What Is Forgiveness

Dealing with the basic human need for forgiveness lies at the heart of wholeness and health.

At the core of experiencing and providing forgiveness is accepting the reality of a debt. We can’t receive forgiveness until we’re willing to face up to the sin in our lives, and we can’t deliver forgiveness to others until we’re clear on what they’ve done and why we’re willing to forgive.

At the heart of one of the most well-known and recited prayers of all time—the one called The Lord’s Prayer—is the famous phrase, “ ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’ ” (Matt. 6:12, NKJV).

Could it be that this prayerful acknowledgement and request, lying in the middle of Jesus’ prayer, indicates that this experience of debt and what we do about it is core to spirituality? Notice the wording. Two very powerful words are synced together: “debt” and “forgiveness.”

The word “debt” means “to owe someone something.” The implication here is significant. This prayer, being prayed to God, admits that we owe God something—we’re in debt to God. Some translations of the Lord’s prayer use the word “trespasses,” and some use “sins,” but the implication remains the same despite nuances in meaning. We are in debt to, have trespassed against, have sinned against God. And Jesus ties acknowledgment of that reality with the ability to forgive others their wrongs against us.

In fact, Jesus tells a fascinating story (Matt. 18:22-34) about this in response to a man’s question about how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. A certain king begins to settle his accounts payable with his servants. He discovers that one of the servants owes him big money: 10,000 talents. Considering the reality that in those days one talent was the equivalent to 6,000 days of work, this servant’s debt to the king represented 191,693 years of work. In other words, an immense debt! The servant falls on his knees, pleading for the mercy of extra time to pay the money back (an obvious impossibility, given the infinite nature of his debt).

Yet, as the story unfolds, the king feels sorry for his servant; he feels compassion for him. So he tells him he doesn’t have to pay it back. He cancels the debt, stamps “Paid in Full” across that ledger entry. The king himself willingly swallows the huge loss.

Then he lets the servant go free (instead of throwing him into jail, as the law called for in those days, forcing his wife and children into slavery to pay back the debt for him). Imagine the feeling of freedom for this servant as he walks away from the king, a totally forgiven man, his account wiped clean.

But in a shocking twist of irony, as Jesus continues the story, the servant encounters a colleague who owes him money equivalent to a few months’ wages (a measly amount in comparison). Instead of compassion like the king’s, the servant responds in anger, choking his debtor by the neck, demanding immediate payment. The man (using the same words the servant used with the king) pleads for the mercy of extra time to pay the debt back (in this case an obvious possibility with such a small debt). But the servant refuses and has the colleague thrown into prison, forcing his family to pay the debt back.

When the king hears about this, he’s enraged. How could someone act so ruthlessly and heartlessly after having been forgiven so much? So the king says to his servant, “You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t experiencing such kindness compel you to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy too?” So the king has him thrown into jail after all, until he pays back his entire debt.

What’s the dynamic here? Jesus tells this story in response to the question, How many times do I need to forgive a person who’s wronged me? And the questioner, trying to be generous, adds, “Up to seven times?” The Jewish law in those days talked about forgiving someone three times as evidence of compassion and kindness. So this man figures he’s going to try to look big by doubling that amount and then throwing in an extra one for good measure to get it up to the perfect number seven (to seal the deal of his image of generosity). “Up to seven times?”

What’s Jesus’ point? He responds to the question by saying, “No, not up to only seven times, but seven times seventy!” In other words, think big, think way bigger than you’re used to thinking. Think, not three, not even the seven of perfection, but 490. In other words, live your life continuously with an attitude of forgiveness.

It is this overall attitude of forgiveness that emerges from God’s heart and enters ours.*


* Adapted with permission from the iFollow Discipleship Resource, ©North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.