On preaching for the self-righteous bogeyman

It’s very easy to write a mediocre sermon about forgiveness. I’m already halfway down the road of doing it. The scripture text for this week seemed an obvious choice for “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s the parable of the unmerciful servant from Matthew 18:21-35. It’s about a servant who owes his master thousands of dollars but has his debt forgiven only to go and throw a fellow servant in debtor’s prison for owing him a few bucks. The master finds out and rips the first servant to shreds for not forgiving when he was forgiven. Following the logic of the parable, we are infinitely indebted to God for our sins against Him, so it ought to be inconceivable that we would be unwilling to forgive other people.

There’s a bogeyman in my head that I’m often preaching to when the topic is forgiveness. He’s arrogant, self-righteous, and judgmental. He writes in ALL CAPS in the comment section on news websites, using lots of exclamation points and words like outrageous, egregious, and astounding. He knows exactly who the bad people are and why they need to be decimated from the face of the earth since there’s no point in trying to reason with them. The only problem with preaching to this bogeyman is he doesn’t go to our church.

The people I’ve met in our church tend to be humble, gracious people who are trying their best to serve God and their country faithfully. Perhaps some of you have a self-righteousness problem that needs to be addressed, but I hesitate to preach that kind of forgiveness sermon, because some of you have been hurt really badly by other people who played dirty and got away with it. I have had the strange fortune of never having been wounded deeply enough by another person that forgiveness could be a challenge for me. So it’s easy for me to say, “Look, God forgives you, so forgive other people. What part of ‘stop being self-righteous’ don’t you understand?!”

But if I preach a sermon to my self-righteous bogeyman and speak flippantly about the challenge of forgiveness, then I will fail those of you who have suffered wounds that seem unforgivable. So I’m stuck. I want to somehow speak grace into a situation in which forgiveness is hard if not impossible. My usual strategy is to say something like “Jesus feels your pain; He died on the cross,” but even that feels trite and dismissive.

What I can say is the first thing that Jesus said almost every time he healed somebody: “Your sins are forgiven.” Whatever else is true about the evils that other people have committed against us, the best hope for our ability to cope with our circumstances lies in our recognition that we need God to forgive us of our own sins and He has. We cannot change what other people have done to us, but we can at least enjoy the integrity and freedom of naming our own sin and accepting Christ’s redemption. However far we get in making peace with whatever evil we have suffered, it’s a journey we can only begin as sinners who are grateful for God’s forgiveness.


7 thoughts on “On preaching for the self-righteous bogeyman

  1. Morgan,

    I just recently started reading your blog and I really appreciate your posts.

    You made a statement in this post that said, “the first thing that Jesus said almost every time he healed somebody: “Your sins are forgiven.””. I always thought that until I did a study last Summer I called the, “Jesus Encounters” where I documented all the recorded encounters Jesus had with people and classified them. One of the aspects I looked at was the “forgiveness of sins”. Surprisingly I found only three instances in which this was the case.

    Luke 7:36 – Woman with the alabaster perfume
    Matt 9:1-8; Mark 2:5 – The healing of the paralytic
    Luke 19 – Zaccheus

    This is really tangential to your post and doesn’t impact it but I just had to share this little tidbit. 🙂

    Thanks again and keep posting.


    • Thanks for the observation, Darren. That’s really helpful. I think because that paralytic healing happens at the beginning of Mark, it sort of became paradigmatic in my mind when it wasn’t necessarily so.

  2. Wow. I’ve not heard it put quite that way. Linguistic schema aside, I like it. 😉

    I was thinking about the passage in Matthew 18. The parable Jesus told was in response to Peter questioning some guidelines Jesus gave as recorded in verses 15-17 – how to deal with a brother who sins against you. It is interesting that if the person flatly refuses all appeals to make things right, Jesus tells us to, essentially, treat them as though they are no longer a brother….. something to ponder. 🙂

  3. I absolutely reject a cause/effect relationship between our forgiving others and God forgiving us. That would be works-righteousness and not grace. It’s abominable that a church would teach that, although I know many have.

    I would say that if you don’t wish ill against the people who hurt you, then according to my linguistic schema, you’ve forgiven but not forgotten. I don’t think you’re ever expected to deny the truth. Even if the abuser repented and sought reconciliation and you agreed, the truth would still be there but as a witness of grace. Grace gives us a means to face the truth; it’s not a denial of the truth. Paul tells the truth about the despicable murderer he was before he met Christ. His past sin doesn’t have any power over him anymore; it has become part of the story of his deliverance; but there’s no reason to sweep it under the rug.

    In any case, if God has restored you to wholeness and dissipated whatever hate the pain created, then I think you’ve done what you need to do. Jesus’ scars remained in his resurrected body, though they were no longer a source of pain. God will account for everything that has happened. Even if the people who did wrong are “saved” doesn’t mean that they won’t have to face the truth like all of us. What salvation does is make it possible to face the truth without condemnation.

  4. Morgan, I started reading your blog a few weeks ago.

    I greatly appreciate your honesty. In my experience, it is a rare commodity among the clergy. 😉

    On this post…. thank you, I am one of those who have been wounded deeply and had the wounds worsened by religious commands on forgiveness. I have come to see things a little differently than the church projects. In the example you give concerning the servant, it is important to note a) the servant that was forgiven much by his master, received that forgiveness after asking for mercy, and b) the other servant also asked for mercy and he refused to give it. So the issue is not just forgiving ‘all the time’, but refusing to forgive when mercy is called upon. The passage in Matthew is preceded by Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to forgive ‘seventy times seven’ – it is interesting to note that a similar conversation is recorded in Luke 17:1-4. In it, Jesus says to rebuke your brother when he sins against you and if he repents, forgive him.

    Forgiveness seems to flow from repentance and a plea for mercy (which is an action that implies an acknowledgement of actions that need forgiveness). It is difficult (impossible?) to forgive someone who does not believe (or acknowledge) they have done anything wrong. Healing and letting go of something is not the same thing as forgiveness. I think forgiveness without repentance (when the offender is aware of what they have done, Jesus said rebuke them) is actually harmful for both parties. It sets the ‘forgiver’ up for being abused and the ‘forgiven’ up for believing the behavior is acceptable.

    Anyway, just my thoughts pn forgiveness.

    • Wow! Thanks so much for pointing that stuff out. I may use your insights in my sermon for this weekend! The only thing I would question about your approach is: How do you make peace within yourself when the other person doesn’t repent? It doesn’t seem right that they should be allowed to have tyranny over your inner peace although I know that the hurt doesn’t go away for a long time. I would tend to call that inner peacemaking “forgiveness” and call the response to asking for mercy “reconciliation.” But maybe the linguistics fail at this point. I don’t feel like forgiveness ever ought to be the same thing as saying “It’s okay, you didn’t hurt me,” because that’s dishonesty. I’m not sure how to pinpoint what it means exactly. Is forgiveness when you reach the point where you no longer have ill-will towards a person who has hurt you? Or let’s say it’s a person you have to interact with after they sin against you. Is forgiveness the point when you aren’t needing to communicate your hurt anymore through body language, terse conversation, frowns, etc? Anyway, thanks for your conversation!

      • You’re welcome. I enjoy the conversation, too.

        As to the inner peace, that’s something that is a process. For me, this is a work in progress regarding several people – from an older cousin from childhood to an abusive pastor. They flat refuse to even admit what they did, let alone that it might have been wrong. Soooo….I work on my healing, cut them off from my day to day living and slowly, as I work through the anger, peace emerges, and this is only with the help of God. Do I wish them ill? I have, but no longer. But I also will not say that they didn’t do what they did. 🙂

        Some other thoughts on forgiveness, in general. We are called to forgive as God forgives. I have had that interpreted to me as meaning we must forgive and forget every wrong (the way God forgives us) or God won’t forgive us. But wait…. how, exactly does God forgives us? Does he forgive the unrepentant and say, “Oh, that’s okay. I’m going to forgive and forget that you did that. No need to even acknowledge it.” Ummm…. I think he requires a ‘turning away’ from wrong and acknowledging it for what it is….? So, would he require us to forgive on a higher level than he does? Is that even possible?

        Just some thoughts. 🙂

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