There he was, crouched in front of the fire, poking the logs with a stick to refresh the flame. Peter sat down on a large, flat stone next to him. "Jesus?" "Yes?" He didn't look up. "I have a question. How many times must I forgive my brother? Seven times?" Jesus gazed into the fire, seemingly captivated by the orange heat that wavered and crawled across the coals. Firelight and shadow played across the side of his face. Then... "No, Peter, not seven times. Seventy-seven times." "Whaaat! How am I supposed to keep track of that?" "Exactly." Not seven times. Seventy-seven times. Like three and forty, the number seven in the Bible has particular significance. It represents perfection, completion, or so I've heard it said through the years, often enough that I think it's true. So what does it mean to forgive seventy-seven times? What was Jesus telling Peter--and what is he telling us? How about this: Forgive, and keep forgiving, until the job is done. Forgive without keeping score, unto perfect perfection. Whatever it takes. Do it. What Forgiveness Is Not Notice that Jesus is not saying, Trust. He is not advocating, contrary to all common sense, that you put your confidence in a person whose behavior is patently untrustworthy. You can forgive the mad dog that bit you, but you're a fool to step back into the kennel with it. Jesus is also not saying, Forget. Forgiveness is not forgetfulness. Forgetfulness may follow forgiveness--or it may not. But forgiveness doesn't hinge on your ability to blot something out of your mind. After all, you can't forgive what you've forgotten. Finally, Jesus is not saying, Deny the injury. Forgiveness is not denial. Don't tell yourself the wound is nothing. You can't forgive nothing; you can only forgive an actual wrong done to you. It matters. It is something, not nothing. No, forgiveness is not blind trust, nor impossible forgetfulness, nor pretending the arrow in your back doesn't hurt. It is, rather, a seventy-seven-mile journey of desiring God's truth, grace, and freedom, not an eye for an eye, for the one who hurt us. It starts, perhaps, with this: "If I could send them to hell, I would not." It moves into this: "Father, grant them life!" And it ripens, I would like to think, into peace, gladness, and wholeness of heart for ourselves.
A year ago, while working my part-time custodial job at my church, I met a young man who was waiting for a bus to pick him up. He had just been released from jail and was headed back to Caledonia to resume his old job. He told me he owed child support money, and while in jail, he had realized that he needed to get back to the Lord and "do what's right." I've heard that saying often enough: "Do what's right." And there's a lot to be said for doing what's right. Good for that young man, who wants to do the right thing. The world would be a far better place if we all could consistently pull that off. But realistically, we don't. And it's not what the gospel is about. The gospel is not about behavior modification; it is about heart transformation. It is not about our doing well but Christ's doing well for us, in us, and through us. The gospel is about experiencing a change in our source of life, from what the Bible calls the "flesh" to eternal life that resides in the Son of God. Jesus in us and we in him: that is the arrangement God offers us out of his great, great love for us. We are no longer on our own, striving to meet the quota on an endless moral assembly line; instead, those of us who are exhausted by our efforts to get it right, and beaten down by our failures, can rest in Someone who got it right for us; who loves us beyond anything we can imagine; and who doesn't stand outside us as a taskmaster but lives inside us as our very life, producing the fruit of his own character in us as we walk with him. John 1:17 says, "The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." No more doing what's right in order to become righteous; instead, doing what's right because we are righteous, and by nature we want to do those things that please the One who loves us. That is one way of looking at Christianity.
Forgiveness can be as swift and easy as accepting a friend's apology for being ten minutes late for lunch at the restaurant. Or it can be as grueling, as costly, as seemingly impossible, as forgiving a divorce or a business betrayal. What makes the latter kind of forgiveness particularly difficult is this: the other person may not care in the least. They may feel utterly justified in their mistreatment of you. They may even take pleasure at the injury they've caused you--or they may take no thought at all. Whether you forgive them or not means nothing to them because you yourself are of no consequence. That's the kind of forgiveness reflected in Jesus's words "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23:34). Father, they just don't have a clue. No idea whatsoever. They're prisoners of their ignorance, blinder than beggars and twice as poor. Mercy and compassion toward those who showed him neither: that's the extreme brand of forgiveness Jesus showed toward those who were killing him. Jesus didn't pray "Father, forgive them" in order to set a lofty example; he prayed those words because he meant them. In his heart he longed for something far better for his persecutors than vengeance; he longed for them to one day see, and understand, and live. What's particularly important to note is, forgiving his executioners didn't change Jesus's immediate circumstances. The black iron spikes remained in his wrists and feet. The agony of crucifixion wasn't relieved. Jesus still died a torturous, shameful death hanging naked on a post for all Jerusalem to see. What changed was that the back of hatred was broken. It lost its self-perpetuating power--because the One who did know exactly what he was doing absorbed its worst blow and countered it with love for those who inflicted it. Sometimes today we hear stories of that radical brand of forgiveness: The father who adopts his child's murderer and raises him as a son. The college woman who, without minimizing the violence perpetrated on her, refuses to harbor bitterness against her rapist. The prisoner wrongly convicted who, when the truth is finally revealed, forgives those who took fifteen years of his life from him and far more besides. For such people, forgiveness is no glib thing. It is big-ticket, and those who have been wronged are the ones who must foot the bill. Doing so may begin simply with this thought: "If I had the power to send those who have hurt me to hell...I would not." Forgiveness desires life, God-life, for the offender. It desires vision for the spiritually blind. It chooses--often against the forgiver's own conflicting emotions--to pray for the release of those held captive by their own hate or sheer, selfish unconcern for the pain of others. Forgiveness is not trite. It is not easy. It may even be miraculous. It is one choice followed by as many more choices as it takes. If--no, when--we are deeply injured, may Jesus grant us his eyes to see clearly what the other person cannot see at all. May he give us the grace to pray from our heart, "Father, forgive them. Help them to see. Help them to know your love for them and for others. And grant them what you have so graciously given me: life--true, deep, powerful life."