It is not always easy to forgive others, but the commandment to do so is not optional.
Forgiveness does not come easily for most of us. Our natural instinct is to recoil in self-protection. We don’t naturally overflow with mercy, grace and forgiveness when we are wronged.
In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus Christ said, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”
How is it possible to obey this command from Jesus Christ? Even the apostles were stunned at this statement that their duty was to forgive their brother seven times a day! Their reaction is in verse 5: “And the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’”
The command to forgive is most difficult because sometimes we don’t want to forgive. We want to strike back, we want justice, we want the other person to know the pain he or she has inflicted on us. We want to wear it on our sleeve, as it were. If we forgive someone seven times, aren’t we just letting someone get away with a wrong? If we simply forgive, won’t we just be allowing people to take advantage of us?
This is a natural, human response to hurt—but look at an example of how Christ further illustrates this teaching for us in what is commonly known as the Lord’s prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” He then explains, “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” (Matthew 6:12-15).
In Luke 11:4, sin is represented here under the notion of a debt, and it’s in the plural form—indicating it has amassed or piled up. We cannot ask God to forgive our debts and sins if we are not also forgiving. The only way to have these debts absolved is to forgive others. If we show mercy to men, we receive mercy from God.
What should we do if our brother repeats an offense seven times? Proverbs 19:11 states, “it is his [our] glory to pass over a transgression” (King James Version). Address it, resolve it if possible, forgive it and move on! Vengeance is God’s alone. It is not ours (see Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:19).
But what if it’s a great wrong? Not forgiving is a greater wrong. In injuring you, others have committed an offense against man, but in not forgiving them, you commit an offense against God. Forgiveness reflects God’s character. When we forgive, we reflect the Father’s love.
The standard is this: Forgive as He has forgiven you. Forgiveness gives us the opportunity to extend to others what God has extended to us—and our purpose in life is to develop God’s character. But our human nature and its accompanying pride are the antitheses of forgiveness. Pride opposes and resists our need to forgive. It demands justice and wants to get even. Our nature does not want to forgive.
Those who deal with human relationship problems see this firsthand. For example, Catholic priest Robert L. Hagedorn said, “When I was first ordained a priest, I believed that over 50% of all problems were at least in part due to unforgiveness. After 10 years in the ministry, I revised my estimate and maintained 75-80% of all health, marital, family, and financial problems came from unforgiveness. Now after more than twenty years in the ministry, I have concluded that over 90% of all problems are rooted in unforgiveness.” He makes a good observation of the degradation that a failure to forgive brings to society, and it’s directly linked to the command that Christ gave. Human nature is vindictive. Do unto others as they do unto you and more! That is the way people think. You can see this desire for revenge, retaliation and mudslinging in our entertainment—on the movie screen, in music, on television—but also in society, in business and in politics. It surrounds us; but in spite of all this evil, confusion and hatred, we are told to forgive, as often as we have opportunity.
All have sinned
All people sin, therefore all need forgiveness. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t need to be forgiven. And just abstaining from “getting even” doesn’t cut it. Bitterness and resentment will occur, even if you do not retaliate, because without forgiveness you’ll never get rid of your inner turmoil. The score is never settled; the anger and pain are never gone. There is a very sobering example that Christ uses so that we can grasp this concept of forgiveness.
It’s a parable of a king and his servant. The servant owed the king ten thousand talents. “But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made” (Matthew 18:25).
The servant begged for forgiveness, and the master forgave him his debt. Soon after the same servant came across a fellow servant who owed him a debt and demanded it be repaid. This fellow servant could not pay and also begged for forgiveness, but the servant who had just been forgiven refused and had the man jailed. When the king heard of this, he was very angry that his servant had not also been forgiving and sent the man away to be punished until he could repay (verses 32-34).
What Christ is doing here is contrasting two debts. The first servant owed the king a fortune, 10,000 talents. The second servant owed a measly 100 denarii. Let’s say that the servants’ debts were to be paid in nickels—100 denarii could be carried in one person’s pocket. However, it’s been estimated that 10,000 talents (in the form of nickel-sized denarii) would take an army of 8,600 lined up single file, in a line that stretched five miles long. This is with each of the men carrying a sack of nickels weighing 60 pounds! What an enormous contrast.
Remember the Lord’s Prayer
The amount owed really doesn’t matter, does it? The point is that nothing men can do to us in any way can compare with what we have done to God. We pray for that merciful reprieve that only God can give, taking away our accumulated piles of shortcomings and failings.
Author C.S. Lewis once said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
Forgiving is a major part of loving others. When Jesus gave us the outline that we call the Lord’s Prayer, it was a part of His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which also teaches the necessity to love everyone.
We also see the forgiveness of Christ in the story of the adulterous woman (John 8:3-4). A Good News article titled “The Transforming Power of Forgiveness” explains:
“The religious leaders had caught a woman in the very act of adultery. They brought her to Jesus, reminding Him that the law stated she deserved to die.
“Yet Jesus knew they were also sinners and hard-hearted men who lacked compassion and mercy for others…
“Jesus…told them that yes, they could stone her to death—and whoever was innocent among them should throw the first stone. After Jesus said this, they all slunk away, condemned by their own consciences” (The Good News, July/August 2002).
Part of what Christ was teaching the apostles and us was: You are not the judge. My Father will decide who’s forgiven and who is not.
Forgiveness is an act of faith. By forgiving someone, we are trusting that God is better at justice than we ever could be. God does everything out of love, not spite. When forgiving, we give up our desire to get even and leave all of the issues of fairness for God to work out. We leave in God’s hands the scales that must balance justice and mercy.
By doing so we are following the Scriptures and we can truly say, “I will forgive my brother, not seven times only, but as many times as is necessary.”
For more on forgiveness, read the rest of the article “The Transforming Power of Forgiveness.”