Then Peter came up and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive Him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Matthew 18: 21-22
Most of us can do better in the area of forgiveness. Whether we are asking for it or offering it. There is a great mistrust in society where forgiveness is concerned. In reality, forgiveness today goes something like this: “I’m sorry, BUT I had a reason.” And the response is: “I forgive, but I won’t forget.”
We fail to take responsibility because we are afraid someone “whatever we say can and will be used against us,” as if every transgression will result in punishment if we admit to it. Of course, there is no one who is without the stain of sin. So, to mitigate every sin is really disingenuous. At the same time, when forgiving sin, we hesitate to do so, precisely because the one asking forgiveness often does mitigate what has been done, making an apology seem insincere.
I’ve written many times about the need to create environments where it is safe and expected to be honest. This goes for conversation and problem solving. And it also goes for forgiveness. We have to have environments where it is safe and expected to admit when we’ve done wrong, secure in the knowledge that we will be forgiven. We have to have environments where we can genuinely forgive, secure in the knowledge that the one asking for forgiveness is genuine and repentant.
I once knew a man who by many accounts was a righteous person. He was a good husband, a devoted father, a successful business owner, a loyal friend and a committed Christian. Yet, even this man, for all of his goodness, and godliness, was not without sin. When he was about to die, he told me about a man who had once been a dear friend, but they had had a falling out and weren’t friends anymore. He asked me to contact his former friend to ask him to come to the hospital to see him, because he wanted to ask for forgiveness before he died. He didn’t want to die, as he told me, with that burden on his soul. He told me that he only needed the man to come for thirty seconds, and that the man wouldn’t offer him forgiveness, that was okay. He wanted to offer his, so he could be free to die without that burden.
The man came to the hospital, he didn’t stay long, and no one knows what was said in the room, if forgiveness was one way or mutual. All I know is that my friend was at peace in his soul after he had asked for forgiveness, as if a huge weight had been lifted off of him. He was now free, liberated from that burden.
And that’s what forgiveness does. Sometimes if restores relationships. Sometimes it even strengthens them. But forgiveness liberates the one who asks for it and it liberates the one who offers it. It weighs down relationships where it is not offered.
The Bible says some pretty specific things about confession. Today’s verse reminds us that we have to offer forgiveness often. Once or twice is not enough. And in important relationships, forgiveness is going to be needed more often. Think marriage, children, close friends, co-workers. Any long term relationships are going to need forgiveness more than once or twice.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6:12) This means that we can expect God to forgive us our sins to the same degree that we forgive others. If we forgive generously, God will forgive generously. If we are stingy or withhold forgiveness, then we can expect God to be stingy with us. We are to forgive as we desire to be forgiven.
Psalm 130:3 says “If You, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand?” Ain’t that the truth! Every time we sin, we sin against God. So, if we sin against a specific person, we are also sinning against God. So if I commit ten sins against Mary, ten against Michael and ten against Jimmy, that’s thirty sins against God. Because we are all created in the image and likeness of God, therefore we sin against God each time we sin against His likeness—someone else. And then there are the sins against only God. Start adding all of that up and it’s an impressive, or probably rather, a depressing, list. If God were to mark all of our sins, no one could stand before Him favorably.
In this unit of where I am and where I want to be in my faith, all of us have a forgiveness gap. There are all people we’ve wronged who we want to forgive us. There is a weight none of us wants to have with those who have wronged us. We can all stand to work at forgiveness.
Here’s one other thing about forgiveness. There is a difference between saying “I’m sorry” and “forgive me.” “I’m sorry” can mean I’m sorry I got caught but I’m not really sorry. It can mean “I’m sorry, whatever don’t worry about it.” And then people worry about it. When we ask for forgiveness, it draws another person in. Either they say “I forgive you” and that brings two people closer. Or they say “I can’t forgive you now, but here is the path back” which give us hope. Or they say “I can’t forgive you” and that gives two things. It gives them something to think about. And if gives you freedom—you’ve asked and now you’re freed of your burden.
If you are not sure where to begin when it comes to asking or offering forgiveness, Jesus offers a really easy, and private way, to go about it. In Matthew 5:44, He says “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In others words, start praying for the people where something negative exists between you, for hearts to soften and for forgiveness to flow.
Lord, I know that I am not perfect. Only You are perfect. Please, Lord, be generous in Your forgiveness of my many sins. Help me to be generous towards others when they ask for forgiveness. Help me to be humble enough to ask for forgiveness when I have wronged someone. Help me to create environments where it is not only expected to ask and receive forgiveness but where it is safe. Amen.
We can all do a lot better when it comes to forgiveness!