In the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, he taught them to pray, “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” (Luke 11:4) Jesus illuminated that prayer with the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35), after Peter asked him how often we must forgive those who sin against us. In the parable, the master forgave the great debt the servant owed him, but the servant demanded payment of the small debt someone else owed him. At the end of the parable, the master says to the unforgiving servant, “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”
I have been listening to Tim Keller a lot lately. Keller says, “How we deal with our wounds is a model for how we relate to God.” He adds that “’the mercy rule’ demonstrates that God distributes His forgiveness through people. He forgives us as we forgive others.”
It isn’t that we mete out forgiveness to others so much that God metes out forgiveness to us based on how we deal with our wounds from other people. God, apparently, has built into the fabric of His universe the principle that we are forgiven to the extent we forgive. It’s like a law of physics in the moral and spiritual world.
In addition, Keller says, “The way we distribute mercy says a lot about how we relate to God.” When Peter asked how many times must we forgive?” He offered what he undoubtedly thought was a generous amount: Seven times. You have undoubtedly heard the statement: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. This sentiment is not a new one. Sometimes we say, “three strikes, and you’re out!” Peter upped the ante generously to seven times, probably thinking that surely seven times is good enough.
But Jesus said, “No, seventy times seven!” We should forgive people exponentially more than we think! In fact, the real point of what Jesus was saying is that we shouldn’t keep tabs. We should always forgive… if we want to be forgiven.
Ultimately, though, we can’t understand this unless we begin to understand God.
Do we see God as a hard taskmaster? Or as a loving father? Going back to the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, it begins with the answer: “Our Father….!”
God relates to us as a Father, and we can’t understand God unless we understand Him as our Father.
Some people approach the principle of forgiveness from the perspective of our sinfulness, making the point that we are exponentially more sinful than we think. thus, we need to forgive exponentially. On this point, Keller says that the debt we owe is equal to the life of Christ on the cross. We can’t understand the weight of our own sin unless we measure it against the cost of redeeming us from our sin.
Our debt is so great that it required the sacrifice of God’s own Son!
But there is another way of looking at this. God’s love is so great that He sacrificed Himself in human form for our sake! The death of Jesus on the cross, then is also the measure of God’s love for us. When we understand the great magnitude of God’s love, we can deal with the shame of our own – because His love covers it.
Only when we understand the gravity of our own sin and the greatness of God’s love for us is forgiving others really possible when. Only when we begin to see how much the Father loves us and what He has done for us can we truly begin to embrace that love and reflect it in our relationships with others. Likewise, our relationships with others is a measure of how well we understand our sin and have accepted God’s love.
It’s important to note that we need to embrace (accept) God’s mercy and forgiveness to really understand God and to reflect God’s character to others. If we say, in effect, “Thank you Lord, but I will pay for my debts myself”, we are going to demand that others pay their debts to us. Likewise, if we are holding unforgiveness toward others, we have to question whether we have truly accepted the mercy and forgiveness God offers us.
If I look inside and see that I am holding on to wounds from others, I know I haven’t appreciated the depth of my own sin or received (or embraced) enough of the forgiveness God offers me. My wounds, and my reactions to them, are a barometer of how I am doing with God. To the extent I am holding on to the wounds from others, I know I have not fully embraced God’s mercy and forgiveness offered to me.
In that light, we should look inside and ask: what am I holding on to? What do I think I am owed? Taking inventory of our wounds will reveal to us how we are doing in relationship with God. If we are holding on to the wounds from others, we need to form a better understanding of who God is, our own sinfulness and the greatness of God’s love.