I watched the movie Amish Grace the other night, about the Amish school shooting in 2007 that left 5 girls dead and seriously injured several others. The movie centered around the story of one mother’s struggle to forgive the man who murdered her daughter. Her husband, referring to the words of Christ at one point, says that they must forgive this man in order to have their own sins forgiven.
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Mathew 6:14-15)
I remember my reaction to this verse when my husband taught through the Sermon on the Mount last year. I remember thinking, surely it can’t mean that. I knew it was saying we had to forgive others, but I knew it couldn’t be giving a prerequisite for salvation. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) The verses in Mathew troubled me, so I did what I normally do in these situations, I filed them in the back of my mind to bring out and mull over again later. Watching Amish Grace and finishing the 90 Day Bible Challenge this week gave me the shove I needed to pull these verses back out and muse on them once more.
The parable of the unmerciful servant in Mathew 18 has a similar message, so it seemed like a good place to start. Jesus is prompted to share this story after Peter asks Him how many times he should forgive his brother. “Up to seven times?” Peter asks, thinking himself quite generous with his forgiveness. Jesus answers him, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” I don’t think Jesus is saying forgive your brother 490 times, but rather He is saying we must forgive our brother an unlimited number of times. This launches Jesus into His parable about the king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. He calls in a servant who owes him 10,000 talents and orders that the man and his family be sold into slavery in order to pay the debt. At this point the servant throws himself on the mercy of the king and begs him to “be patient” with him and give him a chance to pay back the debt. The king, his master, takes pity on the servant and cancels his debt and lets him go.
We all know what comes next. The servant who has just had his huge debt wiped out by the merciful king goes to one of his fellow servants who owes him 100 denarii ( just a few dollars in comparison to the millions he owed the king), and demands that his fellow servant pay him. The fellow servant does the same thing the servant had done to the king. He falls to his knees and begs the servant to be patient with him and give him a chance to pay back the debt. The servant who has had his debt canceled by the merciful king refuses to forgive the debt of his fellow servant, even though it is a much smaller debt than the one forgiven him. The master hears of this and calls in the unmerciful servant and points out his hypocrisy and wickedness. “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 mercy on you?” (v. 32-22) The king then turns the unmerciful sinner over to the jailers to be tortured until he pays back all he owes. Jesus summarizes the point of the parable by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (v. 35)
The only difference I really see between the Mathew 6 and Mathew 18 passages is that in chapter 6 we’re told to forgive men and in Mathew 18 we’re told to forgive our brother. Is there a difference? Sometimes I think there is, but in this case since we’re told to forgive both of groups of people, I think any difference is rendered moot.
Luke says it this way. “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 to you.” (Luke 6:37)
So it seems indeed that those who forgive others will be forgiven. I believe Jesus explains how this works when He speaks to His disciples about the Holy Spirit that He will send them to be their Helper after He returns to heaven.
“On that day, you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in Me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.” (John 14:20-21)
And I love this verse in Philippians: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13, emphasis mine)
The first half of Romans 8 deals with living in the spirit and also helps me understand how this works. “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature, but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you…For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:5-9, 13-14)
And finally, one of my personal favorites: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?... Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead… As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:14, 17, 26)
So, back to our mandate to forgive others. I think it means what it says and says what it means with this qualification: it is God who is at work in us that enables us to forgive others. Could I forgive someone who killed my daughter? No. Could God? Yes. Therefore, if I am a believer and have the Spirit of God in me, then I can do what God would do and forgive. ("I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Philippians 3:13) The ability to forgive then is just another test of obedience and obedience in turn is a sign of belonging to God.
“We know we have come to know Him if we obey His commands. The man who says, ‘I know Him,’ but does not do what He commands is a liar, and the truth is not in Him. But if anyone obeys His word, God’s love is truly made complete in Him. This is how we know we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:3-6) And what example did Christ set for forgiving others? When He hung on the cross for our transgressions He asked God to forgive those who had Him crucified. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:32)
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:12-13)
I appreciated that the husband in Amish Grace explained to his wife that forgiving their daughter’s murderer was not the same as forgetting the atrocity or saying that what he did was ok. He assured his wife that their daughter’s murderer would not go unpunished. He would stand before God who judges all men. All sin is ultimately against God, so it is fitting that He avenges Himself for it.
Most of us are not ever tested to the degree those Amish families were. Most of us have small grievances by comparison that we must forgive. However, we’d do well to remember that even when we don’t feel like forgiving, and even when we aren’t ready to forgive, it’s really not an option for those who are in Christ.
- I'm an on-the-run mom to 6 kids who studied and taught exercise science in a previous life. I love all things running, nutrition, and health-related. I usually run at zero dark thirty in the morning and am often quite hungry before, during, and after my run, but I live a rich, full, blessed life with my children, family, and friends. My faith in God is my anchor, and looking to Him and His promises allows me to live fully even when life circumstances are difficult. While running gives me an appetite, my desire is to hunger and thirst for righteousness more than for physical food.