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The Hazards of an Unforgiving Spirit

June 13, 2010
Sermon:  The Hazards of an Unforgiving Spirit/The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
Text:  Matthew 18:21-35

 

When I invited the congregation of Morningside to join in a concert of prayer during the month of May, I knew that the Holy Spirit would be at work in this place.  I told you early on to expect some surprises.  Since we started this concerted time of prayer – and I hope you are continuing to pray – numerous people have come to me and said, “I need to confess something to you.”  Some wanted to confess a sin in their lives, something that had been really burdening them.  They explained to me that they needed to forgive someone who had done them an injustice, somebody who had hurt them, but that they had been unable to do so.  When God’s Holy Spirit moves, people are convicted.  They want to cast off their burdens. 

The inability to forgive someone for a wrong, of course, is a sin that must be confessed.  It is a perplexing problem.  The truth is that sooner or later, every single one of us who are Christians will find it difficult to forgive somebody.  Maybe a marriage partner has been abusive, addicted, or unfaithful or a child has been rebellious and broken our heart.  Perhaps a parent has been uncaring, negligent, or cruel or an in-law has been repeatedly unkind.  Maybe a colleague has betrayed our trust or a good friend who, in our time of need, has turned his back on us.  The difficultly in forgiving someone usually rears its ugly head in our close relationships with people we love, with people we have depended upon the most.

This business of having an unforgiving spirit is hazardous to our physical health, to our mental health, and to our spiritual health.  When we become so consumed or overcome with festering anger, even rage, when we become so preoccupied with the offences against us, we cannot possibly do what God has in mind for our lives.  Bitterness is malignant; it will absolutely eat us. 

I want to share with you an analogy.  The inability to forgive is somewhat like falling into a cactus patch and having hundreds of prickles in our skin.  We must remove every single barb.  If not, they will fester and become infected.  Removing those prickles – those injuries – is hard to do, but we can have no comfort until we rid ourselves of everything that has so offended us.  A blockage between ourselves and another person interferes with and damages our relationship with God.  We have difficulty praying and become spiritually impoverished.  The only way is forgiveness.

How can we do this?  A professor in seminary said one time, “The way we forgive is through the courage of our own imperfection.”  We know that we are not perfect, that we, too, have sinned, and that we, too, have hurt others.  Because we are aware of our faults, we have the courage then to forgive others.

A masterful illustration of this point is the novel The Scarlet Letter, written very early in American history by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The story takes place in the small Puritan village of Boston in the 17th century.  In those days, Boston operated on the basis of Puritanical values. 

As the story opens, Hester Prynne, a young woman who has committed adultery, is being led from the town jail to the scaffold.  She holds in her arms her child, a daughter borne out of wedlock.  On front of Hester’s dress for all to see is the scarlet letter “A,” which is a symbol of her sin, a badge of shame.   Hawthorne’s initial description of Hester, which publicly exposes her sin, reminds me of Psalm 51:4:  “Against Thee and Thee only have I sinned and done that which is evil in Thy sight.  My sin is ever before Thee.” 

As Hester walks through the village to the scaffold, an elderly man, a stranger to this village, asks someone in the crowd what is happening.  He is told of Hester’s punishment for the sin of adultery.  He also learns from the bystander that Hester’s husband has sent her ahead to Boston and that he intends to arrive later after wrapping up business in Europe.   We soon learn that this stranger is actually Hester’s husband who has finally arrived at the village after being waylaid from arriving earlier.  Nobody else learns of his identity.  His real name is never revealed to those in the community because he wishes that his relationship to Hester remain unknown.  Much older than Hester, this stranger assumes a new identity from this point forward, taking the name Roger Chillingworth. 

With the knowledge that his wife has been unfaithful, Chillingworth becomes intent on revenge.  He knows that the townspeople have already caused Hester to suffer from the shame of her sin, and that they will continue to do so.  He will therefore focus his attention on learning the identity of her lover.  Hester refuses to reveal the name of her lover to anyone, including Chillingworth.  Therefore, Chillingworth forces Hester to agree not to reveal his identity to anyone.  She is sworn to secrecy.  Chillingworth harbors this hatred in his heart, allowing it to fester in his soul.  He becomes driven by the desire to identify his wife’s lover and get revenge.

At one point in the novel, the community decides that Hester is unworthy to be a mother.  They want to remove her daughter from her care.  The young minister of the town, a man named Arthur Dimmesdale, intervenes and speaks on Hester’s behalf.  Loved and respected by the community, he convinces the townspeople to allow mother and daughter to remain together.  As time passes, Dimmesdale seems to be in ever-declining health.  He grows weak and sickly, seemingly suffering from heart disease and psychological distress.  Chillingworth, who has remained in the village practicing medicine, comes to his aid as a physician. 

After observing Dimmesdale over time, Chillingworth suspects that this man is Hester’s paramour.  One day while Dimmesdale is sleeping, Chillingworth slips open the minister’s shirt and finds mysteriously emblazoned on his chest the scarlet letter “A.”  Chillingworth knows, then, that the minister is the man who committed adultery with his wife.  Now, the physician’s medicine turns to torture.  He becomes intent on making life even more miserable for Dimmesdale.  As time passes, the minister’s anguish over his sin deepens and his self-loathing increases.  He even physically tortures himself as punishment for his actions.   It is ironic that as he gains more and more respect and admiration from the community, his health continues to deteriorate. 

Like Dimmesdale, Hester gains respect from many of the inhabitants of Boston.  Following Hester’s release from jail, she was forced to reside on the outskirts of town.  She has been making her living as a seamstress.  Through the years, she has done all she can to help other people.  Hester’s charitable deeds have won her more and more favor with the community. 

Seeing the health of the young minister declining, Hester resolves to intervene.  She tries to get Chillingworth to aid Dimmesdale with his health.  When he refuses, Hester reveals Chillingworth’s identity to her lover.  The pair makes plans to leave Boston and their daughter, Pearl and embark on a ship to another area away from the watchful eye of Chillingworth.

On the day before they are leave, Dimmesdale preaches his most eloquent sermon, then he goes outside and climbs on the scaffold.  Seeing Hester and his daughter in the nearby crowd, he calls them to join him.  There in front of everybody, he rips open his shirt, revealing the scarlet letter emblazoned on his own chest and confessing his sin.  Chillingworth makes a valiant attempt to keep Dimmesdale from confessing.  With the minister’s confession, Chillingworth knows that he will no longer have a grasp over this man.   Once Dimmesdale confesses his sin before the villagers, he soon dies there on the scaffold.  The minister’s death ends Chillingworth’s purpose in life.  He has harbored so much anger and has refused to forgive Dimmesdale.  An embittered man, he, too, dies with a short time.

Outwardly, each man reflects the hazards of the inability to forgive.  Dimmesdale cannot forgive himself, and he has received no forgiveness for his sin from the townspeople because he does not confess until moments before his death.  Chillingworth – harboring such a grudge and refusing to forgive –has been consumed by the desire for revenge.  He has lived a miserable existence.

The Scarlet Letter illustrates the two dimensions of forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness of us depicts the vertical dimension.  Scripture teaches that if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just.  He will forgive our sins.  He will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  This first forgiveness, the forgiveness we receive from God, cleanses our soul.

Our forgiveness of other people depicts the horizontal dimension.  All through Scripture, we find a close connection between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of other people.  Consider the words of the Lord’s Prayer:  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). You see there in that prayer both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of forgiveness.

When you pray the Lord’s Prayer, are you asking God to forgive you in the same manner that you forgive others?  No, we want God to forgive us better than that.  Paul writes about the difficulty of forgiving others in his letter to the Ephesians.  He tells us to put away all of these feelings of hatred, malice, bitterness, anger, and rage and “Be kind, one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).  We see that same concept here in this parable of Matthew 18.  Jesus teaches that the two dimensions are closely connected. 

How then can we forgive? 

Simon Peter has heard all of the teachings of Jesus.  He knows of Jesus’ discourse including the words, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).  He knows of Jesus’ admonitions to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to turn the other cheek when someone strikes.  Simon Peter asks the very hard question: “Just how many times am I supposed to forgive?”  He believes that seven times would be plenty enough.  Seven was pretty much the Jewish standard. 

The New International Version says that Jesus tells Simon to forgive seventy-seven times.  The New Translation, however, states that Jesus counsels Simon Peter to forgive seventy times seven or 490 times.  Even that number is an understatement.  We must forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive until it is finished.  Some offences, some hurts in this life, require forgiveness repeatedly. 

The hatred and the grudges we bear will diminish as we forgive.  We will no longer be as preoccupied.  We will begin to experience a cleansing.  Forgiveness simply has to take the place of our normal human capacity for revenge, for our bitterness of heart.  Peter did not like the idea very much, and I doubt the other disciples liked it either.  Seven times, we would think, would be a gracious plenty; but Jesus tells us to forgive more than that.  We are to forgive and forgive and forgive until the animosity in our heart ends. 

If you are reading this parable in the NIV, the footnotes are important.  We read that the first man owes his master a huge debt of millions of dollars and that the second servant owes just a few dollars.  The amounts are not equal at all.  When the first man, who is forgiven so much, cannot forgive his fellow servant, he, too, is condemned.  We are told that the master orders him to be put in jail and to pay every last penny.  That is a practical impossibility.  He can never repay all of that debt.  Jesus concludes the parable in Verse 35:  “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother, (your sister, your father, your mother, your child, your friend, your in-law) from your heart.”  Forgiving another person who has wronged us is a very difficult lesson, but it is one we must take to heart.

I want to share with you a story Corrie ten Boom includes in her book I’m Still Learning to Forgive.  Listen carefully to this remarkable story.

It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavy-set man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives…

And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent…

“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.

“I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us.”

“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein,” his hand came out, “will you forgive me?”

And I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses…”  

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then. *

“Be kind, one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, for God in Christ has forgiven you.”  Do you believe that imperative with all your heart? 

Have you accepted the forgiveness of Christ?  He can enable you to do things you never thought possible.  If you have never accepted him as your Savior, we invite you to respond to his love. 

 *Excerpt from “I’m Still Learning to Forgive” is reprinted by permission from Guideposts Magazine.  Copyright © 1972 by Guideposts Associates, Inc., Carmel, New York 10512

 

Kirk H. Neely

© June 2010

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