First, let’s understand that there is a difference between God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness of others. When God forgives us, He completely blots out the sin and removes the guilt (Isaiah 43:25 Isaiah 43:25I, even I, am he that blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins.
American King James Version×; Psalms 103:1-12 Psalms 103:1-12 1 Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. 2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: 3 Who forgives all your iniquities; who heals all your diseases; 4 Who redeems your life from destruction; who crowns you with loving kindness and tender mercies; 5 Who satisfies your mouth with good things; so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. 6 The LORD executes righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed. 7 He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the children of Israel. 8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. 9 He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. 10 He has not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. 11 For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. 12 As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
American King James Version×). Only God can forgive sins in that way (Mark 2:5-11 Mark 2:5-11 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the sick of the palsy, Son, your sins be forgiven you. 6 But there was certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, 7 Why does this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only? 8 And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said to them, Why reason you these things in your hearts? 9 Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Your sins be forgiven you; or to say, Arise, and take up your bed, and walk? 10 But that you may know that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins, (he said to the sick of the palsy,) 11 I say to you, Arise, and take up your bed, and go your way into your house.
American King James Version×). When you forgive someone for hurting you, you are deciding to cancel his or her indebtedness to you personally and to not harbor any more resentment or grudge. We human beings are not able to quickly “forget” how someone has hurt us, but we can treat the person as if we’ve forgotten the hurt.
In Luke 17:3-4 Luke 17:3-4 3 Take heed to yourselves: If your brother trespass against you, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.
4 And if he trespass against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to you, saying, I repent; you shall forgive him.
American King James Version×, 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.”
There are several things to notice in this passage. “If he repents,” then it is especially essential to “forgive him.” But other scriptures show us that we must forgive even when the guilty party does not repent. This scripture also shows us that it is often appropriate to “rebuke” the person who has hurt you. That means to tactfully confront the person and let him know how he has hurt you. One of the benefits of that is he will be more likely to repent and apologize.
Forgiving someone does not mean you should stay in a position to be seriously hurt again. If you are in a relationship that is likely to continue to be dangerous or seriously abusive, you should remove yourself from that vulnerable position.
And why “seven times?” Seven is not meant as an exact number. It was an expression that meant “many times.” At another time, Jesus said, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22 Matthew 18:21-22 21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
22 Jesus said to him, I say not to you, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
American King James Version×).
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 again and again! Their reaction is in verse 5: “And the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’” They knew that they needed divine help to be able to do that. They sensed the truth of a later saying, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
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 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” (Matthew 6:12-13 Matthew 6:12-13 12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For your is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
American King James Version×). 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 6:14-15 Matthew 6:14-15 14 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15 But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
American King James Version×).
Sin is represented here as debts (compare Luke 11:4 Luke 11:4And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.
American King James Version×), and it’s in the plural form—indicating it has amassed or piled up. We cannot expect God to forgive our debts, the penalty we owe for sin, if we are not also forgiving. For our debts to be absolved, we must forgive those who have hurt us. If we show mercy to men, we receive mercy from God.
Forgive again and again?
What should we do if our brother repeats an offense numerous times? God forgives us time and again, so we must follow His example.
God passes over our sins, and as Proverbs 19:11 Proverbs 19:11The discretion of a man defers his anger; and it is his glory to pass over a transgression.
American King James Version×states it is 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 Deuteronomy 32:35To me belongs vengeance and recompense; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come on them make haste.
American King James Version×; Romans 12:19 Romans 12:19Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place to wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, said the Lord.
American King James Version×).
But what if it’s a great wrong? Not forgiving is a greater wrong. Forgiveness reflects God’s character, which we are supposed to emulate. 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 corrupted 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 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.
A well-known authority on marriage once wrote that he believed the most important key to a harmonious marriage was the husband and wife being willing to forgive each other day after day after day.
Human nature is vindictive, and it must be overcome in order to extend and experience true forgiveness. You can see a desire for revenge, retaliation and mudslinging in our entertainment—on the movie screen, in music, on television—but also in everyday social interaction, 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.
Our critical need for God’s forgiveness
All people sin, and therefore all need God’s forgiveness. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t need to be forgiven. Therefore, we had better be forgiving of those who hurt us. 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.
Christ gave a very sobering example to help us grasp this concept of forgiveness. It’s a parable of a king and his servant. The servant owed the king 10 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 Matthew 18:25But for as much as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
American King James Version×).
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 (Matthew 18:32-34 Matthew 18:32-34 32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said to him, O you wicked servant, I forgave you all that debt, because you desired me:
33 Should not you also have had compassion on your fellow servant, even as I had pity on you?
34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due to him.
American King James Version×).
Christ is here contrasting two debts. The first servant owed the king a huge 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. The 100 denarii debt could be carried in one person’s pocket. But it’s been estimated that the 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.
Obviously, the first servant with the huge debt pictures you and me in our relationship with God. The second servant pictures our relationship with those who have inflicted injuries on us that are small by comparison.
Remember the Lord’s Prayer
Of course, the amount owed really doesn’t matter, does it? The point is, no wrong that men may do to us in any way compares with the wrong that we have done to God. And we pray for the merciful reprieve that only He 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 teaches the necessity to love everyone, including through forgiveness. In particular, read Matthew 5:38-48 Matthew 5:38-48 38 You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say to you, That you resist not evil: but whoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue you at the law, and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.
41 And whoever shall compel you to go a mile, go with him two.
42 Give to him that asks you, and from him that would borrow of you turn not you away.
43 You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.
44 But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if you love them which love you, what reward have you? do not even the publicans the same?
47 And if you salute your brothers only, what do you more than others? do not even the publicans so?
48 Be you therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
American King James Version×about how we must follow God’s example in being merciful and loving toward everyone, rather than having the mentality of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
What did Jesus mean by “turning the other cheek” (see Matthew 5:39 Matthew 5:39But I say to you, That you resist not evil: but whoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.
American King James Version×)? He meant that loving other people will always make you more vulnerable to being hurt, but you should be so dedicated to loving others that you are willing to run the risk of being hurt.
How merciful and loving we are toward others largely determines how merciful God will be when He judges us and deals with us (see Luke 6:27-38 Luke 6:27-38 27 But I say to you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,
28 Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which spitefully use you.
29 And to him that smites you on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that takes away your cloak forbid not to take your coat also.
30 Give to every man that asks of you; and of him that takes away your goods ask them not again.
31 And as you would that men should do to you, do you also to them likewise.
32 For if you love them which love you, what thank have you? for sinners also love those that love them.
33 And if you do good to them which do good to you, what thank have you? for sinners also do even the same.
34 And if you lend to them of whom you hope to receive, what thank have you? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
35 But love you your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and you shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind to the unthankful and to the evil.
36 Be you therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.
37 Judge not, and you shall not be judged: condemn not, and you shall not be condemned: forgive, and you shall be forgiven:
38 Give, and it shall be given to you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that you mete with it shall be measured to you again.
American King James Version×; Matthew 7:2-5 Matthew 7:2-5 2 For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again. 3 And why behold you the mote that is in your brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye? 4 Or how will you say to your brother, Let me pull out the mote out of your eye; and, behold, a beam is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the mote out of your brother’s eye.
American King James Version×). “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7 Matthew 5:7Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
American King James Version×).
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, leaving all of the issues of fairness for God to work out.
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.”
It’s by softening our hearts and allowing forgiveness to develop toward those who have wronged us that we open the opportunity for ourselves to be forgiven by God. Make no mistake—God wants to forgive you, no matter what you’ve done in the past.