How many times must a Christian be robbed, abused or cheated on before they stop turning the other cheek and start drawing a line in the sand? When does a steady stream of grace and forgiveness become an open door to sin and injustice?
A good friend of mine asked me this question last week, and I’ve been stewing over it ever since. I know what society would say—push back, sue, call the police, get a restraining order—but what would God say, and why?
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. [Matt. 18:21-22]
Does Jesus really mean that if my wife starts cheating I should wait for 490 acts of infidelity before asking for a divorce? Does he want me to get beaten up 490 times before calling the police? Is this number really God’s line in the sand?
I don’t think Jesus just tagged a mega-multiplier on the number seven. He pulled the number right out of Israel’s past, making a statement that none of his disciples would have missed.
In Leviticus, God told Israel that they were to give their land a rest from farming every seven years, promising to double their yield on the sixth. But Israel continued to harvest on the seventh year, and for seventy cycles, God was patient with their disobedience. However, after 490 years he dropped the hammer:
The few who survived were taken as exiles to Babylon, and they became servants to the king and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power. So the message of the Lord spoken through Jeremiah was fulfilled. The land finally enjoyed its Sabbath rest, lying desolate until the seventy years were fulfilled, just as the prophet had said. II Chron. 36:20-21
So the Babylonian Exile, the great shame of Israel’s past, came after 70 X 7 years of divine patience. To the disciples, 70 X 7 would be very clear, resonating with what Paul wrote in Colossians 3:13:
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Is that it? Is guilt the primary motivation for forgiveness? Does God want his people to live like human punching bags, absorbing every hit without ever punching back, just because God was patient with us for so long?
I think there is more nuance to what Jesus is saying. This is not like Martin Luther King’s mantra of non-violence. Not exactly. This is an insight into God’s vision for the world.
The Human Family
God is all about unity—a unity of free, independent persons, each bound to the other in love. This is the heart of the Trinity. This is why God brought Eve to Adam, two very different persons, and called them “one flesh.” This is why God started his own nation, unifying them with a Law that gave them a choice to honor God, their neighbors and their environments or face the consequences. This is why Jesus prayed that his followers would be “one, even as we (the Trinity) are one,” giving them a diversity of spiritual gifts, but one Spirit and one mission.
This is also why God is so opposed to rebellion and pride, anything that can drive a wedge between one person and another. Unlike God, the devil is a solo act. He led a rebellion in heaven, breaking the unity of the angels, then inspired a rebellion on earth, breaking that unity as well.
We live in a self-oriented world. We deserve things. We are not like those people. We admire those that “make it.” They have the money and social standing to do whatever they want. But how many of these people are truly happy? How many struggle with their relationships? Why?
Now look at a winning sports team. Watch how they pour their individual talents into a single purpose, working hard to stay in shape and keep the right attitude, doing whatever it takes to keep the team unified and focused, letting management deal with the bigger issues.
If only Christians were more like that. If only we had a common, corporate mission that could keep us moving in the same direction. Instead, we break up over the smallest offense or difference of opinion, thinking more about how comfortable we are than how divided we’ve become.
The Divine Father
When God tells his people to turn the other cheek, love their enemies, not to judge, to avoid divorces and lawsuits, he is not asking for us to let sin trample all over us. He is just doing what any father would do—telling the children to get along while he deals with the situation. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.
I appreciate the insights of Joshua Ryan Butler on this point. In his book, “The Skeletons in God’s Closet,” he tackles the sticky questions of hell, judgment and holy war, and shows how God, as the head of his body, father of his family, and husband of his bride, is ultimately responsible for dealing with the things that disrupt his vision for humanity, his shalom peace. However, he also mentions how government and personal responsibility come into play.
“Be still and know that I am God” is not a private whisper made in the quiet of our closets for personal devotion so much as it is a public proclamation of God arising to defend the enslaved and exploited of our world from the mighty and powerful forces that oppress them. 
God loves the world and wants it to flourish, to experience his shalom. And God cares for those whose flourishing is under threat—particularly the weak and vulnerable of society. This is where the logic of government arises: God establishes governments to protect the shalom of society, to preserve its flourishing, particularly for the powerless whose well-being is most in danger. 
When I am personally mistreated, insulted and abused, I believe Jesus calls me as a disciple to “turn the other cheek,” to forgive “seventy times seven,” and not retaliate. But I also believe Jesus calls me to preserve the shalom of my household, entrusted under my authority and care, to protect my wife and daughter. If someone attacks my beloved bride or my little girl, I will beat them senseless to the best of my ability to protect my family. And I will do it because of God’s authority, not in spite of it. 
When Jesus says 70 X 7, he’s basically saying, “This is what our family is. This is what our family does.”
So when are we supposed to act in our own defense? When should we take a step back and let God or other authorities intervene? I think we can find a reasonable answer if we ask ourselves these kinds of questions:
1: Do I want peace and justice for personal reasons, or for the sake of God and his kingdom?
2: What can I do to honor Christ’s prayer for unity in his Church?
3: How can my attitudes and actions reinforce God’s vision for a peaceful, united humanity?
4: Am I thinking of others as more important than myself?
5: What does God have to say about my personal situation? What does he want me to do about it?
Am I being too passive? Not passive enough? What other questions can help us to fall in line with God’s vision for the human family?