The more I meditate on this idea of forgiveness the more connections to other things begin to appear. The thought that forgiveness in essence is letting go and that the same meaning also applies to God's wrath was a startling insight to me. But then as I thought about that more I have begun to wonder about the debt part of this concept. For it seems logical to me that very possibly forgiveness may in fact not actually eliminate the whole idea of debt but rather may transform the debt into a completely different kind of debt.
The debt discussed in the story of the king and his debtor was in all respects a negative kind of debt. It produced negative consequences in their relationship which is why the king wanted to put away that debt so that his higher priority of having a close relationship with his servant could be satisfied. Of course it required that the servant might be induced into making that relationship his priority or else that goal would never be reached, which sadly was the case in the end.
But the idea of a debt being created by the servant through the use of the master's resources to the point of not being able to pay it back seems to have interesting implications when I compared that to what their relationship might have been like if the servant could have been able to pay it back. Let me explain if I can.
If the servant could have been able to pull off his plan as intended and somehow would have been able to come up with the full amount of the debt and paid the king back, just what kind of relationship would he then have had with the king? That seems to be an interesting question to consider. And I believe it may be an important question given the fact that it appears the king had more interest in restoring a close relationship more than getting his money back.
Repayment of a debt, whether the debt was incurred through an open arrangement of a loan or whether it came about because of embezzlement and dishonest means, produces a very different relationship between the debtor and the source that what is potentially possible through the action of forgiveness. When I pay back a debt from someone I have borrowed from, my feelings towards them are likely very different in contrast to being forgiven by that person; our relationship with each other can look very different depending which option I experience.
When I borrow money and then pay it back, I no longer feel any sense of obligation to them. Nor do I feel many other feelings that could be involved if I had experienced forgiveness of the debt. My attitude toward a lender after repayment of a debt is pretty much disconnected except that I might consider asking for a loan again if I were to come into such need, depending on how positive my experience had been with them in my previous loan. But as far as personal feelings and attitudes about them, I would pretty much feel on an equal basis with them, that it was strictly a business transaction and no special bonds of affection or even appreciation were necessarily involved.
On the other hand, if I have been forgiven a debt, particularly if I was incapable of repayment, my feelings and reactions to such an experience would be radically different. But then that opens up a whole plethora of other possibilities largely based on my own emotional makeup and previous experiences. But I think it would be safe to say that to at least some extent I would feel something very different than the neutral feelings a person would expect if they had simply completed a business deal by paying off a debt by their own efforts.
The key thought here is the word 'neutral'. And that is where I am wondering about this whole concept of debt to start with. Feeling the obligation of repayment required when one is in debt can become a very oppressive and even destructive feeling and can quickly ruin friendships. Mark Twain had some insightful comments about the destructive nature of borrowing when it came to friendships. One of the quickest ways to spoil a good friendship is to lend money. Something about lending and borrowing can undermine the trust and openness of a friendship almost quicker than anything else. That may be at the core of why this king wanted to get rid of this debt, because it was making it impossible for him to have the kind of friendship that he wanted to have with his servant.
But when one has been forgiven a debt, particularly an impossibly enormous debt as is the case in this story, what kind of effect does that have on the mind of the forgiven debtor? That is a vitally important issue to explore and seems to be one of the main points intended in this story. And possibly we may have missed this point far too long. Evidently there is more than one outcome possible as a result of forgiveness and I think it is important to try to ascertain what makes the difference if that is possible.
I believe the intended outcome of forgiving this debt on the part of the king was primarily to induce this slave to change his attitude and relationship with the king so that they could be bonded into a closer relationship with each other. The king certainly may have tried to attract the slave into a closer relationship with himself previous to this but because of the debt the slave would never respond. This is quite understandable as being deep in debt to someone generally produces feelings of guilt, shame and even suspicion on the part of the debtor. I say suspicion because a debtor almost always assumes that because they are in such poor financial condition and have not been able to fulfill their obligations of repayments that the lender is sure to be upset with them. And when we think someone is upset with us our normal reaction is to withdraw and become ever more desperate in our attempts to find some way to repay our debt to relieve us of these oppressive feelings of guilt.
Yet the more we come to realize the impossibility of being able to repay our obligations, we may go into a state of denial and self-deception to avoid the suffocating feelings of shame and guilt. Different people relate to these oppressive feelings in different ways, but there is no doubt that living in debt can quickly become very depressing and negative and destructive to not only our relationship with the lender but with others in our lives as well. Debt can destroy a marriage, can bring on deep depression and can even lead to suicide. As we are seeing throughout various places in the world today with the deepening financial crisis, the effects of people living under heavy debt with little or no hope of escape can lead to all sorts of desperate measures to get out from under the oppressive feelings caused by debt.
But I think one thing is usually consistent in regards to debt and relationships – debt almost always results in negative consequences and tends to break down relationships, not build them up. This is the reason why there is such a disparity between heaven's economy and the counterfeit system we live under in this world. Our whole system is based on false principles and on selfishness. Because of this the idea of debt usually induces negative feelings in both the lenders and the debtors as they maneuver to position themselves in the relationship to come out ahead of the other. Because of our fallen nature the use of debt has usually been exploitive rather than healthy.
I find it useful to note the potential differences in how a person responds to deep debt in their lives in regards to the lessons that may be seen in this story. I have already touched on the negative feelings often produced by debt and how it can easily lead to depression and other serious problems. But what if a person chooses to go into denial to escape the depression and simply chooses not to think about their debt? That of course does nothing to improve their situation with the lender and very likely they will do everything possible to avoid contact with the lender to maintain their facade and keep their sanity. This tact may prove helpful for a time, but sooner or later reality is going to set in and the existence of the debt has not been affected at all by a person's living in denial of it. In fact, that usually only compounds the problem as it adds a layer of deception and dishonesty to the relationship.
Another factor involved here is the attitude of the lender. This story actually contrasts this by showing the stark difference between a lender who has only good intentions in his heart with a lender who is callous and harsh in his attitudes toward the borrower. Again that is one of the main factors Jesus intended to convey in this story in His attempts to get us to perceive the truth about the way things operate in the kingdom of heaven. This story is in part a sharp revelation of the difference between the way we do things and the way heaven views things.
The rest of the universe untainted by the selfishness inherent in sin puts the highest premium on the bonds of close relationships. This is illustrated in the attitude of the king who wished to settle accounts with his slave. But in contrast, our mentality when it comes to lending and borrowing are more closely reflected in the interactions of the two slaves. This debtor displayed the extreme results that selfishness produces in the human heart and the callousness that comes as a result of living with negative feelings and false assumptions about the king. We may think we are not as bad as this slave and would never treat a fellow human being with such disrespect. But I think that is part of the deceptiveness of sin. We have little idea of the depth of our own selfishness and the depravity of our own hearts because we have never allowed ourselves to see how badly damaged we really are deep inside. Sometimes only in a crisis does the real evil of our hearts come to the surface and we are shocked to discover how repulsive our own fallen nature can be and how deeply embedded it is in our psyche.
Whether a person chooses to live in denial of the debt or whether they live in depression and worry about how they are ever going to pay it off, either way their attitude toward the lender is going to seriously suffer. It is impossible to grow into more intimacy with a person when there is the constant fear and guilt and shame that indebtedness produces in the psyche. Debt is part of the sin problem and thus Jesus uses financial debt as a means of conveying a much bigger problem that we all live under, the debt of offenses in our relationship with God as well as with each other.
But as I started out wanting to explore at the beginning, this sense of obligation that debt produces is curiously still present even after forgiveness if not even more so. And yet the nature and 'color' and 'smell' of the effects can be dramatically opposite if one choose to respond to forgiveness the way the king hoped would happen in the heart of this debtor.
Paul spoke of a legitimate kind of debt feeling that should always be present and even conscious in the heart of the believer.
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8)
This brings in the factor that the law is what makes us aware of the extent of how desperate our situation really is. At the beginning of this story we see that the king in effect laid down the law in hopes that this man might have a reality check and come to realize that there was no possible way to repay the debt and begin to embrace a different option. The king even gave him that option after the man felt desperate enough to prostrate himself at the king's feet. But inside the man had not given up his plans to pay off the debt and as a result the hoped for heart change never really took root.
And this is where I see the connection to the transformation of a debt. This man did not want to feel obligated to the king by embracing the forgiveness that had been given to him. He wanted to remain outside the kind of bonds that would be formed if he were to truly believe in the forgiveness given him. For to believe in and live in the forgiveness of impossibly high debt is to either continue to live in denial which would be pretty much impossible, or to enter into a new kind of debt from which you clearly would never leave – the debt of gratitude and love.
As I consider these two kinds of debts I sense that really they are our only options. I don't know what kind of relationship humans had with God before sin entered the picture in regards to debt, but certainly it was radically different than after sin initiated our first loan of massive grace to keep the race alive while God sought to bring about resolution of this debt. The Old Testament period was like the reality check attempted to get our attention to see our true condition, a period we think of as living under the law. The New Testament gospel as an introduction of the forgiveness this king explained to this debtor in hopes that he would respond positively and be transformed by its reality in his heart. But either way, humans are going to be in a debt situation.
Before we embrace forgiveness we suffer under the negative results of living in debt with all its baleful consequences more or less. But after we choose to embrace and believe in forgiveness we still remain in a sense of obligation, only then it has positive reactions within us instead of negative ones. This is the part that I feel has too long been overlooked. For being forgiven does not return a person into the same relationship they had before the debt ever started; being forgiven apparently transforms a debt from a negative one into a positive one if the offer of reconciliation is experienced.
So if I follow this line of reasoning, there are still two options that can be experienced depending on what we choose to follow under forgiveness.
If I choose to continue to work off my debt after I become conscious of the reality of forgiveness for my debt, then in effect I am denying that the person who forgave me is honest and truthful about what they said in forgiving me. I am insisting that I do not desire to live under the sense of love debt that I know I would experience if I embrace the reality of their forgiveness and so I choose the other path of attempting to return to the disconnected, unbonded relationship I assume existed before the debt ever started. But what I don't realize is that this is simply not a possible option. The result of trying to work off a debt that has been forgiven is to plunge into the world of illusion, dishonesty and incongruity. I try to live in complete violation of the very principles which my brain was designed to operate by and I only compound my problems by adding to my debt instead of depleting it.
On the other hand, if I choose to embrace the reality of forgiveness I also have to accept the terms of reconciliation and allow myself to be drawn into a relationship with the one who forgave me that leaves me with an endless sense of indebtedness but with a very different flavor. Instead of living in constant fear, shame and avoidance of the lender, I now can live the life of reconciliation with all its benefits and positive transformations that will occur as my heart is healed of all the misconceptions I have had about the lender. But living in this relationship requires that I let go of my preconceptions and misapprehensions I have had about the lender and allow Him to define how He feels about me instead of relying on my own perceptions and feelings.
So in a way, it appears to me that once the debt of sin was induced in humanity that there is really no way out of living under debt. But this element of forgiveness is God's secret weapon that does not eliminate the debt but rather transforms the debt into something amazingly positive that no one ever thought possible when it all began. Forgiveness the way God does it is the secret weapon that He had in response to the arguments of Lucifer that appeared air-tight before the plan of salvation became evident. Satan sought to accuse God that it was impossible to reconcile justice and mercy and that the two were antagonistic to each other. But God is proving that justice and mercy are not separate things but in reality are one and the same. Their separation is only a figment of Satan's imagination.
Through forgiveness God is able to be justified in His plan to redeem sinners. Part of that may be the fact that the debt incurred by sin is not eliminated at all as many have supposed. Rather, that debt, like so many other evil things that resulted from sin, has been transformed by the power of God on behalf of all those who chose to change their minds about what He is really like. The original cause of sin was a change in beliefs about what God is like and doubts about His goodness, fairness and love. By being restored to trust in the God who has been so maligned by false ideas about Him we can be transformed into living under what might be termed a positive debt situation.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28) Even debt!