Blog Post

Experiencing Forgiveness

The reason many of us struggle so profoundly with forgiving other people is either that we have never experienced God’s forgiveness for ourselves or that we have lost sight of it in our everyday lives and it no longer influences the ways that we think, speak, and act. In either case, we are guilty of the same sin as the “unforgiving servant” in Matthew 18:21-35. Understanding this parable and experiencing forgiveness in the way it describes are vital not only for our practice of forgiving others who have hurt us but also for our pursuit of forgiveness from those whom we have hurt.

In the “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” Jesus tells the story of a “king who wished to settle accounts with his servants” (v. 23). One servant, as it was discovered, owed him 10,000 talents. In the first century, one talent was the equivalent of twenty years’s wages for a common day-laborer. If we assume a day-laborer would make around $40,000 today, this first servant’s debt would be equivalent to approximately $8 billion. Not only is that an incredibly large debt, it is, more importantly, one that would be impossible to pay back. No servant making $40,000 per year, no matter how long he or she worked, could pay back this kind of debt. It would take 200,000 years or approximately 2,500 lifetimes to pay it back.

When the king demanded that the servant pay back the debt, the servant fell to his knees and begged for mercy; and the king relented, and “out of pity for him…forgave him the debt” (vv. 26-27). And what did this servant do after being forgiven a debt he could never repay? He went out, “found one of his fellow servants” who owed him 100 denarii, and demanded payment (v. 28). Now, in the first century, one denarius was the equivalent of one day’s wages for a common day-laborer. If we assume the same rate of pay today as we did before—i.e., $40,000—it means that this servant’s debt would have been around $16,600. This debt is not insignificant, to be sure. If someone owed me that much money, I would certainly want to get it back. But, the point is, this debt—unlike the first one—could be repaid. It may have taken the servant a few years to do so. But any servant who is making $40,000 per year can definitely pay back a debt of $16,600 given enough time.

And, yet, when the second servant fell to his knees and begged for mercy, the first servant was merciless. He began to choke him and even went so far as to throw him in prison until the debt was paid—which incidentally meant that the debt would never be paid, because the servant would not be able to work and earn money in prison. A few spectators who had witnessed these events went and told the king about them. The king summoned the first servant to appear in his presence once again and, when he arrived, said to him (in vv. 32-33): “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And the king in anger threw the servant into prison until he should pay all of his $8 billion debt (v. 34).

The parable concludes with Jesus’s words summarizing and applying what this means for you and me: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35). Jesus’s point would seem to be that you and I are just like the first servant. We have been forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents (and more) by the King of the universe. And having been forgiven much, we should forgive others much (Luke 7:47). If we then withhold forgiveness from our fellow servants who owe us debts that are far smaller and more manageable, then we show either that we have never actually experienced the forgiveness of the King or that we think the debt we owe Him is relatively small in comparison to what others owe us.

When I lived in Jackson, MS, I owned an old house that was built in the 1950s. The living room didn’t have an overhead light. We had to place lamps around the perimeter of the room so that we could see. That meant the living room was always dimly lit. Every time I looked into the mirror, I noticed how good I looked. The room was so poorly lit that my complexion looked pristine and as though I had been in the sun all summer long. But in the same house, we also had a bathroom with an old light fixture that must have had 15 light bulbs in it. Every time I looked in the bathroom mirror, I would come away discouraged because I could see every defect in my skin. It was totally depressing. I found myself wondering why I couldn’t look the way I looked in the living room mirror when I was in the bathroom.

Then I realized that the Bible calls Jesus the Light of the world. He is not only bright light, but He is perfect light. He is the One in whom there is no shadow of any kind (James 1:17). What that means is that the closer we get to the Light the more defects we should see in ourselves, and the farther we get from the Light the fewer defects we should see. The one who has not experienced God’s forgiveness or who thinks that he or she has been forgiven little must, therefore, be standing in the living room and not in the bathroom. This person is far from the Light, and, as a result, will struggle far more with forgiveness than the one who is standing in the bathroom.

Growth in the Christian life is, for that reason, a growth downwards. It involves growing closer to Jesus and, thus, entails seeing more and more of our sins as we mature. I think this is the reason that the apostle Paul could refer to himself as the “foremost” of sinners approximately 30 years after his conversion (1 Tim. 1:15). His growth was a growth downwards. He didn’t become more sinful over time, but he became more sensitive to sin and, therefore, saw more and more of his defects the closer he got to Christ.

How well we forgive others when they sin against us and how well we pursue forgiveness from others when we sin against them is an indicator of where we are spiritually. It tells us whether we are living close to the Light or far away from it; it tells us whether we are standing in the bathroom or the living room. The more we see of our own sinfulness, the more we understand how much we have been forgiven. And the more we understand how much we have been forgiven, the more we will forgive others in return.

For all of these reasons, it would appear that Jesus, in telling this parable, is giving an answer to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a fellow believer who sins against him (v. 21). He is telling Peter that he isn’t to forgive a “brother” 7 times. And he isn’t to forgive him or her 70 times 7 times. But, rather, Jesus seems to be saying that Peter shouldn’t even have had to ask the question in the first place. He should have known the answer. He is to forgive a brother or a sister who sins against him every time. And that is because the one who has been forgiven much forgives others much.