In Matthew 18:21-22 Peter asks Jesus about how often he should forgive someone who has wronged him. Peter thinks he’s going above and beyond when he was willing to forgive someone seven times. But Jesus blows his mind when He says, “Not seven, but seventy times seven,” which basically means always. Always? Forgive? I’ve recently found myself asking this very question. “Lord, how many times must I forgive this person??” And the answer comes back to me from this passage: “Always.”
If we’re all really honest with ourselves, this has got to be the hardest part of living the Christian life. Forgiveness is a very difficult thing to do, especially when the person has not even asked for forgiveness. But it is something we are commanded to do because our own forgiveness is at stake – whether there is an apology or not. Jesus always connects our forgiveness of other people to the forgiveness that we hope to receive ourselves. In the Lord’s Prayer it says, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” In Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus says, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
That’s a tough verse to read. Is my forgiveness really conditional on how well I forgive others? If so, then I’m doomed. And so are you. To put this in context, let’s consider the parable Jesus gives after He corrects Peter about how often to forgive in Matthew 18. The parable is about a man who owed to the king a debt so large that he would never be able to repay it. After the man begs for mercy, the king was moved to compassion and forgave this man the entire debt!
When the man left the king’s court, he encounters one of his own servants who owed him a trivial amount of money. Instead of showing the same kind of mercy and forgiveness that had just been shown to him, the man throws his servant in prison. When the king learned of this, he said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” The king then delivered him over to the torturers.
Jesus concludes this parable with some verses we’re probably not quite comfortable with. He says, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” Wow! God is serious about forgiveness!
See, just like that first servant, we have been forgiven infinitely more by God than anything we would have to forgive other people for. We offend God in every moment we draw breath. We owe God an amount that we are physically unable to pay. Yet 1 John 1:9 promises us that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness if we confess our sins. He is that king in the parable, forgiving our enormous debt of sin. How can we then go out and refuse to forgive one another?
If we are honest though, we all struggle with being able to forgive. Why is that? The simple answer is the same answer, really, to all our failings: pride. We think we deserve to be treated better. “How dare they do that to me?” “I don’t deserve to be treated this way.” So rather than offer forgiveness “seventy times seven” to people around us, what do we do? We hold grudges. We cut people out of our lives. We demand restitution. We cling to our status as the victim. And those feelings remain for as long as we refuse to forgive.
But the only truly innocent victim the world has ever known didn’t respond like that to His oppressors. Jesus didn’t cling to His status as the victim. He didn’t hold a grudge against His oppressors. He didn’t strike them down in revenge. Instead, He chose to forgive. From the cross, looking down at His executioners mocking Him, He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” We are to forgive the way He forgives. He gave us the ultimate example of being an innocent victim yet finding forgiveness in His heart for the very ones persecuting Him.
Forgiveness is the very reason Jesus came.
What about all of these terrible offenses and wrongdoing that others have done? Doesn’t that mean we shouldn’t forgive? Offering forgiveness does not mean that sins and offenses go unpunished. We must still remember all of the Scripture that talks about church discipline and punishment for wrongdoing. (In fact, justice is a Biblical concept – a concept that only exists because God exists.)
But after discipline and punishment comes forgiveness (ref. 2 Corinthians 2). And this, my friends, is for your sake, not the offenders sake. Remember? God will forgive in the manner in which you forgive others! Paul also instructs us in Ephesians 4:31-32, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Peter gives the same instruction in 1 Peter 3:9, “Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.”
It goes against our human nature to forgive, which is why we must be intentional to “put off our old nature” and put on our new nature. It is only through prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to truly forgive. As with anything with our fleshly nature, it will not be a one-time prayer thrown up and suddenly we’ve forgiven everything. It will require consistent, urgent, sincere prayer, sometimes daily, sometimes hourly. It must be constant until God changes our heart to be bent toward forgiveness and not pride.
There is so much anger and bitterness around as everyone feels they have been wronged by someone else. Yet when we take a close look in the mirror, we would do well to remember how many times we have been the one to wrong another person. None of us are truly innocent in this game of doing wrong to others. As soon as you point your finger to accuse someone of being hateful to you, think of how many people could point that finger back at you.
So with everything going on in our world today, may we choose to exercise forgiveness. Whatever injustice, hurtful words, trials, or offenses you have endured, may you choose to remember how the only innocent victim responded. May you respond with forgiveness through the power of the Holy Spirit. Let vengeance be in the hand of the Lord. Besides, by responding in kindness and forgiveness, you will “heap coals of fire” on their heads.