-- Galatians 6:9
We likely all recall the time Peter came up to Jesus and basically asked, “When can I stop forgiving someone who keeps wronging me? After seven times?”
(I can almost hear him hoping, “Please tell me after seven times.”)
But Jesus responds to him, saying “No, not seven times. Seventy times seven times.”
For those of you doing the math, that comes to 490. The bad news (or good news, depending on which side of the forgiving you’re on :-) is that this is a symbolic number that basically means “forever.”
Jesus was saying to Peter, “No, you don’t give someone seven strikes. You just keep forgiving them . . . forever.”
Now, Jesus is a smart guy. In fact, if we believe he is who he said he was, we know he has all the omniscience of the God of the Universe. So he knows this is a tall order. He knows it doesn’t “make sense” in our world of abuse and betrayal and pettiness and vindictiveness and pride and arrogance and egotism.
So why does he do this? If he knows our capacity for love and forgiveness is finite, how can he call us to persevere in these things toward others? The short answer, I think, is because God Himself perseveres in them toward us.
Jesus goes on to tell Peter a story about a servant who was forgiven a huge debt by his master. The servant goes on then to punish a third party who owes the servant much less. When the master finds out, he has the debt-pardoned servant thrown in jail and tortured. And Jesus says – this is the scary part – that’s what will happen to us if, spurning the grace given us by God, we withhold grace from others.
Because God’s love toward us is a) despite sin worthy of eternal punishment, and b) relentlessly patient in its eternal perseverance, we have no Christian right to say to someone who has wronged us, even if they continue to wrong us, “You have reached your limit with me. My love for you stops now.” Doing so fails to truly see the depths of our sin in the light of God’s holiness. And if God, who is perfect and holy, will forgive and love we who are most certainly not, on what basis do we have to be unforgiving and unloving to others?
I am guessing most of us agree with this in theory. There’s not too many Christians who will say, despite Jesus’ instructions, that it’s okay to hate your enemies and curse those who persecute you.
I think the place where we really have trouble with this stuff is when it comes to people who are hurting us that we actually do really want to love. We really do want to keep forgiving them. But we are weary. They are wearing us out. We don’t know how much longer we can go on. We want to know if we can give up, but we’re scared what that might mean. Surely God does not want to us to keep enduring this pain. Surely he will understand if we just . . . give up. Things aren’t working. The results aren’t being seen. Efforts are not bearing fruit. I’ve changed, but he or she hasn’t.
Most of us know 1 Corinthians 13 really well, but let’s revisit a piece of it again:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres . . . Love never fails.
That’s some scary stuff right there. For we who are used to thinking of love as romance or warm-and-fuzzies or butterflies or sex, Paul has Jesus in mind as the model of love when he tells us, “Love is about sacrifice and service. And it keeps going. It never fails.”
How can this be? We think of those who have tried to love someone back from the brink only to see the person eventually go over. Certainly love fails in these circumstances, right?
I don’t think so. I think that’s true only if we are thinking of our love in terms of a results-based value. But that is not what Jesus is telling Peter. And that’s not what Paul is telling us.
Jesus does not offer Peter a loophole. There is no Forgiveness Contingency Plan. There’s no limited time warranty. Whether the person you’re loving embraces your forgiveness or not, you keep forgiving. Whether the person you love is changed by your love or not, you keep on loving.
In this sense, I don’t think “Love never fails” means “Love always gets the result the lover wants.” I think it means what it says: Love is not a failure.
Love is not a failure regardless of the results.
This is why: Because God is not a failure, and God is love. When we are loving someone with a persevering, sacrificial love, we are reflecting the eternal goodness and grace of God Himself. We are glorifying God, and there is no higher calling than that. None.
We love – not because it will “change the world” (although it may) – but because God loves us (1 John 4:19).
You would think this might incline us toward a begrudging love, then. “Oh, well, if it’s just for God, maybe I should stop hoping for change in the person I’m loving.” But Paul says love “always trusts, always hopes.”
Always trust that God is not content to honor your sacrificial love with a sympathetic pat on the head. Always hope that God is using your sacrificial love to change hearts and minds. (Maybe yours.)
Love always perseveres. Love never fails. So don’t give up.
Whoever you are, wherever you are: Don’t give up.
To the parents trying to love a wayward child back from the world, to the husband trying to love his wife back from drug addiction, to the wife trying to love her husband back from pornography or adultery, to the girl trying to love her friend back from bitterness, to the guy trying to love his friend back from despair – Don’t Give Up.
Don’t give up, don’t give up, don’t give up.
Whatever happens, whenever it happens, your love is not in vain. You are not alone, for God loves you and has approved your love through the sacrifice of his Son. Cast off despair; cast all your cares on Him.
Love never fails. Love is never a waste.