When forgiving isn't easy
I'm sure many of you have seen the musical production My Fair Lady either on stage or the movie. The story line is simple. Professor Higgins makes a wager that he can turn a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a high society lady. This proves quite a challenge as Eliza’s pronunciation of the English language clearly demonstrates her lack of education and class. Professor Higgins who is ever so negative about women vows to "never let a woman in his life".
Eliza goes back to the streets and plans to marry Freddie, but Higgins realises that "he’s grown accustomed to her face" but isn’t ready to admit that he has fallen in love with her. If she marries Freddie and goes back to her old way of life, what would he do when she hammers on his door in tears and rags, miserable and lonely, repentant and contrite? He asks himself,
Will I … give her kindness - or the treatment she deserves? Will I take her back - or throw the baggage out?
As he ponders over this he says:
I'm a most forgiving man the sort who never could never would, take a position, staunchly never budge, just a most forgiving man.
But then, his tune and his temperament change as he focuses on the hurt, he is feeling.
But I will never take her back, if she were crawling on her knees! Let her promise to atone, let her shiver, let her moan, I will slam the door and let the hellcat freeze! But I will never take her back!
Don't you think Professor Higgins is describing most of us? We say we are the most forgiving types, never could, never would hold a grudge, a person who would never find it hard to extend a friendly hand of forgiveness, but as we say that, we know very well that we can be very hard and cruel sometimes, perhaps more often than we care to admit. We say in one breath how forgiving we are, but we know very well that we are holding grudges.
The words of the poet Heinrich Heine on the matter of forgiveness are well known. He once said, "My nature is the most peaceful in the world. All I ask is a simple cottage, a decent bed, good food, some flowers in front of my window, and a few trees beside my door. Then, if God wanted to make me completely happy, he would let me enjoy the spectacle of six or seven of my enemies dangling from those trees. I would forgive them all the wrongs they have done me - forgive them from the bottom of my heart, for we must forgive our enemies. But not until they are hanged!"
Vicious gossip, a mean and unjust accusation, someone running a red light and then blaming you for the accident that was caused ... all these are hard to forgive, hard to take, let alone return mercy for meanness. Forgiveness isn't easy. Sometimes it's the most difficult thing in the world.
Does that all sound so familiar? It’s so hard to make the first move to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation when bitterness and resentment have destroyed a relationship. The reading from Genesis 37 recalls Joseph and the treatment he had received from his brothers. Their unforgiving attitude led to them to despise and hate their brother. They lost all love for him as a brother. It was as if a solid insurmountable wall of resentment and hatred had been built between them and their younger brother to the point that they wanted to get rid of him permanently. Suddenly murder seemed quite justifiable and forgiveness was out of the question.
Forgiveness is a difficult thing, in fact, it’s unnatural, especially when we believe that we are the ones who have been wronged, and we won’t give in until the other person says he/she is sorry. And so family members, friends, congregational members stay separated, more interested in getting even, than reconciliation.
It is especially hard to make the first move to bring about forgiveness when we consider that we are the ones who have been wronged. This is hard because our human nature wants justice and revenge, and by holding back forgiveness we want to make the point that we are right, and the other person is wrong.
Jesus gives us a clear understanding of what forgiveness is in Matthew 18:23-34. He asks us to compare the kingdom of God with a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, to set things right, to close the books. One servant was deep in debt and owed the king millions of dollars.
There was no way the servant could pay this amount. So the king did the expected, just, and legally right thing. To recoup some his money the king ordered that the servant's wife and children be sold as slaves.
Then there follows such a scene. The servant falls down at the king’s feet and begs, "Have patience with me and I will repay everything". Who is he kidding? How can he possible pay back so much money?
But surprise of surprises! In a burst of pity, the king cancels the whole debt. Here the story starts to sound highly improbable. The king might be considered by some as being soft-hearted. Others would say he’s gone a bit soft in the head! Would anyone really write off such a large amount of money in the real world? That would be considered foolishness.
Sure enough, the king's generosity backfires. The same servant runs into a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller amount of money. Grabbing him by the neck, nearly choking him, he demands, "Pay me what you owe."
When this fellow servant begs for mercy his words fall on deaf ears and is thrown into jail until he pays his debt. When the king hears about this, he is furious. "You worthless servant!" he says. "I forgave you the huge debt you owed me. You should have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you".
Have you ever taken note of your own feelings as you read or listen to this parable of Jesus? In the beginning we were pleased that the servant was forgiven by the king. We feel for the man who is helplessly in debt and shocked that his family must also suffer because of his foolishness. We are relieved when the king has mercy on him and forgives him everything.
But look what happens to our sympathy for this man by the end of the parable. After his shameful treatment of his fellow servant, especially after he had received such generous treatment himself, we are delighted to see the king sock it to him. He had been forgiven so much but was so hard-hearted toward the servant who owed him so little. We are delighted he didn't get away with it. Do you see what has happened to us?
So there's really not much difference in the story between the ungrateful servant and us. After we get over our brief moment of sympathy and mercy at the beginning of the story, we return to a much more familiar emotion - vengeance. That ungrateful wretch deserved everything he had coming to him for being so miserly and unforgiving.
Jesus is a master storyteller and the unforgiving attitude of the servant who had been forgiven so much highlights our own unforgiving attitude and hardness toward others. We are led to admit that the unforgiving servant is a brother to us, the unforgiving hearers.
What are we to do as Christians to stop the separation and ill-will that can infect our closeness to the people in our lives? What can we do to make forgiveness a part of every relationship in our families and in the church?
We heard about the resentment and unforgiving attitude of the Jacob’s family that led to a complete breakdown between Joseph and his brothers and the unhappiness this brought into the family. What can we do to prevent this sort of thing happening to us?
Before we go any further, we need to establish the fact that forgiveness has that unnatural quality of being undeserved, unmerited, even unfair. It goes against our basic instincts as humans.
If someone offends us or causes us hurt in some way, it’s natural for us to want to break off our relationship with that person. Because of an unforgiving attitude and intolerance we see children no longer talking to parents, neighbours ignoring their neighbours, people dropping out of congregations and clubs. For these people there is no question about who should take the first steps to restore friendship – the person who has caused the offence. That’s the natural human way we deal with disagreements.
As much as we might look for loopholes or for reasons not to forgive those who hurt us, Jesus leaves no room for doubt that just as God has forgiven us for our persistent and blatant wrong against him so also, we are to forgive one another even though we think the other person doesn’t deserve it. Even though we feel deeply hurt by the words and actions of one of the family or a congregational member or a friend, and just as Joseph must have been deeply hurt by the cruel actions of his brothers when they sold him as a slave, nevertheless it is an essential part of our Christian faith that just as God forgives us so we ought to forgive those who sin against us. We say it in the Lord’s Prayer, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Paul said to the Colossians, "Forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you" (3:13).
What this parable does is mirror our miserly notions of forgiveness and contrast it with the generous and extravagant love of the One who forgave us for everything. In short, the parable has a way of driving us into the hands of a merciful God. It reminds us of the extravagant and generous forgiveness that’s Jesus has given to us through his death on the cross. He prayed for all those who had nailed him to the cross, including us, "Father, forgive them".
And so we close with this prayer today, "Father, forgive us for our rather stingy attitude when it comes to forgiving others. So often we are too preoccupied with justifying ourselves and blaming others that we forget that forgiveness is essential to our lives as Christians just as air is essential to our survival. Help us not to harbour resentment and hurt against the person who has offended us but to take the initiative to restoring friendship again. Forgiveness isn’t an easy thing and so often we have to work hard at reflecting the same kind of forgiveness that Jesus has given us. We pray for those who find it difficult to forgive us for the wrong we have done to them. Help us to seek forgiveness and experience the joy of that reconciliation brings. We pray in the name of our gracious and forgiving Saviour. Amen.
Total Forgiveness – R. T. Kendall
The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness – John MacArthur
Vince Gerhardy Blog
Unpacking Forgiveness – Chris Brauns
Forgiveness: Overcoming the Impossible – Matthew West
Forgiveness: Finding Peace through Letting Go – Adam Hamilton