Why Forgiveness is so Hard

It’s easier to go to war.

I’m not talking geopolitical battles, although it is likely true regarding international and cultural conflicts. I am talking about the battles that rage in our homes, communities, workplaces, and churches. The wars that rage inside of us and around us are just as real as the wars we hear about in the news.

I have been rereading Matthew 18 and realize that for the most part, it is about relationships and the value of embracing lostness, conflict, sin and forgiveness from the perspective of there being real people on the other end of each of these things.

It’s easy in conflict to turn people into problems and begin to relate to them as objects. Truthfully, the problems and the people are intertwined. Here’s an example:

Sue and John were a newly married couple working full-time jobs. Between the two of them, there was enough money to pay the rent, car payment, buy groceries and have a little bit, though not much, extra.

Their schedules were out of sync so they often met for a quick dinner at cheap fast food restaurant. They didn’t see each other again until they were exhausted at the end of each night. Mornings were always a rush to get ready for work and get out the door.

Sue often felt like John put work first. It fact, she jokingly referred to work as his other wife. John felt underappreciated for the things he did like helping with the laundry and other household chores. He also wished they had more time for physical intimacy. Sue wanted intimacy but had very different ideas on what that meant. She liked walks and talks and maybe a movie.

Both of them were tired. Reading and good cup of coffee in the corner of a coffee shop tended to energize John. A long talk or the synergy of working on a task with John tended to energize Sue.

In time, their “out of sync” personalities, schedules, and perspectives began to wear on their relationship with each other.

John began to feel like Sue didn’t  understand him. She really didn’t know much about his needs, desires, or cares. She didn’t appreciate how hard he worked or how much he pitched in around the house.

Sue felt like John’s commitment was to everything but her. He was a doer so everything was about how much got done. She felt like John’s “get it done” behavior was actually part of the problem. His deeds done were a list to be held against her, instead of a help coming alongside her. He wanted intimacy, but not “intimacy.”

In time each began to identify the problem(s).

Sue saw the problem

  • Work is more important than me
  • Tasks are a list to use against me
  • Time with me is nothing more than another task
  • He doesn’t care about me
  • All he wants is __ __ __.
  • He really doesn’t know me
  • He doesn’t understand my needs

John saw the problem

  • She doesn’t appreciate the things I do
  • She doesn’t even notice when I help out
  • She doesn’t really care about me
  • All she wants is a guy who acts like a girlfriend…. Talk… talk… talk.
  • She doesn’t understand me or my needs.

John began to see Sue as negative, unappreciative, uncaring, nagging, and needy. Sue began to see John as passive-aggressive, non-relational, and work-obsessed.

When Persons Become Invisible

The more they saw, the more they didn’t. Yes, they saw “things.” And that became part of the problem. It fact, it was the problem. They began to see the problems, “things,” more than the person who the problems began to represent. In fact, the person became “the problem.”

Pretty soon the person began to fade into the background and the problems became the person.

One might say, that each person lost their personhood in the eyes of the other. In time, even seeing each other began to be painful because the problems were really what was in view. Each person began to relate to the other from inside of a box, justifying their feelings and behavior because the other person was uncaring, insensitive, and lacking understanding.

This happens in marriage, work relationships, other family situations and nearly every conflict imaginable. People begin to see problems more than persons. They objectify the other people and begin to justify their own behavior based on their perceptions. The more they justify their own behavior the more they “see things” and the less they see the person. Both want the other person to change their behavior. Neither realizes how much their own behavior is contributing to the conflict.

The First Step of Peace

The first step toward peace and forgiveness is often the most overlooked. This is true in marriage, work, community, and church relationships. The reason it’s overlooked isn’t because we don’t know we should forgive. Forgiveness is difficult because we don’t understand “why we don’t forgive?”

Admittedly, some forgiveness in hard. When a person has physically or sexually abused another person, forgiveness is still necessary, but so is justice. Forgiveness doesn’t mean abuse is ignored.

Addressing “Sin” and “Why We Don’t Forgive?”

Sometimes addressing sin is impossible because we don’t understand the root of sin and the beginning of forgiveness. It’s possible that the reason we “sin” against others and “why we don’t forgive?” are actually tied together.

Why Some Forgive and Others Don’t

Matthew 18:21-35 tells the story of a king who calls the debt of servant. The debt is enormous. A talent was actually a weight measurement, not a coin. A Roman talent was 75lbs. A Heavy Talent was 130lbs.

The first servant (forgiven servant) in the story owed 10,000 talents, the equivalent of 750,000lbs. 6,000 Denarii equaled 1 talent. A single denarii was worth a one day’s labor. As you can see, the first servant owed an insurmountable debt to the king. Since the servant could not pay the debt the king ordered that everything the servant had, including his wife and children be sold, in an attempt to recover some of the debt.

The servant begged the king for more time. He pleaded for mercy. There were likely uncontrolled tears and stories about his precious children and his wife along with promises to pay. The king was moved. He was moved to the extent that he did more than just give more time for payment to be made. He forgave it all. Every penny! All 10,000 talents worth.

Soon after that same servant called the debt of a second servant. The second servant owed him 100 denarii. Remember, 1 denarii was equal to a day of labor, just under 20 weeks. In anger, the first servant (the forgiven one) seized his fellow servant (the un-forgiven servant) and began to choke him. The second servant also plead for patience. It was not given! The first “forgiven” servant refused. He threw his fellow servant in jail for non-payment.

Things that Get in the Way of Forgiveness

One might ask “Why?” Why would he not forgive?

The reason is obvious. The money (thing/object) was more important than the person. From the first servant’s perspective, the money was more valuable than his fellow servant. His perspective can be illustrated in an equation using less than < greater than > symbols.

The Servant < 100 D


D x 102 > S

D = Denarii and S = Servant

The servant is worth less than the object. The servant has been objectified. The servant’s value has been degraded. The servant is merely a means to an end and has no value other than the other servant’s enrichment.

The first servant was treated very differently. He also owed a debt. His debt wasn’t just greater, it was an unpayable debt. Apart from mercy, he had no hope of ever paying the debt. And one might ask, why did the king forgive that servant’s debt? Did the debt not matter?

The debt did matter. However, the king forgave the debt because of his perspective on what was more valuable. The king’s perspective can also be illustrated in an equation.

The Servant > 10,000 T


T x 104 < FS

T = Talents and FS = Forgiven Servant

The Root of Sin

It seems that the root of sin is often the “objectification” of people. When objects are more valuable than people, forgiveness is impossible. Sometimes those objects are intangible things like a demand that the other person change before we forgive them.  We are demanding them to pay their “debt” to us. In such situations, the person has less value than whatever demand we are making.

The Beginning of Forgiveness

Forgiveness begins when we relate to people as real people, flesh and blood people, made in the image of God people. The king forgave the first servant because one forgiven servant was more valuable than a treasury full of money. One forgiven servant and his family was “a treasure” to the king and his kingdom. The king’s most valuable asset was his people and their welfare. It was an easy trade. Having one servant saved was more important than having large sums of money.

Relating to Real People

5 Questions for Moving Toward Forgiveness.

Having a heart of forgiveness begins with seeing people, real people, flesh and blood, made in the image of God people, on the other end of every conflict. Some questions that can help us move toward forgiveness.

  1. Begin to think about the “things” that get in the way of your relationship(s).
  2. What demands are you making of other people “before” you begin to extend to them the forgiveness that they need?
  3. What are the most valuable “things” in your life right now?
  4. Are you demanding that another person changes before you relate to them?
  5. Based on your demands, what might you need to change before you can properly relate to another person?


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