“So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.” – Jonah 4:2.
God convicted Nineveh of their sin. And the people of the city repented. They had a genuine change of heart. But how did Jonah respond? Jonah 4:1 says, “His change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry” Jonah didn’t want the people of Nineveh to repent. He didn’t want God to forgive them. From his perspective, they deserved God’s wrath and judgment—not His mercy and grace.
C.S. Lewis reminds us with a brief yet calm confidence that forgiveness is a lovely idea until we have something to forgive. So before we judge Jonah too harshly, we must remember that we’ve all felt as if a person or group of people deserved something bad to happen to them. That careless driver who cut us off. That difficult employer or fellow employee. The group that has opinions completely different than our own. While we are grateful that God forgives us we may not think that others deserve that same forgiveness and mercy.
Forgiveness. If we’re honest, we aren’t very openhanded with it and tend to withhold it until we feel ready, or the offender shows some indication of their remorse. Some of us have been known to say; “I’m praying and asking God to help me to forgive.” That’s fine, but forgiving someone is an act of obedience, not a feeling. Jesus wasn’t suggesting we forgive one another, He was commanding us to.
Matthew 18:21 says, “ Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” Before moving too quickly to Jesus’ answer, we should spend a moment thinking about Peter’s question. For after asking his question, he suggests an answer, offering “seven” as a genuinely generous suggestion. After all, it’s nearly inconceivable that were someone to sin against us four or five or six times we would just keep forgiving that person. We’d begin to think it was deliberate, or at least dangerously compulsive. Yet Peter offers seven times as an above-and-beyond kind of answer.
To which Jesus replies, “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven!” Now, before you break out your calculator to do a quick multiplication problem, let’s not miss the point. This is not about coming up with an exact number or a quota, instead, it’s about grasping a mindset. Jesus’ answer encourages us to recognize that forgiveness isn’t something we do but a way of being, a way of being in a relationship.
Christianity is difficult. Forgiving is very difficult and unnatural. Forgiveness is not tied to manageable, natural numbers. Instead, it is tied to supernatural grace and mercy. That seems outlandish at best and preposterous at worst. Except that’s what Jesus says. And more importantly, that’s what Jesus does, forgiving us over and over and over again and inviting us to do the same.
- What does it mean to forgive others?
- What can we do this week to practice forgiveness?