Before we look at this week’s verses, it is imperative we remember that throughout the entire Sermon on the Mount up to this point, Jesus has been teaching us how to “be”–how to “be” in the world, how to “be” in relationship with God, how to “be” in relationship with others. “Being” this way comes from the deep inner work of the Holy Spirit in our inner being–it’s a heart matter–and that deep inner work happens as we spend time with Jesus, as we learn from him, as we allow his way of thinking to become our way of thinking, and his way of being to become our way of being.
Pastor Beau, in last week’s sermon, reminded us that Jesus teaches:
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NLT)
I was blown away by what Pastor Beau taught us regarding the word “yoke”. Laura wrote in last week’s blog: In ancient Judaism, the teachings of a rabbi were considered his “yoke.” Each rabbi’s yoke was different, as it contained his own subset of rules and interpretations. Jesus says here that his yoke is different from all the others. His teachings, he said, are easy, light, not burdensome or hard to bear. He asks his followers to take his teaching upon them and learn from him, to watch how he does it. And he says that in doing so, we’ll find rest for our souls.
Keeping all of that in mind, let’s look at this week’s verses–verses that many commentaries don’t even attempt to tackle. Keep in mind that Jesus has just taught his followers to pray the Lord’s Prayer and he follows up that powerful, beautiful prayer with these words:
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Mt. 6:14-15)
Where does your mind go when you read those verses? Does it make God seem cruel? Does it make you think that you don’t have a chance? Does it seem out of character? If you answer yes to any of those questions, this is the perfect time to remember that the scriptures weren’t written in English and our English translations don’t always get us to the heart of the matter… so we dig deeper.
Digging deeper is actually a practice that was considered noble. In Acts 17:11, Luke wrote: The Jews of Berea were of more noble character and much more open minded than those of Thessalonica. They were hungry to learn and eagerly received the word. Every day they opened the scrolls of Scripture to search and examine them, to verify that what Paul taught them was true. (TPT)
Back to this week’s verses–what is Jesus teaching? Does God withhold forgiveness?
Jesus taught us, just a few verses before, to pray forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. We tackled those verses a couple of weeks ago in the blog, and learned that, based on the Greek word for forgiveness, this phrase could be read: let go of what we owe you as we let go of what others owe us.
The same Greek word, aphiēmi, is used in this week’s passage, so could this week’s verse be read like this: For if you let go of what other people owe you, your heavenly Father will also let go of what you owe him. But if you do not let go of what others owe you, your Father will not let go of what you owe him… ?
Pastor John reminded us that our attitude toward others reflects our attitude toward God, and our attitude toward God reflects our attitude toward others. We can go all the way back to the Ten Commandments and see that God’s heart is that we live in right relationship with him, and right relationship with others. The Ten Commandments are all about relationships. So is the Sermon on the Mount. In order to live in right relationship with others, we have to allow Jesus to mess in our business, let him remind us of God’s unconditional grace and love for us, and be willing to place those who’ve hurt us, who “owe” us, who’ve let us down into God’s hands. To do so doesn’t minimize what we’ve been through, but we don’t carry the burden of another’s actions when we choose to release them into God’s hands.
Unforgiveness creates a barrier between us and others, and us and God. Disconnection is not God’s way. We can’t offer an openness to God and refuse to offer grace to others. We can’t bless God and curse others. Jesus’ brother James wrote, We use our tongue to praise God our Father and then turn around and curse a person who was made in his very image! Out of the same mouth we pour out words of praise one minute and curses the next. My brothers and sister, this should never be! (James 3:9-10 TPT)
And later in that same passage he wrote: Wisdom from above is always pure, filled with peace, considerate and teachable. It is filled with love and never displays prejudice or hypocrisy in any form and it always bears the beautiful harvest of righteousness! Good seeds of wisdom’s fruit will be planted with peaceful acts by those who cherish making peace. (3:17-18)
These verses remind me of what Jesus taught in the beatitudes at the beginning of the sermon on the mount:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled...
Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God…
It’s all connected.
When we refuse to forgive, we choose to hold on to sin; when we hold on to sin, we create a barrier in our relationship with God. God does not create the barrier… we do. If we look at the story of the prodigal son, the youngest son created a barrier between himself and his father by leaving the father’s care and squandering what he’d been given. The oldest son created a barrier between himself and his father by refusing to celebrate the younger son’s return and by holding onto his anger at his father’s grace toward his younger brother’s actions. The father went to both with an invitation to come home–a desire to restore relationship with both.
Could this week’s verses be read…For if you let go of what other people owe you, there is no barrier between you and your heavenly Father, But if you do not let go of what others owe you, your Father will allow the barrier between you and him to remain?
When I write it that way, it makes sense to me. God has not created the barrier, I have. God will come to me, he will invite me home to his heart, but I can’t bring the barrier with me. If I choose to harbor unforgiveness, if I choose the opposite of the beatitudes, if I choose not to be salt and light, I choose the barrier–I choose a heavy yoke. I choose separation.
You all, I’ve lived in that space–I’ve created barriers as I’ve tried to self-protect by harboring resentment, unforgiveness, and a “you owe me” attitude. It doesn’t lead anywhere good. No doubt, forgiveness, when we’ve been deeply wounded is hard. We cannot do it without choosing to align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus. Corrie Ten Boom wrote, “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart”
She forgave Nazis who killed her family and locked her up in a concentration camp during World War 2. She knew something about being owed a debt that can never be repaid. And she knew the heavy weight of carrying unforgiveness. She wrestled, she battled, she returned to God again and again asking for help, and she let it go as an act of the will–then, over time, the temperature of her heart changed.
My own hard forgiveness journeys have been a battle of the will. I asked God to help me let offenses go and surrender them to him. I didn’t “feel” it, but I desired it. I would have to remind myself over and over that I had made the choice to forgive and push away thoughts that would lead me back into the spiral of bitterness. Over time, and with intentionality, true forgiveness happened. In some of those journeys, relationship was restored, in some, it wasn’t; however, at this moment I can say that I have sought to heed Paul’s words: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)
Do I have to check my heart many times a day? Yep. Do I have to confess that I have not loved God with my whole heart and have not loved my neighbor as myself many times a day? Yep.
But when I think of Jesus on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and when I think that he offered us forgiveness while we were still his enemies, when I remember that he wants us to love others as he has loved us, and when I remember his goodness, his kindness, his grace–how could I not offer it to others? And in offering it to others, the walls come down.
I am finally starting to write after much prayer, after reading dozens of articles and the few commentaries I could find, after looking up Greek words, and scouring the scriptures. This week’s passage is HARD, as both Pastor John and Luanne identified. I don’t know if these verses used to be as difficult for me, because I used to understand God and salvation in a transactional way, rather than in the relational and transformational way in which I’ve come to understand my faith as I continue to journey with Jesus. But these verses sound pretty transactional, right? If we don’t… God won’t. Or something like that.
Gratefully, Pastor John, in his sermon, gave us some things to consider as we seek to understand Jesus’ words. Luanne expanded on his points as she reminded us to connect these verses to what we read just prior (what we know as The Lord’s Prayer), and also about what we learned last week about Jesus’ yoke not being hard to bear. She explained what it looks like when our refusal to forgive creates a barrier between us and our experience of God’s forgiveness, which I want to come back to in just a bit. She also wrote, “…forgiveness, when we’ve been deeply wounded is hard. We cannot do it without choosing to align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus...”
This is where I want to begin, because I don’t believe forgiveness is possible in our humanness. I believe it is possible only as we “align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus,” like Luanne said. Forgiveness is born in–and then can flow out of–us as we are formed more and more into the likeness of Christ. Philippians 2:13 comes to mind as I think about becoming more like Jesus:
For it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure.(Amplified Bible)
The energy, the strength, the longing to live according to the kingdom of God–these don’t come from ourselves. They come from the Spirit of God living within us, filling us with the divine. And forgiveness is a divine attribute. It doesn’t have its origin in humanity. Forgiveness, like love, is part of the very nature of God.
I am reminded of another hard verse that we explored six weeks ago:
But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48, NLT)
I wrote these words that week regarding this call to be perfect, and I think they fit well here, as we wrestle with another difficult call from Jesus:
To see everyone as a neighbor and no one as an enemy, to show mercy to the flawed, to love those who hate–this is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God sees none of his children as enemies. Not in the way we understand what an “enemy” is, anyway. God is Love. He loves perfectly. We were created in the image of God with the capacity to love beyond our humanity. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.
I would say the same about forgiveness… On our own, our forgiveness–like our love–has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way. He gave us a new yoke–one we never carry alone. Just as we are not called to find a way to love perfectly outside of the perfect love of God, I don’t believe we’re being told to forgive without accessing the divine forgiveness of God. There is no other way for us to truly forgive.
And here is where our own will, which Luanne wrote about above, comes into play. She explained that, “When we refuse to forgive, we choose to hold on to sin; when we hold on to sin, we create a barrier in our relationship with God. God does not create the barrier… we do.” When we choose not to access the divine forgiveness that is readily available to us–which we carry as recipients of that forgiveness–we choose to replace the yoke of Jesus with the yoke–the burdens, regulations and rules–of the offense and the offender we are refusing to forgive. Yikes.
While there are teachings that hold to the belief that God’s forgiveness of us is dependent on our forgiving others first, this is not what I believe Jesus is saying here, not what I hear Luanne saying above, and not what I heard Pastor John teaching us on Sunday.
My understanding is that God’s forgiveness is whole, complete, finished and stands outside of and above all human actions. The God of the universe is not dependent on my ability to forgive others before I am forgiven. However, my ability to experience that forgiveness and to live in the freedom I have been offered can absolutely be hindered by my unwillingness to forgive.
Unforgiveness creates barriers, replaces the yoke of Jesus with an oppressive yoke of offenses and offenders, and can make it difficult to live in step with the unforced rhythms of grace. This yoke cloaks and overshadows us–it attempts to hide us from the light of God’s love. Now, God’s love is too bright, too powerful, too warm and ever-present to be denied, so it still breaks through as he constantly pursues our hearts. But our experience of his love is limited by the barriers we have erected. And if we’re not allowing much of his love to come in… there won’t be much of his love pouring out of us, either.
As John 13:35 reminds us, we are known as disciples of Jesus by our love for others. It really is all connected. Jesus has expressed in so many different ways during the sermon on the mount how vital it is that we love God, love others, and live according to the ways of the kingdom. This week’s passage once again emphasizes the same thing in a different way.
I will admit, this passage is still a struggle for me to wrap my mind around. Digging in has helped, but I expect these to be words that I wrestle with a bit every time I read them. I also trust that the Spirit of grace will continue to reveal truth and speak to my heart as I continue to journey with Jesus. That said, I’d like to leave us with beautiful words from someone far more learned than myself, a brilliant pastor and theologian whose insights are rivaled only by his kindness and commitment to cruciform love. I hope that these thoughts from Brad Jersak stir your heart to dig deeper, to linger longer, to be enraptured by the beauty of the One we follow as we all continue to grow and be formed into the image of Christ…
“The Gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness… Even when we turn away from God, he is always there, confronting us with his love. God is always toward us. Always for us. He comes, not as a condemning judge, but as a great physician… And if God is quiet at all, it’s because I’ve jammed my fingers into the ears of my heart. Yet somehow, I still can’t shake the feeling that God is there, watching, waiting, perhaps grieved, but if he ever seems ‘mad’ or ‘absent,’ again and again I find the real blockage is my own filters or projections–my pride or shame–distorting the presence of Love. The truth is, God is always there. And here. And now. The pure fire of divine Love is longing for you, my friend, his beloved–not merely waiting, watching or even following, but in vigorous, stalking pursuit…
I hear the voice of Grace say, “Oh, Brad, you aren’t merciful yet–certainly not to your haters. It’s not yet engrained in your character–mercy is not yet who you are. But I’ve given you the Grace to participate in Abba’s transforming mercy. You could begin by becoming an agent of Abba’s Grace, one act of mercy at a time. Freely you’ve received it, now freely give it away. Abba in his mercy pardons and forgives, so pay it forward. Receive Abba’s kindness and give it away. You might not feel merciful yet; but as you share Abba’s little mercies one day at a time, lo and behold, one day you find that you have become a mercy-bearer. It is who you are. You didn’t generate it… you received it; you obtained that mercy-trait of Christ as a Beatitude from Christ.” To summarize, we receiver by Grace what we could never muster on our own: Abba’s mercy for our debtors. And we become mercy in our nature as we freely distribute the mercies we receive from Abba. The reality of our Grace-transformation is revealed most thoroughly by the mercies we show our enemies.
(excerpts from: A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel, p. 294-295; A More Christlike Way, A More Beautiful Faith, p. 170-171)