To Set the Captives Free
What happens when you fail to forgive? — to you? — to the one who sinned?
© 1985 by Paul Thigpen
The debtors' prison — for many centuries in most societies it was a grim and familiar institution in the lives of the poor. The concept was simple: If you couldn't pay your bills, you went to jail until you could.
But there was a problem with the arrangement. While confined to prison, you couldn't earn money to repay your creditors. So many debtors remained locked away all their lives, and their families often starved.
Happily, debtor's prisons are no longer a legal reality in Western culture. Yet the principle of imprisonment for indebtedness is still present with us as a spiritual reality. The New Testament insists that if someone sins against us, that person has incurred a debt and is bound up spiritually in his relationship with us.
This legal/spiritual parallel is drawn in several gospel passages, but perhaps most clearly in Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35). In that story, our sins against one another are explicitly compared with the financial debts that one servant of a king owes another. The spiritual consequences of such indebtedness are characterized as a prison, and the gravity of the situation is portrayed in disturbing, even terrifying, terms.
The Way Out
We can be relieved, then, to know that God has provided a way out of the dilemma of a spiritual debtor's prison. It's called forgiveness. Two of the New Testament words translated "to forgive" — aphiemi and apoluo — vividly reflect this spiritual dynamic. Aphiemi means "to remit, to lay aside," and was also a financial term for cancelling debts. Apoluo means "to release, to set at liberty," and was also a legal term for letting a prisoner go free.
These word pictures have a clear implication: When someone offends us, we can absolve him of both the spiritual debt and the prison sentence by forgiving the offense. In fact, that was precisely the point of Jesus' parable, which He told in response to St. Peter's question about how many times he must forgive an offending brother.
With that truth in mind, we must make a crucial observation: Since the key to the debtor's prison is in our hands, we have not only the power to free him, but also the obligation. For as Jesus pointed out in the parable of the unmerciful servant, God has forgiven us, and expects us to do the same to others. When the wicked servant refused to forgive his own debtor, his master had him thrown in debtor's prison until he should repay his own debt. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart," Jesus said (Matthew 18:35).
Yet we are obligated not only for our own sake, but also for the debtor's sake. For just as it was with the debtors of long ago, the prisoner's ability to turn from the past is hindered as long as he languishes behind bars. In an important sense, our failure to forgive can deny the offender the freedom he needs to change.
I am reminded of a father whose teenage daughter once lied to him (for the first time) about where she went on a date. The father caught her in the lie, and for months afterward he refused to forgive her for that breach of trust. He wanted to punish her in an emotional prison.
The result? His continuing resentment so changed his attitude toward her that he began expecting her to lie about her activities, and so he frequently accused her of covering up. Not surprisingly, her behavior changed to match his expectations, because she reasoned, "If he's convinced I'm lying anyway, why should I bother to tell the truth?" Thus the daughter became a habitual liar. It was only much later — when he was willing to forgive her and risk trusting her again — that she was freed to turn from her wrong behavior.
Escape from the Torturers
We shouldn't be surprised, then, that Jesus made forgiveness such a priority, even insisting that reconciliation with one another must be a precondition for approaching God (Matthew 5:23-24). This spiritual necessity is perhaps most obvious in marriage. That, I think, is why St. Peter exhorts husbands to live considerately with their wives "so that nothing will hinder your prayers" (1 Peter 3:7).
My wife and I have found it to be a stubborn truth that when one of us is offended by the other, we can't pray together — or even go to sleep at night, for that matter. It's not that we haven't tried. We once went so far as to go to bed in separate rooms rather than talk out a grievance, because we thought we were too tired to handle it reasonably.
But the "torturers" mentioned in Jesus' parable plagued us so mercilessly that we finally had to be reconciled if we were to find any peace that night. In that light, we've come to see that "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry" (Ephes. 4:26) — though a hard saying — is actually a merciful command.
This bondage in which we hold our debtors when we fail to forgive them is uncomfortably obvious when they live with us. But the principle is still at work even in less intense relationships. Though geographic distance or infrequency of contact may dull our awareness of the imprisonment, those "torturers" are at work just the same, eating away at our spiritual vitality. Our approach to the "altar" of God's presence is thus impeded by their attacks, and we discover why Jesus told us to be reconciled first.
Once we realize that both the debtor and the "creditor" are adversely affected by resentment in this way, we begin to see a further and more sobering reality about forgiveness: Our failure to be merciful not only hinders our approach to God; it also locks us up in the cell next door to our debtor. "Forgive [apoluo], and you will be forgiven" (Luke 6:37) could just as well be translated, "Release and you will be released."
We often repeat rather mechanically the phrase, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." But we should remember that when Jesus taught that prayer, He added a disturbing commentary: "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:12, 14, 15). The chains on the one who has offended us are in reality handcuffs — one end on his wrist, and the other on our own.
This truth was vividly presented to me some years ago when I was struggling as a new Christian to build a healthy relationship with my father. Like most teenagers, with parents who are bound to be imperfect, I had a number of resentments toward my father for things he had done, and things he had failed to do. As I sought to repair some flawed aspects of my own life, I came up against a terrible realization: Much of my own brokenness was rooted in my alienation from Dad.
I cried out to God, as I had for years before, that I was a helpless victim: It was my father's fault, I said, that I was suffering from rejection, from a poor self image, from old wounds in my spirit that bled all over my present relationships with almost everyone I knew. Until Dad changed I had no power, it seemed, to heal the breach between us and move toward wholeness.
In that miserable state of mind, I wept alone in my room one night, protesting the Lord's unfairness. But as I prayed, a picture formed slowly in my imagination. I saw an image of a dungeon, with my father standing sadly behind the bars of one cell, and myself cowering in the corner of the room next door. Nevertheless, in my hand was a key; and I could hear the Lord saying, "You have the power to set the captives free. Forgive as you have been forgiven."
I had no idea at the time that forgiveness meant release; I had never studied the word, nor even read the parable of the unmerciful servant. Yet in that moment, I finally realized that by God's grace I could be, not a victim, but a liberator. Jesus' prior cancelling of my own debts meant that I could afford to release my father from his. So by an act of my will, I forgave Dad — immediately, aloud in my room, and specifically for every offense I could remember. Then I asked God to forgive me for my bitterness — and I, too, was set free.
No Room for Creditors
Thus the process of our reconciliation began. Of course, it was the first of "seventy times seven" occasions when one or the other of us had to forgive; I had taken only the initial step on a painful road to a righteous father/son relationship. Nevertheless, the prison doors had been unlocked, and they never again stayed shut for very long. Dad and I both were now free to become new men, and within a year, he too was walking with the Lord.
I know now that the Kingdom of God has no room for creditors who refuse to forgive. None of us can afford to owe or to be owed any spiritual debts. If instead we remember that in God's eyes, we're all bankrupt — and yet set free from debt — we too can learn that love "keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Cor. 13:5), and that we have the liberty to love because He first loved us.
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