This Week's Teaching: "Will God 'Unforgive' You If You Don't Forgive Others?"
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In last week's teaching on forgiveness, I read a parable from Matthew 18 where the king forgives a man, then that man refuses to forgive another man, so the king "unforgives" the first man. And Jesus says that's how God will treat you if you don't forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
If that's not jarring, we’re not paying attention.
And if that doesn’t create tension, we’re not thinking. Because doesn’t it contradict what we've been taught about forgiveness? Is it not true that our sins are separated from us "as far as the east is from the west?" Will God really "unforgive" us if we don't forgive someone else?
You might not like my answer. But I think it's the best answer.
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Will God really unforgive you if you don't forgive someone else? Because it sounds like that's the case. But I don't think we really believe this. I want to talk about how to really understand it.
Last week we read Matthew 18, where Jesus tells this made up story, a parable, a made up story in order to make a point. And in this story he talks about a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants and he calls them in and one comes in and owes, like in our terms, three or four billion dollars to the king. And the king says, "Pay it up." And the guy says, "Be patient with me. I'll pay it all back." And the servant's master took pity on him. The king took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.
But then that servant went out and found another servant who owed him like $10,000 in our terms, and said, "Pay me back." And that servant said the same thing: "Have patience, I'll pay it back." And the servant who had been forgiven the great debt said, "No!" And threw him into jail until he could pay back everything.
And when the other servants saw it had happened, they were indignant. They went to the king and told him, and he was angry. And he went back to that first servant and he said, "'You wicked servant. I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had on you?' And then, in anger. the master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed."
And then Jesus says this: "This is how my Heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
I don't think we believe that.
Maybe Jesus is just using hyperbole. He's just exaggerating it. Just trying to get our attention so that we can be scared and then go, "No, just kidding. I'll forgive anything. You don't need to worry about it." Like we think that there's something about that, that is not true because it doesn't line up with some other things that we've come to believe about the gospel. That "if we confess our sins, he's faithful and just, and he will forgive us our sins." Absolutely true. But if we don't forgive someone else, he'll unforgiven our sins. That causes me tension. It should cause you tension. If you haven't ever thought that through.
Will God really unforgive you if you refuse to forgive your brother or sister?
In the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6, "Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. For if you forgive other people, when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
Is that true? Is it true?
Matthew 7:1-2. "Do not judge or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
Do we believe that?
Luke 6:36-38. "Be merciful. Just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven, give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured [out] to you."
Do we believe that?
James 2:13. "Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment."
Do we believe that?
So if we went to Jesus and asked him the question, "Will God really unforgive me if I refuse to forgive someone else," I believe Jesus would turn the question around and give it right back to us: "Will you really refuse — will you really refuse to forgive someone else when God has forgiven you?"
In other words, can someone who refuses to forgive someone else really make a heartfelt appeal for forgiveness? Can someone who refuses to show mercy to their brother or sister really make a heartfelt appeal for mercy? Is that really a possibility? Will you really refuse to forgive your brother or sister when God has forgiven you so freely? So patiently? So generously?
As I was looking at this and reading through the scriptures around this, I came across this series of thoughts in John's first epistle, first John, and it's talking about love. And I think as we listen to how he writes about love, it adds some understanding to how we can think about forgiveness. Because it's filled with just as many hard sayings, things that I would say, I don't think you really believe. I don't think we really believe it because it doesn't nestle in nice with our evangelical gospel — not saying that gospel is wrong, I'm just saying it doesn't nestle in nice with it. It doesn't play nicely with all of our doctrinal nuances.
If we read First John, we read things like this: 1 John 2:9. "Anyone who claims to be in the light, but hates a brother or a sister, is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going because the darkness has blinded them."
1 John 3:10. "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God's child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother or sister. For this is the message you heard from the beginning, we should love one another."
1 John 3:14. "We know that we have passed from death to life because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer" — a taker of life — "and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need, but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence."
1 John 4:7. "Dear friends, let us love one another. For love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God because God is love... This is love. Not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another... if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us... God is love. Whoever lives in love, lives in God and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world, we are like Jesus... We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister."
As I reflect on this, it applies to the whole topic of forgiveness, of mercy, of love. It's your choice. You can choose to live without love. You can choose to live without mercy. You can choose to live without forgiveness. It's your choice.
But if you choose to live without love, you will live without love. If you choose to live without mercy, you will live without mercy. If you choose to live without forgiveness, you will live without forgiveness. It's your choice.
But it is your choice. You could choose to live with love. And if you do, you will live with love. You could choose to live with mercy. And if you do, you will be one who lives with mercy. You could choose to live with forgiveness. And you will be one who lives with forgiveness. It's your choice. It's your choice.
So if we ask the question again, "Will God really unforgive you if you refuse to forgive someone else," and if we let Jesus turn the question, "Will you really refuse to forgive someone after God has forgiven you," we can say this: If you don't step out of your sin, you are still in your sin — be that lovelessness, hatred, mercilessness, harsh judgment, bitterness, revenge, lack of forgiveness, whatever the sin is â€” if you don't step out of your sin, you are still in your sin. You are still in the dark. You are not in the light. You are not in Christ. You are still in your sin.
And yet. Yet.
There is hope because with God turning from sin is always just a momentary flip. A decision: I'm going this direction, I'm going to repent. I'm going to go this direction. I'm no longer going to engage in the sin. I'm no longer going to cherish revenge. I'm no longer going to replay the bitterness. I'm no longer going to hold this over that person's head. Today, right now, in this moment, I turn from that. I confess it as sin. I repent from it. Even if it's difficult.
Even if I catch myself saying, "It's going to take a while, I can't just forgive right away," I'm going to confess that as sin and, even as I fall on my knees to God and say, "Please have mercy on me. I've been bitter. I've refused to forgive. I've been harsh — because I've been hurt — but Lord, please have mercy on me. Show pity on me."
Even as I do that, as I turn from sin and make my appeal to God, I say the same to the person who has wronged me: "I have mercy on you. You are forgiven. This is my stepping into the light, out of the darkness, into the light, out of the sin, and in toward holiness. I forgive you. I forgive you, I release you. I release you."
This is the glory of the gospel. The great news of this good news.
1 John 1:9. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
This is something you can bank on. Just make sure that you are not Yes and then No. Make sure that you have left your life of sin. God will not be mocked.
So, will God really "unforgive" your sins if you don't forgive someone else?
Will you really choose to live in your sin when God has forgiven you?
Be encouraged. Choose well. Forgive quickly.