Today, I want to talk about forgiveness.
But first let me tell you about my week. I kept bumping into my friend Sally from my home church – or, I should say, Sally kept bumping into me. On Monday, she was behind me in the queue at Asda and bumped into my legs with her shopping trolley. I don’t think she knew she’d done it, but I turned round with a big smile and said “Sally, I forgive you!”. Then on Tuesday she drew up next to me at the traffic lights. She was off like a shot and cut in front of me. I don’t think she saw it was me, so when I got home I made sure I phoned her and said “Sally – I forgive you!”. Then yesterday we were both getting out of our cars in the church hall car park and opened our doors at the same time. She MUST have seen the scratch on my paintwork, but honestly it only took me a couple of hours to say “Sally, I FORGIVE you!”.
This morning, I was praying and I said “Lord, how many times should I actually have to keep forgiving Sally – as many as 7 times? Because did you notice I’ve forgiven her 3 times already this week?”. And do you know what God said? “Not 7, Hayley, but 70 times 7!”. After a quick add up on my fingers, I said “490? You must be joking, Lord. How will I ever keep track? I mean, I need to know to give her a yellow card on time number 489 – because I am really going to enjoy pay-back time when we get to time number 491!”.
Jesus sighed. He said, “Let me tell you a story.
There was once a Big Boss – let’s call him Richard. Richard had been in the habit of lending money to his staff, and he wanted to get his accounts with them sorted out. So he called them into the boardroom, one by one, until he got to Bob.
“Remind me, Bob, how much do you owe me?”
Bob said, “Err.. it’s 10,000 talents, Boss.”
[Here’s an aside: one “talent” was the equivalent of about 20 years’ wages – so 10,000 talents would take 200,000 years to earn, making it worth around £2 billion! So it wasn’t too far from the truth to say that Bob would never pay this amount back in a million years.]
“Right,” said Richard, “in that case, Bob, you, your wife and your kids – you’re out on the street – I’m foreclosing on everything you own, and you can all work for me for free for the rest of your days.”
Bob collapsed in a heap. “Please, Boss, give me a chance to pay it back.”
To his utter amazement, Boss Richard, instead of kicking him out, took the IOU from its locked drawer, and tore it up into tiny pieces right in front of Bob’s eyes.
As Bob staggered in disbelief out of the boardroom, who should he bump into but Stan? Now, Stan had got a bit behind on his rent, and so Bob had lent him a few grand to tide him over – 100 denarii, equivalent to about 4 months’ pay.
As Stan tried to avoid catching Bob’s eye, Bob’s blood boiled. “Oi! Stan! You owe me! When do I get paid?”
Stan trembled and said “Bob, mate! Give me a chance and you’ll get your cash!”
But Bob said, “I know my rights! You’re in jail, mate, until the whole lot’s paid back!”
Perhaps Bob should have noticed Becky and Lexy watching the whole thing. They knew that Bob had just been let off his whole debt, and they dashed into the boardroom to tell Richard what had happened. Richard’s face darkened. “Get Bob back in here now!” he yelled.
“Bob! I wrote off every last penny of your debt – and yet you seem to have forgotten how that felt when you chucked Stan in the slammer. You had your chance – I’m changing my mind. You’d better start working out how you’ll pay me back, while I get the thumbscrews out.”
Then, Jesus delivered the scary punchline: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat you, if you don’t forgive each other wholeheartedly when you’re wronged.”
How easy do you find it to forgive someone who’s wronged you? And I mean real forgiveness, not the sort of “passive aggressive” forgiveness I was showing Sally this week?
Perhaps, like me, the honest answer is “It depends.” I don’t find it hard to forgive someone who bumps into me with a shopping trolley – unless I’m having a REALLY bad day. But what about the difficult stuff? Betrayal, bullying, abuse – the things that really hurt you – or – perhaps even worse – really hurt someone you love? Surely God isn’t asking us to forgive that sort of thing?
Well.. I think he is, actually – that “70 times 7” wasn’t meant to mean you get to NOT forgive at time number 491, or that “terms and conditions apply”.
But it IS very hard sometimes. I heard the Bishop of Manchester on the radio on Friday, talking about the Manchester Arena bombings in 2017. He was interviewed at the time, and asked whether, as a Christian, he had forgiven the bombers. And his honest answer was “Not yet”. He was too angry, the grief and pain were too raw. Three years on, he said, and his answer would be that he was still working on forgiveness – not of the bombers, who he had come to see as brainwashed young men – but of the people behind them, the ones who put them up to it by convincing them that murdering innocent people would bring them rewards in heaven.
So, no one says forgiveness is easy. I’ve found that, even when I think I’ve forgiven someone, the bitter and resentful thoughts can sneak back in, and I have to work on forgiving them all over again.
What helps? How CAN we forgive the big stuff as well as the daily niggles? I think that, when it’s difficult, and we’re overwhelmed with anger, frustration or pain, God asks us to remember – to look at him and remember that £2 billion IOU. It’s got my name on it.
He says – remember (if you can bear it) how you’ve hurt ME – with that spiteful or impatient thoughts, that unkind bit of gossip you passed on, that sharp word, or that closing your eyes to someone in need. Remember – I tore up your IOU – and that didn’t come cheap. Remember what it cost me to do that. When you struggle to forgive – look at the Cross. Look at my hands and feet. Remember – I did it out of love – because I love you.
When we don’t forgive someone – it’s like a slap in the face to Jesus. As we sometimes say in our prayer of confession, “We have wounded your love and marred your image in us”. When we don’t forgive, it’s like not recognising and thanking God for the love that sent Jesus to the Cross.
God never owes US anything. We owe him a debt – a debt too big to pay back in 200,000 years.
So, next time you’re struggling – remember God tearing up that IOU into tiny pieces – and nailing each one to the Cross.