The “hidden fees” of emotional debt (Matthew 18:28-35)

Financial debt is easy to quantify.  If you damage my property, justice comes when you pay what you owe.  But what about things that can’t be monetized so easily?

We spoke yesterday of “emotional debt,” the pain that accrues from being hurt or betrayed.  For some offenses, a simple apology won’t cover it.  The legal system has tried to put a price on this by pursuing litigation (and compensation) for “pain and suffering.”  I communicated briefly on this subject with our own A.J. Serafini, who said that it’s customary to ask for 2-3 times the physical damage to cover pain and suffering.  While I don’t doubt that financial restitution can’t improve one’s quality of life, I doubt that this brings genuine release from one’s emotional debts.  Take, as an extreme example, families who seek closure in watching a family member’s murdered get executed.  Common sense tells us that yes; those family members witnessing this event will find a renewed peace in seeing justice meted out.  But contemporary research from Stanford University says that the opposite is often true.  Families may feel re-victimized by witnessing such a traumatic event.  For others, the protracted wait from sentencing to execution may seem like justice deferred—and effectively denied.  For still others, a relatively painless death seems too convenient a price for the suffering caused by a hardened killer.

Now, most of us may—thankfully—never need to endure this level of emotional debt.  But like the debtor in the parable, we may feel like someone out there owes us something.

Take a moment to re-read the fallout of the debtor:

28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:28-35)

Why would God’s forgiveness depend on our willingness to forgive another?

Like the debtor, we want to see our offenders experience pain.  And pain usually travels downward.   We “distribute” the emotional debt by entertaining private thoughts of revenge, or feeling the need to “warn” others about that person’s potential actions.

In short, we’ve made forgiveness entirely conditional on our private sense of justice.  But here’s the point of exploring the whole topic of pain and suffering: it’ll never work. Even in the most extreme examples, we fail to find the closure we seek.

That’s why Jesus says that failing to forgive leads to a failure to be forgiven.  Why?  Because if I make forgiveness dependent on a moral code, it reveals that I never really understood the gospel at all.  The gospel promises salvation through God’s grace—through what Christ did.  To make forgiving others based on anything less than that only reveals hearts that seek to deal with emotional debt without God.  So Jesus isn’t saying: “Forgive or you’ll be punished.”  No; Jesus is saying: “Have it your way.”  Try and manage your emotional debt, and you’ll spend a lifetime hurting another human being while receiving no satisfaction in return.  Look to the cross for personal forgiveness and relational justice, and you’ll find a renewed capacity for love.




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