Matthew 18:21-22

Nik Hookey reflects on the extent of God's forgiveness and how He expects us to forgive others.

Nik Hookey
Nik Hookey

Have you ever been really let down by someone? Perhaps someone you had trusted and relied upon for a long time?

You thought you knew them. You thought that they would always have your back. But now they have let you down. What should you do?

Obviously this is not a new question. It is something that has bothered people as long as there have been people around.

It bothered the disciples of Jesus too. We don't know if Peter had a particular incident in mind when he came up to Jesus and said, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?" (Matthew 18.21)

Sometimes when people are asking a question like this, it's not because they really want to know the answer. It's a bit like asking in a science lesson, "Miss, should we be wearing goggles for this experiment?", when the aim is to get Joe into trouble for not wearing his goggles.

Maybe it's one of the other disciples in earshot that Peter is having a go at for not forgiving someone. Or maybe he is genuinely worried about a problem that he has with someone. Offering to forgive someone up to seven times seems pretty generous to him.

The number seven was significant in first century Jewish thought. Seven was the number of divine completion. Remember the seven day creation story, the seven times Naaman was to bathe in the river to cure his disease, and so on.

So Peter thinks he's going a long way with up to seven times.

But Jesus' reply is more! "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven." (Matthew 18.22) He then goes on to tell a parable to explain the importance of forgiveness. Using the number seventy-seven, is deliberate. It is to say that divine forgiveness does not know any end, and the followers of Jesus should forgive in the same way.

Tough stuff. Especially when we are hurting because of what someone else has done to us.

And sometimes, even when we think we have actually forgiven someone for something pretty bad, we discover that days, weeks, months, even years later, we remember it again, and the pain comes back, and we need to forgive once more.

And it is a good thing to do. It is good for our health - some research has shown that a lack of forgiveness can actually worsen our physical health. When we are able to release that hurt and pain as we forgive someone, we find release for ourselves too.

Lewis Smedes wrote, "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you".

It's difficult, it's painful, but it can be the best thing for us, and we need the grace of God to help us. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.