In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asked Jesus: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
I don’t know anyone who has sinned against me 490 times, and I certainly hope I haven’t sinned against someone else 490 times. Seventy times seven is 490, and Christ uses this high number on purpose, to tell us that not only should our forgiveness of others be seemingly without limit. He also tells us that God’s capacity to forgive is also without limit.
In fact, the prayer points out that God is sad over our sins, and rejoices when sinners return to Him. Why? Because of His majesty and mercy.
We’ve all looked up at the sky on a clear day and it seems to go on forever and ever, farther than the eye can see, farther than the mind can imagine. The Sixth Prayer paints the picture that as majestic as this is, as wide as the sky is in the day, as infinite as the number of stars are in the night, so great is God’s capacity to forgive and show mercy. This prayer is motivating. It reminds us not to give up on ourselves, because no matter who we are or what we may have done, that God hasn’t yet given up on us. In fact, He’s not ever going to give up on us. He will root for us, and see the best in us. His desire to forgive us is without limit, just like the sky on a clear day.
The “gut-check” question is: Do we have the capacity to forgive someone 490 times, or does our patience and mercy run out long before? That is a lot of forgiveness and mercy. It also represents a lot of hope in someone, that they can sin so many times and still be worthy of forgiveness. To be able to forgive to this degree says something about our own sense of optimism and hope, that we don’t give up on others easily. It also says something about our faith, that we believe in God’s bountiful mercies on us and therefore we more generously extend mercy to others.
There is one other category of forgiveness that isn’t often discussed. We know that God forgives us. We know that we are supposed to forgive one another. The other kind of forgiveness is the ability to forgive ourselves.
It is true that there are many people in the world who forgive themselves too easily. They mitigate all kinds of behaviors. Mitigating behaviors isn’t self-forgiveness. It’s narcissism.
There are people who sincerely repent of sins who have a hard time forgiving themselves. They are beset with guilt and shame. Part of accepting God’s forgiveness is the ability to forgive ourselves. God is either greater than us, or He isn’t. If we believe that God is greater than us, if He can forgive our sins, then we must be able to forgive our own sins. Confession, which is one of the sacraments we should be participating in on a regular basis, affords us the opportunity to dialogue with a priest and, when we have a hard time forgiving, we can rely on the counsel of a Spiritual Father to help us be rid of guilt and shame. Sadness over sins is a good motivator to not repeat sins. Sitting in guilt and shame leads to self-loathing and spiritual despondency. God wants us to succeed. He wants us to attain salvation. He is willing to forgive when we are willing to repent. We are to continually repent of sins and continually accept His forgiveness. We are to walk with purpose—with faith, hope and joy—not with guilt and shame.
God has the capacity to forgive us without limits. We are supposed to have this same capacity to forgive others without limits. And we are supposed to forgive ourselves as well.
Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from the Heavens; praise Him in the heights. To You, O God, praise is befitting. Praise Him, all His angels, praise Him all His hosts. To You, O God, praise is befitting. (From the Praises, adapted from Psalm 148:1-2)
God is rooting for us! We are supposed to root for each other!