Our culture teaches us many ideas. Some lessons are better than others. Among them are concepts that our culture believes concerning forgiveness.
Sometimes, our culture may teach us that "Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself." Also, we may be taught that "Forgiveness must be earned," or that "Forgiveness is a process."
If we examine these one by one in light of Scripture, we see that they are all at least a little off-target.
First of all, when we hear that "Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself," there is some truth here. If you hold a grudge against someone, then you may be holding a burden of bitterness inside of you. Forgiving the person releases you from that burden. From a psychological standpoint, this makes sense.
But is it Scriptural? In today's holy Gospel, Saint Peter asks, "How often should I forgive my neighbor? Seven times?" We can almost hear in Peter's voice some frustration. If someone sins against you seven times, and each time you forgive, you will probably feel frustration. You may ask, "Are they really sorry they did it, since they keep doing it?" Like Peter, you may wonder how many times is too much. After all that forgiving, it begins to wear on a person. You may begin to feel taken advantage of.
The problem is, if a person tells us they are sorry, we are to forgive them. We cannot dig into their secret emotions and thoughts to find out if they are truly sorry. We may ask them, but then we have to believe their answer. If we believe they are thinking or feeling something without concrete evidence, then we are slandering them. We have to accept that they are sorry, and then we are obligated to forgive.
Who does the burden fall upon? Upon the forgiver. If you forgive, you are agreeing to not seek retribution. You are agreeing to not hold a grudge. You are saying, in essence, that you will not hold this sin against them from the moment you say the words, "I forgive you." You are giving up any right to pay them back for your wrongs. Like the king in the parable, the debt is canceled, so there will be no debt collectors coming to take the money.
This can be tremendously difficult. By forgiving, you are removing a burden from the one you are forgiving, without asking for conditions of repayment or restitution. This is really the opposite of the world's view that says that forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. No, it is a gift you give to the person you forgive.
Forgiveness may happen to benefit you in some way. But that should not be your motivation. Think of your neighbor and his need. Think of whether you would want him to forgive you. Think, most of all, about the fact that Christ our dear Lord wants us to forgive our brother without conditions, without strings attached, without limits.
How can we do that? Not from our sinful heart's ability. The new heart that is created in us by the Holy Spirit is strong and loving and willing to forgive. But sometimes the old heart weakens us and weighs us down. Sometimes our emotions become too strong and all we can think about is how much we have been wronged.
So where do you look for the power to forgive? Look to the Cross. Look to the infinite worth of the Blood of God, shed for you and for all men. Christ has paid for all trespasses ever committed. Therefore how dare we act as if some sins were too big to be forgiven? How could we act as if our neighbor's sin is more powerful than the holy Blood of atonement? Heaven forbid that we should act that way.
The culture around us also sometimes says, "Forgiveness must be earned." Again, there is some truth here. When a relationship becomes strained because trust has been broken, it will take time and effort to rebuild that trust.
For instance, if you discover that your son is doing drugs, God forbid, then there will be a period of time when you will closely examine his life to make sure that he changes his ways. You do not simply forgive and then act as if nothing happened. But this is not the same as earning forgiveness. Forgiveness says that you are not rejecting your son. You will not forever hold this against him. Yet as a parent, you must see to his well-being. There may be consequences to actions, even if there is forgiveness.
When our culture talks about earning forgiveness, they often mean that a person needs to show that he is a changed person before you will forgive him. Or he needs to make amends to convince you to forgive.
But think of this in terms of Christ. Did He wait for us to show Him we were changed people before He would forgive us? No, while we were still enemies, He shed His Blood for us. When we were still lost in sin, He sent a man to Baptize us with the washing of forgiveness.
Making amends does not come before forgiveness. That is the whole point. If you depend upon making amends, then you are paying for your crime, not receiving forgiveness. Forgiveness cancels debts. It does not demand that they be paid. The unforgiving servant is the one who seeks repayment. The merciful king removes debt forever.
May we be more like the merciful King.
Often, the culture says that forgiveness must be earned because they want their emotions to be ready to forgive. According to the world, you must feel that it is worthwhile to forgive before you say it.
But again, that puts the burden of forgiveness on the good will of our fallible heart. When we are hurt, we may not feel like forgiving. If it is a very serious sin, why would we forgive?
But because Christ shed precious Blood, our forgiveness is not limited by our human heart. The price is paid already, no matter how serious a sin was committed against us. Therefore, there should never be conditions upon forgiveness.
All this assumes that a person repents of their sin. If they have no sorrow for sin at all, or deny that Christ died for them, then we are not to forgive. As He said, "Whoever's sins you do not forgive, they are not forgiven," which means that we are to withhold forgiveness from the impenitent as long as they do not repent.
May we also repent of our sins, by God's grace, so that our whole life may be one of repentance.
When our culture says, "Forgiveness is a process," there is a little bit of truth there. It may take some time before a person who forgives feels completely forgiving in his heart. So our culture often counsels us to wait to forgive until we are ready. We are warned that if forgiveness is given too easily, it will be cheap grace.
But the forgiveness itself is not from our heart. It cannot be cheap grace because it is from Christ and His Blood. It was bought at a most precious price. We are not the Redeemer. We only pass along the Good News that His death has purchased atonement for all sins. Every transgression has been paid for, so that we can tell people that their sins, also, are forgiven. This is not from us and our love, but from the infinite love of God.
Yet we also want to forgive from our heart. Christ says in our text: "So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." Although the source of forgiveness is not our heart, but Christ, yet our hearts should follow along with what our mouths speak. In other words, we should feel that all is forgiven between us and a brother who wronged us, without any lingering bitterness or grudge.
This may take some time. Our fragile hearts are easily bruised and easily scarred. When terrible sins tragically injure us, we are often too frail to immediately give full and complete forgiveness from our heart. We should still speak absolution to one who has gravely hurt us, yet we likely will not immediately and fully love them as if nothing had happened. Injured feelings take time to heal, if they heal completely at all. Although the forgiveness should be spoken as soon as we can, regardless of our feelings, we want our feelings to follow along with the truth of the Gospel we speak.
So do not say that you forgive someone and then hold a grudge. If you find yourself harboring bitter feelings against someone you have forgiven, then work on putting your emotions in line with the Gospel. This is a sanctification matter, so the Holy Spirit will work with you in this goal.
To learn to forgive best, receive forgiveness yourself. Come to the Supper. Come to Holy Absolution. Come to hear the Gospel preached and taught. Receive with sincere faith, as one who knows that you are a sinner who deeply needs this Gospel. To help us, the Word is always accompanied by the Spirit, who is constantly molding our hearts to be more loving and more forgiving.
Among the many sins for which we need forgiveness is our failure to fully forgive. If we were perfectly loving, as we should be, then we would happily forgive anything and never feel any bitter grudges against anyone. But instead, our sinful hearts sometimes fail to fully forgive because of weakness. This failure out of weakness is not the same as stubbornly refusing to ever forgive. In our weakness, we still struggle to try and forgive more fully from the heart. God give us grace to accomplish this difficult task.
As the parable of Christ makes clear, anyone who sees that his own gigantic debt is canceled should willingly forgive the relatively small debts of others. We have had our tremendously huge burden of sin forgiven freely by Christ. We have a lifetime filled with iniquities, including a multitude of sins that we do not realize we committed. All of these are erased from God's record by the Blood of Christ. He who is perfect love puts those transgressions away from His memory. He chooses not to remember them, and to see us only as holy sons and daughters.
Our love is not so strong as to completely forget. We do not have the power to give ourselves selective amnesia so that sins are blotted out from our minds. So we have to work hard at this. But it helps to remember that Christ has blotted out an innumerable host of trespasses from us. How could we not then willingly forgive individual sins committed against us in this life?
But if we depend on our feelings to forgive, then eventually we will decide that some sins are too big to forgive. God forbid that we should become so unforgiving, for it implicitly denies the Cross of Christ, and is a path of unbelief.
Instead, may He lead us to be quick to forgive and quick to forget, by the power of His Spirit. Amen.
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