Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ Matthew 18:23-33
At first glance this parable doesn’t seem to have much to do with depression. It’s a powerful story about the need to give others grace and understand how much grace we’ve been given, but there’s nothing about mental health. To me the guy always just seemed greedy. I never gave it much more thought than that. In more modern terms, he was way behind on his mortgage, about to get evicted from his house, and his entire family was going to be homeless. Then, after begging for mercy, the benevolent JP Morgan Chase decides to tear up his mortgage and say he owes nothing at all on the house. What does he do the following day after learning this wonderful news? He sues his neighbor for not returning his lawn mower. The amount of money involved is actually even bigger than that, but that’s the basic idea.
The part that pertains to us, however, is the man’s motivation. Why do you think he behaves that way? Honestly, take a moment and think about it. Do you think he was just greedy too? Did he have an addiction or something? Was he embarrassed that things had gotten so out of hand and decided to never be in debt again? Of course we don’t know for sure. Jesus doesn’t explain it, but David Seamands in his excellent little book “Healing for Damaged Emotions” offers a brilliant and poignant explanation for this servant’s actions.
He postulates that the unmerciful servant didn’t actually believe the master when he forgave his debt. He heard him say that everything was forgiven, but he didn’t trust him. It was too good to be true. He felt that any day the master could come knocking on his door demanding his money. That’s why he was so frantically trying to collect the little money that he was owed. He was still working to avoid being sold into slavery along with the rest of his family. It was a foolish idea too because there's no way he could ever pay back that much money.
There is a beautiful Christian truth that says that you suck. You suck really bad. The good news of the gospel is that thanks to Jesus sucky people can have peace with God. Don’t get me wrong, this is something that you have to accept and a real transfer of ownership of your life has to take place, but if you’ve done that there is a genuine peace and forgiveness to be had with God. For some of us, it still doesn’t feel this way internally though. We continue feeling like at the end of our lives God is going to read off a list of all we’ve done wrong. This can be especially true of those of us with religious backgrounds.
We've already talked here about how some of us struggle with a false sense of God's disappointment in us when it comes to our worth, but this can also happen to others when it comes to what they've done. Some of us have a hard time moving on from big mistakes that we've made and accepting forgiveness for them. Many have grown up in religious traditions where God is portrayed as Santa without the presents or the jolly laugh. He just sees you when you're sleeping and is always keeping a list of whose naughty and nice. If you know you're on the naughty list you just better watch out. This isn't true of course, but again that fact can take time to sink in.
We sometimes confuse a feeling of conviction for doing something wrong with an unhealthy guilt. 2 Corinthians 7:10 says "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." Of course it's healthy to feel bad for doing something wrong. Things are really going south when people no longer feel bad for hurting others or living selfishly. That godly sorrow hurts but it's kind of a purifying pain. It helps you want to make things right and points you in that direction. You don't feel better until you've asked for forgiveness and tried to make amends. You feel terrible, but you're not devalued.
Worldly sorrow is different. It puts you down for what you did. There's internal name calling involved, and like the unmerciful servant often a low view or even disbelief of God's forgiveness. Worldly sorrow keeps coming after you even after you've made amends and the forgiveness transaction has taken place. There's two antidotes for this kind of guilt. One is to fully believe in the goodness of the one who is forgiving you, and the other, as we'll see in the next verse, is to defy that voice.