There is no fence where we live. We have a basset hound who likes to “follow her nose” so when we let her out she has to be on a cable. There are two trees in the front yard and she will invariably get herself tied around one or both. Then she whines begging for help. I have clearly explained to her how to prevent this, but the message hasn’t gotten through. I try to show her how to go back around the other direction to free herself but she pulls against my efforts. She resists going toward what she perceives as fear, pain, and confinement. I also have to pull her along to get enough slack to unclip the cable.
Sometimes we have to go back the way we came in order to free ourselves. We often resist God’s efforts to free us when it means going in a direction we fear or don’t understand. God also needs us to relax and give Him some slack (trust) so He can get us loose. The bumper sticker reads: “Let go, let God.” It seems trite, but it’s often good advice. We must release what seems right to us and trust God’s judgment. He cannot put anything into our hand while we still clutch something inferior in our fist. Sometimes we shake that fist in stubborn pride. Like a toddler resisting a parent’s help with tying a shoe we shout, “I do it myself!” Only after we fail miserably do we come crying and ask God to help us do what we cannot do ourselves. God is a far kinder parent than we and He is able to resist giving an “I told you so” lecture. Instead, He simply says, “I was just waiting for you to let Me help you” (Deuteronomy 32:36).
The trick is to figure out who is actually the one yanking your chain. If it is Satan trying to pull you into temptation, dig in those paws and fight for all your worth. If it is God trying to pull you free of sin, then relax and let Him untangle you from your own foolishness. He never stomps angrily out into the yard muttering, “Again? How many times do I have to do this?!” Instead, He reassuringly says, “Here, my child, let Me show you again. Try to do better next time. But if you fail, I will come free you as many times as it takes.” May the Lord shine upon you.
In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus had been teaching His disciples about how to deal with people when there is a conflict. Right after this, Peter chimes in with a question, sort of. Peter asks in verse 20, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (NASB). Peter probably thought he was being pretty generous. Wow, seven times! Peter, you’re much too kind. How shocked he and the others must have been when Jesus answered, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Now, Jesus did not mean that we should keep a tally sheet and when/if we reach 490 we can then say, “That’s it! I don’t have to forgive you anymore!” He was using a ridiculously large number to indicate that we should not be in the accounting business, but in the forgiving business.
Jesus expands on this in the parallel passage in Luke’s gospel which is found in chapter 17. As if the words in Matthew 18 were not hard enough to live out, Jesus ups the ante on forgiveness. “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4). Well, now You are just asking too much, Jesus. Seven times in the same day? That means this person is not showing true repentance and does not deserve forgiveness.
AH-AH-AH! Not so fast. That would require us to know and judge a person’s heart and ONLY God is qualified to do that.
Jesus makes this painfully simple: He repents, you forgive. Period.
But Jesus, You don’t know how many times he has—NO! He repents, you forgive. This is the command.
But Jesus, wouldn’t it be better to teach this person the lesson that—NO! He repents, you forgive. Just do it.
But Jesus, what if he doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Does that get me off the hook?
This is the part where Jesus would facepalm and shake His head. Don’t miss the point.
The disciples surely didn’t miss the point. Their perfect understanding was proven by what they said next. Jesus had just commanded them (and us) to forgive as many times as someone repents. Their immediate response was, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). They knew that they (and we) were going to need some divine assistance to carry out that command. The Lord’s answer is astounding. He essentially says in verse 6, “Use what you’ve got—it’s enough.” Their faith seemed as small as a mustard seed compared to the gigantic task ahead of them. Jesus told them that if their faith was sincere, then it was big enough. Well, OK Jesus. But if I manage to pull this off, I deserve a medal and a parade! The Lord predicts this attitude in verses 9-10 and preemptively strikes down any prideful feelings which may arise. “[The master] does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’ ” We don’t deserve a round of applause for merely doing what we were commanded. We are not worthy of a spot in Hebrews chapter 11 with the superstars of the faithful. We haven’t elevated ourselves to some lofty position of Christianity. We haven’t gained anything extraordinary. We are still sitting at zero. All we have done is prevented ourselves from falling below the line of obedience and into a deficit.
Is forgiving hard? Yes! It may be the one of the hardest commands to obey. What it is not, however, is optional; it is required. So let’s you and I stop treating it like it is optional. Let us not require people to grovel, beg, and crawl for our forgiveness after we think they’ve suffered enough and shown “proper” repentance. God did not require that of us. We may sin seven times a day against Him but He offers mercy every time we ask. His grace is eager, available, and immediate. So should ours be.