How Often Should I Forgive?
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
All the disciples were thinking about it. Something Jesus taught them didn’t sit well. Jesus had said that “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” What was clear to them was that this act was aimed at preserving the erring brother or sister and implied forgiveness on their part. They got looking around the room at one another. The resentments because of this or that affront that had occurred among then in the course of their travels together; resentments they felt so righteously entitled to harbouring in their hearts were exposed.
Two hundred and fifty years ago John Wesley wrote in his diary, “Resentment at an affront is sin, and I have been guilty of this a thousand times.” We want to say, “Resentment at an imagined affront would be sin, since it would be wrong to harbour resentment towards someone when that person had committed no real offence at all; but of course it would be entirely in order to harbour resentment at a real affront. After all, who wouldn’t?” The disciples understand Jesus to mean that these real affronts, real offences need to be forgiven.
The disciples likely had conversations among them about the implication of Jesus’ teaching so wanted to question him further. As is typical Peter steps forward with the question they want to probe. Just to be clear that they understood Jesus, “Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Or, you could translate, seventy times seven times. The point being this forgiveness Jesus calls us to extend to one another wasn’t something a person could ever calculate. This isn’t how we are to regard the nature of forgiveness.
1. The nature of forgiveness is understood through the prism of the cross of Jesus Christ. By this point in our Lord’s ministry with his disciples the cross that was looming at Jerusalem had become a staple of his teaching. Not long before this conversation about forgiveness “Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.’” (Matthew 17:22-23)
Our Lord’s parable of the unforgiving servant highlights the massive debt that was forgiven him by the king. The ten thousand talents ($50 million) would be understood as impossible for any servant to pay. So much so that manuscripts of the scriptures lowered the number because the size of the debt seemed impossible. Jesus compares the massive debt that this servant was forgiven to the much smaller debt that was owed the forgiven servant by another servant; 100 denarii. Now 100 denarii was no trifling matter—it represented six months’ pay. The point of the parable is this; while the 100 denarii which the servant was owed is no trifling sum, it is nothing compared to the ten thousand talents the king has already forgiven the servant.
As often as I read scripture I am sobered to read that God’s forgiveness of you and me necessitated the death of God’s own Son. Nobody uses a twenty-member surgical team to clip a hangnail; a twenty-member surgical team is deployed when the patient’s condition is critical. When God gives up his own Son humankind’s condition is critical; the treat we are facing couldn’t be greater.
Reflecting at foot of the cross I am stunned at the price God has paid — Father and Son together — for my forgiveness. At the same time I am sobered at the depravity in me that necessitated so great a price. It’s plain that my depravity is oceans deeper than I thought, my heart-condition vastly more serious than I guessed. It’s incontrovertible that when I have trotted out all my bookish, theological definitions of sin I still haven’t grasped — will never grasp — what sin means to God. The debt is so massive I can’t count that high.
As Jesus hung on the cross and prayed for his murderers, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” was Jesus mistaken? His murderers knew what they were doing, didn’t they? They were eliminating someone they didn’t like. They had to know what they were doing simply because they had plotted and schemed and conspired for months to do it. And if they didn’t know what they were doing why would they need to be forgiven?
His assassins didn’t know what they were doing, ultimately; didn’t know they were crucifying the Son of God. They didn’t know that their sinnership had impelled them to do it, didn’t know that while they thought they were acting freely they were in bondage to sin more surely than the heroin sniffer is in bondage to dope. Our Lord was right. They can’t be excused; they can only be forgiven, since what they are doing comes out of their own disordered heart. To be sure, they don’t fully grasp what they are doing, can’t fully grasp it. But the reason they can’t grasp it is that they are blind to their own depravity. Of course they are; the worst consequence of our spiritual condition is that we are blinded to our spiritual condition. But being blinded to it doesn’t lessen our accountability for it, as the day of judgement will make plain.
But why wait until then? Why not own the truth of the cross now; namely, that a cure this drastic presupposes an ailment no less drastic? A cure whose blessing is richer than we can comprehend presupposes a condition whose curse is deadlier than we can imagine.
When God’s love meets our sin at the cross forgiveness is the result for us. A massive debt has been forgiven. In our Lord’s parable that massive debt forgiven is placed alongside these smaller debts of that injury, that offence that you and I are to forgive. It is important to note that these debts, though lesser, are no trifling matter. If it were no big deal they wouldn’t need forgiving. The wounds are real and hurt. We shall be able to forgive it only as we place it alongside what God has already forgiven in us. Please note that we are never asked to generate forgiveness of others out of our own resources; we are simply asked not to impede God’s forgiveness from flowing through us and spilling over onto others. We don’t have to generate water in order for it to irrigate what is parched and render it fruitful; all we have to do is not put a crimp in the hose.
2. The second point I wish to underline is that forgiveness is woven into the fabric of our relationship with Christ; forgiveness is the nature of how we experience God’s salvation. The parable illustrates that to be unforgiving is a contradiction of the gospel. So much so that the king roughs up his unforgiving servant and Jesus says so to his heavenly Father would chastise the unforgiving believer.
According to Matthew forgiveness is a core Christian conviction: Forgiveness is something we live, something we embody. The very foundation on which our identity as Christians is built is nothing less than the death and resurrection of Jesus and the flood of gracious forgiveness which that grand sacrifice unleashed. “Forgiven” is who and what we just are. Forgiveness is not a tool you need just once in a while. Forgiveness is more like the clothes on your back. Its what you wear as you live.
Whenever we talk about forgiveness it’s important to understand what forgiveness does not mean.
It does not mean that the offence we are called to forgive is slight. Were it anything but grievous we’d be talking about overlooking it instead of forgiving it — if we were even talking about it at all.
Forgiveness does not mean that the offence is excused. To forgive is not to excuse. We excuse what is excusable. What is not excusable, will never be excusable, is also never excused. It can only be forgiven. To forgive is never a shorthand version of, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.” To forgive is to say it matters unspeakably.
Forgiveness does not mean that we are suckers asking the world to victimize us again. To forgive is not to invite another assault. To forgive is not to advertise ourselves as a doormat. Forgiveness, rather, is a display of strength and courage. Jesus can forgive those who slay him just because he has already said, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord, but I lay it down; no one takes it from me.”
Forgiveness does not mean that the person we forgive we regard as a diamond in the rough, good-at-heart. Forgiveness means that the person we forgive we regard as depraved in heart. After all, this is what God’s forgiveness means about you and me.
Forgiveness does not mean that the person we forgive we must thereafter trust. Many people whom we forgive we shall never be able to trust. Forgiveness does mean, however, that the person we can’t trust we shall nonetheless not hate, not abuse, not exploit; we shall not plot revenge against him or bear him ill-will of any sort.
3. I would to remind us that forgiveness of the gospel calls us to forgive ourselves. In that regard I share with you a testimony from Christian author named Karen Lee-Thorp. Karen is the author of several books and a over a hundred Bible study guides. Many times hurts or injuries make us feel like there is something wrong with us. Karen writes:
Some years ago I was at the front end of dealing with a history of childhood sexual abuse. I was seeing a counselor and getting support from friends, but I still felt lost and defiled. This was the issue that plagued my mind each day as I spent time in prayer and Bible study.
I was reading through the New Testament, a familiar text to me by that stage of my life because I had worked for seven years as a writer and was now an editor of Bible study guides. But as the old, dark memories swirled in my soul, Jesus felt distant and cold to me.
I got to Matthew 8, where Jesus heals a man with leprosy. “Lord, if you are willing,” says the leper, “you can make me clean.” My leaden heart said, “Yes, Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean!” But nothing happened. I was still terribly damaged goods.
Several weeks later I read the story of the leper again, this time in Mark 1. My prayer was, “Lord, why won’t you make me clean? You made the leper clean. Why not me?” Silence.
Then when I read again about Jesus healing the leper in Luke 5, I was close to despair. “Please, Lord. Touch me. Heal me.” Nothing.
About a month later I had finished the four Gospels and was making my way through Acts. Now even the apostles could do these miraculous healings. I was frustrated. Only the discipline of habit kept me turning the pages each day.
Acts 10 tells how the devoutly Jewish Simon Peter began to entertain the outrageous notion that the gospel might be for Gentiles as well as Jews. Peter was doing his normal noonday prayer time when he fell into a trance. He saw a vision of a sheet being let down to earth. The sheet was full of animals that the Old Testament said were unclean for Jews to eat. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (verses 13-14).
The voice answered back, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (verse 15).
I held my breath. The verse was about the Gentiles, of course, but I also heard it as a word from God to me. It struck me that after all these months I had been asking him to heal and change me, he was saying he did that years ago. I wasn’t unclean! I was a full member of his family! This was a turning point in my recovery.”
Forgiveness of ourselves, forgiveness of others; don’t put a crimp in the hose and let that forgiveness of God flow onto parched ground and do its healing work.