The Gospel of Mark seems to set the forgiveness bar at an impossible height to clear.
"Be alert. If you see your friend going wrong, correct him. If he responds, forgive him. Even if it's personal against you and repeated seven times through the day, and seven times he says, 'I'm sorry, I won't do it again,' forgive him."
Really now. Maybe I could manage once or twice, but doesn't continually forgiving make me a fool? Maybe the writer misspoke there a little bit. Isn't it interesting how we will subconsciously wrestle with God about what He really meant? The text seems pretty clear in all of the translations. There are no exceptions. How about this little challenge.
Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
The "as quickly" part is hard enough. The "as thoroughly" clause is nigh to impossible. And it can be almost as hard to accept second place as it is to be quick to forgive. That is another downside of being an American Christian. We are not rewarded in this society for being content with second place. I am very competitive. I love to win. But the desire to be first can be destructive. Jesus told us the "first shall be last," making the point that harboring a spiritual attitude of superiority had its own consequences. Your success in nailing down the committee leadership position or the politicking to teach the Bible study will likely be your only reward. Don't be surprised when the one who humbly deferred to you will be rewarded in the heavenly bonus program.
Do you see a pattern in this sampling of verses on forgiveness? Do you see any way around the obvious command to forgive? Me either. And that causes me a bit of concern. Just like the average Christian, I want all of the benefits of forgiveness without that annoying requirement that I actually have to forgive others. But the Bible is very clear about my responsibility to forgive. Forgiveness is a constant and, quite frankly, irritating theme of the New Testament. There do not appear to be any loopholes in these verses. I don't think we have a super-species of unforgivable sins that have mutated since the days of Jesus that require a special dispensation. I would imagine that Enoch at the tent making shop was just a big as jerk as Bob in accounting.
Bottom line: We are commanded to forgive as we have been forgiven. Straight up, no excuses. Forgiveness may well be the missing ingredient to true revival in the church. Clearly our lack of forgiveness is a major impediment to growth. I believe that we attract people to Christ when we behave in a way that is supernatural. I'm not talking about performing miraculous healings or speaking in tongues. I'm talking about the supernatural behaviors radio host Steve Brown referred to when he said this: "We can claim to have supernatural love, but it's only supernatural when one would expect hatred instead. We can claim to be forgiving, but forgiveness is supernatural only when there is no earthly reason for one to be forgiving. Compassion is supernatural when the smart thing to do is look out for number one. Joy is supernatural when circumstances don't warrant it."
What would be the result in our communities if we demonstrated the supernatural aspects of Christ living through us outlined above? I suspect the unchurched would be clamoring to "get what we got." Forgiveness may be the singular act that convinces an unbelieving world that Christians really can be different. (Different good, not different weird.)
Jesus revealed the secret about the reason to forgive in this parable about a man forgiven a huge debt. If you have your copy of God's Word you follow along but today I am using the Message to relate this parable.
"The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn't pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market. The poor wretch threw himself at the king's feet and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.' Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt." (Matthew 18:23-27)
But that undeserved gift of forgiveness for his overwhelming indebtedness apparently had little impact on how that forgiven man treated others. That suddenly ungrateful man forgot about the mercy and grace extended to him when he encountered a brother who owed him a debt.
"The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, 'Pay up. Now!' The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.' But he wouldn't do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king. The king summoned the man and said, 'You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn't you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?' The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that's exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn't forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy." (Matthew 18:28-35 - The Message)
I am generally fair and generous regarding money and forgiving debts. But the problem with that little self-righteous pat-on-the-back is only that I am missing the entire point of the parable. It's not about money. It is about forgiveness. I am the debtor with a sin debt that I could never begin to pay. I am the man who begged for forgiveness of my debt over thirty years ago, and Jesus granted that forgiveness. And I am the man who has sometimes repaid His gracious gift by refusing to forgive those who have offended or hurt me.
I have spent a lot of unhappy moments outside of fellowship with my Lord because I did not want to forgive someone who hurt me. I am grieved to think of how I have stubbornly refused to forgive others for real and/or perceived slights over the years. I can imagine Jesus looking at me with sadness because I have not fully comprehended the magnitude of the debt that has been erased from my account because of Him. I picture His sadness not as judgment, but as truth that I have shortchanged my ability to possess joy and peace. Right there in front of my spiritual nose and I chose to hold onto bitterness. Am I guilty of beating myself up? No. I think I am just being honest about the depth of my indebtedness to Christ. I hope I never lose sight of the gift of forgiveness.
It doesn't take a theological genius to point out our need to forgive. I would imagine that many of you have struggled with the same unflinching commands in Scripture that I have. Part of my difficulty was a false impression of what forgiveness looks and feels like in real life. Let's examine what forgiveness is…and isn't. So what does forgiveness look like? Stay tuned for Day 3 of God’s Weight Loss Plan.