The Unforgiving Servant

Graham Staines was a Christian missionary from Australia who worked with lepers in Orissa, a state in the North of India. Early one morning as he slept in his Jeep with his sons, Phillip (9) and Timothy (6), a group of anti-Christian militants surrounded the vehicle and set it on fire, burning the man and his two children alive. Less than 24 hours after the incident, which shocked—and shamed—a nation, his grieving widow Gladys came out in front of the whole world and publicly forgave the killers. Would we be able to do the same? 

It isn’t easy. Next to loving our enemies, the most difficult thing to do is to forgive them. Yet, God asks us to do both. He is so particular about the latter, in fact, that he says he will withhold his own forgiveness for our sins if we do not forgive others for their sins. Consider the words in our Lord’s Prayer that we recite constantly: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.“ (Matthew 6:12). We are telling God—nay, we are praying to God—to forgive us our debts (or sins) only to the proportion that we forgive others. But we don’t get it. And Jesus knew we wouldn’t get it, which is why after he taught this prayer to the apostles, he said: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

Why would a loving and merciful God be so stern with his children? We can find an answer to this question in a parable that Jesus told about a servant who was quick to accept forgiveness but not as quick to extend it to others. Jesus told his parable in response to a question Peter once asked him: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21).

The general norm was that you forgave someone who hurt you three times, so Peter undoubtedly thought he was being charitable by suggesting this be seven times. But Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). In effect, Jesus was telling Peter that forgiveness had no boundaries and one needed to forgive as often as one was hurt. 

He then went on to tell Peter a story of a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants to put everything into perspective.

As the king went about his business a servant who owed him 10,000 talents—a great deal of money—stood before him. How can we understand the figure involved? A Greek talent (or Attic talent) was equivalent to about 6,000 denarii. If you consider the average wage of a worker was 1 denarius a day, doing the math will give you a totally crazy figure that nobody would be able to pay back, but that is the point of this story!

As the servant couldn’t, the king ordered that the man, his family and all he owned be sold to pay back his debt. Panic stricken, the servant dropped to his knees before the king and begged for time, promising to pay the king what he owed. The king must have felt like laughing because, as we saw, the debt the servant owed was so huge, he wouldn’t be able to pay it back even if he had a hundred lifetimes to do so. However, the king was merciful. He took pity on his servant and forgave him his debt completely. No interest free repayment plan; no easy installment plan; nothing—his total debt was wiped clean!

One can only imagine the servant’s joy as he leaves the palace, but then there is a savage twist to this tale. He comes across another servant who owes him a very small sum of money. It’s only a hundred denarii. He grabs the man by the throat insisting that he pay him back his money immediately. Just like he had done not so long ago, the other servant dropped to his knees and begged for mercy, but this servant knew none. He had the poor guy tossed into jail. 

There were a few courtiers around who saw what had happened and were outraged­—as I’m sure you are. They went and complained to the king who was justifiably furious. He had the servant brought back to him and said to him: “‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. (Matthew 18:32-34). As we just saw the debt the man owed was so huge it was unpayable, which meant he was in for a tortuous time—literally—until the end of his days.

Then Jesus said words that should chill our blood: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).

The Parable Explained

The king in this story is God and we are his debtors. The debt, of course, is sin, since “all have sinned and fall(en) short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). None of us is able to pay our debt, which is punishable by death, because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), so “the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). This was a terrible price, with Jesus shedding every drop of his blood so that we could walk free, totally pardoned for everything we have ever done. It becomes obligatory for us, therefore, that having accepted his forgiveness and mercy, we extend it to others, but like the servant in this story many among us don’t. The result is “torture” at the hands of our jailer, the devil, not because God has handed us back to him, but because we, by our actions, choose to foolishly forsake God’s love and sonship for sonship with Satan. This is what Scripture declares: “The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:10). 

There is redemptive suffering that Christians sometimes undergo, but there is a lot of suffering that is needless and unnecessary. We go through this largely because we harbor unforgiveness in our hearts. Consider: Jesus died and rose again so that we may have abundant life. He declares, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). So why do we not have this abundant life? Because, as Jesus says in the preceding sentence: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” When we have unforgiveness in our hearts the devil takes away the joy we should have from knowing that we are forgiven our huge debt to God. Instead of delighting in that, however, we focus on the pain in our hearts inflicted by the people around us. This pain leads to thoughts of bitterness, resentment and anger, disturbing our minds. This, then, affects our soul, making it dark and ugly. Eventually a tortured (note the word!) heart, mind and soul infect the body, resulting in further torture in the form of physical sickness. One of the main reasons why people are sick is because of unforgiveness in their hearts, which is why retreat leaders and preachers often lead the congregation in a journey of forgiveness during healing sessions, knowing that this will bring them a lot of relief and deliverance. 

So, how do we forgive? As stated earlier, it is hard to forgive our offenders, but there are ways to help make it easier.

Forgive As Christ Has Forgiven

One of the reasons we don’t want to forgive is a desire for justice that we all seek. We want to see people punished for what they did to us or those we love. This desire is understandable, but what might make us forgo this desire for justice (some may say vengeance) is the understanding that if we demanded justice from God, we ourselves would be dead, because the wages of sin is death. If we expect mercy from God for ourselves, then surely we can be merciful to others. 

Paul advises us: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). He says something similar to the Colossians. “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13).

We need to forgive as Christ has forgiven us. That’s the bottom line and it’s really all the incentive and inspiration that we need to forgive others. If we have been forgiven, surely we can forgive others. 

Trust in God's Grace

Having forgiven, can we forget? Amy Carmichael said: “If I say, ‘Yes, I forgive, but I cannot forget,’ as though the God, who twice a day washes all the sands on all shores of all the world, could not wash such memories from my mind, then I know nothing of Calvary love.” 

Let us consider the nature of emotional wounds. In many ways they are similar to physical wounds. We hurt our bodies in many ways, and while there are some injuries that are so minor they need little care, others might require the attention of a doctor or some qualified person. It is the same case with hurts to our hearts. Some hurts, like a thoughtless joke or a careless remark might sting, but like a small scratch we receive, are quickly forgotten. 

Other hurts, like being molested, raped, abused verbally or physically, sometimes for prolonged periods of time, can cause deep wounds. These are not easily forgiven, much less forgotten, but if we seek attention from a special doctor­—Jesus—not only can he bring healing, he can help us forget as well. 

We find a wonderful example of this happening in the Old Testament. Joseph, the son of Jacob, was so resented by his brothers, they tried to kill him. At the last moment, saner heads among the brothers prevailed and they sold him into slavery instead. He was bought by Potiphar, who treated him well, but in a few weeks he was accused by his wife of sexual molestation, and Joseph found himself tossed into jail. His hopes of an early release grew when he befriended a cook who had the ear of the king, but then were quenched when the cook forgot all about him. If ever there was a case for someone who needed inner healing, it was Joseph, but he was an extraordinary man who truly believed that God worked for the good of all those who loved him, and he was able to put things behind him for he declared: “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house” (Genesis 41:51). Later when he met his brothers, he bore no animosity towards them, because he had forgiven them long before. 

Joseph was blessed beyond measure because he forgave those who hurt him, even though they tried to kill him. We will be blessed too. Which brings us to another point. Forgiveness releases blessings. 

Unforgiveness Chokes Blessings

Have you ever gone out in the middle of the day and not seen the sun shining because of the clouds that block the sun? Jesus is like that sun. He cannot stop shining. So if we are unable to experience his blessings, it is because they are blocks in the way. The biggest of these are unrepented sin and unforgiveness against others. All we need to do is remove these blocks for the blessings to flow—into us, within us, and through us. Jesus said that “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

This writer has had countless experiences of people who have received blessings, including physical healing, after these blocks have been removed. A simple two-step exercise helps to do this. 

The first step is taking a sheet of paper and pen and writing down all the sins we may not have previously confessed. A good examination of conscience is a good aid for this purpose. The act of writing makes us look at our sin differently, forcing us to confront it as it stares back at us in black and white. And the number of sins that get written down makes us realize the extent of sinfulness we engage in, often without realizing, bringing about the deeper sense of remorse that is the prime requisite for a good confession. After making a good confession, leaving the confessional believing every sin has been forgiven, we take the second step. 

This involves taking another sheet of paper and this time writing down the names of all those who have sinned against us, beginning with our parents and working our way down to the last person who hurt us. Although parents generally love their children, they also cause a lot of pain. While some of the pain inflicted upon us by an alcoholic father or an abusive mother is obvious, we tend to overlook more common hurts that they cause us like the disappointment that is evident in their eyes when we return home with a bad report card or a careless remark thrown in anger. For the average person, these hurts—and hurts caused by others—have never been addressed, which is why a lot of Christians walk around like soldiers battered and bruised in a long drawn out war, struggling to live joyful lives. 

Writing down their names serves two purposes: one, we realize how many people we need to forgive; and, two, bringing the hurts they have caused us into the light stops them from festering in the dark recesses of our soul that they have been buried in. While there might be initial pain as the wounds are laid bare and one goes through the ordeal of forgiving people, especially those we may not be easily inclined to forgive, there is a tremendous sense of peace that soon sweeps over us as we let these people go.

But that brings us to a question. How do we deal with people who continue to hurt us, sometimes on a daily basis? 

Understand what Jesus understood

Have you ever met anybody who is physically challenged? Surely you have. Have you made allowances for them? Yes. How about people who are mentally challenged? Surely you have made allowances for them too. Yes, again. 

The people who hurt us are spiritually challenged. They don’t know what they do. If they truly knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t do it. Jesus understood that, which is why when he was dying on the cross he was able to say to his father: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

In their misguided thinking they actually believed they were doing the right thing by killing Jesus. See what Scripture says about one of the Jewish leaders: “Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:49-50).

I meet people around the world who do God’s work, often at tremendous personal sacrifice, and then I see people who have never helped save a single soul getting in their way, or worse, trying to sabotage the work they are doing, and it is hard not to be angry. I imagine Jesus felt this way when he saw how the religious leaders of his time behaved. But then we understand what he understood; in their misguided way they actually believe that they are doing the right thing, and all one can do is pray that they obtain the wisdom and understanding they need, while forgiving them for what they do. 

This understanding is what gave Stephen, the first Christian to be martyred for Christ, the ability to forgive those who stoned him to death and to pray for them as Jesus did. Just before Stephen died, “he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). 

This same understanding is what helped Gladys Staines forgive the killers of her husband and sons. 

And hopefully this understanding will also enable us to forgive those who have injured us. And why not? God, who has been injured by us, has forgiven us the huge debt we have accumulated against us. Having received forgiveness, we can only do the same.