Peter was looking for an “attaboy.”
Jesus had just finished giving His teaching on the process of confrontation when a brother sins against you. Peter, hearing Jesus’ emphasis on honest and direct communication with the aim of restoration, came back with a very generous offer, at least in his mind:
“Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21).
Nice, Peter. I see what you did there. You hid a statement in the form of a question. It’s especially nice since the rabbis of the day taught that 3 instances of forgiveness was plenty. But you? You are going above and beyond. But Jesus wiped the smugness off Peter’s face with His next statement:
“I tell you, not as many as seven, but 70 times seven.”
So that’s more then. A lot more. And Jesus’ point becomes clear – there isn’t a specific number of times you should forgive another, but instead you should forgive generously as God has forgiven you. That’s what the subsequent parable is all about.
We get that at some level I think. Because God doesn’t run out of forgiveness for us, we must do likewise to our brothers. Forgiven people, forgive people. Most of the time we think of this in a situation where we have a friend who can’t seem to get his or her act together. They’re always messing up; they can’t seem to get their social graces in order. And time after time, they have to come to us apologizing again and again for saying the wrong thing, not thinking through their actions, que cera cera.
But let’s consider Jesus’ statement from a different angle – one that takes forgiveness out of the realm of “she didn’t include me when she tagged everyone on Facebook” and moves it into something much more serious. Some instance, let’s say, of deep, deep betrayal. Let’s consider that instance when one person has been irreparably harmed by another. Their life has been altered. Nothing will ever be the same, and now comes the opportunity to forgive.
Anyone who has felt that kind of pain, I believe, will testify to the fact that forgiveness isn’t so cut and dry. Sure, you can say the words simple enough; but it’s another matter to truly feel it. To live it.
In such a case, the “70 x 7” is less about the number of times you have been wronged, and more about the number of times you must silently pronounce that forgiveness to another. It’s in such a case that forgiveness becomes an act of discipline – one that must be exercised sometimes daily, if not hourly, as you remind yourself over and over again that you forgive another.
Mind you this statement of forgiveness might not ever be said beyond the initial verbalization; but though you might not ever say it out loud passed the initial time, you think it. You have to. You say it to your heart. You preach it to yourself. The pain is so deep; the bitterness is so threatening; the anger is so fresh; that time and time again you must preach to your soul that you have forgiven. And then when you feel the anger or bitterness or anxiety, you say it to yourself again.
70 x 7 times. Or as many times as it really takes to grab hold. Discipline yourself to forgive, Christian, because sometimes it’s not as easy as doing it seven times.
Michael Kelley (M.Div.) and his wife, Jana, have three children. He’s the Director of at LifeWay Christian Resources. His works include Boring and Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal. Keep up with Michael on his blog at michaelkelleyministries.com or on Twitter @_MichaelKelley.