They did it again. You feel hurt, frustrated, and even angry. They broke their promise and did what they said they would not. You already forgave them for this, more than once. And yet, they did it again. Are they hopeless? Are they lying to you? They must not care at all.
Deep down you feel the bitter pangs of heartache. Every time they do this it brings another scar. Soon enough your scars have their own scars. You are done, ready to quit. You feel used and abused. It’s as if every single time you forgive them and they promise to try harder, ultimately failing, they chip away another fragment from the bond of love, family, or friendship you have. You are trying so hard but if feels like they are not even trying. It’s a vicious cycle, they do it, you are hurt, you finally forgive them. You anxiously cross your fingers fearfully waiting for it to happen again.
Just like predicted they do it again. You get more frustrated and feel as though your forgiveness is enabling them. Every time you say “its’ ok, I forgive you” they must feel that what they are doing is not a big deal after all. They probably don’t take you serious and they probably don’t think you are serious about this issue. You decide to give them some tough love to “help them.” You start to add a condition to your forgiveness, such as “if you don’t do it again, then I’ll forgive you.” Or “I can forgive you if you stop it.” You try to show them that you mean business. He or she apologises yet again.
And yet again they hurt you. It must be that they don’t care enough about what they are doing. Your pain begins to bubble up, turning into anger. How could they be so selfish? It’s ridiculous! They need punishment! They need retribution against their unfair and selfish acts. You decide to restrain your forgiveness and acceptance, you begin to say things like “I will never forgive you.” You look away from them, hoping the retaliatory judgment from you would hurt them in a way they hurt you. Your feelings of goodwill have been replaced by the yearning for justice. You want them to feel what they did to you, you want them to pay for their sin. They hurt you, now they must pay. How could you let their sin against you be unpaid? It’s not fair, they will think its ok to keep hurting you! No, never! You restrain your love and deliver them unto justice. “It’s too late, I can’t forgive you anymore.”
HOW MANY TIMES OUGHT WE FORGIVE?
The Pharisees forgave three times
The Pharisees, a religious sect at the time of Christ’s life, were the most zealous Bible-believing people of their day. Because of this they taught that a person must forgive another two times to obey the Law. And to be a really good Pharisee you had to do better than the Law (after all what kind of Pharisee would you be if you just barely meet the law and not go above it?) So thus, the common idea was that to be righteous you had to forgive the same person three times. (1) Twice to obey the law and one more time to go far above it.
Peter wanted to forgive seven times
Peter had been around with Jesus for quite some time. He knew that Jesus said that we ought to have a righteousness that would exceed that of the Pharisees (Mat 5:20). So Peter did what any self-righteous person would do and began to measure and compare his righteousness to another. He doubled the number “forgiveness passes” held by the Pharisees, and then in brilliant irony, just like the Pharisees, added one more point above his new law, a sort of “cherry on top.” Peter went from three times to six and added a seventh just in case. He then asks Jesus (probably vying for brownie points): “how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” He was probably expecting a pat on the back, an acknowledgement that his righteousness was more than double that of the Pharisees.
Jesus said forgive “seventy times seven”
Yet instead elevating Peters huge number, Jesus throws out an even bigger one. He said “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mat 18:22). Literally that number is 490 times, or two hundred and forty five times greater than the requirement of the Law (according to the Pharisees). Commentators agree this Hebrew idiom is not mean to be taken literally, but instead it refers to a number that is “unlimited.” Their “seventy times seven” is an ancient equivalent of our saying something ridiculous like “a million times a million” or something to that effect (2,3,4). A outrageous number that has no end. That is the number of “forgiveness passes” you ought to have prepared for that one person.
A HARD QUESTION
Now think about that person who hurt you so many times. Ought you still forgive them? Can you? Briefly we should note forgiveness does not mean accepting what they did or will continue to do as good. It also does not mean staying in a relationship with them if they are hurting you. It does not mean remaining best friends. It does mean completely liberating them from guilt and condemnation in your heart. It does mean having no ill feelings towards them. It does mean you refuse to harbor their mistakes deep within your wounded heart.
Can you forgive 490 times?
Here is a question? Let’s pretend Jesus only mean the literal number of 490 times. Would you be able to forgive the same person four hundred and ninety times? If you are married, imagine that your spouse cheats on you or looks at pornography. You then forgive her/him. They do it again. And again. And again. For a whole year doing it once a week. You are angry and devastated, but it’s only been 52 times! Its only ten percent of 490, the full amount of times you ought to forgive them. If they sin against you once a week it would take ten years to use up all your forgiveness! Imagine that your best friend “betrayed” you once a week for ten years, could you remain besties? Imagine that your neighbor broke into your house once a week for years upon years, could you still continue to forgive him? What if your employer cheated you of some money every single paycheck you got? You would have to forgive him for twenty years to use up all 490 of your forgiveness points! Most of you can’t even stay at the same job for twenty years, much less forgive your boss ever pay period! What if you got mugged by the same person in the same alley every Friday night? Could you refuse to hate him and keep forgiving him for ten years?
Its’ completely unreasonable!
It’s called Grace.
Jesus calls us to forgive unlimited times, but we could hardly do 490. If we are honest we can admit that we have a problem fulfilling Peters seven times, or even the Pharisees three. But what if this whole thing was reversed?
What if God only forgave 490 times?
What if that was the case? Then I would have run out of God’s forgiveness in a few weeks. I would be unforgivable by the time I was four. I would be unforgivable before I learned to read or write. Even if my quota was reset every year I wouldn’t make it to Christmas on 490 pardons. Think about your own life and the many times you have sinned. How long could you last on only four hundred and ninety absolutions? A month? A year? What if God said “it’s too late” or “I can’t forgive you anymore”? Here is a fearful thought: What if God forgave you as much as you forgive others? How many weeks could you last then? I doubt very many. We would probably share bunks in hell.
And why aren’t we there yet? That is the scandal we call Grace. Fairness and justice are normal and standard. Grace and forgiveness is ridiculous and scandalous. So be scandalous; to paraphrase a well-known contemporary philosopher, Mr. Lightyear, go and forgive to “infinity and beyond.”