Forgiveness Is Unfair
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, ESV).
Before we can take forgiveness seriously, we have to grasp what forgiveness means. Forgiveness is the decision to release a person from the obligation that resulted when he injured you. When you injure others, knowingly or unknowingly, you create an obligation. You take something from them: their time, money, pride, or dignity. And if you take something from your brother, then you owe him. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that nobody pays that price. It actually means that the one granting forgiveness pays. He covers the debt. He’s the one who takes care of it.
If I choose to release someone through forgiveness, I pay the debt. I absorb it. I cover it. I forego what is rightfully due to me. I release the person from what he owes. I pay. Not unlike how, when God forgives, God pays. That’s the story of the gospel, isn’t it? I have a sin debt I can never pay, and Jesus pays it for me.
This extravagant, divine forgiveness sets the stage for human forgiveness, but that doesn’t make it easy. Since the debt was unfair in the first place, we instinctively hesitate to pay it ourselves. But our reasons for not forgiving all turn out to be rationalizations. If we hold out for an apology, we are missing the point. An apology doesn’t pay the debt; only forgiveness can. In the same way, if you’re six months behind on your mortgage, a sincere “sorry” to your bank won’t cancel the debt or the added interest. The apology is irrelevant to the crisis of forgiveness. Forgiveness necessitates a decision point, a true crisis: Will you choose to release the person from the obligation?
For fallen creatures like us, unforgiveness feels like power. Forgiveness surrenders the power to send any more “bills” to that person, to hold the debt over him. Forgiveness releases the person so he no longer owes you. That crisis to choose to forgive feels ugly and messy, but it’s worth it. By releasing someone else, we also release ourselves from the chains of self-destructive unforgiveness.