Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

The Pain of Unforgiveness

(a Monday morning recap)

Whenever the topic of unforgiveness comes up in a sermon, there is a certain level of discomfort in the congregation. I can sense it. Old wounds start coming back to the surface. Look hard enough and there is some layer of resentment that might be settled in each of us. It’s part of living in a world where someone has injured, is injuring, or will injure us.

I know I have to do some serious self examination when confronted with the theme. This text requires it. The cost of unforgiveness is too high. And yet, it can be so hard to forgive. Smedes is right: “In the whole human concerto, forgiveness is the hardest chord to play.” And so, like Peter, we too want to know if there is a limit to forgiving. But in Matthew 18:22ff, it is clear there are no limits.

That we nonetheless put limits on our forgiving suggests we either—a) do not understand the magnitude of grace God has shown to us, that God has taken our sins and placed them totally out of our reach, under the cover of impenetrable obscurity (Volf); or b) do not comprehend the enormous cost of unforgiveness.

The most unnerving verse in the passage is vs 35. Jesus gives a warning that should give pause to any card carrying Calvinist, anyone holding to eternal security. If God does exactly as the king in the story, it means our own forgiveness can be revoked if we refuse to extend forgiveness. And that sounds a lot like an eternal destiny in hell.

Here’s what the passage says for sure. First, there’s an inseparable link between the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we extend. If we withhold forgiveness, we impede God’s forgiveness in our lives. Jesus said this emphatically in Matthew 6:12-15. We can’t celebrate grace if we do not extend grace.

Here’s the second certainty. Unforgiveness will impact our future destiny. We may still have heaven as our home, but it may not feel so comfortable. Entering into eternity with a heart that has refused to show kindness, extend mercy, and let go of hurt, we may find the unrestrained fullness of God rather difficult to handle. This makes some sense. I generally find that unhappy people hate to be around happiness. Grace is painful for graceless souls.

Our objection to all of this is that we may believe eternity will instantly transform us into loving and graceful saints. But Dallas Willard’s thoughts about this in his Divine Conspiracy should again give us pause: “There is the widespread notion that just passing through death transforms human character. Discipleship is not needed. Just believe enough to ‘make it. But I have never been able to find Scriptural basis…what if death only forever fixes us as the kind of person we are at death?  His point is that surely something must be done now.

I don’t know if what he is saying is for sure. But I do know from Scripture that some will enter heaven poor, and remain poor, and others will enter rich. It all depends upon what one does now with his/her resources. Some will receive crowns, and others will not. And heaven will not change this. Some may enter with a disposition that is not altered. I don’t know for sure, but surely one of the worst is a disposition to harbor a grudge.

The third thing for sure is that an unforgiving heart will cost one his/her witness. We lose our voice. NT Wright says it well—“We who claim to follow Jesus can make that claim good only insofar as we live by the rule of forgiveness—serious forgiveness”

Our wisest move is to take serious the state of our souls now, as well as stop and comprehend, best we can, the magnitude of God’s grace given to us. We must make forgiveness our aim, even if we are not anywhere close to it at the moment. We have to name the hurt, confront the injurer (18:15-20), but we must move on. We must come to a place where the need for retribution is past. Only by the help of the Spirit can we give it to God, but we must. Only then will the offense begin to slip into oblivion. Hard as it is to do, the harder thing is unforgiveness.


1 Comment
  • Ann Murakami McDermott
    3:59 PM, 27 October 2011

    During your sermon I felt the Holy Spirit convict me with the thought: If I don’t forgive this person, then I am saying that MY forgiveness matters more than God’s. A very sobering thought which helped me to shift. Thank you for allowing the Holy Spirit to work through you.

Leave a Reply