Recently at our circuit’s monthly pastors meeting, we were discussing what seems to be a growing issue in the Christian church. The problem is quite simply that we do not know how to forgive. That might sound a bit shocking, and it should, because as Christians we of all people should be the ones who know what it means to forgive. We believe and confess that the Father sent His only Son Jesus to the cross to die on our behalf and to forgive every last sin ever committed.
But when it comes to forgiving others, we fall short. That has always been a problem in the church because we are indeed still sinners, even though we now live in the forgiveness of Christ. But the growing issue is that many Christians do not even know how to ask for or extend forgiveness to one another. We have been learning more from the world, which knows no forgiveness and grants no forgiveness, rather than from Jesus.
Jesus gives us the means to truly be reconciled to our brothers and sisters in Christ. In Matthew 18 He tells us, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15). The Christian way of reconciliation and forgiveness begins with us going to the person who has hurt us and telling them how and why what they said hurt. The goal is not punitive (“let them have it”) but that the sinner would be brought to repentance (“I’m sorry”) so that we may extend to them Jesus’ forgiveness (“I forgive you”). Jesus does make provision for the possibility that this will not be immediately effective, in which case you are to bring two or three others along with you and seek again for repentance and forgiveness, but only after you have first gone to that person individually.
That is what Jesus would have us do. But is that the common practice of Christians when there is conflict in the church? Sadly, many if not most of the time, we do not follow what Jesus has given us. Instead, we talk about others behind their backs. We heat up the coal and get the gossip train moving. We misrepresent and even slander. We would rather be right than be reconciled. I am not pointing fingers. I know I too have been guilty of failing to forgive and seek reconciliation as Jesus would have us do. What Jesus has called us to do is difficult. Most of us do not like conflict and do anything we can to avoid it.
Forgiveness is not easy. On the other hand, forgiveness should be second nature to us Christians. How can we who have been forgiven all our sins against God not forgive our brother or sister in Christ when they sin against us? In fact, Jesus told a whole parable about that in Matthew 18:21-35. The unmerciful servant was forgiven an enormous debt by the king but refused to forgive the much smaller debt of his fellow servant. For that, the king revoked his forgiveness and threw him into prison. The teaching is very clear. We are outraged that the servant would dare to beat and choke his fellow servant and refuse to forgive him the tiny debt when he himself had been forgiven the enormous debt. But that’s exactly how Jesus captures us in the parable. We are the unmerciful servant. Our own personal sins against God are far greater than the wrongs someone else can do to us. And if we refuse to forgive them, we scorn our Lord who has already forgiven us so much more.
This is not a minor issue. This is at the core of what it means to be a Christian. To be clear, I am not saying that those who fail to put into practice Matthew 18 at times are not Christians. We all continue to sin and fall short in many ways. But neither should that be an excuse for us to continue to live as though we did not know Christ’s mercy and love. As Christians, we also should be growing up into Christ, learning to forgive and teaching and modeling forgiveness for the sake of Christ’s church.
Jesus is so merciful to us. He forgave us long before we ever thought to apologize. He sought us when we were far from Him. He shows mercy to us without asking us to do anything to prepare for it or to earn it. How can we who have received so great a mercy not share it with those who have wronged us? And when we do, we experience the joy that God Himself feels at releasing sin and being reconciled with our brothers and sisters again.
Living in the forgiveness of Christ with you,