How many times are we supposed to forgive people?

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From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 12 – What it really meant by forgiving others, and what does it involve?

The apostle Peter asked Jesus a question which must have occurred to most of us – how many times are we expected to forgive people? Is there a limit? What if they just carry on sinning against us, again and again? Jesus answered Peter by telling him a story:

21Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.

24“When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25“But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26“So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’

27“And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 28“But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29“So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’

30“But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31“So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32“Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33‘Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34“And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18:21-35 (NASB)

The above parable about waiving the debts (sins) of others, in the same way that we want God to forgive our sins, is alarming. I say that because Jesus concludes it by saying that God the Father will do the same with us as the King did to the man who failed to forgive. But the King in the story responded harshly. He did not merely re-impose the financial debt. He also handed the man over to be punished by “the torturers”.

My understanding of that is as follows. We are commanded to forgive other people, at least in the narrow sense of stepping aside and leaving it to Jesus to judge them. Possibly, we may be required to go even further than that, by releasing them from their debt or guilt towards us. But, if we will not do these things, then God will respond by allowing demons greater and greater access to us. They will then create additional difficulties for us until, under all of that pressure, we eventually come to realise our duty to forgive others and release them from their debts or guilt, just as we want God to release us from ours.

That point about the ‘torturers’ actually matches our experience in practice. A person who is in a state of unforgiveness, i.e. one who still wants to judge the wrongdoer themselves, and will not release them, will have a very difficult time, especially if they are bitter and vengeful. All sorts of other things will begin to go wrong for them. That may seem unfair, given that they were wronged in the first place. Even so, it is what we have seen happen in our own lives, and in other people’s lives, when there is unforgiveness and bitterness.

Part of the rationale behind all of this is that we ourselves have been forgiven many things. Indeed, God’s forgiveness of us is broadly defined and goes well beyond the narrow definition of forgiveness, which is the minimum that is required of us. Therefore, what right do we have to withhold even the narrowest form of forgiveness from others, and yet seek it ourselves, and in the widest possible sense, for our own sins? Quite apart from the unfairness of that, there is also the fact that we are not authorised to judge anybody in the first place.

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