Whether you are a baseball fan or not, you have undoubtedly heard the expression “three strikes and you’re out.” It turns out, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day took the same approach to forgiveness. They taught that, when wronged, individuals were obligated to forgive an offender up to three times. After the third time, however, there was no longer the need to forgive–the offender had “maxed out” and the forgiveness would not be forthcoming.
With this background in mind, it becomes clear that Peter thought he was being quite generous when he proposed forgiving up to seven times. In Matthew 18 Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” in light of what we know about Peter it does not take a lot of imagination to picture an almost-smug look on his face as he asks this question. He may have hoped his colleagues would be impressed by his magnanimity or that Jesus would give him an “attaboy” for his generous approach to forgiveness.
Jesus, though, quickly corrected Peter by informing him that even seven times was not nearly enough. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven,” Jesus answered.
A little quick math reveals that Jesus suggested 490 times was a more appropriate limit, but the reality is that Jesus was telling Peter, the other disciples, and you and me, that there is to be no limit to our forgiveness.
In Ephesians 4:32, Paul writes, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” In Colossians 3:13 Paul writes, “[B]earing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.”
That’s where it gets really tough. For me to forgive others the same way that God has forgiven me means two things: unlimited forgiveness, and unconditional forgiveness. There can be no end to the number of times I forgive, and there can be no offense for which I will not forgive.
I have experienced hurts in my life that were painful, as I am sure you have. I have been wronged by others, and seen how the careless or self-centered or misguided actions of some can wreak havoc on the lives of others impacted by their actions. There have been offenses which still hurt to think about years after they have happened. And the truth is, there are some offenses that I cannot forgive, in my flesh. More often than not my natural inclination is to get even, not to forgive. And if I do find it in my heart to forgive, it would be once, maybe twice, but rarely three times and certainly not seven.
Truth is, though, I am incredibly thankful that God has no limit to His forgiveness. If He did, I would have exceeded it long ago, whether the limit was 490 or seven times seven thousand. God is perfect and righteous and holy, and I, in myself, am anything but.
Three strikes is a good rule for baseball. It keeps the game moving. But it’s a lousy rule when it comes to forgiving others.