Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will 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
You gotta love Peter. He is the most memorable disciple in the gospels, and probably the most likable. He is outspoken, emotional, devoted, and messed up – like all the best Bible characters, and all the best Christians.
Here, like a good Jew, and like a man accustomed to legalism and moralism, he asks Jesus for a hard-and-fast rule on forgiveness. He wants something straightforward he can follow, check off, and give to God, like a temple sacrifice. Jesus says, “No, Peter, you don’t get a rule. I want something incredibly more difficult from you: an ongoing, untiring attitude of forgiveness.” Jesus does that a lot, if you haven’t noticed.
I read somewhere – I forget where – that forgiveness means absorbing the wrong done to you, absorbing the blow, as if someone punches you in the gut, and you just take it. I think that’s a decent image, but it makes forgiveness sound passive. I think Jesus’ image is better, found in the next twelve verses of Matthew 18: forgiveness is like waiving a debt. When someone waives a debt, does it disappear? Of course not – someone must pay either way, and if it’s not the debtor, then it’s the lender. That is what forgiveness is like. “I’ll pay the debt you owe me.”
Isn’t that just what Jesus’ forgiveness is like? We owe God our whole existence, but we steal it for ourselves and waste it on ourselves, and rack up a massive debt – a million gazillion dollars, or 10,000 talents if you like. In all fairness, God ought to demand we pay our debt (which of course we can never do) and throw us all in hell until we do. Instead he sends Christ, who earns our million gazillion dollars and says, “Come to me and I’ll pay your debt. Come and share in my inheritance.” For those who believe, Christ’s payment is final and will not be demanded again, if you can believe it. His check clears, always. Trust in that.
It is Jesus’ kind of debt-paying, irrevocable forgiveness that we must imitate. We ought to expect it to be costly because, clearly, by nature, forgiveness is expensive.
If Peter has the most back-and-forth, passionate personality in the New Testament, David claims that title for the Old Testament. He wrote some of the most emotional literature in the Bible, called the Psalms of David, of which a considerable part is angry. Christians and skeptics sometimes have difficulty dealing with the so-called imprecatory psalms, which I understand, but do not take very seriously unless the critic, or one of his or her loved ones, has undergone oppressive, violent suffering and betrayal at the hands of brutal people for some length of time (and I do not recall hearing of any critic like that). I think the Holy Spirit included the imprecatory psalms very intentionally, and as odd as it may sound, I think they teach us something critical about forgiveness.
David was a man of million enemies. He knew what it is to be hated and mocked, by everyone. “How many are my foes!” he cried over and over. He saw hateful people getting away with evil and violence, and he longed for God to exercise justice against them, swiftly and harshly. But notice – he longed for God to do it. He did not pray, “Lord, give me the chance to smash in the faces of my enemies and break their teeth.” No, he said, “Arise, O LORD! Save me, oh my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek and you break the teeth of the wicked” (Psalm 3:7). David left his anger at the altar.
In terms of actions, David’s attitude of forgiveness was amazing. You may remember, when presented with the chance to kill the man hunting him like an animal, he refrained, twice. When that man finally died and the man responsible for his death came to David gloating and expecting a reward, David not only refused to rejoice at his persecutor’s death, but instead had the man executed for daring to kill the leader of Israel (see 2 Samuel 2). He accepted Abner, the general of the army opposing him, and welcomed him in peace, then mourned his death with remarkable sincerity when his own general murdered him (see 2 Samuel 3). He took in Mephibosheth, the grandson of his greatest enemy and the last remaining threat to his kingship, as a member of his own family (see 2 Samuel 9). One of David’s greatest strengths, in fact, was his refusal to exact revenge, even when it was deserved. He had a handle on the attitude of forgiveness Jesus spoke about in Matthew 18. David believed, really, that “vengeance belongs to the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
We too can do no less than imitate the Lord and Savior with an ongoing, defining attitude of forgiveness. Christians may not be people who hold grudges. We are absolutely permitted to come to God with our grievances, if they are real, and express them to our Father with feeling and sincerity. In fact, doing so is essential. He hears, because he is a good father, and a righteous judge. Consider: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25) We may not, however, hold on to the hurt and let it become bitterness. Bitterness is a cancer that festers, then eats a person up from the inside; it is dangerous and highly contagious even in small doses. Bitterness, when held on to, is absolutely deadly to one’s spiritual life (as well as to one’s physical body) – see Matthew 5:23-24, 6:14-15.
We bring our complaints to God, and leave them with God, and move on with humility, compassion, and patience. We do this because of the amazing forgiveness already given to us by Jesus, because of our belief that he has waived our debt and paid it on our behalf, in full, with his righteous life and sacrificial death. Paul sums it up:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 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 3:12-13