How Can I Learn to Forgive?

Matthew 18:21-35

September 21, 1997 | Ray Pritchard

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Here are some of the questions people asked about forgiveness:

• What really is forgiveness?

• How can one do it?

• What does it do for the forgiver?

• How do you find it in yourself to forgive when you think you can’t or don’t even want to because of anger and hate that you can’t let go of?

• How do I keep the past the past?

• How can I handle/correct my anger in a way that is biblical-pleases Him?

• How can I recognize my rebellious attitudes toward God and others and correct them?

Let’s begin with the observation that the forgiveness of sins is a major biblical doctrine. The Bible has a great deal to say about God’s forgiveness of our sins because that is where salvation really begins.

• “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness.” Psalm 130:3-4

• Jesus came “to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” Luke 1:77

• “This is my blood …, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew 26:28

• “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.” Luke 24:47

• “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:43

• “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace.” Ephesians 1:7

No matter what else I may say about forgiveness in this sermon, let’s clearly understand that salvation begins with our forgiveness by God. If God did not forgive us, we would have to shoulder our sins forever, weighed down under a load of guilt that could never be removed.

But the Bible also has a lot to say about our forgiveness of the sins of others against us.

• “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” Matthew 6:12

• “For as you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive you.” Matthew 6:14-15

• “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Mark 11:25

• “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32

Several points might be made regarding these twin towers of forgiveness. First, Christianity is supremely a religion of forgiveness. It begins with God and comes down to us. Second, God only has one solution to the problem of human sin-the act of forgiveness. If we do not accept his solution, no other will be offered. Third, God himself has shown how to forgive others. We are to do for others as he has done for us. Fourth, there is a direct connection between our own spiritual health and our willingness to forgive those who have sinned against us.

And it is that last truth that brings me to the theme of this message. If I were to put it in one sentence, it would look like this: Forgiveness is not easy, but it is necessary, and must be practiced continually.

I. The Story Jesus Told

Jesus told a story about forgiveness that makes it all very plain. The story is found in Matthew 18:21-35. It begins when the Apostle Peter comes to Jesus with a question we have all asked at one time or the other. Somebody had done him wrong and he had forgiven him. The same fellow had done it again and Peter had forgiven him. He did it again and Peter had forgiven him. He did it again and Peter forgave him again but this time he got mad.

So he comes to Jesus with a question we can all understand, “How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” Peter wanted to know how much guff he had to take off somebody. He wanted to know when do you quit turning the other cheek.

Everyone has felt that way. You take it and you take it and you take it and the clod does it again and you say, “If he does it one more time, I’m going to cream him.”

So Peter wanted to know how long he had to wait before he could really let the guy have it.

When is it okay to blow your stack?

But Peter didn’t wait for an answer. He had one ready. He said, “Seven times?” Now, our temptation is to get down on him for saying that but it wasn’t such a bad idea. You see, the Rabbis taught you had to forgive a man three times and then you could retaliate. So Peter thinks to himself, “Well, I’ll just double that and add one.” Seven, after all, is the perfect number.

To be perfectly honest, forgiving a man seven times is commendable. Most of us get frustrated if we have to forgive somebody twice. By human standards what Peter said is enormous. Forgive a man seven times. Peter didn’t mean to offend. He thought by saying seven he would be extravagant.

298… 299… 300

In truth, his heart was pure but his attitude was wrong. He wanted to put a legal limit on forgiveness. He wanted a number, a limit, a place where he could finally say, “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”

And Jesus answered him in verse 22: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” That clunk you hear is Peter dropping over unconscious. He couldn’t believe his ears. Seventy times seven. That’s 490 times. Jesus is saying, “Peter, you’ve got it all wrong. You don’t count the number of times you forgive someone. FORGIVENESS IS UNLIMITED.”

You see, it’s not that you say to yourself, “298 … 299 … 300. Only 190 more to go!” No!!! Seventy times seven means there is no limit to the number of times I should forgive someone else. By the time you’ve forgiven somebody 490 times, you’ve gotten into the habit of continual forgiveness.

Scamming the King

The truth of unlimited forgiveness is hard for us to understand so Jesus told a story to illustrate the truth. We call it of the Unforgiving Servant. And it goes like this: “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king Here’s a great king who one day decided to call in all his debtors. So he sends out his soldiers and back they come with this man. When the king asks, “How much does this man owe?” his CPAs check the books and back comes the answer, “10,000 talents, your majesty.”

To us in 1997 that doesn’t communicate anything. But scholars tell us that in those days even one talent would have been a great amount of money. A man might work all his life and make ten talents or if he was wealthy might end up with a hundred talents or perhaps even a thousand. But here’s a man who’s run up a debt of 10,000 talents. In today’s terms that might be something like 25 million dollars.

How did he do it? The text doesn’t say but perhaps he was governor of a province in the king’s realm and perhaps he skimmed off the tax revenue and secretly amassed a huge fortune. In any case, the day of reckoning has come.

And the man is flat broke. He spent it all, doesn’t have a penny left. So the king says, “Sell his wife, sell his kids, sell his house, and while you’re at it, sell him.” Not that this man was worth that kind of money; the king merely wanted to get back whatever he could.

Wiping the Slate Clean

At that point the servant does what any of us would have done. Verse 26 says, “The servant fell on his knees before him and begged, “Be patient with me and I will pay back everything.” This is no time to make excuses. Unless something happens quick, this man is a goner. So he starts to beg. And he even makes the ridiculous promise to pay him back. He couldn’t do it in a million years.

But somehow it touches the king’s heart. The Bible says the king was moved with compassion. And he does something the man doesn’t even ask for. The king not only releases him, he also forgave the debt. Do you get it? He wipes the slate clean, erases the book, cancels the debt. Now the man owes him nothing

This is the great miracle of the story. The king forgave this enormous debt, this unbelievable amount of money. And the man walked away scot-free.

As he walked away from the king, just as he left the palace, he happened to spot out of the corner of his eye a man who owed him some money. The Bible says it was 100 denarii. That would be ten dollars compared to 25 million. Nothing, just a piddling ten dollar bill. The fellow had borrowed it to take his wife to McDonald’s and hadn’t paid it back yet.

The Bible says the man saw his friend who owed him money and, grabbing him by the throat, said, “Where’s the money you owe me, buster? I want it now.”

Verse 29 is almost a word-for-word replay of verse 26. Only this time everything is reversed. What the first man had said to the king in begging for patience, the second man now says to him. The man with the great debt is on top and his friend who owes him ten bucks is begging for mercy.

But there’s one difference. The servant would not forgive the measly ten dollar debt. Verse 30 says, “Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.”

He made only one mistake. He did it in broad daylight. If you’re going to be chintzy, it’s better to do it behind closed doors. Someone saw it happen, someone who knew what the king had just done. Word got around and soon everybody was talking about it.

Calling for the Goons

You see, it wasn’t the fact that the servant would not forgive his friend that shocked them. It was that he was so unforgiving after having found such mercy himself.

So off goes the crowd to the king to tell him the story. And boy does he get mad. The King James Version says the king was “wroth.” He sends out his soldiers and they haul the man in. This time there will be no mercy.

The king said to the man, “You wicked servant, 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?”

Now the truth comes out. The king had forgiven the man a $25 million dollar debt. Forgiven him when he could have enslaved him for life. Forgiven him when he was flat broke. Forgiven him when by every law in the land he could have destroyed him. The man deserved punishment but instead found mercy.

Shouldn’t that forgiven man have done the same for somebody who owed him a lousy ten dollar bill?

But there’s no forgiveness this time. The king won’t be conned again. And the Bible says he called for the torturers and handed the man over to them until he should pay back all he owed.

The king called for his goons … every king has them. I figure he had 15 or 20 just waiting around. They were mean-looking dudes. Real big, real ugly. They had hair all over. Hair on their arms, their back, their chest, their legs, their kneecaps. And those big hairy goons grabbed that unforgiving servant and took him off to be punished.

That’s the story Jesus told. But he didn’t leave us to wonder about the application. Here it is in verse 35: “This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless you learn to forgive your brother from your heart.”

These words are for believers. Jesus said, “What happened to that man will happen to you unless you learn to forgive and forgive and forgive.” The tormentors will come and take you away and torture you.

What tormentors? The hidden tormentors of anger and bitterness that eat your insides out, the tormentors of frustration and malice that give you ulcers and high blood pressure and migraine headaches and lower back pain, the tormentors that make you lie awake at night on your bed stewing over every rotten thing that happens to you. The tormentors of an unforgiving heart who stalk your trail day and night, who never leave your side, who suck every bit of joy from your life.

We are Like the Unforgiving Servant

Why? Because you will not forgive from the heart. It is happening to some of us just as Jesus said because we refuse to forgive.

This story meant to impress us with several truths: First, the greatness of God’s forgiveness. Second, the enormity of our own sins. Third, the relative lightness of the sins of others against us. Fourth, the simplicity of forgiveness. Fifth, the danger of an unforgiving spirit.

You see, we are like the unforgiving servant. We stand before Almighty God with our sins piled up like a mountain. The mountain is so tall we can’t get over it, so deep we can’t get under it, so wide we can’t go around it. That’s everyone of us. Our sins are like a $25 million dollar debt we could never pay in our lifetime or in a thousand lifetimes. We come as debtors to God, come with empty hands and say, “I cannot pay.” And God who is rich in mercy says, “I forgive all your sins. My Son has paid the debt. You owe me nothing.”

Then we rise from the pew, leave the communion table, walk outside the church humming “Every Day With Jesus is Sweeter Than the Day Before.” And before we get to our car we see a man who has done us wrong and we want to grasp him by the throat and say, “Pay me right now!!!”

No wonder we are so tormented. No wonder we are so angry and bitter. No wonder we have problems. No wonder our friendships don’t last. No wonder we can’t get along. We have never learned the secret of unlimited forgiveness. Verily, the hidden tormentors have done their work.

Mark Twain said it this way: “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet gives to the heel that has crushed it.” Forgiveness is wonderful because the forgiver always has the last word. They do it and you forgive them. They do it again and you forgive them again. They do it a third time and you forgive them a third time. They do it and do it and do it and you forgive and forgive and forgive. You always have the last word. Why? Because they can’t do it more than you can forgive them.

II. Three Common Objections

Whenever I preach this message, three objections are usually raised by thoughtful people. I mention them here because they are so common.

A. What about the person who says, “I can forgive but I can’t forget?”

Almost all of us have experienced the problem of forgiving someone the best way we know how and then discovering that angry thoughts still fill our minds.

In pondering this problem, my mind ran to a scripture in the Book of Hebrews which speaks of God’s forgiveness of our sins. Surely if we have trouble forgetting, what about God who never forgets anything? Hebrew 10:17 quotes God as saying, “Their sins and their lawless acts I will remember no more.” Underline that last phrase, “I will remember no more.” God’s forgiveness means He chooses not to remember our sins.

That’s helpful, isn’t it? Forgiveness is a choice we make. It is not a feeling or a mood or a passing notion. Forgiveness does not mean we somehow wipe out of our mind the record of what happened. Forgiveness means we choose not to remember it. That is, there is a big difference between remembering something and dwelling on it. Indeed, we can all remember (if we try hard enough) things in the past that have hurt us deeply. Forgiveness means we choose not to dwell on those things. It also means we choose not to hold a grudge against someone who has wronged us.

So in that sense, to forgive means to choose to forget. And in precisely that sense, if we choose to dwell upon the hurts of the past and if we choose to let the past dominate the present so that all of our relationships are negatively colored by what has happened in the past, then we have not forgiven in a biblical sense.

That, of course, raises another question. Isn’t it a common experience for Christians to be troubled by angry thoughts even after forgiving someone? The answer is yes.

Let Go of the Rope

In one of her writings, Corrie Ten Boom tells of some Christian friends who wronged her in a public and malicious way. For many days, she was bitter and angry until she forgave them. But in the night she would wake up thinking about what they had done and get angry all over again. It seemed the memory would not go away.

Help came in the form of a Lutheran pastor to whom she confessed her frustration after two sleepless weeks. He told her, “Corrie, up in the church tower is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. When the sexton pulls the rope, the bell peals out ding-dong, ding-dong. What happens if he doesn’t pull the rope again? Slowly the sound fades away. Forgiveness is like that. When we forgive someone, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for awhile. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”

So it’s not surprising if after forgiveness, for a while the memories keep coming back. If you refuse to dwell on them, slowly they will fade away. Why? When you forgive, you let go of the rope and the force is gone out of your anger.

B. What do you do if the other person will not admit he was wrong?

Again, this is a troubling, difficult problem. Writing on this very passage over 400 years ago, John Calvin said there are two kinds of forgiveness.

The first is the kind where the person who did the wrong admits it, comes to you asking forgiveness, you grant it and the relationship is restored. That’s the best kind. That’s the ideal. There is confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.

Unfortunately, in this fallen world the ideal is not always possible. Sometimes people who have wronged us will not admit their guilt no matter what we do. In fact, sometimes they will lie to cover up the truth. Sometimes they will cut off the relationship rather than face the hard work of reconciliation. Sometimes they will keep right on hurting us on purpose.

How can you forgive in a situation like that? Calvin said you can forgive even in that situation in the sense that you let go of the rope of anger and bitterness and refuse to let the hurt dominate your own life. True, the relationship remains broken. It may never be healed. But you can choose not to remember the sins of others. You can choose to wipe the slate clean so that your life is free from bitterness.

That’s not easy but it’s far better than living in the past nursing a wounded spirit. It’s also biblical for in this we have the example of Jesus himself who, when he hung on the cross, an innocent man put to death for crimes he did not commit, prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

C. Does forgiveness mean I have to let people walk all over me?

When I preached this message in Colorado a few years ago, something unusual happened when I was finished. I turned to walk back to my seat when a young man spoke up from the audience and said, “I’d like to ask Ray a question.” With great seriousness he wanted to know what you do when someone wrongs you over and over again. He said, “I know we are supposed to forgive, but does that mean you just lay there and take it?” And he gave the example of working as a salesman when you know somebody out there is cheating your company. They are somehow taking advantage of the system for their own benefit. But the people involved are supposed to be your friends. Do you just forgive them and let them keep on doing it?

How vs. Why

I suppose examples of that kind of thing could be multiplied. In every case, the answer will go something like this. There is a big difference between how you respond to injustice and why you respond. There are times-many times-when the only proper response to injustice is confrontation. Sometimes you have to speak out for conscience’ sake. Sometimes to be silent would be to give tacit approval to the wrong being done. Such confrontation is rarely easy or pleasant. It may mean the breaking of a close friendship. It may mean opening a breach which can never be closed. Sometimes, however, the righteousness of God demands that we take action.

But that’s not really the issue. The issue is why we confront injustice. That’s where forgiveness comes in. If we confront injustice out of anger and bitterness, if we confront another person out of our deep hurt and an unspoken desire to get even, if we take action in order to make them pay for what they did to us, then at that point we ourselves are guilty of sin.

Let me say that again. If we retaliate against injustice out of anger and bitterness, even though our cause is just and we are justified in taking action, we have acted unrighteously and God will not bless our efforts. The Scripture that applies is James 1:20, “For man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”

Therefore, I conclude that forgiveness is always appropriate, even in cases where we are repeatedly and deliberately wronged. In those cases it is imperative that before we take a step of confrontation, we must rid ourselves of the venom of bitterness and the acid of resentment. Otherwise we will be guilty of doing a righteous thing in an unrighteous way and God will not bless us.

I Can’t Go Back

I close my remarks by recalling to your memory a simple statement I’ve been sharing so often these last few months. It seems to summarize something absolutely crucial for any hope of progress in the Christian life. This little statement is really three four-word sentences, which when taken together give you the key for moving forward with your life.

I can’t go back.

I can’t stay here.

I must go forward.

Forgiveness is God’s means of letting go of the past and moving forward with God. When I said earlier that forgiveness is “simple” I don’t mean that it is easy. If you have been deeply hurt, nothing will be harder for you than letting go. But the message of our text is clear: Unless you let go of the past, you are doomed to live there forever.

In that sense I wish to put forward a novel idea. You ought to forgive those who have hurt you-not for their sakes but for yours. I suppose when you get down to it, that’s why we don’t forgive. We hope that by nursing our anger we can somehow strike a blow for justice against those who have hurt us. In the end we hurt ourselves at least as much as we hurt the other person. And often, they end up winning twice–once when they hurt us and twice when we stew in our juices thinking about it all over again.

A Million Times More

That’s why Jesus’ parable must be understood as teaching continual forgiveness, the kind you practice over and over and over again. Not so long ago I spoke with a woman whose husband abandoned her for a younger woman, leaving her with a very young child to raise. As she told me the story, she said, “I guess I’ve forgiven him a million times. I forgive him over and over again every day.” “You’ll probably have to forgive him a million more times before it’s over,” I replied. That may not seem a word of hope, but in fact it is. Remember, forgiveness isn’t-or shouldn’t be-a tool for manipulating people into having a good relationship with you. No one can force another person to be reconciled. That must come from a heart prompted by God’s Holy Spirit.

So don’t think about forgiveness as being some favor you show to your ex-husband or your ex-wife or to some other person who has hurt you. And don’t do it so that they will think well of you or so that you can gain their friendship.

For God’s Sake … and for Yours

When it comes down to it, there are two very good reasons to forgive that have nothing to do with the other person:

1. You should forgive because God has commanded it.

2. You should forgive because forgiveness is good for your own soul.

Any other benefits are like ice cream added to a piece of apple pie-nice but not necessary.

In short, we should practice forgiveness for God’s sake and for our own sake. That ought to be enough to motivate any of us.

The Cemetery Of Forgiveness

So many of us need this message today. We’ve been living for years under the burden of remembered hurts. Some of the things that bother us go back to our childhood. Some of them involve people we haven’t seen for a long time. It may be a brother or a sister, a close friend, a husband or a wife, or perhaps someone who mistreated us at work.

What we need is to become great forgivers. Why? Because forgiveness will save your marriage when nothing else will. Forgiveness will restore your family when nothing else will. Forgiveness will repair a broken heart when nothing else will. Forgiveness is the key that can open a closed heart.

A great many of us ought to take a trip out to the Cemetery of Forgiveness, make a list of the faults, sins and failures of those we love, dig a hole in the ground, and bury those faults forever. And never dig them up again.

Where Revival Begins

When husbands and wives on the brink of divorce forgive one another. It comes when teenagers who are filled with anger and parents who are exasperated forgive one another. It comes when Sunday School teachers who are jealous and church members who can’t get along and elders who constantly criticize each other learn to forgive one another. It comes when businessmen and housewives and students and singles and all God’s children give up their anger, get rid of their bitterness, turn away from their resentment and forgive one another.

What is needed is a great revival of forgiveness. And it needs to begin this very moment. Many of us struggle with unresolved hurts going back many years. We’ve been angry and bitter far too long. The hidden tormentors have done their work.

Now it’s time to forgive.

Some of you reading this have a great sense of sins unforgiven. You’re still back at the first of the story. You need to have that great debt of sin forgiven. And you can by turning to Jesus Christ. In one shining moment, all your sins can be washed away forever.

But the great majority of us don’t need forgiveness as much as we need to forgive. The invitation is to you. Perhaps forgiving from your heart means writing a letter or making a phone call. Perhaps it means going to see someone face to face. Whatever it is, do it. Let go of the rope of anger and bitterness.

How many times should I forgive? Jesus said, “Seventy times seven.”


Father, go now where my words cannot go – deep into the hearts of those who read these words. Grant that we may discover the freedom that comes from being a great forgiver. Break the chain of remembered hurts that binds us to the past.

Lord, we want to do it but we lack the courage. Show us what we must do and then give us the strength to do it.

We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?