Unforgiveness: A Loose Cannon Below Decks

Thirty six pounder cannon at the ready. Image by Antoine Morel Fatio.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:12-13, NIV, 1984.
French author Victor Hugo, best known for Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was also the author of the novel, 93, (Quatre-vingt treize). The book is centered on the year 1793, Year Two of the French Republic, which saw “the establishment of the National Convention, the execution of Louis XVI, the Terror, and the monarchist revolt in the Vendée, which was brutally suppressed by the Republic.” (See Goodreads for a review.)
In a chapter entitled, “Tormentum Belli,” which Hugo translates in the text as "war machine," is the story of the corvette “Claymore.” The three-masted, square-rigged warship was in rough seas when suddenly an awful noise arose from below decks. Hugo tells us: “a frightful thing had happened.”
The vessel was equipped with thirty carronades, short smoothbore cast iron cannons able to fire large shot at short range. These had been fastened below deck by triple chains and the hatches above had been shut. Now, one of the cannons had broken loose and had become something akin to what Hugo calls an “indescribable supernatural beast,” rolling, pitching, rushing, and crashing into the ship’s sides.
“Nothing more terrible can happen to a vessel in open sea and under full sail,” Hugo reports, for a loose cannon is “a battering-ram . . . [that] has the bounds of a panther, the weight of an elephant, the agility of a mouse, the obstinacy of an axe, the unexpectedness of the surge, the rapidity of lightning, the deafness of the tomb. It weighs ten thousand pounds and, it rebounds like a child’s ball.”
“How to control this enormous brute of bronze?” Hugo asks. “How to fetter this monstrous mechanism for wrecking a ship? . . . The horrible cannon flings itself about, advances, recoils, strikes to the right, strikes to the left . . . crushes men like flies.”
The whole ship was now in awful tumult as the cannon, which is said to have appeared to the crew as owning “a soul filled with rage and hatred,” tears apart the insides of the ship. Hugo tells us that often, it is true, that more dangerous to a ship is a loose cannon inside than a storm outside. And what is true of ships is also true of human beings. God's Word invites us to go "below decks" for a look at the turmoil that can result when the cannon that is unforgiveness gets loose. And it is in the Word that we will find the help needed for taming this "beast," this "battering ram" that - left uncontrolled - can wreak devastating havoc.
Perhaps we might begin by considering what acts can set the cannon of unforgiveness loose.
If author Lewis Smedes is right, these are acts of disloyalty and acts of betrayal. Words like abandon, forsake and let down are attached to such acts and capture the nature of the hurting involved:
When your spouse has an affair with your best friend.
When your mother or father fails to show up at a banquet at which you’re honored with a hard-earned award.
When you fully dedicate yourself for years to doing your very best work at your place of employment and a new manager moves into play and tosses you out on your ear.
When a tornado sweeps through your neighborhood and leaves your house in shambles. When you go into town for supplies and return home only to discover that looters have taken what little was left of your belongings.
When you’re diagnosed with cancer.
When you commit a colossal blunder or fail to follow through on a promise to a dear and trusting friend or when you speak a word you believe needs to be spoken and it’s received as an attack.
When your loved one contracts a debilitating illness that lingers on for years.
When faced with these challenges of life, we may feel betrayed by the spouse, the parent, the friend, the authority figure, the neighbor, our bodies, ourselves, God.
Bitterness. Bitterness is what you get when you leave anger out to rot. It’s what results when injury is added to injury. It begins to root when you go to bed angry, when somebody rubs you the wrong way and the rubbing turns to chafing. It grows in the fertile fields of jealousy, abuse, and vengeance. It hangs in the air. It’s heard in the “us and them,” in the “you did this to me,” in the “he said, she said,” in the “I can’t forgive myself for….” You fill in the blank.
Anger is a natural reaction to injury real or imagined. Bitterness, resentment and unforgiveness are the sins that grow out of unresolved, unhealthy anger. The antidote for these sins is forgiveness.
But why forgive? How do we forgive? If you’re like me, there are moments when I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer and have found myself wincing when I’ve come to that part where we say, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” or "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," or “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” If you’re like me, you may well – like me – have found yourself shooting a prayer up from your spirit: “O Lord, please do not forgive me in the shabby, half-hearted, offer it one day, take it back the next day, ways in which I have ‘forgiven’ those who have trespassed against me.”
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus helps us understand the cost of unforgiveness as he relates the story of a king who decides one day to settle accounts with his servants.
In Matthew 18:21-36, we read:
At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, "Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?" Jesus replied, "Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven. "The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn't pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market. "The poor wretch threw himself at the king's feet and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.' Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt. "The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, 'Pay up. Now!' The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.' But he wouldn't do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.
"The king summoned the man and said, 'You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn't you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?' The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that's exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn't forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy." The Message
So one man is brought before the king. His debt? 10,000 talents. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates that amount to the contemporary equivalent of a hundred thousand dollars. Whatever the amount, it was clear this man was hopelessly enslaved to debt! Yet another person in the text is mentioned as owing a hundred denarii, which today would be a few dollars.
The text also makes it clear that the terrible consequence of being in debt was debtor's prison. When a bill went past due and one couldn't pay, the creditor had the right to seize you and throw you into jail until you either rotted or paid up. But, of course, if you were in prison you couldn't earn any money to gain your release. Your only hope might the mercy of the one who had the power to release you.
Ever been in debt? In debt now? Can you remember -- or do you now know -- the fear, the worry? Things can look pretty bleak, can’t they? Our passage is telling us that unforgiven sin is like those unpaid debts. They weigh heavily upon us whether we’re talking about a little sin, a great big sin, or a great many sins. Each of us, like the debtors in the text, must settle accounts with the king, God Almighty Himself.
Well, the king, in our parable, calls his subjects before him and the one who owes the thousands pleads for the king to have patience and promises that he will repay the debt in full.  The king is moved to mercy and erases the debt!
The point of the parable is that God is like that merciful king and He is willing and able to cancel impossible debts. He is willing and able to forgive. As Stephen M. Crotts notes in his exposition of this passage, the Greek word for forgiveness may also be translated “let loose.”
“It's like a terrible knot that suddenly gives and is completely untied. It's like a horrible bondage from which there is sudden release.”
And what does this free man now do? He goes out and happens upon a man who owes him a measly few bucks. He grabs him by the throat and demands he ‘pay up!’ When the debtor says he can’t and asks for patience, the man throws him in debtors' prison. And folks who witness this go and tell the king.
What does the king do? He brings the man back, chastises him for his unforgiveness and says, “Shouldn't you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?”  Then he has the man tossed in jail where he will sit until he repays the debt. The point of the parable is clear. If God forgives us, we must forgive others. We must forgive as the Lord forgave us.
But those of us who frequent church services know this -- at least on some level -- don’t we? So why do so many of us have difficulty forgiving? Why do so many of us have difficulty saying two simple words: “I’m sorry?” Why do we see so little repentance for sins? Why do we see so little forgiveness in Christian circles when repentance and forgiveness are the very foundations of our faith? Amazing grace is what saves wretches such as we all. We, who have turned to Christ for salvation, have been the beneficiaries of amazing grace, amazing love. We’ve been set free. And yet too often we hold one another hostage with our own unforgiveness.
In the December 2012 issue of Leadership Journal is an article on grace and redemption entitled, "Going to Hell with Ted Haggard."
The writer, Michael Cheshire, recalls sitting in a sports bar in Denver with a close atheist friend. During lunch, the latter pointed at a TV screen on the wall that was set to a channel recapping Haggard’s fall in a sex and drugs scandal. As he did, he said, “That is the reason I will not become a Christian. Many of the things you say make sense, Mike, but that’s what keeps me away.”
Cheshire assumed his friend was referring to Haggard’s hypocrisy but he was wrong. His friend laughed and said, “Michael, you just proved my point. See, that guy said sorry a long time ago. Even his wife and kids stayed and forgave him, but all you Christians still seem to hate him. You guys can’t forgive him and let him back into your good graces. Every time you talk to me about God, you explain that he wants to forgive me. But that guy failed while he was one of you, and most of you are still vicious to him.”
Then Cheshire says his friend uttered words that left him reeling: “You Christians eat your own. Always have. Always will.”
That prompted Cheshire to investigate what was being said about Haggard in Christian circles. Most shut down and demanded he drop the subject while others dismissed as foolish or silly his question, “Why can’t God still use Ted?"
As he lived within close proximity of Haggard, Cheshire contacted him to see if he would be willing to meet with him and a couple of the men from his staff.  Cheshire found Haggard to be brutally honest about his failures, filled with a wealth of wisdom, deeply caring and pastoral. And Haggard had a growing church in the very city that knew him and knew about his failures; God was causing that church to grow.
When other Christians learned that Cheshire had reached out to Ted, they said they would distance themselves from him if he continued to do so. Several people in his church said they would leave. He was told that his “voice as a pastor and author would be tarnished” if he continued to spend time with him.
Cheshire concluded: “It would do some Christians good to stay home one weekend and watch the entire DVD collection of HBO’s Band of Brothers. Marinate in it. Take notes. Write down words like loyalty, friendship and sacrifice. Understand the phrase: never leave a fallen man behind.”
Where is the love? Where is the forgiveness?
In his wrap up, Cheshire wrote: “The Ted Haggard issue reminds me of a scene in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Huck is told that if he doesn’t turn in his friend, a runaway slave, named Jim, he will surely burn in hell. So one day Huck, not wanting to lose his soul to Satan, writes a letter to Jim’s owner telling her of Jim’s whereabouts. After folding the letter, he starts to think about what his friend has meant to him, how Jim took the night watch so he could sleep, how they laughed and survived together . . . Huck realizes that it’s either Jim’s friendship or hell. Then the great Mark Twain writes such wonderful words of resolve. Huck rips the paper and says, ‘Alright then, I guess I’ll go to hell.’”
And Cheshire decides that “if being Ted’s friend causes some to hate and reject me – alright then, I guess I’ll go to hell.”
In our passage from Colossians, we read: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
In my library is a book entitled, The Sunflower. It’s a story, written by Simon Wiesenthal, with whom you may be familiar. He is well known and well regarded for his activities in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.
In the book, Wiesenthal tells us that he was a prisoner in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Poland. One day he was assigned to clean out rubbish from a barn that the Nazis had improvised into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Toward evening a nurse took Wiesenthal by the hand and led him to a young SS trooper. The soldier’s face was bandaged with rags yellow-stained with ointment or pus; his eyes tucked behind the gauze. He was perhaps 21 years of age. He groped for Wiesenthal’s hand and held it tight. He said he had to talk to a Jew; he could not die before he had confessed the sins he had committed against helpless Jews, and he had to be forgiven by a Jew before he died. So he told Wiesenthal a horrible story of how his battalion had gunned down Jewish parents and children who were trying to escape from a house set afire by the SS troopers.
Wiesenthal listened to the dying man’s story, first the story of his blameless youth, and then the story of his participation in evil. As the man spoke, Wiesenthal’s thoughts drifted to the graves of the Nazi soldiers that he had seen nearby. Each one was decorated with a sunflower and so each one was visited by butterflies. Wiesenthal believed his place of interment would be different: a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of him. No sunflower for him. No butterflies for him.
In the end, Wiesenthal jerked his hand away from the soldier and walked out of the barn: No word was spoken. No forgiveness was given. Wiesenthal would not, could not, forgive. But he was not sure he did the right thing.
And some 30 years later he related the story in the book entitled The Sunflower and he ended his tale with a question: “What would you have done?” Thirty-two eminent persons contributed their answers. Most said Wiesenthal was right; he should not have forgiven the man; it would not have been fair. Why should a man who gave his will to the doing of monumental evil expect a quick word of forgiveness on his death-bed? What right had Wiesenthal to forgive the man for the sins he had committed against others? “Let the SS trooper go to hell,” said one respondent.
Many of us, truth be told, feel the same way when we are sinned against in far less horrible ways. As Lewis Smedes rightly notes: “To the guilty, forgiveness comes as amazing grace. To the offended, forgiving may sound like outrageous injustice. A straight-line moral sense tells most people that the guilty ought to pay their dues: Forgiving is for suckers.”
“What is the answer to the unfairness of forgiving? It can only be that forgiving is, after all, a better way to fairness.
“First, forgiveness creates a new possibility of fairness by releasing us from the unfair past. If we do not forgive, our only recourse is revenge . . . and revenge never evens the score, for alienated people never keep score of wrongs by the same mathematics. Forgiveness takes us off the escalator of revenge so that we can stop the chain of incremented wrongs.”
Forgiveness brings fairness to the forgiver. It is the hurting person who most feels the burden of unfairness but he only condemns himself if he refuses to forgive. Forgiving is the only way to stop the cycle of unfair pain turning in your memory.
Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiving is not excusing. Forgiving is not smoothing things over. Forgiving is, what Smedes calls, “spiritual surgery.” When you forgive someone, you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You recreate that person in your thoughts. God does it this way too: He releases us from sin as a mother washes dirt from a child’s face, or as a person takes a burden off your back, lays it on a goat and sends it into the wilderness. (From this, we derive our understanding of the scapegoat.)
Mining the scriptures we discover more than 100 references to the concept of forgiveness and our first lesson in these is that forgiveness is God-initiated.
In Colossians 2:13 and 14, Paul writes: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code…He took it away, nailing it to the cross.”
Forgiveness is offered graciously and readily by God.
In the gospel of Luke, we find the story of the Prodigal Son who, having squandered his inheritance, returns home seeking forgiveness and finds there the open and loving arms of his father who welcomes him with great celebration.” So it is with our heavenly Father.
To receive forgiveness, we must desire forgiveness and repent. This done, there is to be no limit to forgiveness. In the 17th chapter of Luke, verse 4, Jesus tells His disciples that, “if your brother sins, rebuke him and, if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” And in Matthew 18:22, Christ carries this further by saying that even seven times is not enough, but seventy times seven.”
For the one extending forgiveness, forgiveness is to be an attitude. Forgiveness, we are told in the 18th chapter of Matthew, is to come from the heart.
In the passage from Colossians, we find the commandment to forgive: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Be clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Be willing to forgive. Create the climate for forgiveness. Forgive.
So why do we see so little forgiveness both inside and outside the church community? David Augsburger, in his book, The Freedom of Forgiveness, offers us some clues. He says forgiveness is rare because it is hard. It is the hardest thing in the universe. It is hard because it is costly. The one who forgives, he says, pays a tremendous price – the price of the evil he or she forgives.
Forgiveness is costly because it is substitutional and this substitution was perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ substituted himself for us, bearing His own wrath, His own indignation at our sin. That’s what forgiveness costs. The sinner either bears his own guilt – that’s cold justice – or the one sinned against may absorb what the second party did – that’s forgiveness. And that’s what God did in Christ on Calvary.
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness is costly because it demands that kind of substitution, not the literal substitution of our physical lives on a cross but the willingness to relieve others of the burden of their sins against us as we reach out to them with loving and forgiving spirits.
As Augsburger notes: “God paid the immeasurable cost of your forgiveness. How can you hesitate to pay the infinitely smaller cost of forgiving your brother or sister – or your enemy?”
You will know you are moving in forgiveness when you no longer need to rerun over and over again the hurt you suffered, when you no longer need to punish those who hurt you by rehashing the details over and over again with whomever will listen.
You will know that you are moving in forgiveness when you no longer have daily conversations, daily battles in your head, with those who hurt you.
You will know that you are moving in forgiveness when you find yourself praying that those who hurt you will be blessed and will no longer have to suffer for the evil that they did to you or to others.
Forgiveness can be a very slow process and, while we may come a long way in forgiveness, we may well find vestiges of bitterness many years post injury. We need to keep forgiving.
C.S. Lewis learned how long a process forgiving can be. He tells the story of a perfectly awful teacher he had as a boy. He hated what he described as that sadistic person most of his life but, a few months before his death, he wrote to a friend: “Do you know, only a few weeks ago, I realized that I had at last forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood. I had been trying to do it for years.”
Essentially we cannot forgive but, with attention to prayer and with the help of God, eventually we can. The Lord works the miracle in us as we yield to His transforming power.
And we all want forgiveness for ourselves.
And we all want forgiveness for ourselves. There is a marvelous example of this desire for forgiveness in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Capitol of the World.”
In this, a father traveled to Madrid to find his son Paco who had left the family farm after a misunderstanding. Keep in mind here that the name Paco is a very popular name in Spain. Well, the father, in order to meet his son, placed an ad in the newspaper which read, “Paco, meet me at noon Tuesday in the newspaper office. All is forgiven. Signed, your father.”
Hemingway reports there were 800 young men named Paco who arrived that Tuesday and stood in line, waiting to see if the man might be their father who had granted them forgiveness. 800 Pacos! How many of us, if such an ad had been placed at certain times in our lives, an ad that carried our name, wouldn’t have leapt at the opportunity for reconciliation with our own fathers.
Well, our heavenly Father offers that opportunity today. It is as though He has placed that same ad - the newspaper is the Bible - and when we answer and stand before Him, He is there like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, ready to offer unmerited forgiveness - the gift of forgiveness. He delights in enfolding each of His repentant children in His loving arms. Have you called on God to forgive you? Have you faced God and told him you're helplessly a debtor to sin and prayed for mercy? You can be let loose from your sins in Jesus.
And God’s ready forgiveness stands also as an example for us in our relationships with others. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
If you're harboring unforgiveness, harboring grudges and hatred, you're playing with dynamite. You're playing with fire. Just like the loose cannon in Victor Hugo's story, unforgiveness can crash around inside you tearing your guts out, messing with your mind, tormenting you!
In Victor Hugo’s story, the loose cannon had to be brought under control and chained so that it couldn’t do any more damage.
Right now, why not ask Jesus to take you below decks? Tell him that you are willing to forgive, willing to go with Him to take care of all the troubling things within. Tell Jesus you’re willing. Ask Him to give you power, power to repent, power to turn from your sins, power to say you’re sorry, power to forgive. Pray…

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