This is not the first itme I have preached this sermon at Northeast Bible Church. As a matter of fact, I have preached it twice before — the first time in the summer of 1983 and the second time in the summer of 1987.
This is a sermon about forgiveness. Not about God’s forgiveness of us, but about our forgiveness of others. I preach it again because I have had many occasions in the last year to think about forgiveness — about what it means, how it happens, what difference it makes in the spiritual life. And I’ve had a chance to think about what happens when you refuse ot forgive.
One of my goals is that we should become a truly forgiving church. To that end, I have covenanted with the Lord that I will try to preach this sermon atleast once a year as long as I am pastor of this church. And I hope and pray that my own understanding of forgiveness will grow deeper as the years go by.
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Several years ago, when I pastored a small church in California, I preached a series of sermons called the Marriage Clinic. Instead of picking the topics myself, I gave the church a ballot with a list of topics and asked them to choose the ones they most wanted to hear. The series was so popular that I decided to do do it again the next year, only this time I called it the Family Clinic. I gave the congregation a ballot listing various topics relating to the family and asked them to vote for the one they wanted to hear.
The interesting fact was this: Only one topic was listed on both ballots. All the others were different. When I looked back in my records I was surprised to find that that one topic had been voted number one by my congregation both times. It was the one subject they most wanted to hear.
The subject was “How to Handle Anger and Bitterness.” That puzzled me for awhile. I just hadn’t expected it to be so popular. So I asked my wife why our people wanted to know how to handle anger and bitterness. She replied with characteristic wisdom, “It’s probably because they have a lot of anger and bitterness.”
She was right. And in the years since then I have learned that most Christians struggle in this area. They want to know how to handle this problem because they have so much stored up inside.
I thought about the lady who came to see me whose husband is an absolute bum. He won’t get up in the morning, he wno’t get dressed, he won’t keep a job, he won’t help around the house, he won’t talk to his wife, he won’t go anywhere. He just sits there. She said, “Pastor, I’m thinking about divorce.”
I thought about a woman who came to see me. She’s one of the pillars of the church. After 35 years of marriage, her husband took up with his secretary, committed adultery, and now carries pictures of the child he fathered around in his wallet. She told me, “It’s getting to where I may just blow up any day. I don’t know how long I can take it.”
I thought about one of the finest Christian men I’ve known. His family was a model of what we were trying to produce. One day his wife told him she loved another man — who happened to be one of his closest friends. She had fallen in love with him and out of love with him. It devastated him. She moved out, moved back in, finally decided to drop divorce proceedings. When I talked with him, he said, “I don’t know if I want her back now. I can trust someone once, but not twice. I don’t know if I even care about our marriage now.”
Awhile back I received a letter from a dear friend in another state living in a most difficult situation. These are her words, “I surely need to review your forgiveness sermon. I try to keep up to date on my forgiving but find my heart pretty cold and stoney.”
It has become crystal-clear to me that Christians have a lot of anger and bitterness bottled up inside. So I went back to the Scriptures to try to find an answer. And I found one. And it surprised me again. There is a Bible way to handle anger and bitterness and it is wrapped up in one word. If you ever learn to put this word into practice it can change your life, save your marriage, restore broken relationships and drain the venom of bitterness from your life.
The word is forgiveness. The Bible way to handle anger and bitterness is forgiveness.
I. THE PARABLE OF THE UNFORGIVING SERVANT Matthew 18:21-35
Jesus told a story about forgiveness that makes it all very plain. The story is found in Matthew 18:21-35.
A. THE INTRODUCTION TO THE STORY VV 21-22
The story starts in verse 21 with the Apostle Peter. He 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 before. 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 retalitae. 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.
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.
B. THE STORY JESUS TOLD VV 23-24
The truth of unlimited forgiveness is hard for us to understand so Jesus told a story to illustrate the truth. We call it the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. And it goes like this: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him 10,000 talents was brought to him.”
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 1987 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.”
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 forgive 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 unbelieveable 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 MacDonald’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 the 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.
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 cancelled 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.
C. THE APPLICATION OF THE STORY V 35
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 form your life.
Why? BECAUSE YOU WILL NOT FORGIVE FORM THE HEART. It is happening to you just as Jesus said because you refuse to forgive.
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.
If you would like the theme of my sermon in one sentence, here it is: THE WAY TO BECOME GREAT IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS TO BECOME A GREAT FORGIVER.
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 SINCERE 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 tha 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.
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 IF 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 at Horn Creek a few weeks ago, something unusal 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 suppose 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?
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 aciton.
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 aciton, we have acted unrightously 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.
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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 Cemetary of Forgiveness, make a list of the faults, sins and fialures of those we love, dig a hole in the ground, and bury those faults forever. And never dig them up again.
When does revival come? It comes 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 came this morning 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.”
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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.