Forgiveness essential to living in peace

Mark Pickup


September 12, 2016

An unforgiving spirit is corrosive to the soul. It can affect our relationships with others and how others relate to us. An unforgiving spirit darkens how we see the world and can even distort perceptions of reality. But most damaging of all, an unforgiving spirit affects human relationships with God.

When Jesus gave us his model prayer, he included the phrase "And forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors." At the end of it, Jesus gave further explanation saying, "If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6.14-15).

A commentary in the Catholic Study Bible (Oxford University Press) explains that the word "debts" is used metaphorically for sins, debts owed to God.

Later in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus spoke to the disciples about the sins of one person against another. Peter asked, "'Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?' Jesus answered, 'I say to you, not seven times but 77 times'" (18.21-22).

I have often wondered why Peter picked seven for the limit to forgiveness. Apparently, some older commentaries state that rabbis established that if an offender asked for forgiveness three times in the presence of a witness he had to be forgiven.

Perhaps Peter picked seven as the perfect, but limited, number. Jesus' answer was not merely a play on sevens. Nor was he saying if someone sins 78 times, we should not forgive them for the last one.

A footnote in my Catholic Study Bible attached to this passage says that the 77 times corresponds to Genesis 4.24 where Lamech boasts of his extreme and limitless vengeance. Jesus reversed Lamech's ancient, obscene and perversely proud boast, to demand limitless forgiveness of his disciples.

Then Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant who was forgiven a large debt but refused to forgive another's lesser debts. In the parable, when the master discovers this he is enraged.

Jesus concludes his parable: "And in anger his lord handed him [the servant] over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt" (Mt 18.34).

Forgiving others is essential to being forgiven. We see a couple of dynamics in this parable: It is absurd for a Christian who has been forgiven so much to withhold forgiveness from others.


The Father's forgiveness already granted may be withdrawn if we do not forgive others. In Mark's Gospel, Jesus deals with the connection between receiving forgiveness and forgiving others, in context of prayer: "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses" (11.25-26).

The forgiveness we receive from God is dependent on the forgiveness we give to others. It is a spiritual maxim that Christ did not want us to miss.

So why do so many Christians miss it, including me? We hold grudges and savour them like a candy we roll around in our mouths. The damage we do to our own spirit in sweet bitterness exceeds the damage we wish or imagine for the other party. Begrudging Christians should hang their heads to consider how often they expect God to forgive their sins.

There is a reciprocal aspect to Christianity. Yes, Jesus died for all, and God's forgiveness is freely attained through faith in Christ's atoning sacrifice at Calvary.


The free gift of salvation is only free to those who will accept it through faith and repentance. A gift must be accepted and opened. The gift is the truth of Jesus Christ.

The reciprocal part of forgiveness is forgiving. Inasmuch as possible, God wants us to live in peace with others. We are called to greater heights that must not be weighed down by an unforgiving spirit or by holding grudges. This is particularly true within the great family of Christians.

Prior to his Passion, Christ said, "Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13.34-35). Love for one another is a great witness to a world where wrongs are settled with violence and contempt. We are to love one another. Forgiveness is essential.

If Jesus could ask forgiveness for the people who were to crucify him, surely we as his followers can forgive those who hurt us.