“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
-Jesus, Matthew 18:22
How often should I forgive a Christian brother or sister when they wrong me? A lot, it seems. As we’ve seemingly been taught just about every time this passage is read, “seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven” is not Jesus being overly picayune about numbers. Rather, it is Him using an exaggerated figure to let us know that we need to keep on forgiving people. We’re not just supposed to stop on the 78th or 491st offense, in other words. Such forgiveness is yet another hallmark of the Kingdom of God that runs counter to many “common sense” aspects of our broken world. It seems neither fair nor safe, we say…and yet there it is.
The principle inherent in what Christ shares is a powerful one, and reminds us once again of the humility and grace that He embodies and to which Christians are called. But as I am thinking about Jesus’ words, I wonder if a little “spiritual experiment” would help bring such forgiveness into sharper relief. While perpetual forgiveness is a powerful thing, it can often just fade into to background in a general principle–lofty but inexact.
What if, instead, I actually decide to forgive a fellow Christian seventy-seven times? Keep track of it all, consciously choose to forgive, and move through each and every one of the nearly eighty sins and wounds this person might inflict on me? I realize, of course, that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5). I wouldn’t be remembering these moments in order to angrily hold onto the pain and hurt. Rather, I would do so in order to consider the way forgiveness really worked.
Thinking about forgiving a person that many times–even the modest number of 77–seems daunting. Especially if the sins to forgive are weighty. I recall one such instance in my life, and how hard it was to move on. Seventy-six more of those? That’s hard. The concreteness of that number is stark, and it doesn’t allow us room to wiggle out of it. And yet we know, deep down, that this kind of grace, mercy, and humility is exactly what Christ seeks to accomplish in and through us.
May we pray to be people of such forgiveness, both in moments one to seventy-seven as well as following that 78th sin.