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… one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. - Matthew 18:24 (NLT)
During my first semester of college, I was floundering in calculus class. Fortunately, a sizable portion of my course grade was based on group projects. Early in the semester, I slid in with a group of math majors who ensured this portion of my grade stayed at a solid ‘A.’ The problem was that I was the “fifth wheel,” so to speak; our professor had stipulated that groups be no larger than four people.
Our final exam grade was a thick packet of problems the group had to solve together. The professor made it clear that groups consisting of more than four people would not receive credit. Being the weak link, my group gave me the boot. At the last minute, some friends of mine in another group agreed to let me write my name on their completed project. They were as kind as they were not good at math. My new group failed the exam, which was enough to drop my struggling grade below passing as well.
I sheepishly approached the professor the next day and explained my predicament. The professor asked simply, “So you’d like me to give you the grade that your original group earned? Ok.”
It was a grace I didn’t deserve, and it saved me not only losing credit for the class but losing an academic scholarship that was contingent on my GPA.
All talk of grace and forgiveness finds its genesis in the heart of our Father in heaven. He is a gracious master, a kind old professor if you will, who is ready and willing to wipe the slate clean with us, every moment of every day. No amount of red on our ledger—millions of dollars worth of sin, so to speak—is beyond his capacity or his desire to forgive. Whatever you think is holding you back from a life of freedom has already been forgiven in Christ.
Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you? - Matthew 18:33 (NLT)
Last Sunday, I handed my 16-year-old son a brand new pair of wireless earbuds. “This is just a gift to say, ‘Well done.’ The end of this school year was rough, and I’m proud of the way you finished strong.” He was both surprised and grateful; the gift was completely unexpected to him.
Much to my chagrin, as his grades started rolling in, we saw a handful of assignments that he did not turn in during the final week. When I asked him about it, he said that he just got lazy. This began a thrilling conversation between the two of us about expectations, freedom, and responsibility. In short, I informed him that unless he turned the work in, regardless of what credit he could still get, there would be consequences in the vein of losing access to his phone and computer for the first few weeks of summer vacation.
“You’re the worst,” he said flatly.
“Was I the worst yesterday when I bought you a set of headphones simply because I wanted to? Or am I only the worst now that I’m enforcing the clear expectations we’ve given to you about staying on top of your work? You were happy to accept the gift even knowing that you clearly didn’t deserve it. And now you’re going to act like I’m the tyrant for still wanting to enforce my expectations of what you should have been doing all along? Clearly you misunderstand this situation.”
That’s a bit of what Jesus is getting at in this parable. There is reciprocity to the kingdom of heaven: Jesus’ teachings so often include a “go and do likewise” language. Living in the King’s authority means living like the King, even when it costs us. Failure to do so means that we haven’t genuinely grasped what it means to belong to Him and to be forgiven by Him.
Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. - Luke 23:34 (NLT)
Jesus had a way of completely upending traditional ways of thinking. He was constantly turning questions around to make points that would have been completely counterintuitive and countercultural. Sometimes it feels as if every conversation with Jesus ended like an M. Night Shyamalan movie. The famous “Sermon on the Mount” found in Matthew 5 was full of these, “You have heard it said, but I tell you,”...kind of moments. One of the most challenging statements comes in verses 43–48. “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!”
But Jesus, have you seen my enemies? I mean, they are the actual worst! Surely you don’t mean that I should love the “friend” who always asks for help but never offers it, right? You can’t mean that I should forgive the co-worker who constantly knives his way up the corporate ladder? And I assume you’ve heard about the Taliban, right? Kim Jong Un? Democrats? Republicans? Christian Laettner? Love and forgive them? Surely you are speaking in hyperbole here, right?
On Good Friday this year, my wife and I rewatched The Passion of the Christ. It is absolutely excruciating to watch a graphic dramatization of the beatings, the lashings, and the crucifixion. I cringed through it but refused to look away. The moment that broke me, however, was not any crack of the whip or pounding of a nail. It was moments before Jesus died, as he hung there looking down at the very men who so callously and cruelly tortured him.
“Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Yup. Love your enemies. He actually means it. He actually does it.
But the man fell down before his master and begged him, "Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all." Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt. - Matthew 18:26-27 (NLT)
Early on in my marriage, I hit a crisis point. Attitudes, sins, and patterns that lingered from my adolescence and young-adulthood were carrying over into my new marriage and acting as a wedge between me and my wife. One day, we just had it out. I had to say out loud the things that were weighing me down, and I had to ask out loud for forgiveness for the ways I had hurt her. Moving forward from that point was not easy, but it was freeing. For the first time in my life, the gospel took on flesh and blood for me. The person I loved the most had become the person I hurt the most… and then became the person who forgave me the most. That experience, this relationship, changed me forever. Though I’ve been hurt and frustrated by others since then more times than I can count, I find it hard to hold a grudge. I am still, twenty years later, acutely aware of how grace changed my life, and I don’t ever want to withhold that from someone else.
Jesus exemplified this one evening while eating dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. A woman of certain disrepute found her way to the gathering and spent the night shamelessly weeping at the feet of Jesus. Others looked at her in condemnation, but Jesus turned the tables. “You didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair… I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” (Luke 7:44-47, NLT)
Forgiveness brings freedom, and freedom gives birth to love.
… [love] keeps no record of being wronged. - 1 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT)
When I first joined the staff of Southland, I was carrying some baggage. A previous ministry had left me wounded, and there were a few people towards whom I held a lot of bitterness. I knew intellectually that, at some point, I’d need to let go of that bitterness and forgive these people… but I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to be ready. There was something in me that actually wanted to hang onto this anger because it gave me something over them. I wanted vindication. I wanted to cling to how right I had been during those days and how wrong they had been in their treatment of me.
My wife and I were walking out of the movie theater one evening and ran face to face into the couple who had hurt us the most. I barely got a gruff, “Hey,” out of my mouth before brushing past them and out of the building. I knew immediately that unforgiveness was killing me.
The next morning, Jon Weece preached a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, and the Holy Spirit convicted me of that passage in ways I’d never felt before. “Love keeps no record of being wronged.” If Jesus calls me to love even my enemies, then I simply cannot hold onto my anger and feign love.
I repeated those words over and over in my head. “Love keeps no record of being wronged.” I pictured the faces of the people who had hurt me. I inserted their names into prayers and simply told the Lord I was done. I was not going to hold it anymore. I forgave them.
I don’t know that forgiveness always works this way, but my anger and bitterness were instantly gone. As the old hymn goes, “My chains fell off, my heart was free.” Oddly, in a way that is still hard to explain, I was vindicated not by holding on to my anger, but by letting it go.