When you are hurt over and over by someone, at what point do you stop listening to the apologies? Or what if the offense is life-altering and awful? Or what if the offender doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Are we still to forgive?

Life is messy with many levels of hurt. But, essentially, Jesus says to us,

Never hold grudges.

In Jesus’ day, rabbis had a rule that a person could only be forgiven for an offense 3 times. Why? Because real repentance means you turn away from what you are doing wrong. If you are asking for forgiveness repeatedly, it means you haven’t really turned away from it so, 3 strikes and you’re out!

Check out Matthew 18:21-35. This is the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. In the set up to Jesus telling this story, I imagine Peter being all magnanimous coming to Jesus with a question but also ready with his Sunday School Answer. He was going to look good in front of whoever was listening.

Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?

Peter is like those reporters doing interviews of athletes in the locker room after the game. They ask leading questions to get the answers they want from the athletes. Peter is waiting for a – ‘yes, up to seven times! That’s exactly what I was thinking!’ – from Jesus.

In Hebrew thought, seven was the number of perfection or completeness. Thus, in light of rabbis only offering forgiveness up to three times, Peter was being deeply generous and perhaps suggesting we should forgive completely or always. But Jesus takes Peter’s lob and knocks it out of the ball park when he comes back with

I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

Jesus makes the number seemingly too huge to keep track of. Could common people of the day even multiply that? It would just be a huge number. Perfection multiplied = infinite. Forgive infinitely – just like God did for us.

Never hold grudges

This puts legs on the Lord’s Prayer does it not? Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. As I wrote in my post on The Running Father:

If we don’t live forgiveness as Christians, we deny the very forgiveness and new existence extended to us. To not forgive others means we haven’t really grasped what God has done for us.

God has already infinitely forgiven us through Christ. How could we not extend our forgiveness – no matter how deep the hurt – to others?

That is not to say that forgiveness is easy. You may never come to understand the why behind what someone did to you, but you do not have to feel forgiving before carrying out the act of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not undo or excuse what someone has done nor does it necessarily take away the resulting consequences of their actions. However, the act of forgiveness is not only an exercise in becoming like Christ, it is an exercise in your own healing, your own freedom.

Be kind and compassionate toward one another, Forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
~Ephesians 4:32

I will wrap up this series on forgiveness with a story. Corrie Ten Boom was a survivor of the Holocaust – a Dutch girl thrown into the concentration camp at Ravensbruck during WWII because she and her family hid Jews in their house to help them escape the Nazis. Forgiveness is part of her story:

Corrie Ten Boom on Forgiveness1

It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.

It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. …’

The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.

And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.

‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’

And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’

I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

  1. https://www.guideposts.org/inspiration/stories-of-hope/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness?nopaging=1 accessed January 22, 2016.

3 Responses

  1. I agree with your entire post..but I think there is more to it as well….the unanswered and tough question is what if they offender continues to offend and there is no request for forgiveness? We are commanded to love our enemies so yes we love, yes, we turn the other cheek, yes there are no grudges to be held…here’s a thought though…I don’t think relationship can be restored without a request for forgiveness. There is no restoration of our relationship with God without repentance and an asking for forgiveness. Yes, Jesus died for us and loved us while we were yet sinners but unless we place our lives in his hands and continually deal with the sin in our lives our the relationship will be a divided one. I think sometimes, those who have lived through the pain of an offender who continues to offend with no remorse feel end up hearing from the church you must forgive and then also carry the pain of guilt of not having a restored relationship with their offender. That is asking a mere mortal to do what God himself will not do – there is no restored relationship without repentance. We are called to love always just as “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners” but then repentance must come so forgiveness can result and relationships can be restored. My quick thoughts on a friday night 😉

    1. Good thoughts, Edi,

      Forgiveness is a very deep and complicated topic once a person dives in. This little series has only scratched the surface.

      While the idea of a repeat offender is exactly what Jesus is addressing with Peter, I would also agree with you that forgiveness and the idea of “restored relationship” are two completely different ideas – and should be treated as such. Our restored relationship with God, by forgiveness through Christ upon our repentance, is with a holy and perfect Being, our Creator, and I question whether the restoration of that relationship can be compared to that between two imperfect created beings. On the other hand, if restoration is possible, it is a worthy and noble thing.

      In line with your thinking, there are some cases where an offense only has to happen once, but trust is broken so deeply that a restored relationship to the way things were is not only impossible but also unwise.

      Another scenario might be an offender who dies before repenting, and the victim is left without the possibility of a restored relationship – what then?

      In the cases of abuse – no one expects a restored relationship between abuser and abused at all.

      But in all these cases, forgiveness on the part the person that was offended is what is best for them. IF a restored relationship can also result, then they are extra blessed in that situation.
      In my reading on this topic of forgiveness, I found this article from Today’s Christian Woman (men can read it too): What Forgiveness Isn’t. It addresses your valid concern quite well and at the bottom, gives advise on how to forgive – especially when the offender does not repent.

      Thanks for the insightful comment, Edi! ☺

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