“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-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
What about objective forgiveness, not holding someone accountable for what they have done? When the offense is personal and the offender has asked for forgiveness and when I’m not in a responsible position to see that he or she does right or is punished, I’m required to forgive in the objective sense as well as the subjective sense. Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). This means I don’t require payment and don’t seek punishment. And remember, making a person pay doesn’t have to be sending a bill demanding cash. It can be holding the offense over a person, never letting them forget, subtly hinting at their failure. These means of holding someone accountable are sure signs of unforgiveness.
On the other hand, if I am responsible in some way to see that justice is done, that a person behaves, if I’m officially responsible, then I can’t always forgive in this objective sense. Parents may need to discipline the child, the judge must pass sentence, or the church needs to discipline the cheating spouse. But if I am not responsible to hold the person accountable, I need to let it go. Usually I’m not responsible to see justice served; I have no official role of supervision. In those circumstances if the person asks forgiveness, I’m required to do it.
Peter asked Jesus how many times he was obligated to forgive someone. Jesus answered, “70 times seven” (Matt. 18:22). Then He told a cautionary parable about a slave who asked his master to forgive his debt. The master complied with his request and forgave his debt. But the slave then refused to have mercy on a fellow slave who owed him money, instead having him thrown in jail. When the master heard about it, he had the slave thrown in jail as well. Jesus concluded, “So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart” (v. 35). Jesus’ teaching shows that we are required to forgive others; it’s a command.
If the person doesn’t ask for forgiveness, I’m not required to cancel the debt, just as God doesn’t. Even so, I may choose to do so, just as Jesus and Stephen prayed for the forgiveness of those who were killing them (see Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). And killing is a fairly heavy offense! Of course, we have no record of whether their prayers were answered, but they were not demanding justice from God, just pleading mercy for the offender.
The heart of forgiveness leads to another facet of the problem that confuses sensitive Christians. Subjective forgiveness is closely linked with love. In fact, it’s love that makes such forgiveness possible. So when earnest people overreach in the matter of forgiveness, claiming that we must always forgive no matter what the offense, no matter the lack of repentance, they ask us to be more spiritual than God. What they should be saying is that we are to love a person no matter what the offense, no matter whether they repent. We are always obligated to love and forgive subjectively. We are sometimes obligated to forgive objectively.
A nephew of mine once appeared in court at a parole hearing. The man who brutally killed his sister was making his second appeal for parole, and family members were present to oppose the parole. Had they not forgiven? Yes, but they felt he was a danger to others. One of her brothers struggled for years to let the offense go until finally, weeping, God met him and gave him the gift of forgiveness, washing away the anger and bitterness. But still he was responsible to hold accountable a violent, hardened criminal. Is there any response that reveals an unforgiving spirit? Now is the time to get rid of that poisonous root. Turn over this hurt to God and ask Him to enable you to forgive as He has forgiven you.