let go of our feelings of resentment, our need to see the offender suffer, or our right to restitution.
The Greek word often translated “forgiveness”, ἄφεσιν (aphesin), means a letting go, a release, a pardon.
Someone who’s hurt us owes us a debt. There’s really no way they could make up for what they did; no way they could possibly repay that debt. When we forgive them, we cancel the debt – just like the king cancelled the servant’s debt.
Letting go of our anger. Demanding nothing in return. No grudges. No retaliation.
Forgiveness is extending the same grace and mercy that God extended to us.
What Forgiveness Is Not
Though it’s essential that we understand what forgiveness is, it’s equally important that we understand what forgiveness is not. (And truthfully, understanding what forgiveness is not was what helped me the most.)
Forgiveness IS NOT excusing what the person did to us.
When we forgive, we don’t condone or excuse what they did. What they did is not OK. It will never be OK. They can never undo what they did to us; but just as God forgives us for things we can’t undo, we can also forgive.
Forgiveness IS NOT forgetting what they did.
Forgiving is not forgetting the offense happened. It’s not pretending that it never happened, either. When we forgive, we remember what they did, but we no longer wish them harm. It’s OK to remember. In fact, it can protect us from being hurt in similar ways again. But we stop holding on to the hurt, the anger and the bitterness. Forgiving someone enables us to let go of these things.
Forgiving someone doesn’t mean letting them off the hook.
When we forgive someone, it doesn’t mean we’re letting them get away with what they’ve done. For instance, God forgave King David when he took Bathsheba for himself and arranged for her husband to be killed. (See David’s story in 2 Samuel 11 & 12 and David’s plea for forgiveness in Psalm 51.) But David still lived through the consequences of his sin.
Forgiven people can still be held accountable for their actions. They may even be subject to legal accountability. Unfortunately, people sometimes do get away with things they’ve done – even if we don’t forgive them.
Forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean restoration of a relationship.
Forgiving someone can pave the way to restoring a broken relationship; but sometimes a relationship is so damaged, that we can’t just pick up where we left off even if we’ve forgiven.
I experienced this reality first hand.
A Lost Friendship
When my kids were little, I had a very close friend whose kids were the same ages as mine. We spent hours talking while our babies sat in high chairs eating Cheerios. We prayed with each other, and for each other. Our kids became best buddies.
Then something happened. She started meeting random men and sleeping with them in dangerous places. Even after she told her husband, she continued. He was devastated, but he didn’t know what to do.
When her son’s birthday came around, she called to invite my boys to a sleep-over. I didn’t feel safe letting my boys go to the party for several reasons: the worst being that her husband might harm himself or her while my kids were there. I just couldn’t take that chance. It didn’t mean my kids could never play with hers again. It just meant not at their house; not overnight; not at this time.
She swore at me and hung up on me.
She wouldn’t talk to me for a very long time.
More than a year later, she called. She apologized for swearing at me and for walking away from our friendship. Then she asked me to forgive her.
I loved her like a sister and grieved the loss of our friendship as though someone died. Of course I would forgive her! I missed her and wanted things to be like they used to be. And frankly, I find it easier to forgive someone who’s sorry and asks for forgiveness.
But resuming our relationship wasn’t so easy. Sometimes a relationship is damaged beyond repair.
My friend and I got together a few times, but things were never the same. It was clear that even though I forgave her, we would never be as close as we once were.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting unsafe people back into our lives.
Sometimes it’s just not safe to resume a relationship even if we’ve forgiven the one who hurt us. If they physically hurt us or emotionally abused us, we may need to set boundaries for our own protection – and those boundaries may include no contact with that person.
Forgiveness does’t mean we have to put ourselves in a position to be hurt, mistreated, or taken advantage of again.
When I told my mentor I didn’t want to forgive my husband, this was something I didn’t yet understand. I was not only struggling with wanting him to hurt as much as he had hurt me. I was also terrified of being hurt again myself.
People were encouraging me to be friends with him “for the sake of the children.” But, I didn’t trust him and it was frightening to imagine being that vulnerable. My ex had never asked for forgiveness. He didn’t believe he did anything he needed to be forgiven for. What was to stop him from hurting me again? How could I be friends with someone I didn’t feel safe with? How could I forgive him if it meant resuming an unsafe relationship?
But once I understood that forgiving my ex didn’t mean I had to let him into my life again, I was able to begin my journey toward forgiveness. I set healthy boundaries which included limited contact for my own sake, and I began to heal.
Understanding What We’ve Received
Forgiving someone who has wronged us makes more sense when we truly understand how much we’ve been forgiven.
What we deserve for our own sin is eternal punishment.
When we put our faith in Jesus, we get what we don’t deserve – forgiveness. That’s grace. We don’t get what we DO deserve. That’s mercy.
Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Grace is getting what we don't deserve. Click To Tweet
Forgive as We’ve Been Forgiven
What we offer to those who sin against us is the same: forgiveness, mercy, grace.
“Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” NIV
The New Living Translation words it this way:
“Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.”
Forgive as we’ve been forgiven.
In Colossians 3:12-14, Paul tells us,
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
As God’s people, forgive each other.
And Mark 11:25 tells us,
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Forgive so we may be forgiven.
Forgiving is hard – especially when the offender doesn’t ask for forgiveness. And some offenses are so egregious that they seem impossible to forgive. But it is possible when we understand what forgiveness is, what it’s not, and when we remember how very much we’ve been forgiven ourselves.
Forgiveness is a journey. Let this be your first step on that journey.
We’ve received grace, let’s offer grace.
We’ve received mercy, let’s offer mercy.
Looking for a good resource to learn more about forgiveness? The Art of Forgiving ~ When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How by Lewis B. Smedes is a great place to start. (Affiliate links)