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

How many times should I forgive?

Good question. Many of us have someone in our lives who has to be forgiven repeatedly — perhaps an overly-demanding boss or annoying co-worker, a neighbor who keeps forgetting to return what they’ve borrowed, a friend who’s sometimes unreliable, a relative who never seems to learn from their mistakes. When the offences pile up we can be tempted to ask the same question Peter did — how many times?

Jesus’ answer? That depends; how many times do you want to be forgiven?

Jesus is giving insight into God’s heart: forgiveness is not optional. The truth is, everyone who is part of God’s family needs His repeated forgiveness. If I can’t or won’t forgive others, I can’t maintain a heart for God. I’m too hard, too brittle. I’ll either end up with a heart like stone, unable to feel anything except bitterness, or be shattered like glass when life hits hard. Unforgiveness is a choice that destroys me first, whatever it does to its target.

If God were not forgiving — and forgiving, and forgiving, and forgiving — when we repent, we’d be left with no hope. We’ve received His forgiveness frequently and freely, and we have to give ours in the same spirit. Forgiveness must be sincere, but it doesn’t have to depend on feelings. If I don’t feel forgiving, I can still choose to forgive, and ask God to help my feelings match my choice. I can repent of my wrong attitude, pray to discover its source and then for strength to overcome it.

So if I’m ready to set up a table of the number of times I have to forgive others, I’d better first put on the table how many times God has forgiven me. Now there’s a figure I won’t be able to multiply in my head! And it’s a number that will easily exceed the times I’m called on to extend mercy to someone else.

The trespass — no matter how great — is far less significant that my response to the trespass. If I really want to be more like Jesus, to have more of His heart and in the process heal my own, then I will understand the necessity of a spirit of forgiveness.