This past Saturday we were driving back to my in-laws’ house from WSU graduation with me, my son, and my mother-in-law in the back seat. Out of the blue (well, maybe not completely out of the blue because we were listening to hymns by Johnny Cash), my son asked, “Mom, what’s that math about forgiveness in the Bible? Seventy time seven or something?” He was, of course, referring to this account in the Gospel of Matthew 18:21-22:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven).”
Then we talked about how what Jesus really meant was that we keep on forgiving, there is no limit. You don’t forgive the first 490 times someone sins against you, even if it is the same sin, and then on the 491st time refuse to forgive.
Imagine if God decided we only received forgiveness for our first 490 sins! Would there be any who could receive complete forgiveness from the Almighty? I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I passed 490 a long time ago. And this thought brings to mind another bit of forgiveness math, and that is the Lord’s Prayer. According to this prayer, which Jesus taught us to pray, the forgiveness we receive from God is equal to the forgiveness we grant to those who sin against us.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Matthew 6:12, 14-15.
It is relatively easy to forgive a past sin, especially when one has had time to process the hurt, and to pray and ask God for wisdom and strength to forgive. It happened and it’s over, so you forgive and move on. It is much harder to forgive when the same sin has been repeated, when the same hurt has been processed before and put in the past. But now it is in the present. It’s happened again. And it seems likely this will not be the last time.
But math is a science of right and wrong answers, of truth or falsehood. And the answer to the forgiveness math equation is we are forgiven as we forgive. We are called to forgive the perfect number of times, which is every time someone sins against us. May God grant us the wisdom and strength to get this math problem right.