READ : Luke 17:3-5
Let’s say you’re a believer in Jesus Christ. Or let’s say you’re not one yet, but you’d like to know how to live, at least, in a Christian way. In either case, what should you do when someone wrongs you, treats you badly, hurts you down deep? Here’s Jesus’ word about that from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 17, verse 3:
Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, “I repent,” you must forgive him. The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
The first step here is confrontation. “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” Before you and I do that, however, we need to be sure that it’s a real offense of which our brother or sister is guilty, not some imagined slight. We could find ourselves rebuking people for things of which they aren’t even aware. We may impute motives to them which they have never felt. So this person didn’t speak to you when you passed one another at the shopping mall? Maybe he didn’t see you. Maybe she was preoccupied and didn’t know you were there. Be sure it’s a genuine offense.
Again, be sure it’s something that God calls sin. It may be something you don’t like. It may offend your sensibilities. It may cut across the mores of your group. But is it an evil in God’s sight? Is it something which He forbids, which He declares out of bounds? And then, before you rebuke that person, be sure you are ready to acknowledge any responsibility you may have for what has happened.
All right. Let’s assume that you’re sure, that it’s a clear-cut case. This person spoke about you in a damaging way. He took something that belonged to you. He broke a significant promise. Then don’t bury that away and let it fester inside. Go to the person. Face him or her with what has been done and how you feel about it. It’s much better to do that than to nurse a grudge, to have resentment building up inside you. Tell it like it is. This is the best thing you can do for that person and for your relationship with him or her. What you say may be hard to hear, but it’s a blessing in disguise. It gives opportunity for repentance and the restoring of a friendship.
But remember, a rebuke, a remonstrance, doesn’t have to be rendered harshly. You can be honest, you can be direct, without being nasty or brutal. Think of Paul’s words about that, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). “The Lord’s servant,” he writes again to Timothy, “must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24-25). That’s the kind of confrontation he calls for in another one of his letters when he talks about “speaking the truth in love.”
Next, Jesus teaches, “if he repents [this brother of yours], forgive him.” You’ve gone to your sister now, we’ll say, you’ve told her face to face what she’s done and how you feel about it, and she has confessed. She has listened to you. You can tell that she’s sorry, and she says so. It hurts her that she’s hurt you. And she’s ready to do anything she possibly can to make things right. She says, “It’s true. I hurt you and I feel terrible about that. I really want to be your friend. Can you possibly forgive me?” When that happens, your mission is accomplished. That’s the happy ending you sought. The anger and the pain you felt begin to drain away. Healing comes. You say, “Of course, I’ll forgive you.” Then there’s an embrace or a handshake, maybe some small talk afterwards. You part as friends, happily. Things are all right again.
WHEN IT HAPPENS AGAIN
Up to this point, almost everyone would agree that this is the right way to proceed. But Jesus introduces a further dimension that really shakes us up. This is definitely out of the ordinary: “And if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, `I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Go back in your mind to the scene we pictured a moment ago. There has been this confrontation, this confession, forgiveness, reconciliation. Then that same day, this person does something else that grieves you. Just when you’re feeling good, just when you’ve worked the situation through, then this! That would be pretty exasperating, wouldn’t it? And now, try to picture a third time and a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh. You go through the whole process each time. It’s almost impossible to envision yourself doing that, isn’t it? Jesus seems to be giving an absurd example. Forgive the same person seven times on the same day?
If you’ve ever been badly wronged, you know how painfully difficult it can be to forgive someone once. I suppose we can imagine scenarios where twice would be possible, though extremely awkward at best. Three times is perhaps barely conceivable. But can’t you feel the resentment and distrust that would be building up in you by the third time? You’re muttering to yourself, “You say you’re sorry. Right! You’ve already said that twice before today and then did me dirty again!”
When we go beyond three times, it seems out of line with anything we know in our experience. As we try to live ourselves into that situation, we shake our heads and say, “I could never do that. By the third time, I’d be ready to fight or sue.” But Jesus says that after the second and third time, and on and on, if the offender says, “I repent,” you are to say, “I forgive.”
Now the use of the number seven here is not meant to give us a legalistic “outer limit,” so that on the eighth time you would be free to really let the person have it, and get even. No, the Lord wants to underline the point that the forgiveness we extend to each other has to be unlimited. As long as the other keeps asking for it, we are to keep giving it. According to the Lord, there can be no release from our obligation to forgive others and no excuse for our not doing it. If anywhere in Scripture there’s a clear, unequivocal command, it’s here.
This person keeps on doing something you hate, but he still values the relationship. He keeps on turning toward you. Again and again and again, he says, “I’m sorry. I hate myself for doing that. I don’t want to offend you in this way. Will you please forgive me?” In those circumstances, says Jesus, you can never say no. You can’t keep holding a grudge, building a case against this person. You have to let it go.
WE NEED HELP!
No wonder the disciples say, “Increase our faith.” The capacity to live like this seems totally beyond them. If we are honest, don’t we have to say the same? How could we ever do this? “Lord, increase our faith.” We need a strong, clear conviction that this is what ought to be done, and then we need a power greater than our own to begin to do it. Most of all, we need to know at a deep level God Himself and His forgiving love toward us. The hurt ones can only hurt. The hated can only hate. For people to love, they need to experience love. To forgive, they need to be greatly and wonderfully forgiven.
Think about the situation between you and God. Isn’t it very much like what we’ve been looking at today? If you’re like me, it is. I can think of ways I have sinned against the Lord more times than I can count. Under similar circumstances, in the same way, I have blown it again and again. And when I was feeling miserable about myself, I’ve gone to Him and confessed it and asked His forgiveness. What if He’d only been willing to forgive me once or twice or maybe three times? Or at the outer limit, seven? I would have been sunk.
By and by, the thought comes to us in all this: “How can I keep doing this? How can I keep acting that way? Can it be possible that God will forgive me one more time?”
What finally dawns on you is that forgiveness is never something you deserve. You don’t somehow earn it by being sorry enough, asking sincerely enough, promising fervently enough that you’ll try to do better. Forgiveness is a miracle. It’s an absolutely free and stupendously wonderful gift. It’s what the gospel is about.
With God, there is forgiveness unlimited. It’s not because of some general benevolence in Him that keeps letting people off, but because of an unspeakable love that somehow takes upon Himself the terrible consequences of our evil. Here’s the gospel: God comes to us in the person of His Son, Jesus. He lives a life fully pleasing to the Father, succeeding where we all have failed, obeying where we have gone astray, giving Himself then to die on our behalf. Jesus bears our sins. The Lord lays on Him the iniquity of us all. By that one sacrifice, He puts away sin forever, cancelling its guilt. It’s a gift of unimaginable love and it brings a forgiveness that doesn’t stop.
When the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski was dying, he wanted his family in the room with him and asked his wife to read the parable of the Prodigal Son. He listened with eyes closed, drinking in the truth. Then he said, “My children, never forget what you have just heard. Have absolute faith in God and never despair of His pardon. I love you dearly, but my love is nothing compared with the love of God. Even if you should be so unhappy as to commit some dreadful crime, never despair of God. You are His children; humble yourselves before Him . . . implore His pardon, and He will rejoice over your repentance.” That’s the wonder, friends, of God’s forgiving love in Jesus Christ.
Remember, your repenting does not create God’s forgiveness. Nor do your confessions, your efforts to make amends. They don’t persuade God to pardon you. He’s done everything that had to be done for all your sins to be totally blotted out in Christ. Your turning toward God and acknowledging your wrong simply opens your life to receive the measureless mercy that’s already there, already there for you because of Christ and His sacrifice.
Now suppose that we truly appropriate this gospel. We come to believe that Jesus has died for us and has been raised from death so that all our sins can be freely forgiven. We are totally and forever accepted by God. Suppose we celebrate the fact that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Then we’re beginning to be ready to show forgiveness to others.
The heart of Christian ethics is right here: Believers are called to “copy God.” We’re invited to deal with other people as He has dealt with us. That’s exactly how the apostle puts it, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore, be imitators of God as beloved children. And walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 4:32-5:2).
So ask yourself today, “How many times have I sinned against God, confessed my wrong and received His forgiveness?” More times than I can number. Well, how many times then ought I be ready to forgive a brother or sister, another stumbling, failing, flawed human being, when they hurt me, when they grieve me? It doesn’t mean I won’t feel pain and anger. It doesn’t mean I’m to lose my self-respect and become a kind of door mat for everyone to walk over. But it does mean I can never reject anyone who turns to me for the umpteenth time and says, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” Because if God had said, “That’s it, no more,” where would I be? I’ve been forgiven so much, so often. I have to pass it on.
Prayer: Lord, increase our faith. Lord, enlarge our hearts. Lord, give us more and more the faith that forgives. Amen.