Why should I forgive people who have hurt me deeply? How can I let go of those wounds that have scarred my life? What is forgiveness? What do we actually do when we forgive? What are the stages of forgiveness?

In this issue and in the next several, we are going to deal with various aspects of forgiveness, such as God’s forgiveness toward us, our forgiveness of other people, and forgiveness of ourselves.

One day, Peter comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matt. 18:21).

The concern behind Peter’s question has been felt by everyone who has ever been hurt. Why should I forgive? What if the other person doesn’t deserve it? I might get hurt again!

Jesus tells him, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (verse 22).

Then Jesus goes on to tell a story about a servant who owed his master 10,000 talents but was unable to pay the debt. He begged for forgiveness. The master had compassion upon him and released him from his debt. Then the servant went outside and found a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii. He insisted on collecting the debt. When his fellow servant was not able to pay it, he put him in jail. The master heard what the servant did and changed his mind; he put the servant in jail until he was able to pay his debt (Matt. 18:23-35).

Now, in our culture, we don’t know much about talents, so we may miss the enormity of this debt. But a talent was the equivalent of 15 years of wages, so the servant owed his master 150,000 years of wages, or the equivalent of 55 million days of wages. That debt is impossible to pay off.

Just like the servant, what we owe God is an unpayable debt. David said, “I was born in iniquity” (Ps. 51:5, KJV). We sin from the moment we are born. Many times, we look at sin in terms of the act, but, in God’s eyes, even our sinful desires, thoughts, and motives are sin.

For instance, Jesus defined adultery as the act itself to the contemplation of the act when He said, “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27, 28).

He also defined murder as the physical act of killing someone by being angry at that person. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matt. 5:21, 22a).

Then He moved the act of love from just loving the people who love us to the people who hate us and are our enemies. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44, 45a).

The Bible has many words for sin, with meanings such as missing the mark, transgression, and going astray. One word, “awah” in Hebrew, means to distort, to make crooked, and to pervert, and includes sin and its consequences. It is manifested in thought, word, and deed as we show the twisting of our souls (Job 33:27; Ps. 106:43; Is. 30:13).1

We live in a state of sin. Even the good things we want to do might have mixed motives. For example, we want to help someone, but we also want recognition. We often love just so we can be loved. We worship God for His blessings and not for who He is.

You and I are the debtors. Every one of us has sinned and failed to live up to God’s ideal for us, and, in a very real sense, that puts us in debt. We owe something that we cannot pay. We are hopelessly bankrupt.

Jesus’ story, however, shows us that God is willing to forgive us completely. David defines forgiveness as follows: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit (Ps. 32:1, 2).”2 The Living Bible says: “What happiness for those whose guilt has been forgiven! What joys when sins are covered over! What relief for those who have confessed their sins and God has cleared their record.”

He is willing to wipe the slate clean. He accepts us. He doesn’t say, “We will work out an installment plan so you can pay back the debt.” He doesn’t say, “We will lower the debt so you have to pay only a part of it.” No. He says, “I forgive you totally. The debt is canceled. You are free.” When we grasp the enormity of the gift of forgiveness that has come to us in Jesus Christ, it makes a difference. The meaning and reality of that gift, when we understand it, enables us to forgive those who have wronged us.

The servant in Jesus’ story never really comprehended the gift of grace that he had received. You can tell that from his response to the king: “I will pay back everything.” As if he ever could! Our debt of sin is far too great for us ever to atone for it, but, on the cross, Jesus Christ carried it for us. There’s no way to measure what He has given us.

When we realize that we have been forgiven an impossible debt, it’s hard for us to get terribly excited about the debt somebody owes us. This doesn’t mean that we will ignore wrongs and injustices, but we will view fellow sinners from a different perspective when we realize what God has forgiven us.

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:12, 13).

In the next two issues of Elder’s Digest, we will study forgiveness to those who have wronged us.

1 Colin Brown, editor, Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 3, (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency, 1971), 573-587. Also see, http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/sin/, Accessed June 14, 2017.

2 Paul quotes David in Romans 4:6.

S. Joseph Kidder is a professor of Christian ministry and biblical spirituality at the Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.