Why should I forgive people who have hurt me deeply? How can I let go of those wounds that have scarred my life? What is forgiveness? What do we actually do when we forgive? What are the stages of forgiveness?
In this issue and in the next several, we are going to deal
with various aspects of forgiveness, such as God’s forgiveness
toward us, our forgiveness of other people, and forgiveness
One day, Peter comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, how
many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins
against me? Up to seven times?” (Matt. 18:21).
The concern behind Peter’s question has been felt by everyone
who has ever been hurt. Why should I forgive? What
if the other person doesn’t deserve it? I might get hurt again!
Jesus tells him, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times:
but, Until seventy times seven” (verse 22).
Then Jesus goes on to tell a story about a servant who
owed his master 10,000 talents but was unable to pay the
debt. He begged for forgiveness. The master had compassion
upon him and released him from his debt. Then the
servant went outside and found a fellow servant who owed
him 100 denarii. He insisted on collecting the debt. When his
fellow servant was not able to pay it, he put him in jail. The
master heard what the servant did and changed his mind; he
put the servant in jail until he was able to pay his debt (Matt.
Now, in our culture, we don’t know much about talents,
so we may miss the enormity of this debt. But a talent was
the equivalent of 15 years of wages, so the servant owed
his master 150,000 years of wages, or the equivalent of 55
million days of wages. That debt is impossible to pay off.
Just like the servant, what we owe God is an unpayable
debt. David said, “I was born in iniquity” (Ps. 51:5, KJV).
We sin from the moment we are born. Many times, we look
at sin in terms of the act, but, in God’s eyes, even our sinful
desires, thoughts, and motives are sin.
For instance, Jesus defined adultery as the act itself to
the contemplation of the act when He said, “‘You have heard
that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell
you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27, 28).
He also defined murder as the physical act of killing
someone by being angry at that person. “You have heard
that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,
and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I
tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will
be subject to judgment” (Matt. 5:21, 22a).
Then He moved the act of love from just loving the people
who love us to the people who hate us and are our enemies.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and
hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray
for those who persecute you, that you may be children of
your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44, 45a).
The Bible has many words for sin, with meanings such
as missing the mark, transgression, and going astray. One
word, “awah” in Hebrew, means to distort, to make crooked,
and to pervert, and includes sin and its consequences. It is
manifested in thought, word, and deed as we show the twisting
of our souls (Job 33:27; Ps. 106:43; Is. 30:13).1
We live in a state of sin. Even the good things we want to
do might have mixed motives. For example, we want to help
someone, but we also want recognition. We often love just
so we can be loved. We worship God for His blessings and
not for who He is.
You and I are the debtors. Every one of us has sinned
and failed to live up to God’s ideal for us, and, in a very real
sense, that puts us in debt. We owe something that we cannot
pay. We are hopelessly bankrupt.
Jesus’ story, however, shows us that God is willing to
forgive us completely. David defines forgiveness as follows:
“Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the
Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no
deceit (Ps. 32:1, 2).”2
The Living Bible says: “What happiness
for those whose guilt has been forgiven! What joys
when sins are covered over! What relief for those who have
confessed their sins and God has cleared their record.”
He is willing to wipe the slate clean. He accepts us. He
doesn’t say, “We will work out an installment plan so you
can pay back the debt.” He doesn’t say, “We will lower the
debt so you have to pay only a part of it.” No. He says, “I
forgive you totally. The debt is canceled. You are free.” When
we grasp the enormity of the gift of forgiveness that has
come to us in Jesus Christ, it makes a difference. The meaning
and reality of that gift, when we understand it, enables us
to forgive those who have wronged us.
The servant in Jesus’ story never really comprehended
the gift of grace that he had received. You can tell that from
his response to the king: “I will pay back everything.” As if he ever could! Our debt of sin is far too great for us ever to
atone for it, but, on the cross, Jesus Christ carried it for us.
There’s no way to measure what He has given us.
When we realize that we have been forgiven an impossible
debt, it’s hard for us to get terribly excited about the
debt somebody owes us. This doesn’t mean that we will
ignore wrongs and injustices, but we will view fellow sinners
from a different perspective when we realize what God has
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly
loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility,
gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and
forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against
someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:12, 13).
In the next two issues of Elder’s Digest, we will study
forgiveness to those who have wronged us.
1 Colin Brown, editor, Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 3, (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency, 1971), 573-587. Also see, http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/sin/, Accessed June 14, 2017.
Paul quotes David in Romans 4:6.
S. Joseph Kidder is a professor of Christian ministry and biblical
spirituality at the Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological
Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.