Why do we need a forgiving spirit?
When Jesus is on the way to the Cross, Jesus starts to unpack what a lifestyle of habitual, perpetual forgiveness looks like. In this well-known passage in Luke 17:3-19, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to “watch themselves” when someone offends or wrongs them. Dr Tim Keller points out:
“When someone wrongs you or hurts you in some way, automatically we pay great attention to the wrongdoer. Jesus says when someone wrongs you, that’s when you need to be paying careful attention to yourself.”
“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” Hebrews 12:15 (ESV)
An unforgiven wrong in your life is a root that works in a subterranean way. There are roots that after an offence has occurred are often left under the surface, hidden from your sight. This is why you need to watch yourself when you have been wronged or offended.
Tim Keller notes that to understand the effects of the anger and pain that is often caused by offence, it is helpful to unpack the meaning of “wreath” and “wraith” that come from the same Anglo Saxon word for “wrath”. When we are wrathful or harbour resentment following an offence, holding onto the anger will twist and distort you like a wreath. Interestingly, the word “wraith” is also reflective of the spiritual damage unforgiveness has overtime, as you start to live in the past and are haunted by the offence, you cannot stop reliving the experience.
Dr Keller says that we can glean from Luke 17:3-4 that Jesus is warning people to commit to a forgiving spirit so that your future is not utterly controlled by the past and defiled by the resentment and bitterness which overtime can turn into self-pity, cynicism and joylessness.
The unfortunate reality of living in a broken world is that all of us get snubbed and mistreated at different times of our lives. You are also occasionally going to face abuse and injustice. How are you going to keep it from changing you and not turning you into a wraith? Dr Keller mentions forgiveness in the context of our relationship with our parents.
“If you cannot forgive your parents for the things they have done, it distorts you, it twists you, it changes you. It distorts your whole attitude to authority figures and it can distort your relationship with your children.”
Slowly the evil that was done to you, will make you into its own image. If you stay bitter, if you stay resentful, even if it is beneath the surface, you will become a distorted image of yourself.
What does it mean to forgive?
Considering other passages in the Gospels on forgiveness alongside Luke 17, Dr Keller unpacks how we can develop a greater understanding of what forgiveness in action looks like. Firstly, to truly forgive, we need to identify with the wrongdoer. Jesus says in Mark 11:25 that when you stand praying if you have anything against anyone, forgive them.
As soon as someone wrongs you, you focus on the dissimilarities between you and the other person. Your heart thinks of the person one dimensionally based on the offence. When someone does wrong towards you, it’s a self-justification engine to say “I will never do something like that!” Dr Keller quotes Miroslav Volf in “The Spacious Heart” who warns against such a response”:
“Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans and I exclude myself from the community of sinners.”
“Forgiveness is not living in disregard of past wrongs. Rather forgiveness emerges from a decision to overcome resentment and vengefulness, mastering the anger and humiliation of those most poisonous of attitudes and state of mind.”
When there is an internal debt, you sense that they owe you and the currency is pain for the one who has wronged you. When we refuse to pay the inward debt, we can demand the debt be paid by screaming at them and making them feel horrible, ruining them professionally, or being very cold or withdrawing our friendship from them. There are less direct ways like trying to hurt their reputation through gossip and slander, under the guise of warning people about them.
Dr Keller warns that this is not justice but rather vengeance. Only if you deeply forgive will you get justice. By deciding to pay the debt on the inside, you absorb it. You are not putting any fuel on the fire of your anger and you will be free. While this is costly, if you pay, you will be released from the offence, you will not be twisted or haunted. Forgiveness is not passive, it requires us to pay the price and be free to help the wrongdoer for their good.
Overcoming the impossible
It can be easy now to see why the disciples say to Jesus “Increase our faith” after hearing his teaching on forgiveness. But Jesus responds by saying in verse 6 if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed you have all you need to forgive. When overcoming the impossibility of an unforgiving heart, it can help us to understand who the person speaking to us is, who is giving this seemingly impossible teaching.
Dr Keller shares that it is this Jesus who is the same one who on the cross says “It is finished” which in the Greek means “I’ve paid it.” Once we see the beauty of Jesus, just a mustard seed of revelation of the Gospel can transform our hearts to have the power to forgive and to cultivate a forgiving spirit.
To listen more to Tim Keller, download the sermon here
About Tim Keller
Tim Keller is an American pastor, theologian, and Christian apologist. He is the Chairman and co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, which trains pastors for ministry in global cities. A New York Bestselling Author, Tim has authored several books including “Reason for God” and “Counterfeit Gods”