The Ultimate U-Turn
The incident with the fig tree is one of the more interesting, and for some, troubling, passages in Scripture. Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem when Jesus spots a fig tree on the side of the road. It’s not the time of year when you would harvest figs, but it seems to have been late enough in the year that Jesus thought there might be some fruit on it. But there is not, and so Jesus pronounces a curse upon it—“May you never bear fruit again”—and the group moves on toward Jerusalem. They spend the day in the city, and then return to the countryside that night. One of the disciples notices the following morning, as they’re returning to Jerusalem, that the fig tree Jesus had cursed had withered. They were astonished! Never before had they seen someone cause a tree to wither just by talking to it.
But really, the withering isn’t the point. It’s what you might call a ‘teachable moment.’ Jesus takes full advantage of it. If you have ‘the faith of God,’ strong faith, then you, too, can pray and mountains will be cast into the sea. That’s pretty impressive! Have you ever seen a mountain cast into the sea? Neither had the disciples. In fact, to the Jews of that day, it was a literal impossibility to move a mountain. But strong faith could overcome even that.
Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t stop there, though? He doesn’t just say, “If you have faith and pray, you can overthrow mountains.” Not even ‘If you have the faith of God,’ that is, the strongest possible faith, ‘and pray.’ He continues, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.”
Is it harder to throw mountains into the sea, or to forgive?
The desire for revenge and the nursing of a grudge are both rooted deep in our human nature, both hiding in the dark recesses of our hearts. It is the cause of wars and crimes, the flame that flares up from a simple hurt or disregard or slight into a blood-feud. At its heart, revenge and the nursing of a grudge are simply a failure to forgive.
Now, we’ve all been hurt in the past. Someone in the past has wronged you, and it has left a scar. Whatever that person did, you regarded them as an enemy. Or maybe they didn’t even start out as an enemy. You were simply on opposite sides of an issue, and slowly or maybe not so slowly, the lines blurred between opponent and enemy.
And even when you got over that hurt, that injury, that grudge, you keep finding it sneaking up on you again, even after you think your heart is clean, you find that poison bubbling up out of your heart again. Even when you thought you had forgiven, you keep finding yourself having to forgive, over and over.
Yeah, overthrowing mountains is impossible. But forgiveness? That’s even harder.
Take for example this real-life story.
On a morning in the fall of 1950, a lone American visited Sugamo Prison, the home of 850 of the Japanese prison guards who had overseen his stay as a POW during World War II. He had spent two and a half miserable years as a POW. While there, he was repeatedly beaten; like many prisoners, he was abused, starved, left to deal with dysentery untreated. He was an Olympic runner before the war. But the injuries and abuse he suffered in the days after his search-and-rescue plane crashed into the sea robbed him of his ability to compete when the Olympics resumed in 1948. After the war ended, he suffered, like so many returning POWs, with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He would dive for cover at the sound of a car backfiring, stand at attention when he heard people yelling what sounded like the Japanese word for ‘salute,’ and had vivid flashbacks of the life he had endured at various prison camps on Japan’s main island.
Slowly, he turned toward alcohol to dull the memories. At the same time, remembering the brutality of a particularly vicious Japanese NCO who had singled him out for special treatment, he slowly became obsessed with the idea that murdering this man, Mitsuhiro Watanabe, whom POWs nicknamed ‘the Bird,’ would free him of dreams tormented by the man. He trained for the day that he could fly over to Japan and hunt the Bird down; but in the meantime, his marriage fell apart and his wife left him to return to her parents with their newborn daughter, intending on filing for divorce.
There was a lot of hurt in that man. There was a lot of justifiable anger and pain in him, as there was with many American veterans of the Pacific Theater in World War II. The atrocities that many Americans witnessed and endured—the Bataan Death March, the fanatical charges, the kamikaze attacks, the treatment that POWs received, not to mention witnessing the horrors of war itself and the mass forced suicide on Okinawa….
It doesn’t have to be a war crime to be a sin. Kidnapping and murder and theft all have the potential to put the poison of a desire for revenge in our hearts. It doesn’t even have to be a sin for it to hurt and require forgiveness; the man or woman who broke your heart needs forgiveness just as much for the unintentional pain as for any deliberate jab.
But forgiveness is the only thing that stops the vicious cycle of hatred and revenge. The African tribesman who kidnaps a woman from a rival tribe brings down the wrath of that tribe upon his own; they raid his tribe in return, and he feels the need to answer them in kind again.
It speaks to the depths of human depravity that forgiveness is so difficult. It’s a monumental undertaking. We hurt one another so often. But that forgiveness is so difficult speaks too of the depths of God’s grace: It is an impossibility to forgive, and yet God forgives.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus links our own forgiveness with our forgiving others. Forgive, so that your heavenly Father will forgive you too. We ask this whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, saying, “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We pray for forgiveness as we forgive others, because our offense, our transgression, is against God as much as it is any human being when we sin. It’s not just, not right, for us to hold sin against someone else even while we are asking God for forgiveness. When we hold sin against other people, we’re usurping God’s place as the final arbiter and corrector of the world’s brokenness. The Lord is the one who will set everything right, not us. God did not design us to fix all of the world’s problems. We are not God, and we can’t fix everything—we were never intended to do so.
So when we pray for forgiveness as we forgive others, we remind ourselves that forgiveness is difficult—if not impossible—and that God has the most reason to hold debts and trespasses, sins and transgressions, against people. And yet he forgives.
Unforgiveness and hatred and grudges all harm the one who bears them. Like someone who drinks poison in order to hurt someone else, or who takes ahold of a hot coal intending to throw it at someone, what we do not forgive festers in us. We may be motivated by that unforgiven injury, and then hurt someone—but the grudge itself does nothing to them. Instead, it only twists the knife in us further.
CS Lewis once wrote that every person was slowly being twisted or shaped by their actions into a creature meant for heaven or hell, a creature that belongs in heaven or hell. Even the slightest decision leaves its mark on a person’s soul. “Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature,” he says.
If a grudge nursed is one step closer to hell, then forgiveness is the essence of heaven. And just like heaven, it is beyond our reach. Forgiveness would heal us of everything that’s bent us out of shape, twisted us and defiled us. But we humans have fallen into a deep pit, and we cannot untwist ourselves, we cannot climb out again under our own power. Forgiveness is impossible—but God forgives, and what God forgives, he heals.
The new life God gives through Jesus Christ drains the swamp of our hearts, and the bitterness at the base of our being is washed away, replaced by the peace and the grace of forgiveness—of ourselves, and of others.
Remember that man I was speaking of earlier? His wife never did divorce the former Olympic runner; returning home to her husband to wait out the finalizing of the divorce papers, she went to hear Billy Graham preach in Los Angeles. After her own conversion and surrender to Christ, she told the man she wasn’t going to divorce him, and that he should come listen to Rev Graham preach the following day. He reluctantly agreed, but left early. She convinced him to come back the next day, and as he turned to leave at the altar-call, something happened.
While stranded at sea, he and the surviving crew of his aircraft had run out of water quickly, and only rainfall was sustaining them. But there had not been any rain for several days, and the survivors on their raft were in danger of dying of thirst. But the man prayed, “God, if you send rain, I will serve you for the rest of my life.” The next day, it had rained.
It had been key to his survival while he was at sea. In the intervening years, the man had forgotten his promise. But that night, as Louie Zamperini stormed out of the revival-tent—it started to rain. He remembered his promise, and instead of storming out, he turned around and he gave his life to Christ at the altar. He was a new man.
The prisoners at Sugamo Prison, his former guards, had cause to be concerned that a former prisoner had come to see them. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that he had intended to hunt down and kill one of them.
Even Zamperini himself had wondered whether the peace he had known since his conversion was resilient enough to endure looking at his former captors once again. When he arrived at Sugamo Prison, he had asked where the former guard called the Bird was; he was informed that he had committed suicide some time before. And Zamperini discovered just how resilient that peace was. He felt nothing of the hatred or the desire for revenge that he had fostered only a few short years before, he felt no vindication or justification.
All he felt when he was told of Watanabe’s fate was compassion for a lost soul, for a life that had moved beyond redemption.
His former guards had been hesitant to see him; as they approached, though, he bounded to greet them with a radiant smile. The man who had himself been adrift in a post-war haze of hurt and hatred was truly free.
He was truly free, because he had forgiven. The poison in his heart had been drained, the cycle of hatred had been broken.
Forgiveness may be impossible; but God forgives anyway—does the impossible—and gives us grace to do the same.