Robert Jeffress - Choosing Forgiveness Over Bitterness
Hi, I'm Robert Jeffress, and welcome again to "Pathway to Victory". Many people believe that forgiveness depends on whether or not the offender comes asking for it. But in reality, forgiveness is an attitude, a choice, that begins with you. Today, I'm going to explain why it's better to let go of past offenses than to burden ourselves with the weight of unforgiveness. My message is titled "Choosing Forgiveness Over Bitterness" on today's edition of "Pathway to Victory".
While I was pastor in a previous church, I used to have a weekly newspaper column in our local newspaper called "Ask the doctor," and people would write in various questions about the Bible, theology, the Christian life. And one of the most frequently asked questions was this one. What is the worst sin a person can commit? What is the worst sin? And people were always surprised by my answer. They would expect that I would mention one of the big three, murder, adultery, homosexuality. They would say, "Surely that would be the worst sin". But that wasn't the worst sin that I would mention.
Now, we know that God doesn't grade sin. All sin is sin in God's eyes, and any sin is enough to disqualify us from God's kingdom. We know that God doesn't grade sin, but the fact is, there are some sins that have a greater consequence, in this life, at least, than other sins. And that's why I chose the sin of bitterness as the worst sin that somebody can commit. Bitterness, refusing to let go of hurts in your life, refusing to forgive the offenses of others, has devastating results, not only in our life, but in the lives of those around us. You know, in Hebrews 12:15, the writer says, "See to it that no one of you comes short of the grace of God, that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and many be defiled".
You know, in our series "Choose Your Attitudes, Change Your Life," we're saying that we don't get to choose our circumstances in life, we don't get to change our circumstances in our life. But we can choose our response to the circumstances of life. You know, one common circumstance every one of us in this room or watching this broadcast have is this. At some point in your life, you're going to be hurt, and hurt deeply by another person. Have you discovered that you can't control what other people do to you? Somebody's going to hurt you deeply. It may be a friend who betrays you, a mate who deserts you, a parent who abuses you, a business associate who cheats you. But the fact is, we're all going to be hurt. That's a common experience. But we do have control over how we respond to those hurts in life. We can hold on to them, and that's what bitterness is, until that bitterness metastasizes into a tumor and destroys our life and those around us.
The other choice we have is to forgive those offenses. The word forgive literally means to let go of. Forgiveness is actually an attitude choice that honestly acknowledges an offense and then releases it on the basis of God's forgiveness of us. Let me say it again. Forgiveness is actually an attitude choice that honestly acknowledges an offense and then releases it on the basis of God's forgiveness of us. Today, we're going to talk about why we ought to choose forgiveness over bitterness. How can I let go of that deep wound in my life? How can I let go of it, and why should I let go of it? Probably the passage to me in the Bible that best answers those questions is found in a familiar story that Jesus told and is recorded in Matthew 18. Turn to Matthew 18 as we look at, first of all, forgiveness illustrated.
Now, Jesus told a lot of stories, a lot of parables, but to understand those parables, you have to first of all understand the context of the parable. What is it that led up to Jesus telling whatever particular story it is he told? It's true here as well. Earlier in Matthew 18, Jesus has been talking about church discipline. How should a congregation deal with members who've sinned and hurt that congregation or hurt the reputation of Christ? And remember, Jesus gave us a four-step process. You're to go to that person in private. If he repents, you've won a brother. If he doesn't repent, then take two or three with you. If he doesn't repent, then tell it to the church and have the church pray for the person. If he still doesn't repent, then you're to turn him out of the church so that he doesn't become a cancer in the church. That's how you deal with people who are sinning against the church or hurting the reputation of Christ.
But then, beginning in verse 21, Peter changes topics. He says, "Peter came to him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times'"? You see, Peter is no longer talking about sins against the body of Christ. He's talking about personal sins. "What am I to do about people who hurt me, Lord"? And Peter had been around the Lord long enough to know he was supposed to forgive. "Should I forgive up to seven times"? Why did he choose seven? Well, there was a popular rabbi in Jesus' day who said, "If somebody wrongs you, forgive. If he wrongs you again, forgive. If he wrongs you a third time, forgive. If he wrongs you a fourth time, don't forgive". Three was the limit in Jesus' day for forgiveness. And so, when Peter said, "Should I forgive up to seven times"? He was being exceedingly generous. But how did Jesus respond? Verse 22, "'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven'".
That was a way of saying you're to forgive, and forgive, and forgive, and to keep on forgiving. "Well, why should I do that? Why should I keep on forgiving somebody who hurts me"? That is the question that resulted in this story that Jesus told. Look at verse 23. For this reason, because you're supposed to forgive an unlimited number of times. "Let me tell you a story," Jesus said. "The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. And when he had began to settle them, there was brought to him one who owed him 10.000 talents". Now, here was a king who needed some money and he needed it quickly. He was running short on cash. So he calls in all of his accounts receivable, people who owed him money, and he started, obviously, with the person who owed him the most money. It was a slave who owed him 10.000 talents.
Now, in Jesus' day, a talent was a unit of measurement. It was about 80 pounds of gold. That was one talent. This slave owed the king 10.000 talents. You want to compute how much gold that that is? I did it one time, and then I did it according to the current price of gold today. You know how much money that would be today? That would be $16 billion. Here is a slave who owed a king $16 billion. You say, "How could a measly slave end up owing that much money"? Remember, this is a parable. It's a story Jesus told. He was using exaggeration to say, "Here is somebody who owed a debt he couldn't repay in 10.000 lifetimes if he wanted to. But the king said, 'you owe me this money. Repay'". In verse 25, "Since the slave did not have the means to repay, the king commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. The slave, therefore, falling down, prostrated himself before the king, saying, 'have patience with me and I will repay you everything'".
Now, how was he going to do that? Take a little bit out of his check every week until it was repaid, $16 billion? I don't think so. It was impossible for him to repay the debt. But the Lord, verse 27, "The king of that slave felt compassion, and he released him and he forgave him the debt". There is the meaning of forgiveness. It's a financial term. It means to release someone of a debt. The king chose to forgive the debt, to absorb the loss himself. Then, this is where the story takes a twist. "But the slave, the one who had just been forgiven the $16 billion, went out and found his fellow slave who owed him 100 denarii". Now, a Denarius in Roman culture was 16 cents, one Denarius. That was a day's wage. This slave found a fellow slave who owed him 100 denarii. That would be about $16.
"And he seized him and he began to choke him, saying, 'pay back what you owe'! So his fellow slave fell down and began to entreat him, saying, 'have patience with me. I will repay you'". Sound familiar? It's exactly what the first slave had said to the king, "Have patience with me and I will repay you". "But unlike the king, this first slave was unwilling," verse 30 says, "And he went and he threw his fellow slave into prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved, and came and reported to their Lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, the king said to him, 'you wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. Should you not have also had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you'? And the king, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him". And then Jesus adds the zinger in verse 35. "'So shall my Heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart'".
Make no mistake about it. This second slave who owed a $16 debt owed a very real debt. This was not an imaginary debt. Just like the first slave owed a very real $16 billion debt to the king. That was real as well. This slave had every legal right to collect his $16, but he had no moral right to collect it because of the great debt he had just been forgiven. Listen to what Jesus is saying to us about forgiveness. He's not asking you to deny that you've been hurt or wronged. He's not asking you to sweep that hurt under the rug and play like it's never happened. He's not denying the pain you have suffered because of that wrong. All he's asking you to do is to keep your hurt in perspective.
You see, the difference between how much somebody has wronged you, the worst thing they've ever done to you, the difference between how much somebody has wronged you and how much you have wronged God, is the difference between $16 and $16 billion. Forgiveness is the obligation of those who have truly been forgiven. That's what Jesus is saying in this parable. You know, in the Bible, there is an inseparable link between our receiving God's forgiveness and our willingness to grant that forgiveness to others. We read it just a few moments ago in Ephesians 4:32. Paul said, "And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you". We are to forgive just as God has forgiven us, in the same way that God has forgiven us. Well, how has God forgiven us?
I want you to turn over to Romans 5. This chapter, perhaps more than any other, clearly explains two principles about how God forgives you and me, and therefore, how we should forgive others. Look at Romans 5:1. "Therefore, having been justified," that is, declared not guilty, "By faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ". Verse 6, "For why we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly". Verse 8, "But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us". I point out to you just two simple principles about how God forgives us.
First of all, God forgave us when we didn't deserve forgiveness. God forgave us when we didn't deserve forgiveness. We have this funny idea that somehow God only forgives those who deserve to be forgiven, God came to forgive the righteous, not the unrighteous. But no, "It's not the healthy who need a doctor, it's the sick who need a doctor," Matthew 9:12. In the same way, it's not the righteous who need a Savior, it is the unrighteous. God didn't just forgive those who deserve to be forgiven, he came to forgive sinners, all of the unrighteous, and that would be you and i. In Romans 3:10, Paul says, "'for there is none righteous among us, no, not even one'". "There is no one who does good," Psalm 14:3, "No, not even one". Romans 5:6 says, "God forgave us when we were helpless, when we were apart from Christ". He didn't forgive us when we deserved to be forgiven.
Secondly, God forgave us on the basis of grace, not works. God forgave us on the basis of grace, not works. In other words, he didn't make us to do anything to earn his forgiveness. He granted it to us. Why did he do that? Remember our verses in Romans 4:4-5? Paul explains, "To the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but what is due". When you go to work and receive a paycheck, your employer is not doing you a favor. You earned that. You deserve that money. If God allows us to work for our salvation, then we deserve salvation. He refuses to owe any man or woman salvation. And that's why verse 5 says, "But to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness". God forgave us not based on our works, but based on his grace.
Now, let's review what we've seen. God forgives those who don't deserve to be forgiven. God forgives on the basis of grace, not works. Isn't that exactly what you saw in that parable about the king and the two debtors? The king forgave that first slave of his $16 billion debt not because he deserved to be forgiven. He deserved to go to prison if he couldn't pay back the debt, that's what he deserved. But the king forgave him anyway. And secondly, the king forgave the first slave on the basis of grace, not works. He refused to allow the slave to try to earn the forgiveness of the debt. Why? 'cause he was totally incapable of earning it. The king realized he had to grant the forgiveness of that debt. Now, Paul is saying you and I are to forgive others, just as God has forgiven us.
Listen to this. First of all, we're to forgive those who don't deserve to be forgiven. In our minds, most of us have people we are willing to forgive and people we are unwilling to forgive. In our mind, there are what we call unforgivable sins. Thank God that's not in his mind. We're to forgive those who don't deserve to be forgiven. And secondly, we forgive on the basis of grace, not works. We refuse to require somebody to earn our forgiveness. We grant it as a gift, just as it was granted to us. And yet, in spite of that clear teaching of scripture, there are many, even in Christian circles, who teach what I call conditional forgiveness. They teach that there are some categories of sin that just can't be forgiven, and we can't expect a wronged person to forgive those sins. Or they teach that somebody has to earn your forgiveness before you can grant it. And the result is people stay in a prison of bitterness all their lives because of those two misunderstandings.
You know, a good illustration of that was in a letter I saw, again, in Ann Landers, the advice columnist years ago, and I clipped it out and put it in my file on forgiveness, because it really demonstrates the problem with making your forgiveness conditional. This lady wrote, "Dear Ann Landers, thank you for educating millions of people about incest. I am 42 and still recovering from my nightmarish childhood. The molester was my father, and it started at age 7, and continued until I was 12. I was the victim of my parents' sadomasochistic marriage. My father was a sex addict and an alcoholic. My mother was a codependent and a sex addict and an alcoholic enabler. In the eyes of the community, we were the perfect family. No one would have believed what went on behind those closed doors. The childhood sexual abuse caused me to have severe health problems, as well as troubles in my school and employment and social relationships. I felt crazy and couldn't understand why. Strange as it seems, I never made the connection. My father died in 1972, and I didn't shed a tear. His tombstone should have said 'child molester'. Thank you, Ann. Writing this letter has helped me to dissipate some of my anger".
Now, we all sympathize with the woman in that situation. But just imagine what her life is sentenced to if she is taught conditional forgiveness. There would be someone who would say to this woman, "Well, you could never forgive your dad of that. You can't ever forgive. Nobody deserves to be forgiven of that sin". Or suppose somebody said to her, "Well, you cannot forgive your dad until he asks for your forgiveness". That'd be a little difficult, since he's in the cemetery right now. If that woman buys into conditional forgiveness, she is a prisoner of bitterness the rest of her life. There are two problems with teaching conditional forgiveness. First of all, conditional forgiveness misinterprets the Bible itself.
One of the favorite passages people turn to to say you can't forgive those who don't ask for it is Luke 17:3-4. "Jesus said, 'be on your guard'! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times saying, "I repent," forgive him'". People say, "Well, see, pastor? There it is. Jesus said, 'if he repents, forgive him'. Isn't that conditional forgiveness"? Notice what Jesus didn't say. Yes, Jesus said, "If he repents, forgive him". Jesus didn't say, "If he doesn't repent, don't forgive him". He wasn't addressing that situation. He was saying if somebody comes to you and asks forgiveness, you are to grant it.