Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. —Matthew 18:21-22, KJV
When you look at those words from Jesus to Peter, your first reaction might be, “Seriously? Are you kidding me?” Sure, it’s not so hard to forgive someone the first time, and perhaps the third or fifth, or even up to seven times, as Peter proposed. But when you get up into the double digits, it seems like there should be a limit when you look at it from the typical human perspective.
Luckily, Jesus reminds us that, as Christians, we should extend the same grace to others that God extends to us. Yes, He does use a number, but in reality the meaning of His words is clear: don’t worry about tallying up a person’s transgressions against you. Make forgiveness your policy, no matter how often it happens. After all, that’s how our Heavenly Father treats you.
Nowhere in the Bible does God impose a limit on our “strikes” before He tosses us out of the game. Instead, we’re consistently reminded of His willingness to forgive us without any restrictions, save for the admonishment that we treat others the same way. Here’s an example from the Book of Mark:
And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses. —Mark 11:25-26, KJV
If God gives us carte blanche to make mistakes and is still willing to embrace us when we ask for forgiveness, how can we do any less? All He asks in return from us, as Christians, is to extend the same courtesy to our fellow imperfect humans.
Is it really so unreasonable for Jesus to tell us to forgive a person “70 times seven?” Actually, it’s just as much for our own good as it is a way to show mercy to others. When you don’t forgive someone, negative emotions like anger and resentment wear away at your heart like acid dripping on a rock. When you extend forgiveness, your heart softens and the acid dries up and disappears. No longer do you dwell on how the other person wronged you. Instead, you accept it, release it and move on.
You might still be reluctant to obey Jesus’ Word because you don’t want to encourage people to take advantage of you. If you forgive someone for cheating or harming you in some way, won’t he or she see you as a soft touch and try to pull something over on you again?
Of course not! Forgiving others and letting them take advantage of you are two different things. Nowhere does Jesus say you must put yourself in a position for others to sin against you. Yes, it could still happen again, and the right response is to forgive again, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t remove yourself from the circumstances whenever possible.
For example, perhaps a friend or family member borrowed money and didn’t return it. Once you forgive that person, it’s up to you whether or not to extend financial help in the future. Maybe the transgression was more serious. Perhaps someone in your family is fighting an addiction and stole from you to feed it. Again, you should forgive, but that doesn’t mean you must invite that person into your home in the future. You may choose to do so out of love and a desire to help, and if you do, be prepared to forgive again if there’s a repeat performance.
Looking at forgiveness in terms of a large number, like 70 times seven, feels overwhelming. Instead of feeling the burden of being expected to forgive each person in your life 490 times, make a forgiving heart an integral part of who you are. Then you won’t need to count because, just like God, you’ll forgive others as a matter of course.