Bible Reading Blog

Bible Reading Blog

“How Often Should I Forgive?”

Categories: Congregational Bible Reading


“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?” (Matthew 18.21)

To forgive may be one of the most challenging things Jesus expects us to do. It requires selflessness, maturity and wisdom. Maybe I’m willing verbalize forgiveness, but am I willing to truly let go of the negative emotions I have towards another?

I would guess that Peter’s question accentuates a fallacy many of us have about forgiveness. His question of “how many times should I forgive” implies that we have the right to limit our forgiveness. But what Peter misunderstood is forgiveness is not a matter of quantity but quality.

To expose Peter's fallacy, Jesus’ tells a parable about a servant who owes an enormous debt to the king (Matthew 18.21-34). The servant is unable to pay, but the king has pity on him and absolves the entire debt (Matthew 18.25-27). However, this servant fails to reciprocate the mercy shown to him and the king’s attitude towards him changes quickly. “…should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18.33)

The point of the parable is this: we are the servant with an unpayable debt, and God in his mercy has cancelled that debt (Colossians 2.13-14). Even though we regularly fall short of God’s expectations (Romans 3.23) he continues to show mercy and forgiveness. But we don’t just get to revel in this grace. We are expected to reciprocate this attitude towards others (Matthew 5.7, 18.33).

After all, if God forgives me when I don’t deserve it (Romans 5.8), what right do I have to limit my forgiveness? What grounds do I have for withholding mercy from another? I have none, except on a selfish basis. My decision to withhold forgiveness from anyone would be thoughtless of what God has done for me. 

To truly forgive we must recognize the gracious nature and purpose of God’s forgiveness. He doesn’t want our lives to be devastated by the effects of sin. And so, we must allow his mercy to change our hearts. Forgiveness must not be a power we wield against others or set limits on. It must be a way of life that shares what God has done for us!

If we are honest, there are times when we find ourselves behaving like the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18.28-30). However, if we withhold forgiveness, we not only spurn the opportunity to reconcile with others and find peace, we are snubbing God which has serious consequences (Matthew 18.32-35).

How do you treat people when they let you down or do you wrong? Do you keep a running tally of whether or not they are behaving in a way that keeps them in your good graces, or do you practice true forgiveness? I think our natural leaning is to think like Peter and set limits, but what Jesus is saying is that forgiveness is not a matter of how many times, but simply how. We must forgive others from the heart because we have been abundantly and mercifully forgiven by God (Matthew 18.33, 35).