Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgiven him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21–22—NKJV)

I am sure you have heard someone say “it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” Ever since I first heard the saying, my sense of moral justice has felt offended. Each time I hear it, the phrase grates upon my conscience like fingernails on a chalkboard. I have heard it used among friends, between teenagers when discussing parental prerogative, and among Christians in passing conversation. In each instance the cuteness of the phrase has been used as a form of socially accepted rationalization among similar-thinking individuals in order to excuse achieving a desired outcome without doing the hard work of being sure the outcome is right.

If you want to know how an amoral world views the phrase, ask around and you will find philosophies ranging from “Why do I need either forgiveness or permission?” to “Sure, that’s right, that way I can do what I want!” or “I always ask permission, I don’t have time for the drama of asking forgiveness.” to “I will only ask for permission if I know I will get a ‘Yes,’ otherwise I will ask for forgiveness if I get caught.”

I suspected that the phrase had to have a military history since the moral logic of it sounds like it would only make sense in a desperate situation when destruction was imminent. I was partially right. It does have a military background. The person to whom the phrase is attributed is Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, also the woman responsible for coining the term “debugging” a computer in 1947 when she discovered a two inch Virginia moth stuck in a Mark II computer relay at the Navy research lab in Dahlgren. The moth may still be seen taped to her notes in the Smithsonian.

Grace was quoted in the July, 1986 edition of the Navy’s Chips Ahoy magazine as having said, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” Understanding the significance of her role in the pioneering days of computer language research, it is easy to conceive how her saying gained traction, but to misapply it in a ubiquitous fashion is the opposite of real wisdom. There is a reason why it was not first attributed to King Solomon—he would have never said it; it is no where to be even remotely found in the book of Proverbs because it does not stand the tests of divine approbation or of lofty moral maxims. In fact, it is best to remove it from your sanctified mind altogether! The thinking strongly resembles the false view that “the end justifies the means.” This does not pass the “smell test.”

Some think that the words of our Lord to Peter lend tacit approval to the idea that the offended party is duty-bound to grant forgiveness so that life and relationships can go on without a hiccup. Interestingly the word our Lord uses translated by forgiveness means “to let go, release, pardon, permit, to cancel criminal proceedings.” In the very definition, the gravity of the offense is found. The preceding context to Peter’s question deals with judgment meted out to someone who has offended and does not ask for forgiveness nor desire to be restored. Forgiveness is significant business (Luke 17:3).

In order to ask for forgiveness, the Bible specifically enjoins a man to first be repentant or forgiveness loses its fullest significance. The words of Paul to Simon in Acts 8:22–23 come to mind: “Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you, for I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.” Biblical repentance is a change of mind and heart that leads to a change in direction and action. No wonder one of the thieves hanging upon a cross, alongside the cross of Jesus Christ, died and went to Hell for eternity while the other one repented and was forgiven.

In order to be saved, a sinner must first repent of his sins, and sinning ways, and then ask for forgiveness through the efficacy of the shed blood of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38, Hebrews 9:22). For any Christian, of any age, to operate off of such a dubious dictum as “it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission” opens a wide window into his heart. He is declaring to all who know him that he has a poor view of authority and is engulfed in his own selfishness. Not only must he repent and ask forgiveness of those he offended, he must repent and ask forgiveness from his Lord and Master. Live with a sense of honor and morality determined by God and above the reproach of men. Trust and obey.