“Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how many times should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times, ” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven.”” (Matthew 18:21-22 NLT)
As we continue this series looking at questions people asked Jesus, today we come to the challenging topic of forgiveness.
We all know that as Christians we are called to forgive, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. When we have been hurt by someone’s words or actions it can be difficult to let go of that and move on, and what about if a person sins against us again and again? Surely there’s a limit!
This seems to have been on Peter’s mind when he came to Jesus and asked this question, and, at first glance, his suggestion of forgiving seven times seems reasonable, even generous, but Jesus has other ideas- not seven times, but seventy times seven…
…And since we’d probably have lost count by that point, I don’t think he’s setting a literal limit of 490 times, but rather that he’s saying we should keep on forgiving.
It’s a challenge!
Recently there was a situation where I was struggling to forgive. It surprised me as I’m not normally one to hold a grudge, and the offence was not particularly big, but in this instance I was reluctant to let it go.
I had many reasons why I shouldn’t forgive: the way I had been treated was unfair, the person hadn’t even realised they had done anything wrong until I pointed it out (surely it was obvious!), even when they finally apologised I felt that they weren’t really sorry, that they didn’t really appreciate or care about the impact of their actions. Just saying sorry didn’t make it all right!
But as I was bringing my complaints to God, he helped me to look at it differently. After all, weren’t they just treating me the way I sometimes treat him?
So many times I take his forgiveness for granted- acting in ways that hurt him without even noticing, or without caring as much as I should when it is pointed out.
I’m glad God doesn’t set a limit of seven times on me, so why should I set a limit of seven times on other people?
Sometimes it just seems too big though. We can forgive the little things, but how can we forgive the people whose wounds have marked us with lasting scars? What do we do when we continue to struggle with the impact of their sin, when we’ve tried to forgive and we want to forgive, but it just seems impossible?
Often it’s a process. Maybe “seventy times seven” doesn’t only apply to forgiving different offences, but to repeatedly choosing to forgive the same offence.
About a year and a half ago, God challenged me about forgiving in a certain situation. It was something I had forgiven before, which I would have said I had completely forgiven, but which I obviously hadn’t, and I knew that God wanted me to deal with it.
I had read about a technique called a “burn list” and, reluctantly, I decided to give it a try. The first step was to write down the offence, and the impact it had- to consider the knock-on effect, the lasting consequences, and the areas of woundedness that had been left behind.
I wrote and I wrote and, before long, three pages were covered. It looked so big: so many words, so much hurt. How was I meant to deal with this?
The next step was to pray, releasing it to God, and then to burn it. I was still not convinced that it would work, but I decided to give it a go.
I prayed, then I lit a match and dropped it into the bowl containing the paper…
…It singed the edges but then the fire went out.
I lit a second match, and it burned a little more, but then again the flame dwindled and died.
Fire-lighting is definitely not my spiritual gift!
I wondered at this point if I was ever going to manage to burn the paper. What had started as a spiritual exercise had become a bit of a farce. Why wouldn’t the paper just burn?
I decided to persevere though and, nine matches later, I was finally left with a bowl of ashes. All the words were burned away and as I looked at the fragments of ash, what had once seemed so big suddenly appeared so small.
It was gone, and it felt that a weight had been lifted.
The two lessons I took from that experience are:
Forgiveness requires perseverance. It may not always happen quickly. Sometimes it’s a gradual process. It can’t always be rushed, but if we determine to persevere and set our hearts in that direction we will get there in the end. Sometimes it will be frustrating, and it may feel like our efforts are in vain but, with time and commitment, we can do it, one step at a time.
Forgiveness is worth it. The sense of freedom when we finally manage to let go and release it to God makes all the effort more than worthwhile.
So, how many times are we to forgive?
Seventy times seven, and even more, because, “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you.” (Matthew 6:14 NLT)
This post is part of a series looking at questions people asked Jesus. You can find an index page with all the posts in the series here.