This past Sunday I was blessed with the opportunity to preach Matthew 18.21-35 at Grace Fellowship Church. That is the passage where Jesus tells the parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
Naturally, in speaking about forgiveness, many questions were raised. People approached me later and asked many questions about when forgiveness is appropriate and what it looks like. One person who heard the sermon online (you can get it here) e-mailed and asked some questions as well.
Since most of the questions were generally along the same lines, I thought that posting my response here might be helpful to others. Here was the question that I was aiming to answer:
A friend said to me that as a Christian we do not have to forgive everybody. And the reason that was given was that God does not forgive everyone. God only forgives those who ask for forgiveness. Following this argument, as a Christian we would only have to forgive others who have asked us for forgiveness.
That question was followed up with another:
As a former psychology student/social worker, I’m interested in understanding more about how repetitive forgiveness looks without setting up boundaries or getting distance from a Christian who continually sins against you.
Here is my take:
Your questions are not uncommon, that is for sure — and they are good ones. Typically when I’ve encountered people who argue that we only need to forgive those who ask, I’ve discovered that they hold that position because they’ve been deeply hurt in the past by someone who may or may not have been repentant. The prospect of forgiving someone for something genuinely evil when they haven’t even sought forgiveness or admitted their wrongful actions is a scary one that can seem like death. So the much easier answer is to appeal to the reality that God only forgives those who ask.
The trouble, of course, is that whether God forgives or not is God’s prerogative (should God forgive those who die as young children, incapable of understanding the gospel and exercising repentance and faith?). There is nothing outside of himself that compels him to forgive. When we view ourselves as the ‘God’ figure in the relationship, we’re missing something. The reality is that we are servants, compelled by the mercy we’ve been shown, to forgive other (equal) servants. That’s different than God’s forgiveness. Our forgiveness displays the reality and power of God’s forgiveness, but it’s different. We are commanded to forgive; God does so of his own character. When God forgives it is a superior showing mercy on an inferior; when we forgive it is servant to servant. The connection between God forgiving us and us forgiving each other is a little more nuanced than some like to admit.
That being said, how can there be true reconciliation in relationships if the offending party doesn’t admit wrong? Offering forgiveness really means next to nothing if the offender doesn’t believe they need forgiveness in the first place.
All things considered, I think that what Christ is calling us to is a stance, a posture of forgiveness. He’s calling us to a readiness to forgive in a moment. I think he is calling us to treat people with love and mercy, with humility and compassion. He is calling us to remember that if someone has sinned against me, I should be quicker to identify with them (‘I have sinned this way too…’) than to identify with God (‘I have been offended without cause…’). When we realize that it could have just as easily been me offending as me offended, I’m much slower to hold offences against other people.
Whereas most people say ‘I don’t need to forgive because you haven’t asked for forgiveness’ in order to justify holding on to feelings of woundedness and bitterness, Christ calls us to identify with the offender and to be ready to be fully reconciled in a moment. It’s a the posture of the heart more than a specific action in that case, but it will make all the difference in the world in the way you think about, relate to, and pray for the person who has offended you.
As for the questions regarding boundaries, I’m not sure I have absolute answers for you in specific instances. Again, what Jesus is striving to portray for us is a heart that is ready and willing to be wounded again and again for the sake of love and for the sake of modelling the heart of God. But in the wisdom literature (e.g. Psalm 1) there is much to indicate that we ought not to make it our habit of making persistent sinners our close friends (for numerous reasons).
I think, in this context (Matthew 18), the difference between the sinner of verses 15-20 and the sinner of 21-22 is simply that the former refuses to repent, while the latter is genuinely repentant, and seeking to change. Each specific case will need to be dealt with according to wisdom. Some sins must be treated differently than others, and some have more lasting consequences.
But in all things, we are called to be ready and willing to forgive, and hopeful of fully reconciled relationships through repentance and forgiveness. I think that’s the bottom line.
I guess what concerns me about the position that says we forgive only those who ask is not so much that they are outright wrong, but that it seems to be asking, ‘Who can I get away with not forgiving?’ It’s the wrong question. The right question is more along the lines of ‘How can I respond to the matchless and limitless forgiveness I’ve received from God? Who can I forgive in order to display the gospel to the world?’ That seems to me to be a world of difference.