For Christians forgiveness is a central concern.   Jesus taught the nature and the importance of forgiveness as no other major religious figure in history.  Not like Moses, who allowed an eye for an eye.  Not like Confucius, who thought forgiving enemies violated justice.  Not like Mohammed, who used force against opponents. Not even like the compassionate Buddha, who concentrated more on inner peace than reconciling relationships.

In Matthew’s gospel we read of Peter asking Jesus how many times he must  be forgiving.“Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as  seven times?” Jesus answered: “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy times seven times.”    (Mt. 18: 21-22)  Seven had always been thought of as a quasi magical number.    Thus seventy times seven is to be understood as an unlimited number.

St Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians reflects the link between God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness of others. Paul wrote: “Be generous to one another, sympathetic, for-giving each other as readily as God forgave you in Christ.” (Ephesians 4: 32) Other gospel passages also reflect that link.  There is the parable of the unforgiving servant.  (Mt.18: 23-35)  And there are those verses in chapter six (14-15) which quote Jesus as saying: “Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.”   The Our Father explicitly relates God’s forgiveness with our forgiveness of others. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Clearly,    there is an intimate link between being forgive and our forgiveness of others.

It does not seem accurate to interpret those gospel passages as though God’s forgiveness is conditioned by human acts of forgiveness, as though God will offer his forgiveness only after we have forgiven those who have harmed us.  We do not earn  God’s forgiveness.  It is not a reward for our acts of forgiveness.  It is not a sort of subtle barter between God and humans.  Such an understanding would obscure  the fact that God’s forgiveness is unmerited.  The connection seems, rather, to be that if a person is unwilling to forgive they render themselves incapable of receiving forgiveness.

Out of love and mercy God in his love and mercy forgives us and even gives us the power to change.  In turn, that is what God asks us to do for one another.