Out of all the most difficult things to do in life, offering forgiveness has to be one that is high on the list. Forgiveness is difficult to give, because in some respect it appears to go against our own sense of personal justice, our rights and our perceived ideas concerning fairness. To make matters more complicated, offering forgiveness seems to give the one who committed the offense, a pass as if to dismiss the hurt they caused and gives them license to do it again. We have all heard the phrase “forgive and forget”, but is that really helpful? Is forgiveness so trite and so superficial that it merely covers up the pain or hurt, or is forgiveness something entirely different, as Alexander Pope said, “forgiveness is divine”?
As already stated there are misunderstandings of what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not condoning evil, nor is it accepting of it. In fact, what forgiveness is, is acknowledging that evil did occur and moving to restore and to make peace with what had happened. The cliché “forgive and forget” isn’t helpful because it convolutes the distinction between forgiveness and trust. For example, let’s say you are a business owner and you have an employee who handled the company’s accounts. You get a call from your bank because of some activity regarding your account and you find out that this employee had been stealing from you. Now as the legal system is handling the case, you get a call from this employee asking for forgiveness. Now is forgiving this person somehow making what they had done any less of a crime? The answer is no, because forgiveness again, is acknowledging the evil that was done and choosing not to hold onto bitterness and resentment. But let’s say after you had forgiven them, they ask for their job back. What are you going to tell them? You are going to tell them no, because they had broken your trust. Forgiveness and trust are not the same thing. Trust must be earned through consistent, demonstrated faithfulness. So, we can choose not to give into a vengeful attitude when we are wronged, but we also can and should, have personal boundaries that keep us safe.
Is there a limit to how many times forgiveness should be offered? When is enough, enough? Jesus Christ answers that very same question in Matthew 18:21-35. Peter asks Jesus “if someone wrongs me, how many times should I forgive him? Seven times?” Now what is so interesting about this dialogue, is that Peter is thinking of himself as incredibly generous by suggesting that forgiveness should be offered seven times because conversely, the practice in that day was to only offer forgiveness three times, like a three strikes and you’re out policy.
However, Christ puts forward one of the most radical statements concerning the offer of forgiveness ever recorded. Jesus says, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). What Jesus is saying is that forgiveness should be freely offered forever, and we should not fall into keeping score. Why is Jesus saying that we should be so generous with our forgiveness? It is because of what can happen to an unforgiving heart.
When someone remains unforgiving, what can so quickly happen is that person can turn bitter and resentful. That resentment dominates everything that person does or thinks about. They end up re-living the moment of hurt time and time again, and never cope with it or move to recovery. Instead they turn inward, and as the Scripture says, “the root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble.”(Heb. 12:15). There is nothing healthy that can come from holding a grudge against someone, rather bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
One thing we haven’t talked about thus far, is what about forgiving ourselves? There are some, who have looked at their life and still bear the guilt and shame of things that happened years ago. Their issue is not a matter of bitterness or resentment, rather feeling hopelessly condemned. The answer to both that individual and the one who remains in bitterness, is the same: Freedom. Christ did come and set the captives free, and what unforgiveness is, is like a chain around the neck preventing love to be shown and to be received. Freedom is to be found, so “forgive others, as Christ has forgiven you”(Col 3:13) and know that you have been forgiven much.