Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Do the Math

Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18.21-22)

“’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” was one of my grandmother’s favorite hymns. When she sang it to herself, she turned it into a prayer by replacing “Him” with “You”:

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust You
How I’ve proved You o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus
O for grace to trust You more

I often hear her when I read Jesus’s admonition that we should forgive those who offend us many times (“seventy-seven” in some translations, “seventy times seven” elsewhere). I imagine Peter giving Jesus one of those “Really?” looks, and Jesus nodding with eyebrows raised, as if to say, “Trust Me.” All of this forgiveness calculus comes after Jesus lays out a very specific protocol for handling differences with fellow believers. He hasn’t mentioned forgiveness, but it’s clear that He’s concerned about unaddressed slights and sins enslaving His followers. Peter catches Jesus after the lesson and asks, “Should I forgive a repeat offender seven times?” It’s a plausible question, albeit a somewhat self-aggrandizing one. Since the Transfiguration, it’s increasingly apparent that Peter’s being groomed to take over when Jesus is gone, and he wants to reassure the Lord he’s got the right stuff. To his surprise, Jesus says he's grossly miscalculated what will be asked of him—either he’s off by 70, or a factor of 70. In any case, Peter’s magnanimous offer isn’t nearly enough. Really?

When we do the math, we realize the magic isn’t in the numbers. It’s in the product. Multiplied forgiveness goes beyond incidental pardon and seeds in us the daily practice of grace. Christ calls us to a transcendent state that frees us of weights we take upon ourselves by withholding forgiveness—heavy chains of resentment, confusion, despair, and cynicism. It’s not as simple as telling those who wound us, “It’s okay.” It’s not okay for someone to hurt us, denigrate us, or inflict violence of any kind on us. Yet the only way to overcome our pain and disappointment is to return grace for ill will. To do as Jesus says requires us to trust it’s in our best interest to repudiate insults with grace. So when we rework the equation, replacing the numbers with Christ’s meaning, this is what we get:

Forgiveness X Trust = Grace

Forgiveness multiplied by trust yields Christ-like grace—the same bottomless grace we seek for ourselves, no matter how many times we fail. Do the math. Forgiveness isn’t really about mercy we extend to those who fail us; it’s about witnessing the grace Christ extends to us.

Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus
O for grace to trust You more

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