CS Lewis once wrote, 'Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.' It's true. And one of the things I have found most moving and challenging as I've read through Matthew's Gospel has been Jesus' teaching on forgiveness.
I guess partly this has struck home because in recent months I've felt called to forgive people that I believe have wronged me. I guess partly this has hit home because I've been made aware more recently that we really do live in a cursed and broken world. I guess also I've had cause to reflect on specific cases where forgiveness has occurred and I wonder if in the same position I'd be able to forgive - Anthony Walker's mum, for instance, or the kind of forgiveness shown in this moving article from Tearfund which put my own situations in their true perspective.
For Jesus, forgiveness is vital. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to say that forgiveness is a condition of salvation. Obviously, he's not speaking of a works-based righteousness, as the whole of Matthew's Gospel shows that salvation is by God's grace alone. However, Jesus does seem to say that a person who finds it impossible to forgive has not understood the depth of forgiveness that they themselves had received from God (see 5:7, 6:12, 6:14-15).
I have found the teaching that Jesus gives in chapter 18 helpful here, as I think this clarifies in greater detail what forgiveness is and what it is not. The whole chapter speaks of how we relate to others in 'the kingdom' - in other words, other who have placed their trust in Jesus. I love the way in which the teaching flows here. The first half of the chapter speaks of welcoming others who have trusted Jesus, regardless of how 'sinful' they appear (Jesus is clearly rebuking the self-righteous Pharisees here), whilst clearly still teaching the sinfulness of sin. Jesus is the good shepherd who has come to rescue people from sin, even really sinful people!
This then leads into the second section, from verse 15. How are we to relate to people that 'sin against us' (compare verses 15 and 21)? Verses 15-20 outline Jesus' 'grievance procedure' - the fault is (at first gently) pointed out to the offender (see Ephesians 4:2). However, forgiveness undergirds all of this - Jesus calls Peter to forgive seventy-seven times (i.e. an unlimited number of times), forgiving because he has himself been forgiven much, as the parable of the unmerciful servant shows. Indeed verse 35 says that forgiveness must come 'from the heart': in other words, no grudges can be held.
So what does this teach us about forgiveness?
First of all: God's forgiveness of us. The parable shows that it is neither a cheap pardon nor a let-off based upon our own attempts to atone for our wrongdoing by trying a bit harder. Instead, it is the cancellation of a massive, unpayable debt. A talent was equivalent to twenty years' salary for a labourer - the sum that is cancelled here is the equivalent of millions of pounds in present day money. Jesus makes it clear that, however much we have been wronged by others, it is equivalent to only a few pounds when compared to that we have received from God. In other words, if we are not willing to forgive those that have wronged us, we have not appreciated the sheer scale of forgiveness we have received. Indeed, it shows our repentance is only skin deep. As George Herbert said, 'He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.'
However, I think more can be said about our forgiveness of others. It's obviously not certain things:
- pretending that what a person has done doesn't matter - Jesus makes it clear that sin really does matter (verse 6) - it's dangerous - and for that reason we're to humbly go and point it out when we have been sinned against (verse 15);
- bringing peace at any price, particularly if this will lead to future sin (again, see verse 6): forgiveness is obviously not set up against, for instance, legal punishment for a crime;
- conditional on a person not doing it again (verses 21-22);
- having to like a person - this doesn't seem to come into the equation (we're to love them, but not necessary like them).
So what is forgiveness? Well it seems to me that Jesus models this. It means loving someone and wanting the best for them. Love wants the good for an enemy, even if they have hurt us. As I said above, sometimes this love will show itself in wanting justice to be done in punishment (for instance in the legal sense) but it will always want the best for the offender (see Matthew 5:43-48). This is perhaps most clearly shown in Jesus' cry on the cross - "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" - the emphasis here not on ignorance but on the fact that the people should have realised that what they were doing was wrong. Jesus does not say that the sin that led to his crucifixion didn't matter - obviously it did - yet he still wanted the very best for them, which his death provided: reconciliation with God.
So what does this mean for me? It means I'm called to forgive - not to say that things didn't matter, but to go in with an attitude of seeking the best for those who have sinned against me. It means that, by God's grace, I'll approach them in the future seeking their good, even if it means the same thing might happen again.
Love is hard. Love maybe shown be through gritted teeth at first, but by God's grace I hope it will not lead to bitterness but eventually reconciliation. After all, that's the power of the gospel as we reflect on the immense grace and forgiveness we have been shown.