Bart and Forgiveness
Susan and I watched I Can Only Imagine for the first time recently. I guess I would place it in my top ten list of all-time favorite movies. It is a true story of redemption. It reminded me of my Dad and Mom’s conversion to Christ that turned them from selfish sinners into selfless believers. Fortunately, they came to Christ when I was just 2 years old, so their radically changed liveså gave me and my siblings the kind of relationship with my parents Bart Millard experienced only at the end of his father's life.
But the story of the movie is not only a story of Bart’s father’s redemption, but HIS redemption. Though Bart had already come to believe on Jesus Christ and therefore had experienced God's forgiveness, he understandably found it difficult to forgive his father for his negligent and abusive actions against him. God not only forgives us, He wants to bring us to forgive others as he has forgiven us.
This theme is found all through the Bible. Paul tells us in Colossians 3:13 that we are to forgive others as God has forgiven us. In the Lord’s model prayer, often referred to as The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells us that we should ask God to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul exhorts us be kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven us.
Jesus devoted an entire parable to forgiving others because of how God has forgiven us, known as The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. Peter had asked Jesus how many times one should forgive, and thinking himself quite merciful, he asked, “Till seven times?” which would mean a limited number of 49 times. Jesus answered, “Not seven times but seventy times seven?” which was tantamount to placing no limit on the number times we should forgive someone (Matthew 18:21-22).
At that point, Jesus launches into his parable, the story of a servant and a king. The servant owed the king ten thousand talents, equivalent to several millions of dollars, clearly an un-payable debt. Since the servant could never hope to repay the debt, the king ordered that he and his family be sold into slavery. But the servant begged for time and patience from the king. The king goes even further. He showed extraordinary mercy by cancelling the servant’s debt entirely!
After leaving the king rejoicing, the servant encountered a man who owed him a hundred denarii, equivalent to only a few cents in modern currency. Compared to what the first servant was forgiven, this was a very small amount. Unfortunately, the man was so poor, he could not even pay that. In a rage, the unforgiving servant choked the man who owed him such an insignificant sum and had him thrown in debtor’s prison.
When the king heard of this, he called the unforgiving servant back, said he had acted wickedly, and had him thrown into debtor’s prison to pay off his large original debt.
Jesus’ point is that God has forgiven those who trust in Him for a debt we could not pay. We used to sing a short chorus when I pastored in Wiesbaden, Germany that went like this,
I had a debt I could not pay,
He paid the debt He did not owe,
I needed someone,
To wash my sins away.
And now I sing a brand new song,
“Amazing grace” all day long,
Christ Jesus paid the debt,
That I could never pay.
Jesus paid this great debt, one that is impossible for us to pay. Our debt is unpayable by us because sin is an infinite offence before an infinitely holy God. He cannot just overlook sin; it cannot simply be swept under the rug. Sin must be judged. When Jesus died on the cross for sin, he paid the penalty for my sin that I could not pay by my feeble efforts and good works and good intentions.
The meaning of the parable is this: the one forgiven much should forgive much. Grace, in other words, is without limit. Jesus is teaching us not to count the number of times we forgive. Rather, we are to have always forgive.
We must make a distinction between God’s forgiveness of those who trust in Him and our forgiveness of those who “trespass against us.” When God forgives, he atones for the sin. He doesn’t just overlook it and say, “Okay. You sinned, but that’s okay. I forgive you.” Rather, he metes out justice. It’s just that judgment is meted out on Jesus in our place.
We, on the other hand, cannot absolve anyone of sin when. Only God can do that. What we are really doing when we forgive someone is releasing that person from the hold his offence has over our lives. The real victim when we refuse to forgiven is us. Holding on to offenses causes us to be bitter and angry, which makes us captive to our offender. Freedom comes when we can release ourselves from the hold our offenders have on our lives.
What does forgiveness look like? John Neufeld says, “forgiveness means we are unwilling to demand compensation for sins done against us. We are not to seek revenge. We are not to demand punitive vengeance. That is forgiveness. It does not seek to harm the victimizer.”
But, he adds, “…from the rest of the New Testament, forgiveness is more. From Hebrews 12:15, we are commanded that we are to allow no root of bitterness to grow within us. Hence, forgiveness means we are forbidden from nurturing an inner attitude of resentment and hatred. And finally, from Matthew 5:44, we are also required to pray for those who persecute us and even called upon to love them.”
Forgiveness, in other words, refuses to seek vengeance, fosters an inner attitude of grace, and necessitates we pray for the evildoer.
In I Can Only Imagine, Bart’s father had no right to be forgiven for his abuse of Bart any more than we deserve God’s forgiveness. Yet Bart had no right, given all that God had forgiven him, to forgiveness to his father. And in forgiving his father, Bart released his father from the bitterness and resentment he carried because of his father’s failures and neglect. In being freed from these negative and destructive forces in his life, Bart was able to begin a relationship with his father that was free from rancor. He was able to experience what he had always missed and longed for with his father…love.
I have seen the devastation of unforgiveness in my own life and the power of forgiveness. There was a leader in one of the churches I pastored who worked against me at every turn. He constantly berated me (thankfully, as far as I know, always privately) and engaged me in email combat. I’m sorry to admit that I joined the battle. His attacks became more and more frustrating and my responses less and less loving. One day I realized that I had allowed him to become my enemy. I had allowed myself to nurse my hurts and knew had developed a spirit of bitterness against him. I decided to disengage from the battle and forgive him for his hurtful and damaging words and attitudes. From that day forward, I simply refused to answer his attacks. He kept sending me his poisonous missives, but I never responded. In fact, I refused to even read them anymore. I asked God to forgive me for holding bitterness against him and asked Him to help me love him in return. I knew I had no choice because of all that God had forgiven me.
I’ll admit that it was a process. But I knew I had finally fully and truly forgiven him when my prayers about the matter charged from asking God to set him straight or make him see the error of his ways to prayers for God’s blessings on his life and family. I did everything I could to treat him with respect and honor as a leader in the church and to this day I can pray for God’s blessings on his life. There is no way to describe how freeing is to forgive. It’s almost as being forgiven by Chris