Forgiveness Has No Limits


How many times are you expected to forgive someone for doing the same thing over and over again?

Alexander Pope once noted, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” There is nothing that so perfectly characterizes God as forgiveness— and nothing makes us more like him than to forgive. Forgiveness is a tough issue, because so often we don’t want to forgive. Perhaps we been deeply hurt. Perhaps we are so angry we don’t want to forgive.

We all remember the story about the gunman who went into the Amish school and proceeded to kill ten grade school children. What we may not remember is that afterwards the global community was so moved by the story that about $4.3 million was raised to help this Amish community. When meeting together to discuss what to do with this money, the elders decided to give $1 million to the widow of the gunman. When a CNN reporter asked an elder how they could do such a thing, without a second thought the elders said, “That’s what Christians do; we forgive.”

Jesus certainly knew His Church! In Matthew 18:15, Jesus recognizes that it is certainly possible for one brother to sin against another brother. Jesus then goes on to present the manner in which we are to deal with this sin. In a sense, Jesus is recognizing that the Church is made up of sinners; therefore, there will be a mess in the Church. Don’t be shocked when people sin. Jesus is telling us that we are to forgive one another.

But are there limits to forgiveness? Jesus answers this question with a simple parable.

Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 

Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him 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. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘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?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. 

“So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (Matthew 18:21–35) 

Forgiveness has no limits

Jesus tells this parable after Peter asks him a question, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” But being the impetuous Peter, he doesn’t wait for Jesus to respond; rather, he proposes a solution. Peter suggests that perhaps we need to forgive up to seven times. Peter understood human nature well enough to know that all of us are repeat offenders who need forgiveness. Peter simply wanted to know what the limit on forgiveness should be.

Peter suggested a limit to forgiveness—up to seven times. This was more than twice what was required by Jewish tradition and probably seemed very generous to him. Jewish tradition held that you needed to forgive a person of the same offense only three times. Peter didn’t offer just three times. He doubled that and through another one for good measure to bring the total to seven. How much more generous could a person be?

We have the same problem. We often get stuck at verse 15. We recognize that someone has sinned against us and we tire of going to that person and exposing their fault. In fact, the bulk of people refuse to apply the principles of Matthew 18 at all.

Jesus’ answer probably came is somewhat of a surprise to Peter (Matthew 18:22). Jesus told Peter that we are to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven. This would be 490 times we are to forgive, which is a number to which no one would count.

Jesus wasn’t extending the limits of forgiveness. He was removing them. A Christian with a forgiving heart doesn’t keep records but forgives the 100th offense as readily as the first. This was consistent with Jesus’ teaching. In Luke 17:4 we read, “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.”” After all, God does this for us every day. In Romans 5:20 we read, “… where sin abounded, grace abounded much more…” Likewise, we should never allow a fellow believers sin to surpass our willingness to forgive.

The true test of Christianity is not one we love the unlovable. The true test of Christianity is how we navigate people who mistreat us— we forgive them.

We forgive others because God has forgiven us

Jesus follows up his answer to Peter with a parable of two servants who owed debts they could not pay. The first owed the King 10,000 talents. Let’s try to get a handle on how much the servant owed. A talent of gold weighs between 58 and 80 pounds. If we use a weight of 58 pounds as a conservative estimate, then the servant owed about $1.1 million at today’s gold prices. This is about equal to 200,000 years of wages for the servant. We would say that repayment would be impossible. But the servant asked for patients from the King and promised that he would pay all of what he owed the King. Preposterous! There was no way the servant could ever repay this debt. But surprisingly, the King released him and forgave him the debt.

What the servant did next was very baffling. This man promptly forgot the grace and forgiveness he had received from the King and refused to forgive his fellow servant of debt of only a few dollars. Understandably, the King was angry with the first servant because he had been forgiven all and he should have forgiven all in return.

This parable is very straightforward. In it, God represents the King; sinners are the debtors, and various sins are the currency.

The moral of this story is that Christians have a divine obligation to forgive those who wrong them. We never have grounds to withhold forgiveness. In addition, since God requires us to forgive, he must’ve made it possible for us to do so. According to this story, it is obvious that there is no way that we can repay God for our sin. God has extended his grace to such a point that repayment is impossible. There is no amount of work that we can do to repay God! Therefore, we are to forgive others at the same grace by which God has forgiven us.

Facts about forgiveness

Three points can be made about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is irrational— in fact, it is pure lunacy. Forgiveness goes against our human nature. It’s far more rational for us to keep score. Most of the time we want to get back at the one who has wronged us. The human way is to destroy the relationship.

Forgiveness is costly— it inflicts suffering. When Jesus went to the cross, he suffered for us. First Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit…” We fall into a trap that we will forgive, but we want a little something in return. But the example Jesus laid out for us is that we forgive all with no strings attached.

Forgiveness is freeing— it removes us from bondage. God loves us despite ourselves. In the parable, the first servant refused to forgive a fellow servant. At this, the master became very angry. And he placed the servant in prison until he could repay his entire debt. In the same way, if we don’t forgive, we are incarcerated— we are in bondage. The greatest gift you can give yourself is to forgive; those who don’t forgive are in bondage. They are not joyful people. There is no laughter. There is no praising God. Only through forgiveness, can the bondage be removed. My experience is that those who have sinned against me aren’t at all concerned about it. They don’t even remember the things I remember. So my holding a grudge only hurts me. I have learned that I must forgive or else my relationship with God is damaged. When we don’t forget, we are giving power to those who sin against us— a power God never intended for them to have.

There’s a story about a traveler who crossed a river in Burma. When he emerged on the other side, he found his body covered with small bloodsucking leeches. His first impulse was to pull them off, but his guide warned him against it, explaining that to do so would leave part of the leeches buried in the skin and cause serious infection. Instead, the native prepared a warm bath for the man and added to the water certain herbs that caused the leeches to drop off voluntarily.

Unforgiven injuries are like leeches draining us spiritual life. If the near human determination to cast them off often leaves emotional poison in our souls. Only bathing ourselves in God’s mercy and love— constantly reminding ourselves of how much we have been forgiven— will empower us to forgive those who sin against us.

The process of forgiveness

In his book, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, Louis Smedes says there are four stages of forgiving. Understanding these four stages can help us practice forgiveness.

We hurt. The kinds of hurts that require forgiveness are usually personal, unfair, and deep. Forgiveness does not mean acting as though you weren’t hurt. Real forgiveness begins by acknowledging hurt.

We hate. Hate is a natural human response to any deep in unfair pain. At times, it is a passive hate that simply robs you of the energy to wish a person well. Sometimes it is an aggressive hate that wishes them ill. Whether it is passive or aggressive, hate separates us from people we should belong to.

We heal ourselves. The first step in healing hurt takes place within your own heart. When you forgive someone, you perform spiritual surgery on your own soul. You choose to let go of your bitterness and hate and rewrite the history between you and the person who wronged you.

We come together. The goal of forgiveness is to invite the person who hurt and wronged you back into your life. You extend your hand to that person and invite him or her to cross over the wall that wrong and hate built between you. Realistically, it isn’t always possible to restore a relationship to exactly what it was before. But when we forgive, we start over on whatever terms that time and circumstances make available to us.

I have learned the necessity of true forgiveness in my life. I’ve come to a point where I refuse to carry the burden that comes through unforgiveness.

How about you? Are you willing to forgive those who have hurt you so that you can reestablish a true and perfect fellowship with your great God and Savior?

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