How Can We Forgive When We Just Can't?

9/11 Memorial Fountain w/ Eagle structure in the background

True forgiveness cannot happen until we move the nurturing off of ourselves and onto those who offend us. Forgiveness is really about the offender, not the offended. Failing to forgive can even be a form of bullying because, when it comes to making amends, the one who is offended often holds the power. And forgiveness is necessary because, when we are wronged, there's always more harm than can be fixed. Jesus illustrated this with a story about a servant with a ridiculously large monetary debt.

When Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often do I have to forgive a believer who wrongs me?,” he was probably concerned mostly about himself. Maybe he had specific people in mind, people who had offended him multiple times. So, when Peter suggested “seven times” as a good measure of forgiveness, he may have already met that quota and was ready to offload the burden of making amends onto the offender. Have you considered that maybe Peter wanted to dismiss himself of his responsibility to forgive? After forgiving someone seven times, could it be that he wanted to make a proclamation against the offender?: “The ball’s in your court now. Are you going to reciprocate, or shall I proclaim that you have sinned, and you continue to sin against me?”

But we’re not going to cast stones at Peter, are we? We’ve been there, too, haven’t we? It’s not too hard to identify with the many human tendencies we see in Jesus’ Disciples. And, unfortunately, we sometimes unintentionally dilute Scripture because it’s hard to see past our own human biases and shortcomings, but God’s truth is so far beyond that. Let’s look deeper into Jesus’ parable about forgiveness in Matthew 18:21-35. [Take some time to read it now.]

Have we, like Peter, asked God, “How many times do I have to forgive [insert name]? Nothing ever changes!” Jesus’ answer is simple: “…not just seven…, but seventy times seven.” That’s 490 times, which really means we have no business counting. I will rephrase that. We’re not supposed to count. We’re just supposed to forgive. Of course, this is not new for most of us. But read on…

The depth of Jesus’ answer is in the parable He used to illustrate His point. Jesus used monetary debts to help us picture the severity of ills against us. There was a servant who owed his master millions of dollars, but his master canceled his debt. Here’s the key fact in this story:  the servant who owed millions of dollars could not have repaid his master even if he spent a lifetime in unpaid service to him. The debt was simply too large to repay. By the standards of the day, the servant’s debt was equal to wages that would take 160,000 years to earn (if you prefer to be generous with your calculations, assume 137,000 years).

So, why did Jesus use such an exaggerated dollar amount in this story? May I suggest it is for the same reason He said to never stop forgiving? The severity of the offense is not important. The point of forgiveness is not to elicit compensation, or repayment, or even reconciliation. We forgive in order to release the offender of his/her debt – to treat the offense as if it had never happened – because forgiveness is not about the offense or the victim. Forgiveness is about the person who caused the harm. So, if we’re reading this as people who were wronged in some way, however large or small, forgiveness is not about us.

This is a revolutionary thought.  It means…
  • We don’t stew in bitterness when we’re wronged.
  • We don’t slander or complain about those who offend us.
  • We don’t retaliate with words or actions equaling that which deeply hurt us.
  • We don’t harbor resentment or indulge a grudge.
  • We don’t wait for the offending party to say, “I’m sorry.” And, if there is an apology, we don’t examine that apology for sincerity. Instead, we forgive.

(Now is the time when some of us may stop reading, but please don’t. Jesus has more to say about this.)

We must fight our natural inclination to retaliate. Our forgiveness is limited by our vindictive nature. In Luke 9:51-56, Jesus was not welcome to sleep in a Samaritan village because He was on His way to Jerusalem. So, James and John asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to burn them up?” That’s pretty harsh, but don’t we respond similarly? How many times have we been cut off by a rude driver and wished the police were there to issue a traffic ticket? Or what about the times when our least favorite people made biting remarks, and, short of actually taking retaliatory action, we at least muttered to ourselves a 4-letter word. (J-E-R-K, right?)

In Luke 22:47-51, Judas came to betray Jesus with a kiss. We know the story: While the disciples waited for Jesus to say, “Retaliate!,” Peter jumped the gun and cut off a soldier’s ear. He did what was most natural for him to do. He did what was most natural for many of us.

These stories give us a better idea of why Peter wanted to limit the number of times he would forgive. He and the rest of the disciples were spiteful and probably vindictive. Some of what the disciples expected from people – honor, respect, and authority – did not come in these stories. The people in these stories didn’t oblige them or succumb to their status as disciples of the Messiah, so they demanded vindication. However, in both situations, Jesus corrected His disciples. He doesn’t want His followers to respond with vengeance. Vengeance belongs to God. Our job is to forgive and live in harmony with others in humble sacrifice. (See Romans 12:17-21.) Generous grace and mercy should have been their response. It is what Jesus offers.

True forgiveness has no limits. True forgiveness is dotted with grace and mercy and aligned with a path that seeks the benefit of the offender. True forgiveness encumbered Jesus to step down from Heaven and die a cruel death as payment for our sins. Even when He responded to the castigating spirits of the disciples, Jesus canceled out their offenses as He explained, “the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” He stopped the disciples from feeding their vengeful urges in Luke 9 and He healed the ear of the soldier in Luke 22. Jesus came to correct our wrongs, to repair our lives, and to offer the greatest gift of eternal life, and all as an outpouring of forgiveness. We have sinned against the God of the universe and we should have been punished, but, for all those who trust Jesus as the Savior, we are released of our debts (Romans 8:1-2). We are forgiven. All of us.  All of our debts.

Romans 8 continues with a discussion about walking in the Spirit. Forgiveness is a significant part of that walk because Jesus came to forgive. It should be a natural thread in our daily interactions, but the disciples mistakenly thought they could limit their forgiveness. Peter expertly offered to forgive seven times, but seven was not enough. No, true forgiveness is unrestrained. The master forgave his servant with a forgiveness that had no limits.

This is how Jesus forgives, too.  Read Luke 17:3-4. While Jesus hung on the cross, He offered forgiveness to those who put Him there. He didn’t seethe under the pain and injustice. He forgave without limits and extended His embrace to any who would come.

Forgiveness is fueled by compassion. The word “forgave” in Matthew 18:27 means: to send away, specifically, to let go, let alone, let be, to disregard. For most of us, it’s just too hard to disregard offenses, and we can’t imagine letting them go. But the master was “moved with compassion.” This means: his bowels yearned; he felt sympathy or had pity. His compassion moved his heart to look past the offense and cancel the debt of his servant. We must get into the heart of the offender, at the expense of getting out of our own. Jesus wants us to put aside our natural inclination to vindicate, and replace it with deep sympathy for the offender.

The master made a special effort to consider his servant. Instead of focusing on the repayment to which he was entitled, he let go of the offense and saw the situation through the eyes of the person indebted to him. At that point, the master’s priority was no longer on reconciling an account. Instead, he cared about the inability of the servant to pay him back. He shifted his focus from his unmet need to the offender’s inability to make things right.

But the servant didn’t comprehend how much he was forgiven, so he could not appreciate the sacrifice it took to release his debt. Consequently, he didn't cancel the [much smaller] debt of someone who owed him money. He couldn’t see that what he gained by being forgiven was both life-changing and paramount, so he demanded recompense when he should have offered forgiveness.

When Jesus hung on the cross before his accusers, mockers, and haters, He said in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” (See Luke 23:33-34.) That’s often how it is for the offenders, isn’t it? Many of them don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t have the ability to put themselves in our shoes and not cause the harm in the first place. Jesus looked beyond the many offenses, and “felt sorry” for everyone in the crowd. But before we think, “Of course. That’s Jesus. We can’t be like Him,” read how someone just like us responded in a similar situation.

While council members were executing Stephen,
he called out, “Lord Jesus, welcome my spirit.”
Then he knelt down and shouted,
“Lord, don’t hold this sin against them.”
After he had said this, he died.
(Acts 7:59-60, GW)

Stephen reserved his last breath for a pledge of forgiveness toward and on behalf of the very people who stoned him to death. He understood what Jesus tried to teach the disciples: True forgiveness cannot happen until we move the nurturing from ourselves onto those who offend us. We so naturally take offense and insist on repayment. But Jesus wants us to consider the offender with compassion – compassion that turns us to forgiveness. Our hearts should not linger on the hurt, but on the person who needs our forgiveness.

So where do we go from here? Isn’t Jesus asking too much of us? We are victims of so many egregious acts. And what about terrorists or others who take innocent lives? They don’t consider the heartache and loss they cause. Why should we? For many of us, terrorist attacks or other heartless murders have resulted in the loss of life or livelihood of dear family members and friends; and hours, weeks, years of psychological, even spiritual, trauma and rehabilitation. Why should we even consider forgiveness in those situations?

In the story about the master and his servant, Jesus didn’t say how the servant incurred such an insurmountable debt. Maybe this is because it isn't a factor. Maybe it’s because the only important point is that we forgive. There are no limits to true forgiveness. The enormity of an offense should not factor into the equation. The severity of wrongs did not stop Jesus from forgiving the world and it didn’t stop the master who canceled his servant’s debt. It also didn’t prevent Stephen from forgiving each person who threw stone after stone until he passed.

Forgiveness needs to be our natural response when we are wronged. God commands it and Jesus demonstrated it. When we are put in a position to retaliate or demand restitution, we should remember that Jesus forgave us. He forgave us even before we sinned against Him. Forgiveness is in His nature, and it should be in ours. It should be Step 1 in a process that may only include one step.

Consider this:
  • We are often at fault and sometimes we offend even those who hurt us. So it is hypocritical to demand restitution.
  • Jesus offers mercy to us, so we should follow His lead and offer mercy to others. Mercy and forgiveness are at the core of our salvation and daily relationship with God.
  • Forgiveness is an act of care and love for the offender.
  • We should be concerned about the offender’s relationship with God.
  • As much as we desire restitution, the offender can never truly compensate us for an offense. Reconciliation always requires forgiveness.
Read that last bullet again. The offender can never truly compensate us for an offense. There is always a loss when we are wronged, so there must always be a release of debt, i.e., forgiveness. Remember: forgiveness is about the offender, and only the offender. The debt must be forgiven as if the offense never occurred; money was never borrowed; biting remarks were never expressed; and, in the case of Jesus, the sins of all mankind were never committed. That’s forgiveness.

**This post was adapted from Session 7 of 12 Answers that Rock this World. For a deeper dive into forgiveness and many other topics Jesus taught His disciples when He was here on earth, pick up the Leader Guide at Amazon for a 12-session solo or group study (available in Kindle and print). It may very well rock your world.

If you have questions about forgiveness or if you want to know more about Jesus’ sacrifice of forgiveness on the cross and what it means to be a child of God, please email me at

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