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?” Jesus answered, “I tell you not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
“How many times should we forgive?” Many of us can identify with the question Peter poses to Jesus. It’s humorous to think that Peter might have been trying to figure out the cap at which he maxes out of forgiveness to give each person. However, it would seem that behind his question, and ours, is a fear of people taking advantage of our forgiveness. I can almost hear and resonate with Peter’s heart in trying to assess when enough is enough. It can be exhausting when your forgiveness is taken for granted and you are expected to turn the other cheek. It is this sentiment of vulnerability that has fueled a related question—does forgiveness require forgetting?
Have you ever heard the phrase “forgive and forget”? This has been a constant refrain that I hear when pastors preach or when people try to provide advice on forgiveness. In fact, I have heard it so much that I was convinced that this was a part of a biblical passage. Another familiar term has been “the sea of forgetfulness.” Hailing from a passage in Micah 7:19, this scripture describes the depths of willingness that God has for the forgiveness for our sins. However, the actual word forgetfulness is not used in this passage: “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” It seems that while forgetting may provide a less painful avenue towards forgiveness, it is not biblically required. Undoubtedly there are benefits to taking the sting out of an offense if it can be dismissed or forgotten, but this forgetting is not necessary.
What We Know
In answering Peter’s question, Jesus uses the number seventy-seven. Why does Jesus up the ante from seven times per person to seventy-seven times per person? I believe he was making the point that keeping a forgiveness tally, to keep in line with the caps Jesus set, would be cumbersome, immobilizing, and petty. Jesus is making the case that the focus should be on the act of forgiveness itself. The same point could be made when reflecting on the principle of forgetting as a part of forgiveness. There are many arguments that can be made to support why forgetting may not always be a good idea. But what we do know is that forgiving—choosing to release someone from the expected obligation to make amends—can be done even if you can still recall the offense. If forgetting helps you get to the process of forgiveness, then use it. Just don’t let the act of forgetting become the stipulation that keeps you from extending forgiveness to others.
God, you have never withheld forgiveness from us, for this we thank you. We need your grace because forgiveness leaves us vulnerable. Help us to forgive without qualification as your Son Jesus forgave. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.