You’ve probably experienced the “forced forgiveness” that comes from parents: “Shake hands and say you’re sorry!”. In my case, it usually involved my two brothers. And while I was sorry, it was usually sorrow because I had been caught!
That wasn’t genuine sorrow, and there wasn’t genuine forgiveness.
As I look at the world today, I sometimes still feel like I’m living with “forced forgiveness.” It’s an uneasy peace… a lingering resentment. It follows the letter of the law of forgiveness, but lacks the spirit. And, as usual, when I’m not satisfied with the world’s norms, I go to one place:
What does Jesus have to say about forgiveness?
In Matthew 18:21, Peter asks Jesus a great question:
“Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” (Matt 18:21 NLT)
Peter’s request shows some real character. The standard practice of that day in Judaism was to forgive 3 times (See more traditional translations of Job 33:29, 30 or Amos 1:3). In raising the bar to 7, Peter was already two times over the norm of the day!
Others note that 7 is the number of perfection in Hebrew culture. Not perfect as in “no mistakes,” but perfect as in complete… whole. If that’s the case, Peter again is showing a real effort at grace: he’s asking should I forgive completely… wholly?
Look at Jesus’ response to Peter:
““No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!” (Matt 18:22 NLT)
Maybe Jesus is just messing with the uneducated fisherman… challenging Peter’s ability to do higher math, guessing that Peter can’t count that high. Or… maybe Jesus is challenging Peter to forgive more times than Peter would be willing to keep track of.
Is that the point of Jesus’ kind of forgiveness… that we not keep score?
Keeping score on our forgiveness seems like a good idea:
- It will let us know what “good” people we are (look how many times I’ve forgiven!)
- It may elevate our status… only truly holy people forgive more than once
- It may create leverage somewhere down the road (e.g., “You owe me because I forgave you”).
But is that truly forgiveness?
Jesus goes on to tell a story of a servant who owed a King an exorbitant amount of money… more than the servant could ever hope to repay. (See Matt 18:23-34). A servant who has been forgiven a debt he could never repay turns around and shows no mercy to another who owes him a much smaller sum. Why wouldn’t the servant pass along the mercy he had just received?
Maybe he was still keeping score.
Whatever the reason, because he shows no mercy, he receives no mercy. The King hears of his lack of mercy and has him handed over to the torturers in jail.
Great story, eh? But don’t miss the shocker Jesus delivers at the end of that story:
““That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.” (Matt 18:35 NLT)
So now that Jesus has my full attention, I want to know: how do I forgive from my heart?
If forgiveness is based on counting, we’re all doomed. Why? Because God CAN count that high. God can keep track of every sin we’ve ever committed. And if we want to operate that way, we will become that servant who has a debt that is impossible to pay.
But God chooses not to count believer’s sins. Even though it cost God a Son, God forgives us more than we can keep track of… out of love. It’s the same love that lead Jesus to a cross with every sin in the world to be counted. The same love that gives us the opportunity to be free.
Free from counting… free from keeping score… free to let go and move on…
Free to love. That’s forgiveness from the heart.
And it’s available in Christ today. Why wait?
What keeps you from letting go? What might your life look like if you stopped keeping score for the next year? Who do you know that forgives from their heart? Share their stories in the comments below!