If we were to take a vote on the most difficult Christian virtues I suspect this could be the winner. Forgiveness must be the most difficult one because it demands so much from us. And it is so difficult because it means we have to set aside so many of our personal attitudes.
We have always said that being a Christian is difficult, partly because we are asked to stand out and be different. For most people being a Christian and living in a Christian society is relatively easy. Being able to talk about our faith in this country is not difficult – we may face ridicule from some people, but mostly living as a Christian is easy. We are free to attend services every Sunday and at other times, we are free to keep our radios or TVs tunes to a Christian channel, we can have a cabinet full of Christian music and listen to CDs or stream as much as we want. But this is a free country and we are free to do as we wish within the 10 Commandments.
But forgiveness is something else. Perhaps it is too easy!
Note: the 10 Commandments in Exodus do not mention forgiveness!
By its very definition, forgiveness is asking a lot from us. Forgiveness means we are acknowledging that somebody has hurt us and we are being asked to turn about and forgive that hurt. To treat it as if it never happened.
One of the worst used phrases which people use is : “forgive and forget” what ever happened. Is that possible? Yes, we can forgive someone for the hurt – but can we ever forget? Yet that is exactly what God is asking of us.
In the New Testament when the authors write about forgiveness they are using a tense that does not have an exact parallel in English. They use the Aorist tense:
“(In Classical Greek) it is an unqualified tense of a verb without reference to duration or completion of the action.”
So what does that mean? Simply is means the action takes place in the past and is over and done with immediately. It is not a past continuous tense that continues (something was done in the past but is still happening) – in the aorist tense once the action has happened, it is over. It is complete.
So what has this to do with forgiveness? We’ve all been there – someone has hurt us and we have forgiven them. But it has spoiled our relationship with them. We say to ourselves that we have forgiven them – but is our forgiveness complete? Do we still have ill feeling against them – has it spoiled our relationship with them?
- So have we forgiven them but we’re still working on it?
- We’ve forgiven them, but we still hold it against them.
- Think Aorist!
Throughout his ministry Jesus demonstrated forgiveness many times. It was central to his ministry. So Peter thought he was doing really well when he spoke to Jesus this time. Rabbinic law stated that you should forgive a person three times. Only after three times would punishment be appropriate. Peter thought he was following Jesus’ example when he suggested he should forgive seven times. He did not expect Jesus’ response – seventy times seven. In other words Jesus said “there is no limit to offering forgiveness”.
Then we have this strange story of the servant who begged for forgiveness of a massive debt, which was granted, only to turn and demand repayment of a tiny debt by another servant. 10,000 talents could equate to $4,000,000 – an impossible amount. The tiny debt was about $6!
This may be an impossible parable about forgiveness – but it also has a clear meaning for us.
“We must forgive in order to be forgiven.”
If we are not prepared to forgive others, then we cannot expect to be forgiven ourselves – and of course, if we are the servant who refused to forgive the tiny debt, then who is the King in this parable who has the option of forgiving us – the King is God. And if we refuse to forgive others, how can we expect God to forgive us!
I don’t know how to calculate it – but our debt to God, for our sin, for our failures etc is enormous – his to us is miniscule.
If God is prepared to forgive us our enormous debt, then we must be ready to forgive others for their tiny debt to us.
William Barclay writes:
We have been forgiven a debt which is beyond all paying – for the sins of mankind brought about the death of God’s own son and, if that is so, we must forgive others as God has forgiven us, or we can hope to find no mercy.
Divine forgiveness and human forgiveness are forever linked.