FORGIVE AND FORGET?
Almost 20 years ago, a severe quarrel broke out between my younger brother and
me. We had quarrelled quite frequently before that time, but usually, they were
over in a short while. But that time, it got worst and worst, until it became a
fistfight. We had recently became Christians, and we could not understand what
was happening. When we finally separated and went into a separate corner of the
house, I felt a deep grief in my heart; I knew I had sinned against the Lord,
and what was more, it was Christmas day (which I had held superstitiously to be
a holy day). Of course, I thought that it was my brother’s fault that we
quarrelled in the first place, but that did not matter any more. If Christ did
not forgive me for my sins against Him, I would still be heading for eternal
No more than an hour passed, when for the first time in my life, I walked up to
my brother and apologised for fighting with him. It did not matter whose fault
it was, I knew I was wrong to behave the way I did. My brother was too stunned
to respond, but he agreed to pray together with me. He was two years younger
than me, and younger as a Christian by a few months. Although he did not say
anything, I knew that he did forgive me, and what inward peace I felt in my
soul! It did not matter that I had to swallow my pride, it felt good to be
reconciled. That was the last time we ever quarrelled, not to mention fight!
What we experienced that evening in 1982 was the feeling of forgiveness and the
consequent forgetting. Although we were still not fully taught on the Bible, we
had already experienced the necessity and power of forgiveness for healing a
broken relationship. You may say we were taught of the Holy Spirit so that we
knew intuitively what to do. But what we knew intuitively is actually taught in
clear by our Lord.
Immediately, after the events at the Mount of Transfiguration, our Lord
returned with His disciples to Capernaum (Mt 17:24), and soon began to teach
them. One of the things that He taught them was how a Christian ought to
respond to a brother who sins against him (Mt 18:15–20). He gives four steps,
which are still applicable to us: (1) Bring it up to him alone (v. 15). (2) If
he does not repent, bring along one or two witnesses (v. 16). (3) If he does
not repent still, tell it to the church, which would mean telling to the elders
for church discipline (v. 17a). (4) If he still refuses to repent, then the
church should ex-communicate him (vv. 17b–18).
As He spoke, the disciples must have pondered in their hearts: Did not the Lord
earlier teach us to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”
(Mt 6:12)? Did He not explain, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your
heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their
trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14–15)? But
now He seems to be saying something else: if someone sins against you, you must
confront the person. Perhaps, some pressing questions began to burn in the
minds of the disciples: What is the relationship between forgiving the person
and confronting him? If we are to forgive, why do we need to confront? And if
we confront, what if the person is unrepentant? And if he says he is repentant,
but he commits the same sin again, what do we do? After all, there are many who
claim to repent but do not really repent. How many times should we forgive?
So many questions, which to ask? Peter chose the simplest. When the Lord Jesus
stopped speaking, he immediately came to Him and asked, “Lord, how oft shall my
brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” (v. 21). Perhaps
he expected the Lord to answer, “It doesn’t mean that I teach you to forgive,
that must you just keep forgiving and be taken advantage of.” Instead, the Lord
answered, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times
seven” (Mt 18:22). This, of course, does not mean that we are to forgive just
490 times, but that we are to forgive as much and as many times as necessary.
Then perhaps sensing the questions that might be in Peter’s mind, our Lord told
the disciples a parable that would answer some of their perplexities.
A certain king called all his servants together to reckon with them. One of
them owed him 10,000 talents (1 talent is believed to be 6,000 denarii; 1
denarius was a day’s wage for a vineyard worker. 10,000 talents = 60 million
denarii; if you earn $20 a day, that’s $1.2 billion). That’s practically
impossible for the servant to pay, and so the king ordered that he and his family
be sold as slaves (v. 25). The servant pleaded with him, and promised to pay
back (v. 26). It was quite obviously impossible for him to pay back, but the
king was moved with compassion and forgave him, and cancelled his debts (v.
27). But the servant went out and found a fellow servant who owed him 100
denarii (v. 28). That second servant pleaded like the first did, but he was
shown no clemency. Instead he was sent to prison until he should pay (vv.
29–30). This matter was reported to the king (v. 31), who was greatly
infuriated by his servant’s lack of gratitude, and so sent him to the
Our Lord concludes by saying: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also
unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their
trespasses” (Mt 18:35).
We may learn three things from this parable: Firstly, we learn why we
should forgive; secondly, when we should forgive; and
thirdly, how we should forgive.
Why Should we Forgive?
The primary lesson point is obvious: Every believer must learn to forgive
because we have received forgiveness from God. And our forgiveness is not just
for a small crime, but for rebellion against the King of kings, the Lord of
lords. And our forgiveness was bought with an infinite price, the blood of
Christ; and we deserve nothing at all. If we have been so forgiven, should we
not be ever willing to forgive? Indeed, a bitter, unforgiving spirit is a sure
mark of an unregenerate heart. This is why the Lord admonishes us: “For if ye
forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But
if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your
trespasses” (Mt 6:14–15; cf. Mt 18:35).
When Should we Forgive?
Notice that in this parable, the king did not simply cancel the debt but he
called up his servant to reckon with him. In a sense he lets his servant know
how much he owes him, and lets him know what he deserves. That is consistent
with what our Lord just taught concerning a brother who sins against us.
When a brother-in-Christ wrongs us, we should not just quietly keep silent
about it and say we forgive him, especially when what is done is clearly a
sinful act. Rather it is our duty to confront the brother to let him know that
he has sinned. When he repents of his sin, and you forgive him, how sweet that
forgiveness and reconciliation will be!
Indeed, whenever we are aware that there is any tension between ourselves and a
brother-in-Christ, we ought always to take as much initiative as possible to
seek reconciliation. Our Lord says, “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the
altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave
there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy
brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Mt 5:23–24). When you have
something against your brother you ought to do the same according to the
principle of Matthew 18:15–17. This is especially so in the context of the
But, two questions come to mind: (1) Should we not forgive unconditionally? (2)
Christ’s instruction involves conflict between brethren, what about the case
where the aggrieved party is a Christian whereas the guilty party is an
Should not Forgiveness be Unconditional?
To the first question, my answer is “yes” and “no.” Why?
Because forgiveness has three aspects: (1) An attitudinal aspect,
by which we must not hold any grudge or a vindictive spirit against anyone, and
must be very ready to forgive and to pray for a person even where he has not
expressed repentance; (2) areconciliatory aspect of personal
pardon, by which we may receive into favour and fellowship such as expresses
repentance; and (3) a judicial aspect of full forgiveness,
where sin is overlooked and justice is covered in mercy.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Imagine yourself to be the mother of a young boy
who was knocked down by a car while he was crossing at the traffic light in
front of the church. Now, it may be very hard, but by God’s grace, you must
maintain an attitude of forgiveness, so bear no grudge against the person who
killed your son by his reckless driving. This is what the Lord teaches us when
He says, “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any:
that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mk
11:25). We should never bear ill will against anyone, especially to believers.
Bearing ill will against anyone is a breaking of the Sixth Commandment, “Thou
shalt not kill.” Yes, it is most difficult to forgive (or to have a forgiving
spirit towards) those who insist that they are right and who are unrepentant,
but this is required and pleasing to the Lord. But note that when the Lord
teaches us to forgive (unconditionally) as we pray, it is obvious that He is
not telling us to go to the person and tell him that we forgive him
unconditionally. Every time the Scripture speaks of going to the offender, it
is to seek repentance on his part rather than to offer an unconditional
forgiveness. This does not mean that it is always wrong to do so, but it means
firstly that it is not our duty to do so, and secondly, that we must exercise
care not to give the wrong impression.
But suppose when you confront the errant driver, he refuses to acknowledge that
it was his fault, when it was clearly so since the pedestrian light had turned
green when your son crossed the road. And the police had confirmed that he was
driving under the influence of alcohol. Can you tell the man who killed your
son that you forgive him? You may indeed do so if all you mean is that you bear
no grudge against him; but remember that in such a case, for the offender, it
would at best make him less defensive and at worst pamper his conscience so
that he deludes himself as to the severity of the crime.
On the other hand, if the man is very repentant and when he is in prison, he
writes to ask you for forgiveness, then, however difficult it may be, you ought
to give him your forgiveness and tell him so. So our Lord tells us, “Take heed
to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if
he repent, forgive him” (Lk 17:3). Yes, if he repents, forgive him, and
pursue the matter no more. But if he does not repent, you ought to pursue
repentance according to the guideline given by the Lord (i.e., Mt 18:15–17).
But bear in mind that though you express personal pardon, you do not have the
prerogative to say, “let him go free.” No, justice must be met. This is the
reason why Christ had to die for our sins, because the judicial element for
forgiveness cannot simply be overlooked. It cannot be overlooked in the civil
realm, much less in the spiritual and divine realm. Sin, after all, is affront
against God (Ps 51:4). Technically sin is always against God. Someone can wrong
us, and we can forgive him, but who are we to forgive his sins against God when
he wrongs us? The Pharisees were right when they ask the rhetoric question:
“Who can forgive sins but God only?” (Mk 2:7). And God’s forgiveness flows
through the blood of Christ.
It is for this reason too that we ought to be careful not to give any
impression that there is forgiveness without repentance. And moreover, failing
to warn against sin in the church is not only to be party to the sin, but to
allow an Achan to defile the church. A wife whose husband is committing
adultery ought not just to meekly accept her husband’s action. She may be a
very noble woman, and willing immediately to forgive him emotionally, and bear
no more ill will against him, but she is responsible to Christ and His church
too. So, she ought to confront him according to the principles laid down in
Matthew 18, praying fervently, of course, that he would repent.
What About the Case of a Guilty
Now what if the person who does wrong against you is an
unbeliever? Your colleague at work backstabbed you with something that is
totally untrue. The robber came into your house and not only rob you but hurt
In these cases, I believe, we may apply some of the principles taught by our
Lord, although His instruction pertains primarily to trespasses between
brethren (Mt 18:15). I would suggest that when at all possible, we should
confront the person of the wrong done, especially if he does not know or does
not acknowledge that he has done wrong. But beyond that we must learn to
forgive as our Lord forgave when He prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them;
for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34); or how Stephen prayed when he was
being stoned, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). Yes, it is
not wrong to pray for forgiveness for those who wrong us, even though we know
that unless there is genuine repentance and cleansing through the blood of
Christ, God will not forgive them. To forgive a wrong is our responsibility, to
forgive a sin is God’s prerogative. Our praying for those who wrong us, even if
they are unrepentant, is simply an expression of our love for the other person
A story is told of how a British man in South Africa once caught a native
African crossing his field. He caught hold of the man and accused him of trying
to steal his horse. The African man explained that he was simply taking a short
cut to his house, but the British refused to believe. Instead he decided to
teach the African people a lesson. He cut off the left hand of the man and hung
him on a tree. Several years later, the British was on the way home when he got
caught in a storm. And since the large field was uncovered and it would be
dangerous to cross it in the storm, he decided to find shelters in some of the
houses near the edge of his field. He entered into one, but no one was in, and
soon he fell asleep. When he awoke, a black man was standing over him. He was
instantly fearing for his life, and when the man lifted up his left arm, the
British noticed that his hand had been chopped off, and he was all the more
afraid. But the African man said, I was the man whom you hung on the tree, I
was the man whom you maim for life. Now you are in my house and I have power to
hurt you, and revenge is sweet. But I am a Christian, therefore, I forgive you
for what you did. What do you think the British felt when he heard those words?
Though, it may not always be right, and indeed can be often wrong to proclaim
forgiveness unconditionally the way that the African man did, his attitude of
forgiveness is worthy of emulation.
How Should we Forgive?
Notice that in the parable, once the servant pleaded, the king forgave him
immediately (vv. 26–27). And it was a total forgiveness. His debt,—all 10,000
talents,—was cancelled and he was not punished by imprisonment at all, but was
free to go. Yes, that is what is meant by forgiving and forgetting. This man
appeared repentant and the king forgave him, and forgot his debt. But wait,
does forgetting mean that we must forget everything, and start afresh? Again I
must say “yes” and “no.”
Let me begin with “no.” No, if the repentance is not genuine, we must confront
him again. Notice that this was what the king did. Because his slave would not
forgive his co-slave of 100 denarii, when he himself was forgiven of 60 million
denarii, the king revoked his earlier forgiveness and threw his slave to the
tormentors until he paid up his debt. But why did not the king, in the first
place, check to make very sure that his servant was truly repentant? Well, the
simple reason is that we are not required to do so. Our Lord teaches this fact
clearly: “And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times
in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him” (Lk
17:4). Yes, at the point of confrontation, we must accept the word of the
person who has wronged us. If he says he repent, you must forgive him, you must
not suspect that he is not sincere. If after saying he repents, he commits the
same sin again, you must confront him again. If he again repents, you must forgive
without considering how many times he had repented and went back on his word.
This is hard, but we must always give others the benefit of the doubt.
But yes, we must forget if the repentance is genuine; we should never mention
it again. Such is the case when God forgives us. When He forgives us, it is on
the basis of Christ’s substitutionary death for us. We begin a new life with
Him anew, He casts all our sins into the depth of the sea (Mic 7:19) and He
removes our transgressions from us for “as far as the east is from the west”
(Ps 103:12). Such must be our forgiveness to those who wrong us. And yes, as
long as the person does not sin against you again in the same manner, you must
assume that his repentance is genuine, and therefore forgive and forget.
But what does forgetting entails? It entails (1) not ruminating it—not
dwelling about what happened and indulging in self-pity. If you keep
congratulating yourself that you’ve forgiven a person even though you were
badly hurt by him, then you had not really forgiven; (2) not raising it
again—if you forgive your wife for something she has done, it must never be
brought up again when you quarrel, or you have not forgiven. Moreover, “He that
covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter
separateth very friends” (Prov 17:9); (3) not rumouring it—if
you say you forgive someone you must not tell others of how you were hurt by
this person. Doing so would be like pulling off the bandage to show others how
badly you were cut. How could there be any healing then?
We’ve been looking thus far at forgiveness from a very technical point of view.
I did so because I believe that there is quite a bit of confusion on the
subject today. But the most valuable thing, I believe, that might be achieved
by this article is that if you have still not forgiven someone who have done
you wrong, that you resolve now to do so at the soonest possible moment. You
say, “Oh, I’ve forgiven, it is just that I cannot forget, I still feel the
hurt, I’m human you know.” Well, beloved, perhaps you have not really forgiven.
Are you upset about someone, and you did not confront that person? Do you know
you have wronged someone, or suspect that someone has aught against you, and
you have not sought forgiveness and reconciliation? I would appeal to you, for
the Lord’s sake, to take the initiative for reconciliation rather than wait for
the other person to initiate.