I Said I Was Sorry
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
Those of us who have recurrently engaged in destructive behavior really like today’s passage. As serial offenders, we love the idea that those who call themselves Christians must forgive us even when we’ve done the same hurtful thing over and over. I have the Bible on my side. Jesus says you have to forgive me! In the passage, Jesus certainly does insist that his disciples must forgive again and again with no limit.
The one addicted to any destructive behavior, whether it’s drugs, abuse, anger, or pornography, manipulates Jesus’ teaching to get himself off the hook after every failure. The error is that he mistakes forgiveness with restoration of trust. He falsely believes that I’m sorry, is the magical Christian phrase that resets everything to the old way of life. The offender wants to be able to repeatedly destroy trust and get away with it.
What does it mean, and what does it not mean, to forgive? For me, the best way to understand is in financial terms. If someone borrows (or steals) from me, they owe me. I can hold that debt over them, or I can surrender the right to be paid back. Forgiveness is letting go of the debt. Now, if someone borrows from me seven times and refuses to repay, I can let go of that debt – I can forgive – without ever lending to them again.
It would be stupid of me to continue to lend money to someone who has proved they are unlikely to repay. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the past and it does not mean no boundaries. Jesus, just a few verses earlier, said as much, when he instructed the disciples to distance themselves from those who refused to repent and change their ways (Matthew 18:17).
Boundaries frustrate the manipulative addict though. You can’t hold the past over me if you’ve forgiven me. That’s not very Christian! For our own sake, we do need to forgive and let go of the bitterness that would destroy us. This doesn’t mean however, that we must continue to allow others to repeatedly bring their destruction into our lives. Jesus taught both forgiveness and boundaries.