Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Matthew 18:21-22 NIV
Someone bumps into you on the sidewalk.
“I’m sorry,” they say.
How do you respond?
I think most of us would say, “Oh, it’s ok!”
This is a natural and healthy response because the incident truly is okay. It was an accident and you weren’t hurt. No harm; no foul.
You get stood up for a dinner date.
No phone call, no text message, not even a lame excuse. You’re embarrassed, hurt, and angry. It’s a big deal to you.
But when your date finally offers an apology, how do you respond?
“Whatever. It’s okay.”
It is not uncommon today for any apology to be met with this same response. Whether you’re sorry that you broke a plate, tread on someone’s foot, forgot a date, screwed up at work, hit another car in the parking lot, or insulted a friend, apparently that’s all “okay.”
But is it?
This kind of response is harmful in two ways: 1) It implies that no wrong has been done, which is not true. 2) It leaves the offender unforgiven, and as Christians we are duty-bound to forgive.
In Matthew 18, Peter asks Jesus how many times we should forgive someone. Jesus’ answer, “seventy-seven times,” is meant to convey boundless forgiveness. We are to forgive every trespass, every debt, every time. But nowhere in the Bible does it say that those trespasses are acceptable. At no point are we taught that forgiveness means accepting every injury as no injury at all.
We seem to have lost the language of forgiveness, and with it, the virtue.
How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t forgive them. What they did…it’s just not okay”?
That’s because the language we are using to respond to expressions of remorse (“It’s okay,” “No problem,” Don’t worry about it,” etc.) is indicative of letting the perpetrator off the hook. That’s not the definition of forgiveness at all, and it is most definitely not the kind of forgiveness taught in the Bible.
In 1 John 1:9 we are told that, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
When we ask God for forgiveness, we confess our wrongdoing to him. You see, we would have no need of forgiveness, if no sin had been committed. It is the sin which necessitates the forgiveness. Furthermore, when God forgives us, He in no way denies the wrongdoing.
Well then, what is real forgiveness?
Forgiveness is an act of mercy and grace. Forgiveness is predicated upon the acknowledgment that a wrong has been committed. Without this first step, there can be no forgiveness. Then, it is the decision on behalf of the wronged that that relationship is more important than the wrongdoing. It is working together with the offender to restore the relationship, and move on.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.” This is what Christ has done for us, and this is what He calls us to do.
So, the next time someone apologizes to you, don’t just tell them it’s okay. Take the opportunity to live out Jesus’ command and actually forgive them.
Jesus, We know that “all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Forgive us. Give us the courage to admit our sins to You and to those we’ve wronged, and give us the grace to offer true forgiveness to our neighbors. May we always remember that we forgive, not because we are the righteous, but because we are the forgiven. In Your Name, Amen.