(This is an excerpt from the book I’m working on called “Worth the Fight,” a book for men about sexual purity and our identity in Christ. This excerpt can easily be applied to both men and women. Also, it is not referencing any individual offense within my marriage, but is referring to my tendency as a spouse to harbor bitterness and resentment over the course of ten years of marriage–something that makes more sense in the context of the rest of my book. For the sake of this post, just know I’m not throwing Jen under the bus, this isn’t referring to any offense in specific, and what I refer to is something I feel most all husbands and wives experience.)
I have read Matthew 18 countless times. I have explained the parable of the unmerciful servant countless times (Matthew 18:21-35). A story Jesus tells where a servant owed his king 200,000 years worth of wages—this was a cartoonish debt the servant obviously would never be able to repay. The law dictated that the man and his entire family would be sold as slaves in order to pay the financial debt owed to the king. The servant begs and pleads for the king to forgive him of his astronomical debt, which the king somehow mercifully does. The man is free to go.
On his way, he runs into a fellow servant who owed him around 100 days worth of wages. While not a negligible amount, it was certainly nowhere near the incalculable amount he himself had just been relieved of. To be precise, the debt owed him was .0005% of what he had just been forgiven of. Shockingly, the just-forgiven servant starts violently choking his fellow servant and demands that he repay all that he owes. When the one being choked asks for patience and reassures that he’ll pay back his debt with more time, the wicked servant refuses and has the man thrown into prison until he can pay back everything.
While listening to Matthew 18 on my audio Bible recently, the conclusion of the parable, which is the king reprimanding the wicked servant, hit me with sobering rawness:
Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:33-35)
During the countless times I have read this passage in the past, I have always automatically found theological and contextual ways to soften Jesus’ point here. My motives being pure of course: Taken on its own, this verse would indicate that we could lose our salvations if we didn’t forgive others. It would indicate legalism and the need to earn our salvations. It would mean we’d always have to walk around in fear of God’s judgment, never knowing if we’d forgiven enough. So I would preach the story while avoiding the point.
It is true we shouldn’t develop our theology around a single verse when there are multitudes of other verses on the same topic that have contrasting emphases. It’s true that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself and one verse doesn’t negate a whole bunch of others. But on the same token, it’s also true that we can’t dismiss or dodge around a verse because it jars us. We can’t ignore the fact that Jesus was making a very intentional point here: forgiving others is not optional for those who have been forgiven by God and that lack of forgiveness is punishable by eternity in hell.
As it turns out, my motives for dodging the punch of this passage weren’t so pure after all. In the recent listening of this text via my audio Bible, the Holy Spirit hit me loudly and clearly:
The reason you don’t want to believe verse 35 to its fullest extent is because you don’t want to have to forgive your wife.
While I don’t think it’s possible to overemphasize God’s grace toward us, I do think it’s possible to cheapen it. We cheapen his grace when we deemphasize God’s holiness and justice—when we tell ourselves we don’t really need to fear God.
I don’t mean “be afraid” of God, I mean the biblical fear of God that is referenced hundreds of times throughout Scripture. Fear is the natural feeling a sinful being has in the presence of a holy God. Fear is an understanding of who God is and who we are in apart from him. Fear is knowing we have incurred an unpayable debt that must be paid. It is awe, reverence and humility taken to their most extreme state.
If we don’t grasp God’s justice and holiness and how far apart from him we truly are, we’ll never be able to fully enjoy the depths of his grace.
Here’s the point that will change your marriage forever, as it changed mine: God can send you to hell if you don’t continually forgive your wife.
Does this scare you?
It probably does (which we need to stop instantly labeling a bad thing), but that’s not the point. And it’s essential that we don’t miss the point here. Jesus’ point isn’t to scare you; his point is to get you to forgive!
Here’s the thing about this parable: how in the world did this servant rack up 200,000 years worth of debt? We all know people who are bad with money and who make foolish financial decisions, but 200,000 years worth of salary in debt? He got himself into this mess. It’s unimaginable the wreck this type of person must be.
And that wreck is me and it is you. We, of course, are the wicked servant in the parable. We caused our uncountable debt with our uncountable sins. And we struggle to forgive our wives because we forget how big of wrecks we are before God. And how ridiculous it is that he forgave our debts. And for us to not forgive our wives continually, no matter what they do to us or deprive us of, is enough to punch our ticket straight to hell.
If that doesn’t motivate you to forgive, I’m not sure what will.
Practically, don’t focus on the amount of debt your wife owes you. Don’t focus on the 100 days of wages, weighing how heavy that is. Focus solely on the debt you’ve been forgiven and never take your eyes off of it. Never stop being in wonder of it. Never stop being overwhelmed by it. Never stop it from making you jump and dance and sing and shout for joy. Never stop it from easily toppling over any and every debt your wife, or anyone else for that matter, might ever owe you.
How many times should you forgive your wife, seven times? No, Jesus says in verse 22, seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven, 490!)—meaning never-ending, because the forgiveness that has been shown to you is never-ending.
You can either forgive your wife or you can blatantly and aggressively rebel against our holy God by not forgiving her; the choice is yours.
Stop sugar-coating it.
Instead of making excuses for why you can’t or don’t have to forgive your wife, allow yourself to fear the Lord. Imagine what will happen to you if don’t forgive her.
Now feel the incredible freedom that comes when we don’t hold someone’s sins against them but choose to love them unconditionally instead.