“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:32–35, esv).
Forgiveness is costly. After someone deeply hurts you, it costs you something to release that person from the debt owed to you. Just ask Jesus (1 Corinthians 6:20).
But even more costly is unforgiveness. The fallout of not forgiving is huge. When you decide not to release a person but instead nurse the injury and harbor resentment, look out for some major consequences—as the life of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 reveals.
At the center of that story is an unforgiving heart. Though the servant had been forgiven an immense, unpayable debt, he refused to forgive his fellow servant’s relatively minor debt—and the price of his unforgiveness was very high. Let’s count the cost of unforgiveness:
1. Shattered relationship. The two servants must have been close friends for the first to loan the second the equivalent of four months’ pay. So how close could they have been after the lender seized, choked, threatened, and imprisoned the borrower? Their friendship was an obvious casualty.
2. Loss of respect. “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” (18:31). The first servant lost the respect of his peers. With his vengeful actions, he poisoned his other relationships. Harboring unforgiveness, nursing resentment, breathing negativity, focusing on pain—these attitudes drive others away.
3. Humiliation. When the servant was summoned back before the master, check out his response: nothing. Not one syllable in his own defense. The master essentially challenged him, “I forgave you this massive debt, and you couldn’t forgive this tiny amount?” The servant was utterly humiliated.
4. Torture. The resolution of this story is sobering: “And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.” Unforgiveness brought the servant literal, physical torture, and on us unforgiveness inflicts emotional torture. If you refuse to forgive those who injure you, your life will become a torture chamber, and every future encounter you experience will pass through the grid of your unresolved pain.
5. Lasting consequences. The consequences of unforgiveness are experienced not only in this life but also in the life to come. “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Of course, the king in the story is God, and the servant in the story represents each of us, and we are headed for the very same divine appointment someday. If we harbor resentment and unforgiveness, God will say, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”
This is a hard teaching: if we harbor unforgiveness, we forfeit God’s forgiveness (see also Matthew 6:14–15 and James 2:13). In fact, the person who, over a lifetime, refuses to forgive ultimately reveals that he or she has never really comprehended or received the eternal forgiveness that God offers in Jesus Christ.
How will your story end? In the case study of the unforgiving servant, we see clearly the cost of unforgiveness. May we heed Jesus’ warning and forgive from the heart—as we have been forgiven.
Father God, You lavish outrageous mercy on me—totally undeserved, impossible to repay, new every morning. I revel in Your mercy. Thank You for this story, because in the unforgiving servant I can clearly see the fallout of unforgiveness. Please show me, Holy Spirit, the unforgiveness to which I’m blind in my own heart. Forgive me, I pray. I choose to forgive, though it costs me. I cling to Your promise: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Sanctify me so that I may be called “the merciful,” as I know I am also in desperate need of Your mercy. In the name of Jesus, amen.