Kevin could bring himself to attend his parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. Years ago when he married outside of his Korean culture, they boycotted his wedding. Ellen still has sleepless nights. She experiences nightmares about her father who abused her as a child. He’s dead now, but she can’t stop thinking about the pain he caused her. Joan’s “best friend” lied about her to her boyfriend, leading to their break up. Shortly after, Joan’s “friend” and ex-boyfriend began dating. She felt betrayed and can’t stop thinking about them. Tim found out his co-worker had been criticizing him to the boss and sharing misinformation about his work. The co-worker was promoted while Tim was demoted. Tim can’t stop thinking of ways to get even.
As you listen to these stories, you may find yourself relating in some way. We all have been violated, hurt, offended, in some way. If we are honest with ourselves, we have also all hurt and offended others. Jesus said, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they come!” (Lk. 17:1). As you go through life, you can be certain of one thing. Offenses will come. If you think you will get through this life without someone hurting you, you are mistaken. Jesus says it is impossible to go through life without being violated/offended in some way. Someone has done something to you that you didn’t want to have done to you. You have been wounded.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that at some level it is also true that as we have lived our lives, in some way we have hurt, violated, offended someone else. We have done something to someone that was painful, mean and offensive. This week we are going to look at Jesus’ teaching on how to respond when we are violated. Next week, we’ll talk about what our response should be when we have violated.
According to Jesus, forgiving others to be not an option for Christians. He instructed His followers to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Matt. 6:12, NLT). In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he wrote, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). These passages are explicit, cut and dry, plain and simple. Forgiveness is a core value for Jesus’ followers. However, in real life practicing Jesus’ teaching isn't easy. Not only is it not easy, but it is often misunderstood.
When I was in high school, I witnessed someone whom I loved dearly suffer through a very abusive relationship. I didn’t know the extent of the abuse until years later, and neither did the pastors who on several occasions counseled her to forgive her husband. But everyone who was close enough to the situation knew that at some level, serious boundaries were being violated in the relationship.
In tears the offender would often say, some times in my presence, “ Please forgive me.” It was only years later that I realized that these were the words that he used to control. Because she felt duty bound to obey Jesus’ command to forgive, she endured unnecessarily horrible abuse. It didn’t help that pastors often encouraged her to stay in the relationship in the name of “forgiveness.”
We’ve all been deeply hurt by someone we cared for and trusted. We know what it’s like to resent a person who has violated us. Does Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness still apply? If so, what does it look like, especially in cases where abuse, rape, murder or betrayal has taken place? Are we as Christians required to forgive people who have deeply and irreparably damaged our lives? Is the relationship with the offender restored to its pre-offense condition?
In Matthew 18, Jesus gives detailed instructions regarding the attitude His followers should take towards those who have injured them. The chapter began with the disciples asking Jesus, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (vs. 1), and ends with Him saying that only he who “from his heart” will “forgive his brother his trespasses” (vs. 35). Our limited time will not allow us to explore the whole chapter, which seems to be tied together by the themes of humility, forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation. In the parable of the one lost sheep, Jesus stressed the profound concern that God has for “one of these little ones” who have “gone astray” (vs. 12-14). He had previously given a serious warning against causing “one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin” (vs. 6). Then, He proceeded to give practical steps towards reconciliation when “a brother sins against” another Christian (vs. 15-17).
After hearing Jesus talk about dealing patiently with an erring “brother,” Peter asks Him how long he must practice this before he is free to have an unforgiving attitude towards those who have offended (vs. 21). Jesus’ answer (vs. 22) shows that God’s forgiveness is not a judicial act, nor is it a matter of mathematics or legal regulations. Instead, it is an attitude of the heart. The person who considers a particular act unforgivable, or who thinks that at some future he will not forgive because of constant failure on the part of the transgressor, is far from extending true forgiveness. If the spirit of forgiveness is in the heart, a Christian will be as ready to forgive an offender the eighth time as the first time, or the 491st time. True forgiveness is not limited to numbers. Jesus illustrates this with the parable of the unforgiving servant (vs. 23-34).