The Power of Forgiveness

by Pastor Doug Batchelor

An Amazing Fact: The most bitter-tasting substance known is the synthetic chemical denatonium, sometimes known as Bitrex. It is added to toxic substances, such as antifreeze, household cleaners, paints, nail polish, and rat poison, to prevent accidental swallowing. It is so bitter that even when diluted to 10 parts per million, most people will instantly spit it out.

I once heard a pastor share a chilling illustration about a man in France who was bitten by a rabid dog. This was years before a treatment had been discovered for rabies. When it was determined the dog was indeed rabid, a kind doctor told the man he had only a short time to live. Upon hearing this distressing news, the unfortunate man asked the doctor for some paper and a pencil and then commenced writing furiously.

After a few minutes, the doctor interrupted. “If you are writing out your will, you have time. Think carefully about your estate; you still have a few days.”

The patient replied sharply, “I’m not making out my will. I am making a list of all the people I’m going to bite before I die!”

Bitterness. Some people are controlled by it. They have been treated cruelly and wish bad things would happen to their offenders. Some brood for years, tormented by memories of the wounds they received. Sometimes they are so angry that they make sure something bad does happen. But the Bible says that this is the very worst possible “solution” to resolve the hurt in our lives.

The real solution to dealing with injustice from others is not vengeance, unchecked anger, or bitter brooding. It’s forgiveness. If you want to experience an abundant life in Jesus, you must learn how to forgive those who have hurt you. The Bible says, “The devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time” (Revelation 12:12). Satan is the rancorous, angry, and vengeful one—and he is the instigator of our thoughts of revenge.

Seventy Times Seven
Jesus’ parable about forgiveness is one of the most essential Bible stories for our time. Peter asked his Savior, “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21).

You might think Peter was a bit stingy with his mercy. Forgive someone only seven times? We often have to forgive our spouses that much in a single week! But in the time of Christ, religious leaders taught that God was willing to forgive you only three times. It was “three strikes and you’re out”—long before baseball was invented.

Peter, knowing Jesus was indeed merciful, bravely doubled the number of times he had been taught to forgive someone and even added one for good measure. But Christ’s response shocked not only His disciple, but—tragically—shocks most professed Christians today. “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (verse 22, emphasis added).

Now, most Bible scholars agree that Jesus wasn’t setting a literal limit. God isn’t sitting up in heaven checking off the number of times He has forgiven you; otherwise, all of us would have already exhausted our quota. God’s mercy doesn’t run out at 490 allotments of grace. As long as we are willing to repent, the Lord will forgive.

The issue is that God asks the same of His people. Don’t keep track of how many times you’ve forgiven your friend, co-worker, or spouse for his or her unkind words or actions. God claims—and has proven time and again in your life and mine—that He is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth” (Exodus 34:6). The Lord does not quickly give up on us. Seven times Jesus cast devils out of Mary. Solomon said, “A righteous man may fall seven times and rise again” (Proverbs 24:16). The Gospel of Luke adds, “If your brother sins against you … seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:3, 4).

The Bible is full of promises that connect forgiveness with the number seven—a number representing completeness and perfection. In Daniel chapter 9, when the prophet prayed for his people, God sent an angel to declare that seventy weeks (70 times 7 for 490 literal years) of additional mercy would be extended to the wayward Jewish people.

The Unmerciful Debtor
Jesus next shared the parable of the unmerciful debtor, in which He addressed two kinds of forgiveness—between yourself and God, and between yourself and your neighbor.

Jesus explained, “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents” (Matthew 18:23, 24).

A talent was the largest currency in New Testament times, anywhere between 56 and 75 pounds of metal. Can you picture a giant heaping pile of bags of silver? It was a ridiculously large sum. Indeed, it is the largest sum of money mentioned in Scripture. You could never pay back this kind of debt, not even over many lifetimes.

The king’s servant must have had a royal credit card and, evidently, had been freely spending the king’s money—perhaps going on expensive business trips, staying in luxurious hotels, and feasting lavishly with friends at posh restaurants. He might have even had a drinking or gambling habit that drained precious government resources. As he amassed this mountain of debt, surely he lived in constant fear, knowing that a day of reckoning was coming. But he could not help himself.

As it always does, judgment day finally caught up to this debtor. “As he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made” (verse 25). In America, if you get into a financial crisis, you can declare bankruptcy. In Bible times; you were thrown into prison and your family could be sold into slavery. It was an unmitigated disaster.

When the servant saw all his possessions being carried from his house and his wife and children being hauled away, in desperation he fell on his knees before the king and cried out, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all” (verse 26). Of course, the servant could never repay his master, and the king knew it.

Yet the heart of the compassionate and understanding king was touched by his wayward servant’s pleading. “The master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt” (verse 27). Amazing! The king didn’t set up a payment plan or negotiate a settlement with this debtor. He simply forgave it all.

How does God deal with our sins? Does He calculate our balance due, divide it into a certain number of installments, and then enroll us in a payment plan? Not at all! God has compassion and freely forgives all, just as the king forgave his servant this enormous debt.

An Ungrateful Response
Now, this would be a nice place to end the story, but Jesus went on to make His most important point. “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ ” (verse 28).

This man’s heavy-handed actions are shocking in light of the mercy he had just experienced. He didn’t leave the presence of the king with appreciation; he walked away mad. He convinced himself that his buddy still owed him what amounted to a few weeks’ wages. Why was he so harsh, demanding that he be paid back immediately? Evidently, his own forgiveness from the king did not sink in.

Think about the vast difference between 10,000 talents and 100 denarii. It took 6,000 denarii to equal one talent. It’s as if our debt to God is like the distance from the earth to the sun, a 93-million-mile divide. By comparison, the debts others owe us are at most a few yards. The Lord said that He is willing to forgive us the vast distance between the earth and sun, yet we struggle to forgive each other a measly 12 inches! Jesus contrasted these absurdly differing amounts of money to show how much God has forgiven us in comparison with how little we’re sometimes willing to forgive each other.

I often meet people who have quit attending church. I ask them, “Why don’t you go anymore?” Many tell me stories of how they were treated poorly or how a church member or pastor was unkind to them. They feel that if they stop going to church, they will somehow get even with the other party. But how does moving away from God’s house teach anyone a lesson? It just doesn’t make sense, and it is exactly what the devil wants us to do.

Don’t ever fall into the devil’s trap by withdrawing from the church. There will always be noxious weeds mixed in with the good grain. Even Jesus had a Judas in His church, so don’t let Satan scare you away because of stiff-necked people. Indeed, those who wound others have often been wounded themselves. If we could see the pains from their pasts, we might have more empathy toward them. It is easier to forgive others when we know what is going on in their hearts.

Jesus continued. “So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all’ ” (verse 29). Notice that the servant who owed a much smaller amount gave the exact plea as the servant who owed a much larger amount. “And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt” (verse 30).

Pause before you point an accusing finger at this man’s cold-hearted response; consider that Jesus might be speaking about you. Have you ever been unwilling to forgive others? Is that happening in your life right now? Each one of us has a debt that Jesus willingly suffered to take off our plate—He was beaten, spit upon, denied by His friends, and nailed to a cross. Look at your Savior hanging there. Listen as He tells you, “I forgive you.”

How can you then say, “But Lord, I just cannot forgive that person at church who gossiped about me or took over my church office”? What does that say about your Christian experience?

Difficult but Necessary

As a pastor, I have heard terrible stories of people who were abused as children for years by unrepentant family members. Should they forgive these evil perpetrators? This is a very difficult—and fair—question.

Let me clarify—forgiveness does not mean we let offenders off the hook for their bad behavior. Some people need to be held accountable for their actions by the laws of the land. Nor does forgiveness mean we let people constantly use us as a physical or emotional punching bag.

Rather, forgiveness is giving up bitterness and resentment. It is choosing to release malice, putting the other person into God’s hands, and being willing to pray for your enemy.

When you refuse to forgive others who have hurt you, you are giving them permission to keep hurting you. You continue to be a slave to their offense. Jesus told us to love our neighbors and our enemies. Sometimes the people who hurt us most deeply are those closest to us. It was Abel’s own brother, Cain, who slew him. David’s son tried to murder him. As children of God, we have turned our backs on Him repeatedly. We should never forget that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, emphasis added).

Let’s face it—even after you forgive somebody you might not be able to forget what happened. But Martin Luther said, “You can’t keep the birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” When you are tempted to ruminate on some individual who offended you and relive the feelings, try praying for him. It might be hard at first, but remember, until a person is converted, it is perfectly normal for him to act like a selfish devil. Pray for the person’s conversion!

Results of Resentment
What happens when we indulge an unforgiving heart toward others? Jesus delved into this consequence as He went on with His parable. “When his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ ” (Matthew 18:31–33).

When we receive Christ’s forgiveness, it softens our hearts. We will have compassion on others, even toward those who have offended us. The apostle Paul taught, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). We should generously forgive just as the Lord has generously forgiven us.

Jesus emphasized this pattern in the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Christ’s only commentary on this important prayer addressed the act of forgiveness. He explained, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (verses 14, 15).

An old, crusty general once told great Christian preacher John Wesley, “I never forgive, and I never forget.” Wesley responded, “Then you are burning the bridge over which you must pass.”

An unforgiving heart brings serious consequences. After the king rebuked his servant, the Bible says, “His master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him” (Matthew 18:34). Christ’s sobering point concludes, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (verse 35). Forgiving others is not optional; it is mandatory. But for a Christian, forgiving others shouldn’t feel like an obligation, no more than keeping the law should feel like an obligation; you will know you are converted when you do both as a natural outflowing of Christ’s love in you. Forgiveness opens heaven’s doors to great blessings.

When was the Holy Spirit poured out in great measure on the early church? The disciples had bickered about which of them would be greatest and who would sit next to Jesus in the kingdom. But when they saw their Savior dying on the cross, they realized that they were all guilty of forsaking Him.

After Christ ascended to heaven, they gathered in an upper room and prayed. There were many tears and apologies. They forgave one another. Then the Holy Spirit came upon them. Just as they came together in one accord, so will the church in the final days receive the latter rain when God’s people repent and forgive one another.

From the Heart
To be clear, Jesus’ parable does not teach that God forgives us after we forgive each other. Quite the contrary, the Lord forgives us first. Indeed, you have no power within yourself to forgive others except as Christ has first forgiven you. The parable tells that the king first forgave his servant—he set the example he wished his people would follow—and then expected his servant to go and do likewise.

But the ungrateful servant did not have a forgiving spirit. He did not allow the compassion of the king to change his heart. When the servant wouldn’t forgive in turn, all that he owed was put back onto his account.

When Christ forgives us, we must walk in that same spirit. Yet forgiveness isn’t simply a legal transaction. Peter thought of it in a mechanical way, attempting to follow the letter of the law and completely overlooking God’s desire that we obey from the heart. When it is our motive to love and even forgive our enemies, only then will we reveal to others the most beautiful attributes of God.

The Face of Jesus
The famous Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint a mural on a monastery dining hall in Milan, Italy. The result was The Last Supper, one of the most recognized and beloved works of art in the world. It depicts Jesus sitting with His disciples at a feast table just after He told them that one of them would betray Him.

During the time da Vinci was working on the piece, he got into an argument with another famous Italian—Michelangelo. The biographer Vasari wrote that they had “an intense dislike for each other.” The two were jealous of each other’s work and often made disparaging comments about one another in public.

Legend has it that when the time came for Leonardo to paint the face of Judas in The Last Supper, he got the sinister idea of using the face of his rival, Michelangelo, to be the face of the betrayer. He felt it was a great way to immortalize how he felt about his enemy. People came by as he worked and gasped when they recognized the face of Michelangelo as Judas. Leonardo felt some temporary vindication.

But then came the last step in his grand artwork—painting the face of Jesus. As he tried to capture the image of Christ, he would paint His countenance but would feel dissatisfied and wipe it away. For the next few weeks, he did this over and over again. He had Jesus’ body completed, but he couldn’t create the right face—that magnificent countenance of mercy and kindness.

In desperation Leonardo prayed that he could paint the face that would express the love and compassion of Christ. “Lord, help me to see Your face,” he pleaded with God.

Finally, a voice spoke to his heart, saying, “You will never see the face of Jesus until you change the face of Judas.” Leonardo was convicted. He thought about Jesus on the cross praying for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him, and about how offended he himself had been by petty insults. He erased Michelangelo’s face and painted the image we see today. Only when Leonardo let go of his bitterness toward Michelangelo and removed the offense could he clearly paint the image of Christ.

Some of us cannot see the face of Jesus because we refuse to forgive our enemies. We are so determined to pay people back that all we can see is what they have done wrong. We are the ungrateful servant, demanding our debtors pay up in full, yet our vengeful hearts keep us from fully seeing Christ and receiving His forgiveness.

Do you need to erase the face of an enemy in your life? Do you need to write a letter, make a phone call, or talk with someone who has wounded you? It is time to let it go. The moment has come to say, “I forgive you.” Perhaps it begins by you asking forgiveness. Either way, when you strike out the person’s debt, you will see the face of your compassionate King.

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