How soon do I forgive someone? People can say things without meaning them. Should I wait until I see that they have really changed?
"For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You" (Psalm 86:5).
"And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32).
We can always turn the question around: How soon do you want God to forgive you? How soon do you want a friend to forgive you when you say, "I'm sorry, I was wrong." It is easy to hold out on another person, but we rarely want the same delays for ourselves.
We probably give ourselves a "pass" because we know our hearts and understand that we are sincere. Since we mean it, we want others to accept that. But when it comes to another person, we can't read their minds. We don't know if they really mean it and we don't want to be hurt again, so we hesitate. But that lack of mind-reading should be just the point. "For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?" (I Corinthians 2:11). How do you know for certain that this time the person really has repented?
"Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, 'I repent,' you shall forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4).
Notice the implication that there is no delay in the offer of forgiveness. If you were to wait a week or a month to see if he really has changed, then there would be no opportunity to forgive seven times in one day.
Jesus isn't putting a specific limit on the number of times to forgive. Seven is often used as a number representing something complete, whole, or perfect. In a perfect world, a child of God forgives as often as a person turns from his sins and asks for your forgiveness. Just like his Father, a Christian must stand ready to forgive when the opportunity arises.
Besides, there is a strong motivation not to hold back forgiveness. Our own forgiveness depends on how we treat our brethren. "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15). We talk about the urgency of being baptized when one realizes he needs to be a Christian to be saved (Acts 22:16). Should we have the same urgency when forgiving others since it directly impacts our own salvation?
Sure, there will be times that some ask for forgiveness and then falls right back into sin. There will be times someone claims to repent but doesn't really. We can't predict the future and we can't see into the hearts of men. But we can give the ones most dear to us the benefit of the doubt and accept them at their word. The whole goal of Christianity is to reach heaven and take as many people with us. We are not the gatekeepers to the heavenly way.
When the Corinthians were scolded for not withdrawing from a man who continued in sin, it appears they went overboard in correcting the problem. In Paul's second letter, he had to scold them again, "But if anyone has caused grief, he has not grieved me, but all of you to some extent--not to be too severe. This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him" (II Corinthians 2:5-8). Paul goes on to say that on his own part, he already forgave the man. "Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices" (II Corinthians 2:10-11).
Notice what Paul is warning against if people withhold forgiving someone: 1) The person may give up because of his own grief over what he has done and his rejection by those he loves, and 2) Satan is given an inroad in dividing Christians one against another.
If there is someone needing forgiveness, and they tell you they have turned from their sins, welcome them back with open arms -- even if it is the seventh time you did this today.