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PASTOR’S CORNER: Deciding to forgive or not to forgive

I’ve always been warned to avoid absolutes, but here’s one I feel confident in putting out there:  A disciple of Christ is never justified in failing to forgive.

We didn’t pull this out of thin air. It comes from the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:21, 22 where Peter asked him this question, “how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?”

Peter is asking if someone sins against him seven times, is he required to forgive him each time. Jesus’ answer in verse 22 is the source of our absolute, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: But, until seventy times seven.” In essence, Jesus is setting an absolute standard of forgiveness for all of us: we are to forgive, not only seven times, but also 490 times.

In this text, Jesus is adamant that there is no limit to the number of times we are to forgive. There are no exceptions, and there are no loopholes. His tone is commanding, and there is a good reason for his insistence on the issue of forgiveness; it’s because he knows what’s in store for those who hold grudges and fail to forgive.

He lays it out for us in a parable (Matthew 18:23-35) about a king who forgives a servant’s debt, but reacts negatively when that same servant fails to forgive the debt of his fellow servant. The story goes that the king “was wroth and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.”

The servant made the wrong choice and he paid dearly for it.

In plain English, here’s what his choice got him. The word “tormentors” in the parable implies that the servant was forced to endure a life of pain, trouble, distress and agitation until he had paid his debt in full, all because he chose not to forgive after he had been forgiven. But how does this apply to us today?

In verse 35, Jesus gives us a very clear answer to this question: “so likewise shall my heavenly father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.” Over the years I’ve read this verse numerous times but hadn’t grasped its full meaning until now. It has been an eye-opener for me.

It’s hard to accept that a loving God would deliberately subject me to a trouble-laden life if I fail to forgive transgressions against me; but that’s exactly what Jesus says in verse 35. Fortunately, he gives us a way out in this same verse. We all can escape if we make one simple choice — just forgive, that’s all; but, it must be “from the heart” and not just a means to an end.

So our challenge is to make the right choice; our alternatives are to forgive, or not to forgive.  As we ponder our choices, keep these truths in mind: with forgiveness, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose; a win/win situation; with unforgiveness, we have everything to lose, and nothing to gain, a lose/lose situation. What is your choice? It’s not too late to change your mind.

Rev. O.L. Johnson, a retired LAPD lieutenant, is an associate pastor in his home church, Greater New Zion Baptist, 501 W. 80th St. in South Los Angeles. Pastor’s Corner is a religious column that looks at the relevancy of scripture in life today. The column will appear monthly in The Wave and on its website,