Breaking Free From Unforgiveness

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.
— Lewis Smedes

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy shares a gripping story that illustrates Smedes’ words really well.

“In the town of Vladímir lived a young merchant named Iván Dmítritch Aksyónof. He had two shops and a house of his own. Aksyónof was a “handsome, fair-haired, curly-headed fellow, full of fun, and very fond of singing.”

Tolstoy continues by telling us that though the young man had a checkered past, now he was married, honest, and hard-working. One day, in an attempt to advance his business, he left his wife and family whom he dearly loved to visit a fair for a few days and sell some of his goods.

As he traveled he met a merchant whom he knew. They journeyed together that day, stopped at the same inn for the night, shared a cup of tea, and then went to sleep in adjoining rooms. During that night a murderer crept into the other merchant’s room, killed him, stole his money, and then placed the murder weapon in Aksyónof's bag while the young man slept.

Totally unaware of the crime, Aksyónof departed very early the next morning. Later that day the police caught up with him, found the murder weapon in his bag, and charged him with the crime. Aksyónof -- falsely accused, tried, and condemned -- was struck in prison for twenty-six years. 

One day the real murder was imprisoned with him and soon charged with an escape attempt. He had been digging a tunnel that Aksyónof alone had witnessed. The prison warden interrogated the prisoners to determine who dug the hole. No one confessed knowledge of the crime. At last the warden turned to Aksyónof, whom after watching for 26 years, he knew and trusted:

“You are a truthful old man; tell me, before God, who dug the hole?”

At last, Aksyónof had opportunity for revenge. He knew this man to be the murderer. Not only had he taken the life of the merchant so many years ago, but he had robbed Aksyónof of his wife and family. Now all he had to do was point the finger and say, “He did it!” and his enemy would be flogged almost to death. Aksyónof was silent for a long time and then said,

“I cannot say, your honor. It is not God’s will that I should tell. Do what you like with me; I am in your hands.”  

Without a confession, the warden could not bring a charge and he let the matter drop. That night the guilty criminal made his way to the old man’s bunk. Sobbing and on his knees, he confessed to the murder so long ago, and begged for forgiveness. Tolstoy writes:

“When Aksyónof heard him sobbing he, too, began to weep. ‘God will forgive you!’ he said. ‘Maybe I am 100 times worse than you.’ And at these words his heart grew light, and the longing for home left.”

Like Aksyónof, our willingness to forgive changes when we really see ourselves . . . and Jesus wants us to see ourselves. Matthew records Jesus' parable of the unforgiving servant, the story about a man who had been forgiven a debt that was beyond his ability to repay, but who was unwilling to forgive a much less minor offense from a fellow servant. The story is compelling and Jesus, who has the crowd in the palm of his hand, drives home his point:

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?’
— Matthew 18:31-32 ESV

Jesus is using this story to give us a picture of the gospel. God is the master. We are the servants in debt to him. Our wrongdoing (sin) is an insurmountable debt that we cannot pay. So Jesus comes and pays it for us. Ellis Crum wrote a song that expresses the truth Jesus gives:

He paid a debt He did not owe,
I owed a debt I could not pay,
I needed someone to wash my sins away,
And now I sing a brand new song . . .
Amazing Grace
Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay

Is your heart heavy? Is your disposition angry? Are you preoccupied with “what they have done to you”? Are you losing sleep? Are you missing joy in your soul? Maybe you are in the prison of unforgiveness. There is a way out.

As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
— Colossians 3:13

I tend to remember how much "they have done to hurt me." Jesus tells me to remember how much God has done to forgive me. The motivation and power to forgive is the gospel.

Who should forgive but those who have been forgiven?