Matthew 18.21-35: Difficult Forgiving

Thanks Micaiah, Jake, and others from my young adults group for their thoughts that went into this.

The parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) spells out in severe terms the necessity of forgiving those who wrong us “from the heart” (v35). In this parable Jesus leads his listeners to condemn the grossly unreasonable actions of the unforgiving servant, which forces us to condemn ourselves when we refuse to find it within ourselves to forgive others.

An issue that arises here is the very real difficulty people can have in bringing themselves to forgive. Sometimes they have been too badly hurt. Perhaps they cannot trust the other not to hurt them again. Or maybe their pride makes themselves their own worst enemy when forgiveness is required of them. The heart that you want is very often not the heart that you have. What then? This is a challenge for pastoral discipleship and spiritual growth.

We may take comfort from the fact that God is more patient with us than we might be with ourselves. That is not a reason for self-indulgent dawdling, though. Jesus’ words warn against procrastination. The parable must yet be taken seriously.

Nonetheless, there are a few things that might help us get over the obstacles to forgiving others.

  • Time. In cases of severe hurt by others, forgiving “from the heart” might be for the time being not possible. One might agree they should forgive, might desire to forgive, and yet find themselves unable to bring their feelings to where they want them to be. It should comfort us that time may make it possible – but not without willingness and probably some effort, such as what follows.
  • Prayer. Praying opens and maintains the relationship between you and God. Experiencing God – including his own love and forgiveness – should inevitably transform us. This might happen only gradually, but the life of God in us will make difficult forgiving possible. The regular use of the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), either by repetition or by pattern will direct us helpfully here as we remember God’s own forgiveness toward us.
  • Action. Action is important as a start, even if the inner feelings “from the heart” aren’t there yet. We might tell the offender that we forgive them (i.e., the decision you are committed to, not the feeling), release them from a just punishment, or forego revenge. What we do can shape what we feel, so choosing the right actions despite our wrong feelings can pave the way for our feelings to follow.

The Parable of the Unforgiving servant offers us two motivators toward forgiving our wrongdoers. Negatively, there is the severe consequence of refusing to forgive (v. 34), and positively, there is the magnitude of the debt God has forgiven us compared to what we are asked to release others from (v. 24, 28). These help overcome our hurt, pride, mistrust, or fragility.

Where these are not enough, the person wanting-but-not-able to forgive may find that the space of time and the transformative nature of praying and of deliberate action can help us do what we are required to do.

A final word – do you need to initiate? It is possible that it is you who needs to make the first move of either forgiving or apologizing. It may only be 5% your fault, but you can make amends for your part, and that might make it possible for the other to make amends for the 95% that is theirs.