Love Is Not Mathematical
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
From the Bible: Matthew 18:21-22; Deuteronomy 32:34-35; Romans 13:4
Matt. 18:21a (Holman) Then Peter came to Him and said,. . .
Jesus’ words on forgiveness stunned Peter. Seeking clarification, Simon did what he did best. He removed one foot to insert the other foot in his mouth.
We owe a lot to Peter’s habit of blurting his thoughts out loud. His rash questions and comments led to some of our most helpful words from Jesus.
Matt. 18:21b “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Peter knew he would have to forgive. He had grown up in a culture that required forgiveness, and had heard Jesus clearly command it had to be done.
Peter wanted to know one thing, “How often?” Rabbinic law said a person was to be forgiven three times. Knowing Jesus would want His followers to forgive people more times than the religious leaders required, Peter doubled their magic number and then rounded it off to the perfect number, seven.
For a hothead like Peter, this conciliatory gesture was actually quite generous, especially when compared to the standard of his day. The disciple thought he was being magnanimous. However, I fear Peter was secretly relishing how much fun it would be to wreak revenge after the eighth offense.
Like us, Peter did not want to do too much good. “Let’s not overdo our religion. We don’t want to mistakenly forgive too much.” Many still love to limit moral obligations, thinking there should for sure be limits to forgiveness.
Peter was in danger of showing Rabbinic legalism here. He wanted Jesus to give him a definite line, a hard and fast rule. But our Master taught him, in Christianity lines are drawn only at the beginning of duty. We have God-drawn lines telling us we can do no less, but none telling us we can do no more.
Matt. 18:22 “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus said to him, “but 70 times seven.”
Oh Peter! To ask “How many times?” is to miss the nature of forgiveness. Mercy is not mathematical, but since Peter was determined to reduce love to arithmetic, Jesus decided to use heavenly multiplication to make His point.
“70 times seven.” 490. Jesus knew no one would have the patience or fortitude to count to 500 minus 10. It would be easier to keep on forgiving.
Jesus knew, by the 490th time, the ill will would be worked out; or the offended would have killed the offender, or be dead from locked-in bitterness.
490. In other words, take off your calculus hat. Forgiveness cannot be weighed, measured, or counted. Forgiveness is a quality, not a quantity.
Keeping score does not serve us believers well. Love “does not keep a record of wrongs” (I Cor. 13.5b). Revenge keeps count. Forgiveness does not.
God adequately keeps accounts. He said of wrongs, “Is it not stored up with Me, sealed up in My vaults? Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay” (DT 32:34-35). Only God is Judge and final Arbiter; don’t push Him off His throne.
“How many times?” is a statement not of forgiveness, but of probation. It makes forgiveness a trial run, tentative, iffy, which is not real forgiveness at all.
For us believers, it is a foul disposition indeed that lists offenses, as if we are expectant, excitedly looking forward to a day when we will no longer have to forgive. Don’t keep score, or stow away an offense for future reference. If we retain it, we’ve not forgiven, and won’t be forgiven by God for our offenses.
This is not to say forgiveness should be foolish. If people have stolen from you, don’t immediately loan them money again. If a trust was betrayed, be slow to discuss personal matters with the offender again.
It’s okay to protect ourselves. Forgiveness means to remain friendly, to continue to interact, to pray for the offender’s best interest, etc. We have forgiven when we forget the offense, as far as any hurtful memory is concerned.
We often act as if Christian forgiveness is complex, hard to understand, but for believers, God’s concept of forgiveness is simple to understand. Forgive all people all the time. Remove all limits to repeat offenders. Keep forgiving.
This raises a pertinent question, “What about felons, rapists, murderers, drug dealers, terrorists; are they to be indulged?” No. God is not the author of anarchy. He ordained a system to maintain order in society. Criminal deeds are to be removed from individual, personal jurisdiction, and put under the domain of government, God’s ordained institution to corral and punish offenders of this magnitude. Government is allowed to do things individuals are forbidden to do.
“Government is God’s servant to you for good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong” (Romans 13:4).
Government can wreak revenge, but on a personal level, never retaliate, hold no resentments, be kind. There will always be plenty of opportunities to show forgiveness. Thus, practice it as a habit, a way of life, a never ending mindset. Be forgiveness, and then out of this condition, do forgiveness.
Showing forgiveness does not make us a forgiving person. Being a forgiving person makes us forgive. This is God’s nature. He must put it in us.
Peter thought he wanted a degree in spiritual mathematics, but where would he be if Jesus forgave him only seven times? Where would we be?
Let me go one better yet. If God forgave as much as 490 times, would we be any better off? 490 may at first seem like an impossibly high number to reach, but would anyone of us ever claim to have sinned less than 490 times?