The bulk of the article that follows was excerpted from the author’s 2007 book, The Wonder of Jesus,1 with additions, modifications, and updates to fit the present context.—Editors.
he story is familiar and the question comes from Peter: “‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven’” (Matt. 18:21, 22, NKJV).*
The spiritual, emotional, and physical benefits of forgiveness are well known, and perhaps more than a million books and articles have been written on the subject. My heart beats in unison with the prevailing sentiments, and in talks, sermons, books, and articles I’ve expressed—and will continue to express—the urgent need for this grace.
Yet I’ve always had a lingering concern about the adequacy of the popular understanding of Jesus’ response to Peter.
Whether we adopt the number indicated in most renditions of the text (“seventy times seven”) or that found in some modern translations (“seventy-seven times”—NIV), we’re talking here about quite a large number of offenses. And since no normal person would take the time to keep such a record, the common (and, I believe, correct) understanding of Jesus’ meaning is that our forgiveness should not be hedged in by limits. Someone insults us, humiliates us, speaks harshly to us, tells a hurtful lie about us or our family, makes a fool of us in public, damages our reputation—simply scores of such incidents arise in the course of daily life. We do ourselves a huge favor if we can put such slights and hurts aside, forgive them, and, if possible, forget them.
Paul probably had such things in mind as he wrote to the believers in Colosse: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, . . . clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:12, 13).
Back in seminary, when the rest of the class thought we’d reached the bottom of an issue, one particularly bright student was often able to go two or three levels deeper. I was not that student, but I learned from him that we too often settle for the shallows when facing difficult issues and problems. And because forgiveness is almost universally regarded as a desirable response, we too often fail to grapple with some of its deeper complexities.
In his question to Jesus, Peter was no doubt speaking in the same vein we find in Paul’s statement—about the run-of-the-mill infractions that occur during the course of normal interactions among ordinary people. Accordingly, we should not overextrapolate from Jesus’ response and make universal applications to all aspects of the human situation.
If we’re prepared to go deeper than surface level, we’re bound to ask whether Jesus’ response applies equally in such cases as the following:
1. A family sacrifices for decades, and with hard-earned money they build or purchase a home. Here they store all their priceless and irreplaceable belongings—books, papers, tapes, computers with vital family information, irreplaceable photographs (of weddings, births, graduations, and other special occasions). Then along comes an arsonist, and everything goes up in smoke.
Now when the authorities nab the arsonist, what then? If we say, “Let’s forgive,” what do we mean? Would the idea be that that person gets to walk away with impunity? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that they do. Then what if that same arsonist the very next day burns down the apartment where the burned-out family had gone for shelter? What to do now? And we’re only at incident number two!
Did Peter—and Jesus—really have that kind of conduct in mind?
2. In October 2005 a man walks into a convenience store in Maryland (USA) where his estranged wife works at the checkout counter, douses her with gasoline, and sets her ablaze, disfiguring her for the rest of her life. Today she’s a ghost of her former beautiful self.
But go back with me to the scene of the incident and imagine that immediately following it, the woman is conscious enough to forgive him. And then suppose further that after she forgives him, he proceeds to follow the ambulance to the hospital and (however fantastic this sounds, stay with me for a moment) worms his way into the emergency room with a bottle of acid in his hand. Then in a second demonic attack, he empties the liquid into what remains of her face. Is there anyone anywhere who’d have the gall to charge this woman with disobedience to Christ if she finds it difficult to forgive such an attack?
And more to the point, was Jesus talking about incidents like that?
3. On June 7, 2003, Brian and Daphne Gipson are heading home to Pennsylvania from a Florida honeymoon. As their vehicle goes under an overpass, someone intentionally drops a 70-pound boulder through the windshield into Daphne’s face. Weeks later Brian is still waiting for the day he’ll hear his new wife speak again. “He waits and he prays and he obsesses about how someone could drop a rock, change so many lives, and still sleep at night.” After spending months in a hospital, Daphne emerges a broken person.2 (Later reports indicated that her marriage fell apart as a result of the incident.)
Let’s say that Daphne meets the person who did the wretched act and forgives them. Can you imagine why she’d have difficulty forgiving a similar act from that same person the second time, the third time—the twentieth? Do we not misunderstand Jesus when we use His words to put guilt trips on people who, in the face of unspeakable evil and brutality, find forgiveness difficult and seek justice instead?
4. The husband of a 32-year-old Pakistani woman accuses her of having an affair with his brother, and one day he takes his revenge. A report out of Gujar Khan, Pakistan, carries the gruesome result: “Zahida Perveen’s head is shrouded in a white cotton veil, which she self-consciously tightens every few moments. But when she reaches down to pick up her baby daughter, the veil falls away to reveal” the terrible trauma that she’s suffered. “Perveen’s eyes are empty sockets of unseeing flesh, her earlobes have been sliced off, and her nose is a gaping, reddened stump of bone. Sixteen months ago her husband, in a fit of rage over her alleged affair . . . , bound her hands and feet and slashed her with a razor and knife. She was three months pregnant at the time.”3
Sensitive and Complex
Just to be clear, the issue in the cases mentioned above is not whether such persons should forgive their offenders. Rather, it’s whether anyone seriously thinks that either Jesus or Peter had such egregious atrocities in mind during their famous exchange 2,000 years ago.
How do we apply Jesus’ words, for example, in cases of repeated sexual and physical abuse of children—within the home, especially? Earlier in Matthew 18, speaking about children, Jesus had declared: “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (verse 6). His primary reference here was to divine judgment, but it’s also a warning to us not to take lightly (through a facile concept of forgiveness) what God regards with such utter seriousness. One such act can dis-â€¨figure the psyche of a child forever, and the last thing Jesus would have had in mind is that any child should have to forgive such a monstrous deed a second time—let alone more.
My intention in probing a little deeper than we usually do is not at all to encourage attitudes of unforgiveness and revenge, which (as I’ve indicated) bring their own emotional destruction. But I think it’s critical to recognize that simplistic approaches that lump the common offenses of everyday life in the same bag with the grievous, life-changing atrocities that maim, disfigure, and kill make a mockery of Jesus’ words and wickedly lay guilt trips on those dealing with ghastly and unspeakable crimes against their persons or property.
Clearly, Jesus Himself seems to make a difference with respect to certain egregious offenses, as in the following ominous warning to Judas the night of His betrayal: “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21).
The subject of forgiveness is exceedingly sensitive and complex. And I’m taken aback by the superficial treatment Jesus’ statement in Matthew often receives. People experiencing the trauma of incredible hurt don’t need us to hurl the words of Jesus at them as they wrestle with excruciating pain. Instead, let’s just bring them the assurance that a merciful God understands the dimension of their grief, the depth of their anguish—and that they can rest in Him, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.4
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1Roy Adams, The Wonder of Jesus: He Still Touches Hearts (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 2007), pp. 63-66.
2Lonnae O’Neal Parker, “Fight to Regain Life After I-95 Attack,” Washington Post, Aug. 4, 2003, pp. A1, A3.
3Pamela Constable, “In Pakistan, Women Pay the Price of ‘Honor,’” Washington Post, May 8, 2000, p. A1. For graphic images of Perveen, see: www.pwaisbd.org.
4The allusion comes from Song of Solomon 2:17.
Roy Adams is associate editor of the Adventist Review.