I love the apostle Peter. He is like the kid in school who speaks without thinking. You can always rely on him to say or ask the things you aren’t brave enough to voice yourself. Such as, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Mathew 18:21 NKJV)
Commentaries all agree Peter believed he was being gracious in suggesting seven as the number of times to forgive. And I can’t blame Peter for thinking well of his offer; I probably would have suggested a much lower number like three or four.
But Jesus responds, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22 NKJV). Essentially, Jesus declares no limit to the number of times we are to forgive.
Yet, most of us struggle to forgive over and over again. Part of the problem may originate in three common myths about forgiveness.
Three Myths about Forgiveness
Myth 1. Forgiveness means the offender doesn’t suffer consequences.
The phrase “forgive and forget” comes to mind here, suggesting no consequences are necessary after forgiveness is given. Occasionally this is true, but in general, skipping consequences is not biblical.
While God offers unlimited forgiveness of sins, He also allows us to experience consequences from our bad decisions. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, God did not abandon them, but He did move them out of the Garden of Eden, and made life more difficult.
To be clear, consequences aren’t petty payback for sin. Authors Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend explain it well in their book Boundaries:
“The law of cause and effect is a basic law of life. The Bible calls it the Law of Sowing and Reaping. ‘You reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.’ (Galatians 6:7-8 NRSV)
When God tells us that we will reap what we sow, he is not punishing us; he’s telling us how things really are. It you smoke cigarettes, you will most likely develop a smoker’s hack, and you may even get lung cancer. If you overspend, you most likely will get calls from creditors, and you may even go hungry because you have no money for food.”
If someone sows sin, they will reap consequences, even when they received forgiveness.
Myth 2. Forgiveness must be earned.
On the other hand, sometimes we know a consequence is needed, but we see it as “payment” for sin, and believe forgiveness is impossible until the debt is paid. Essentially, we force a person to earn forgiveness. While this approach makes sense in the world, God’s kingdom operates differently. Jesus tells us:
“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.” Matthew 18: 23-27 NKJV
Notice, the servant didn’t deserve forgiveness, in fact, he didn’t even ask for forgiveness; but the king granted it anyway.
As the story continues, we learn the servant did not pay the forgiveness forward so the king calls him back and says; “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?” (Matthew 18:32-33).
We must ask ourselves the same question. If God forgives me when I haven’t earned it, shouldn’t I offer the same forgiveness to others?
Myth 3. Withholding forgiveness doesn’t negatively affect me.
We like to think forgiveness is all about the person we are forgiving, when in fact, it’s all about us. When someone repents of their sin, they can move forward in the freedom of Christ regardless of whether or not we offer our forgiveness. We on the other hand, suffer from our unforgiveness.
Not only does withholding forgiveness plant seeds of bitterness, anger, and resentment (all things that separate us from God), but it means disobeying a direct command from God. As we already learned, disobedience has consequences. “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15 (NLT)
The Bible makes it clear forgiving others is for our benefit.
With these myths cleared up, let’s look further into the need to forgive.
Why we need to demonstrate unlimited forgiveness:
1. To be forgiven
As just mentioned, forgiveness of our sins depends on us forgiving the sins of others. Jesus even includes this concept in his model for prayer: “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:4a NLT).
When we pray these words, we are saying, “God, don’t forgive me unless I have forgiven others.”
2. To purify our hearts.
Paul encourages us to; “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31-32 (NKJV)
Forgiveness protects our hearts from bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking, and allows us to reap the fruits of the Spirit.
3. To be a representative of Christ
As Christians, we are called to represent Christ to the world through our actions and character. This includes forgiving as Christ forgives.
“Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Colossians 3:13 ESV
Jesus sets the standard for forgiveness. Representing him well requires following in his footsteps and forgiving an unlimited amount of times.