In Which We Forgive Those Who Don’t Deserve It, Because We Don’t Either
Anger is unique among the seven deadly sins in that, in general, anger isn’t even a sin (cf. Ephesians 4:26). At one level, it is simply an emotional reaction to having our boundaries crossed. And at the highest level, anger is actually a virtue, since it is a significant part of God’s character — i.e., the “name” to which we are being conformed!
At the same time, anger is also the name of one of the most violent and dangerous sins. We can define sinful anger as a self-righteous passion for punishing those who offend us. This is why anger is so empowering and so deadly: it magnifies the sins of others to the point where we ignore our own.
Because anger is so devastating, we need to combat it with both meekness — the ability to restrain our passions in submission to God’s rule — and peacemaking, which seeks restoration and reconciliation instead of revenge.
Of course, that is easier said then done…
Read Proverbs 15. Why is anger so dangerous?
Conveniently, Matthew kicks off our study of forgiveness by discussing children:
18:1At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Though children easily get angry, they are just as quick to forgive, and rarely hold a grudge. Even when an adult has to command them to apologize, they are somehow able to put the offense behind them; perhaps because their anger is more emotional (based on hurt) than spiritual (based on pride). As such, their anger (though occasionally violent) is arguably not sinful.
Though tragically, it is possible to wound a child so deeply it does cause them to sin [C.1]:
5Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. 6“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
The phrases “causes to sin” is elsewhere translated “offend”. To be sure, the world is full of offenses that tempt us to respond in sinful ways — but that’s not any sort of excuse:
In fact, Jesus uses some pretty extreme metaphors to demonstrate the importance of avoiding sin, regardless of the apparent cause (“offense”):
8“If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast [it] from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast [it] from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.
Especially in the context of the influence we have on the young:
Though His heart is tender towards all who are vulnerable and helpless:
11For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost. 12“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? 13And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that [sheep] than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. 14Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
Shockingly, however, He expects us to have the same heart towards those who hurt us:
This is where we tend to stumble. It is easy to be gentle and forgiving (at least in theory) towards those we perceive as weak or lost. Yet when someone offends us, we consider them an aggressor, and our flesh rises up to demands justice! [C.2]
But from God’s viewpoint, their sin simply demonstrates that they are another of His lost sheep in need of rescue. Our sanctified hearts should be like His, pursuing reconciliation and restoration of the relationship (i.e., peacemaking). Even if it takes the whole church to do it:
16But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17And if he refuses to hear them, tell [it] to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
This doesn’t mean we completely shun them — after all, we are commanded to love even the heathen and the tax collector. However, it does mean they are “out of fellowship” — an extreme action, and not one to be invoked lightly, but preferable (at least in God’s eyes) to a fellowship fractured by unreconciled relationships. [C.3]
Because when the body of Christ (even its smallest subgroup!) is united in God’s “name” — His compassion and character — God’s kingdom is released upon the earth:
18“Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19“Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
To his credit, Peter figures out the high standard implied by all this, though he balks slightly:
Seven times was well beyond the standard of the day — but still way below the command of Jesus:
22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
[Not that we should count to 490; the multiplier implies “without limits”.]
Perhaps sensing Peter’s shock, Jesus uses a parable to make it more concrete:
23Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
That is an enormous amount, probably millions of dollars. Presumably the servant was guilty of fraud or mismanagement; or maybe Jesus just wanted us to realize the magnitude of our sin against God!
Either way, the king is understandably upset:
Given the severity of the punishment, the servant pleas for time:
But, amazingly, instead of simply granting an extension, the master takes pity on him and cancels the entire amount:
One wonders if the servant really understood the debt was completely forgiven, though, since he still tries to scrape up more money:
This amount — probably a few hundred dollars — is peanuts compared to what he had owed, but still difficult for an ordinary servant to come up with:
Alas, the servant lacks the compassion of the master [C.4]:
30And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.
An irony that does not go unnoticed:
The master is not pleased with how his generosity has been repaid:
32Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
When we in our anger fail to forgive others, we apparently make ourselves recipients of God’s wrath!
To be sure, this is a parable, not an allegory, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that God will treat us the exact same way. Except that in this case, Jesus explicitly tells us He will [C.5]:
35“So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Note that Jesus doesn’t say we only need to forgive those who repent and ask for our forgiveness. The clear implication of verse 15 is that our hearts should always be seeking reconciliation, not revenge, even before the other person has a chance to respond. True, if the person does not repent, reconciliation may not be a viable option. But for our part — and for our own sake — we have to forgive. Or else.
Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeable, it is extremely helpful to distinguish between “forgiveness” and “reconciliation.” Otherwise, we may believe we can not (or need not) forgive someone who hasn’t repented, for fear of given them an opportunity to sin again.
The crucial point to remember is that forgiveness (as defined here) is primarily an internal transaction between ourselves and God, releasing our “right” to punish the other person so that we can fully enjoy God forgiving us. As such, we need to forgive everyone who hurts us — even if they don’t apologize or repent — simply to avoid hindering our relationship with God. After all, we are never able to identify, much less confess, everything we do that hurts God — yet He forgives us anyway.
On the other hand, reconciliation is an external transaction between people, requiring:
- confession (agreeing about what was wrong, and what is right)
- repentance (turning from the wrong to the right), and
- accountability (submitting to an agreed-upon authority)
in order to restore trust and relationship. [C.6] Which are the same things we need in order to enjoy relationship with God, even after He has forgiven our sin.
You can’t have reconciliation without forgiveness, but we can — and must! — forgive even when reconciliation isn’t possible (e.g., the other person is unwilling or absent). It may seem an unreasonable demand — but only if we forget how much we have been forgiven, and how little we deserve it.
- How have you dealt with any wounds from your childhood that make you react in sinful ways?
- Share about a time you got really angry. What was the result?
- Have you ever observed the process in Matthew 18:15-17? Did it work?
- Why do you think the first servant was so harsh with his fellow?
- Does living with unforgiveness feel like torture to you?
- Describe how to distinguish “forgiveness” from “reconciliation”.
- Repentance: Whom are you angry with, that you need to forgive?
- Action: Where can you pursue reconciliation this week?
- Worship: Meditate on God’s forgiveness towards you, and how much it cost Him.
- Forgiveness – International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
- Amazon.com: Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life: Henry Cloud, John Townsend: Books
- Cloud-Townsend Resources: Is Anger a Sin?
- Why We Love The Deadly Sin of Anger
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to Reconciliation « Radically Happy
- Video – Forgiveness vs Reconciliation – tangle.com
For next week, read John 15. What must we do (or become) to bear fruit?
- Blue Letter Bible. “Matthew 18 – New King James Version.” Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2009. 14 Jan 2009. < http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?t=NKJV&b=Mat&c=18 >