How Many Times Should I forgive? – Part 1

While the article below quotes the Bible, it is not a theological or religious discussion. As such, it does not promote any religion or religious perspective.

Christian students of the Bible should be well familiar with Matthew 18, verses 21 & 22. It is a New Testament passage that describes a short but very noteworthy exchange between Jesus and one of his disciples. Peter poses a probing question to the young rabbi. The response Jesus gives seems irrational, completely impractical, and, some would say, irresponsible. 

According to the Phillips translation of the New Testament, Peter asked Jesus, “How many times can my brother wrong me, and I must forgive him?” The text indicates Peter assumed the number would be high, that his teacher would advocate for forgiving the same person as many as perhaps seven times. Instead, Jesus gave a shocking answer, insisting that a wrongdoer must be forgiven hundreds of times. Seventy times seven, to be exact.

There is a consensus among scholars that Jesus wasn’t setting 490 as the absolute limit to the number of times forgiveness should be granted to someone who wrongs you. The answer to Peter’s question was that there should be no numeric limit. “Seventy times seven” was Jesus’ elegant way of saying to never stop forgiving. Yes, even if it’s the same person.

No doubt, that’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone, especially those who’ve been deeply wounded by the callous, hurtful words or actions of one or more people. 

Then Peter approached him with a question, "Master, how many times can my brother wrong me, and I must forgive him? Would seven times be enough?"

"No," replied Jesus, "not seven times, but seventy times seven!"

JB Phillips Translation of the New Testament - Matthew 18:21 & 22

To be sure, there are more Scripture passages that focus on forgiveness. But we’re not here to lead a Bible study. Obstacle Blaster readers come from a variety of backgrounds. Besides, there is no need to get into a potential theological quagmire when a goldmine of wisdom can be gleaned by simply paying attention to what the above two verses say and what they do not say.

Over a decade ago, a subscriber sent a memorable response to one of the articles about forgiveness posted here at Obstacle Blaster. The reader cited the above passage as one of the reasons they do not believe in the Bible. “How is there any wisdom or practicality or boundaries,” the subscriber wrote, “in continually forgiving someone who obviously isn’t serious about changing their behaviour?”

Those sentiments encapsulate two beliefs about forgiveness that are commonly held by those struggling with it. One is that the central figure in the matter is the wrongdoer. The other is that forgiveness must be conditioned upon some outward behavior on the part of the wrongdoer in order to be granted. If forgiveness is asked for, has the wrongdoer substantially changed their behavior, thereby showing they are sufficiently penitent and worthy of being forgiven?  

Let’s consider those beliefs. 

First, if you’ve been hurt, traumatized, offended, or betrayed, who, really, is the central figure in that pain? Is it you or the person who caused the pain? If you think it’s the person who hurt you, what if they died? Would your pain continue to linger if you found out the person who caused it no longer existed in the world? Or would it just suddenly disappear? You know the pain would linger. That means the subject of whether to forgive isn’t so much about the other person. It’s about you.

And second, if it is about you, then you’re in the driver’s seat, not the wrongdoer. Why needlessly give them any role in determining your future well-being? Should they decide whether you can experience freedom from the negative mental and emotional constraints associated with what happened to you? No. Yet, that’s the upshot of believing that forgiveness must be asked for!   

Certainly, it may be easier to forgive someone who shows genuine remorse, but if you have yet to forgive someone who has hurt you in some way, the one carrying the burden of this grudge is you, not them.

Is the person who hurt you burdened with guilt about what they did? Maybe. Maybe not. What you are in a position to know is whether you are burdened with anger, bitterness, or hard feelings of any kind toward them. If so, then you are the one who needs to be released from the weight of this negativity, not them. That, then, means forgiveness is about you being released from all that crap, not them. 

With that understanding – and given the fact that it is within your power to choose to no longer hang on to the grudge – how much sense does it make for you to wait for the person who wronged you to come to you and ask you to do what you have always had the ability to do all by yourself? You can forgive anytime you choose to do so.

So, let’s go back to the main question. Even if “seventy times seven” does not refer to how many times we should forgive someone who asks for forgiveness, it still demands that we provide unlimited forgiveness toward those who hurt us. And that, again, is a tough pill to swallow.

Part 2 of this three-part article offers an explanation of Matthew 18:22 that sensibly answers the above-described critic’s rhetorical questions.

To be continued.

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