In my line of work, people like to inquire about the point at which we ultimately give up.
“How many times will you extend the branch of reconciliation, redemption, even forgiveness, before realizing a person is beyond it?” they often ask.
And I’m never quite sure how to answer the question.
Failure to identify a cut off point implies enabling, chaos and a willingness to be taken advantage of. Yet, a hard and fast description of process, procedure and the pivotal moment that the chances run out would defy every ounce of the unconditional love that my organization is founded upon.
What I do know is that our scriptural forefathers struggled with the same dilemma.
Many times in the Old Testament, we hear that God forgave the people three times before casting down His punishment. In Amos 1:3-13, the text even goes as far to say that “three” is that magic number of “transgressions” that will be excused.
Jesus, however, had a very different take when Peter queried a similar point.
“Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” he asks in Matthew 18:21-22. Being a good Jewish boy, raised on the clearly defined number “three” but wanting to be especially compassionate in the new covenant he was learning about, Peter then implies that answer may be “seven.” It is at that point Jesus clarifies that forgiveness should be extended a total of “seventy times seven”—490 to be exact.
Although I interpret this story as a call to unending, relentless acceptance of most transgressions, I live in a world that more often finds itself stuck in the mantra of Amos 1—three strikes, you’re out. Therefore, I cannot promise the unwavering clemency that I wish I could.
Straying from Christ’s hope for unending forgiveness isn’t necessarily the right response, but I too am human, complete with my own bandwidth and limitations.
I was reminded of this most recently, upon receipt of a letter from the Rappahannock Regional Jail. A long-time friend in need had come to be incarcerated there, and he sought to make amends. Years prior, he had acted in such a non-compliant, malicious and disturbing way that I asked him not to return to our program until he could identify what he had done wrong. It was the first and only time I have led such a restrictive action.
He stayed away for many months and I often wondered what had come of him. I hoped that my efforts to exhort a boundary had sent him in a direction of better choices, maybe even taught him a lesson. But my repentant heart worried I had closed the only door he had left.
Certainly, his family, friends and others in his life had shut him out for the same reasons. But as a representative of the faith community of Fredericksburg, what was I saying about God’s love?
Years later he turned up at our respite house, worn out, weathered and about to die. His condition had grown so critical that the hospital had given him 30 days to live. The only thing left for us to do was give him a place to die with dignity.
While my sinful heart resolved this to be the consequences of behaving the way he did, the rest of me was crushed to learn what transpired in his time away.
As I wrestled with my decision to follow Amos 1 in this case, God invoked the power of Matthew 18 and healed him. In the way that no medical analysis can truly explain, his body regenerated. He was given a clean bill of health, started a new job and moved into housing.
Yes, he found himself in trouble again, and I cannot say it was any easier to watch him befall the consequences. But something about the miracle he experienced in our presence left all of us a little changed.
My own epiphany, for example, was coming to understand how very little the act of forgiveness has to do with me and how very much it has to do with love of God and love of others.
Believing that forgiveness has to do with the person who has been wronged implies that we have control over others actions—that we have a power bigger than even the forces of the universe can control. What an incredible burden to bear. Understanding forgiveness as a means of making right the relationships we have with God, others and the rest of creation is freeing. It lets us get out of the way, and let’s the power of God take over.
So when my friend chose to write from jail with words like “I’m so sorry for disappointing my Micah family in the past” and “Please know that everything Micah has done for me was not in vein,” I had a lot to consider. He asked for my forgiveness, and there was a time that I would have hands down claimed he owed it to me. But in my coming to understand my role in the situation, I reached a very different conclusion.
It is I who need forgiveness—forgiveness for getting in the way of God. My impulse to force consequences and protect my own interests defied one of the only things that God required of me, and that was humility.
Humility is what keeps us faithful. It reminds us that we are not in control. And most of all, it keeps us focused on loving while God does his thing—490 plus times.