Seventy Times Seven, Conflict and Forgiveness

by Rachel Pieh Jones on September 9, 2014


The conflict in mind as I wrote this piece was not related to a team conflict issue.

team conflcit

I used to think that when Jesus said to forgive seventy times seven times, he meant that people would be so mean, so sinful, that they would keep sinning against me (and I against them) and I should forgive each new transgression as readily as the first. And forgiving them looked something like accepting their apology, shaking their hand, or kissing their cheek and hugging, and saying, “I forgive you.”

That seemed challenging but easy enough. I could offer a limp hand or a sideways hug, mumble the words in a quiet voice, and move on. One sin against me, one forgiveness offered, voila, the scales were balanced. And vice versa.

Until this method stopped working. Until a friend hurt me so deeply I couldn’t breathe. Until mumbling, “I forgive you” didn’t erase the anger, bitterness, and sick feeling. Until she bolted so quickly there was no time for shaking hands and I couldn’t accept an apology that has never been offered.

What does forgiveness look like then? Was it a one for one deal? Was I supposed to recall each lie, deception, angry word, hurtful action, and pronounce over them, one by one, Forgiven?

When I tried to do that, I simply ended up in the bathroom crying. Remembering didn’t help, it only increased the clenching in my gut and the raging desire to scream. This didn’t feel like forgiveness.

Probably because it wasn’t.

I had twisted the call to forgive into an opportunity to keep a record of wrongs. In the name of forgiveness, I let my heart grow bitter as I felt, fresh, each wrong against me.

I had to learn that seventy times seven doesn’t mean one for one, every time someone sins against you. It means every time you feel angry about that one single sin, forgive it again. It means forgiveness is on-going, a lifestyle, something that must be revisited and redone. Forgiveness is not a one-time event, shake hands and it is over. It is a state of being.

I drove by my friend’s house and felt angry again. So I stopped the car and addressed my heart and forgave her. I heard her name and felt angry again, about the same thing, so I addressed my heart and forgave her. I stumbled across a photo of her and felt angry again, about the same thing, so again I forgave her.

At first, these moments of anger and forgiving came at me fast and constant. As time passed, they sprang up with less frequency and after a few years, I rarely felt angry anymore. But still, once in a while and at unexpected times, a surge of memory and bitterness tries to stake claim and I have to forgive again.

This is seventy times seven. Over and over and over, the same sin, the same hurt. There is no mumbling here, there is no limp handshake. There is a wrestling and a battle and an acknowledgement of the pain. And then there is a canceling of the debt that is owed, a canceling of the right to run down a list of wrongs.

I’m thankful that God does not have these same issues. For God, once a sin is forgiven, it is forgiven. He harbors no bitterness, no anger, no need to revisit the pain and forgive again. I continue to sin against him and seventy times seven becomes a pouring out of grace. For each sin, forgiveness is available, and I drink it in, soak it up, feel the cleansing.

Then I turn it around and offer it, again, to my friend.

Expatriates can’t avoid this issue but I don’t want the comment section  to turn into a nasty place to rat out the dirty deeds of others. So, with wisdom and tempered spirits, what has been your experience with team conflict?

*image via pixabay

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • I love this idea that forgiveness means each time it hurts turning it around. For me, unresolved conflict (where the person has left without any type of movement toward repairing the damage) is the hardest…This is a pain that especially for me resonates in my core and brings me to points where I need to repeatedly forgive again and again (and again!) I often find myself reminding my forgetful soul that my responsibility always lies in the forgiving and is not dependent upon the movement of another party to reconcile. Forgiveness can happen apart from reconciliation, over and over and over again as long as the process takes, for the rest of life even… 🙂

    • Stacey

      Thank you so much for saying this. I resonate so much. Unresolved conflict is my hardest struggle as well! I will try to hold onto this today; “My responsibility always likes in the forgiving and is not dependent upon the movement of another party to reconcile.”

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Yes, true, true. The hardest times are when the other person is either unwilling or absent. I can’t make them repent, change, talk to me, or see things my way (which of course might not even be the ‘right’ way!). Those are the times when I can only say, “This hurts, God. And I don’t know where else to go with the pain but I’m choosing to not hold onto bitterness.”

  • Hi Rachel. I love this practical yet deep journey to forgiveness you share. My own journey is similar as it is made of a lot of returning and forgiving and always looking to what Jesus did for me as I see my own heart and the fresh forgiveness that finds me in all things. For team situations I pray for wisdom and understanding especially if a cultural difference is involved. I ask the Lord to give me His heart for them and to see things about them that I am missing because my eyes are on where I have been hurt. I do approach it all with the belief that in every situation we are both living out of things less than God’s best. So I seek to forsake any path in my thinking that ends with me righteous and they the sinner. This is hard, hard, hard but it keeps me soft and growing no matter what they do.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Sounds like you have a beautiful and humble approach to these things Abigail. Like you said, not easy, but vital.

  • Miriam

    Thanks so much for this timely post, as I’m dealing with the aftermath of a (team)conflict. When I noticed my heart just remained so full of bitterness, I learnt to forgive, which was a relieve (Eph 4:31-32). But still now and then anger is coming back about certain things, and I asked myself why that could be: should ‘forgiven’ not also mean ‘forgotten’? (as I was told when i was young.) I’m learning that it is an ongoing process for now.
    What I am still struggling with is that there hasn’t been any resolution of the conflict. The people concerned have left the team (but are still in the country) and said ‘we hope we can still be friends’, somehow ignoring that there has been a conflict. I can’t get over that so easily and be in relationship pretending nothing has happened between us…

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      So hard, Miriam. I’m so sorry to hear this and also sorry to say that it sounds familiar. Learning how to relate without resolution is incredibly challenging. Praying for mercy and grace for you and a short record of wrongs and eventual restoration and peace.

  • Chelle Leigh

    I really enjoyed reading your post Rachel. Keeping up the good fight of faith, and that means with forgiveness too. That has definitely been my experience – to keep on keeping on in an attitude of forgiveness. One of the hardest things I have had to walk out and at times still really hard with a person who really wants to drive the knife and twist it. Can’t pretend that there is no hurt or damage to the relationship, but forgiveness is about mercy – given when undeserved. By an act of the will I have to just keep choosing forgiveness and eventually the feelings fall in line as God heals my heart. Only way I have ever got free. I have also noticed that fear is very prevalent in situations like this for me – fear of rejection or disrespect – and just facing the fear in me, as the sin that it is, along with recognising I am God’s beloved child (He lives me as much as He loves Jesus!) makes this easier and easier with practice. Not yet easy for me but easier… thankfully.He is the vine and I am the branch – and how I need that contact all the time!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Forgiveness doesn’t mean the relationship is back to normal, not at all. Sometimes there is just too much damage done. Could be that the other person has not repented or is absent, could be that you come to realize you simply can’t work together even though you love one another and want the best for each other. Could be that it will take time, maybe years, to come back to the place where the relationship was before the hurt. Those experiences – the years of healing and then total restoration, have been incredibly life-giving to me to remember in the middle of the times of other conflicts that sting so badly.

  • kath

    Yes, a timely post (as have so many been that come from here through my inbox).

    Forgive and forget – a much used (and much misunderstood) concept in scripture.
    I have been told that it is the ‘act’ of forgiveness – an action or a choice and that by ‘giving it to God’ the emotional change etc comes later. Yes, but as you have said, what if you still feel the hurt and the pain…and the bitterness? Does that mean we were not genuine or not spiritual enough? Seventy times seven. An ongoing process, just like God’s work in all other areas of our life. That makes so much sense.
    Someone once said to me that to ‘forget’ does not mean that we no longer recall the circumstances, person or event but that we no longer feel the pain associated with it – we have ‘forgotten’ the hurt.

    We have just come through a team conflict – and I am still in the aftermath. On good days I can move forward, genuine in my forgiveness. But on bad days…on bad days the hurt is still raw and I condemn myself for my lack of ability do even this most essential of requirements as a seasoned Christian worker.

    Seventy times seven – on bad days I will remind myself that this is an ongoing work in process, just as I am in His hands. Thank you.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Sometimes though even that hurt isn’t forgotten, though it probably (hopefully?) fades over time. At lead for me, and what I had to learn was that the pain brought with another opportunity to forgive. A work in progress, we all are. Praying for your heart to heal and for you to have, over time and with grace, more good days than bad.

  • Catherine

    I really liked how you explained this long term choice of forgiveness, really good!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks Catherine.

  • So, pretty much NOTHING makes me happier to be OUT of missions and living in the real world again than this one issue of conflict with colleagues! The beauty of living in suburban America is: you can get away from these people! Overseas, no. You’re stuck with them. That whole “iron sharpens iron” thing sounds just fine in the Bible but it’s absolutely agonizing in real life! AND–I think that mission life does tend to attract some pretty difficult people, frankly. Yes, there’s the average run of the mill stuff that we all do to each other, which gets magnified by stress and the mess.

    But in every mission community, there are “known offenders” who have deep-seated issues and missionary life contributes to the problem as people with problems are so often separated by an ocean from the people who pay their salaries. The normal kind of accountability that happens in other careers (Stop being a jerk or we’ll stop employing you) doesn’t happen in missions. Sometimes, in the absence of normal accountability structures, “70 times 7” ends up enabling patterns of unhealthy behavior.

    That doesn’t excuse us from forgiving! Not at all! Out of God’s incredible riches, we CAN forgive that much, and I love what you said here. But with forgiveness, we can also have boundaries and be wise about whether or not we can trust the person again–and that depends on their trustworthy behavior. I like what Abuk says below: forgiveness can happen apart from reconciliation. Yes! So true! So painful, but so true.

    I think the issue of healing is yet another part of the picture. I think when we continue on with “70 times 7” as you describe so well here, each time we’re saying to God, “I am willing to be healed. I am willing to believe that you have more for me than what this person has taken from me.”

    One thing that does help me, when I have to be a situation with someone who just does it again and again is this mantra: “God loves her, and God loves me.” God sees beyond what I know about that person, into her heart of fear and pain and sorrow, and He loves her even when she’s DOING IT AGAIN, GOD! AGAIN! DID YOU SEE HER??? AGAIN!

    And God loves me that way, too, when I’m doing it again and again and again.

    Thank God, thank God, thank God.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      So good to bring up healing as part of the forgiveness process, especially when there can be/has been no reconciliation or change. I love how you phrased it – willing to believe that God has more for us than what this person took.

    • Kay, Your beautiful words here make me even more sad we could only connect once over Skype. But I feel like I continue to hear your wisdom through experience on this, and I thank you so much.

      “I am willing to be healed. I am willing to believe that you have more for me than what this person has taken from me.” – Striving for healing over justice has been so freeing for me. I can’t continue to dwell on the joy that’s been robbed of me.

      “God loves her, and God loves me.” – This has been my heart lately, and this week my call to obedience from scripture has been praying for my fellow laborers here in SE Asia. I want each of them to be made whole and made joyful through the blood of Christ, and I realize now that this is no experience I can give them. This requires each person opening his or her heart to God and allowing Him to do the work. Conflict ultimately stems through our own sin, and we have to allow this sin to be addressed by the only Righteous God. Goodness knows He is convicting me daily…making me new all the time.

      Thank you. And thank you, Rachel, too. Hope we get to meet at an REI event one day 🙂

      • I find forgiveness to be such a difficult topic, because we find ourselves needing to forgive in so many different kinds of situations. Sometimes it’s disappointed expectations, differences of preference or opinion, misunderstandings, personality conflicts–simple stuff, maybe, but it hurts.

        All, of course, magnified by the stress of life overseas.

        But I’ve also had situations that I felt were SO wrong, where clearly the other person shouldn’t have done what they did. And I know that the other person felt completely convicted before God that they were absolutely doing the right thing! This leaves me really hesitant ever to throw the sin card at somebody else. I see what I see, God sees their heart. The only sin I can be sure of is my own.

        And then of course in therapy we’re always having to deal with huge big painful things that haven’t been able to be resolved, and people are always asking me this: What do I do, if I can’t forgive? (Usually that means, I don’t have happy feelings, and how can I get them?)

        In fact, I’ve had that question written on a note card on my night stand for a while now. One morning recently, I woke up and wrote an answer for myself: “Receive Love.”

        Because, for me anyway, that’s the only way I can ever let go of the pain. Receive the Love, until it heals the hurt.

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        Meeting there would be awesome!

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  • Bill Pavuk

    This is a beautiful and profound insight, I think, on this text. Very interesting and relatable. Because we often have to forgive a single thing countless times. Whether Jesus was thinking of it this way or not, surely it is a part of what this text means for us.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks Bill. And you’re right, I don’t know what Jesus was thinking exactly but will take any lesson from him I can! Would love to hear him talk about it more. Someday…

  • Richelle Wright

    Team conflict is hard and it is inevitable. I love what you’ve shared here about forgiveness being a determined mindset and a repeated choice, regardless of what the others involved do or don’t do…

    One of the other mindsets that I have to continually choose to hang on to in those “conflict moments” (or seasons) is that idea that perspective is reality. My perspective in a difficult situation is how I understand and see that situation. Another’s perspective is how they see and understand that same situation – and the two may be have very little common ground. When I say reality, I’m not talking right or wrong… I say reality because what is real to me is also very powerful… and will be the same for those on the other side of the conflict. I always like to think of when the angel of the Lord came to Joshua – Joshua’s question was whose side are you on? The angel replied neither. Too often, in conflict, I’m convinced I’m right because God is surely on my side. But I don’t think that is the way God looks at it. I think He’s on “no side” but is interested that all sides draw closer to Him. That’s not to imply there isn’t right or wrong – but even if I’m 100% right, it doesn’t mean God is only on my side… if that makes sense.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      So good, so good Richelle. Great connection with that angel of the Lord and Joshua.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    Thanks Rachel, great post. Way hard stuff and I agree with Kay, there seems to be a heightened level of difficulty when it is coworkers “on the field” — our first two years in Haiti were brutal and none of it because of culture shock or adjustment to our new location. I’m getting bitter, better employ one of my 70 X 7 right now! Hugs to you, hope you are well! T.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks Tara. 70×7, 70×7. Over and over and over!

  • Good word, Rachel. Yes, the concept is simple to understand yet emotionally and logically difficult to assimilate. I read a book this year about forgiveness and generosity (two things that go hand-in-hand) that revolutionized my life, literally, called ‘Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf:

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks for sharing this Angie. I hadn’t thought of that – generosity and forgiveness but am intrigued.

    • Malana Ganz

      Volf is a scholarly writer, be forewarned!

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    “Seventy times seven, the same sin, the same hurt.” Just this summer I found myself thinking negatively toward someone I thought I had forgiven a long time ago (like you, not a team conflict). I sort of did a double take at myself: did I really forgive that person, as I thought I had? This was a helpful way to explain that forgiveness might have to be done later, over and over, for the very same offense, or at least the same feelings the offense generated in ME. I was just so surprised it could happen so much later when I had struggled so hard to forgive at the time, and had naively thought my work was over. Disappointing to find it there in my heart, again. Disappointing to recognize I have a propensity for bitterness, again. Afraid it means all my hard work way-back-when was wasted. But I know it wasn’t. It’s just more of “seventy times seven.” And yes, so thankful our salvation in Christ is secure, that His work is finished, and that He doesn’t have to stumble along trying to repeat the forgiveness again and again, as we do.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      So true, it is frustrating/disappointing to realize that we haven’t moved on as much as had thought or hoped. Chance to be thankful for grace. Again.

    • Marie Loewen

      It may be helpful to remember that as we grow in grace, we may be called to deeper levels of forgiveness – at depths we could not have sustained years before
      I have also found it helpful to remember that while an incident or offence may happen at a particular time in our history – the meaning it carried may change as our life develops. And we cannot forgive ahead of time – we must deal with the present in the present
      FOr example – a divorce occurs when the children are very young and we forgive the circumstances and betrayal involved. But there come moments when what “should have been” is keen. Perhaps the graduation or wedding of a child and we find ourselves angry that the brokenness affects this occasion. The absence (or presence!) of the other person causes pain. This must be handled as a new occasion for forgiveness. We could not forgive the loss before it actually happened. And the fact that this hurts at this time does not mean our previous grace was ineffective or inadequate. Simply that more and new grace is called for in the long term effects of something that happened years ago

  • Miriam

    There’s a lot of helpful material on resolving conflicts on, especially under ‘resources’. It is based on biblical principals, but some of the material is here (muslim world) succesfully being used with and taught to locals too.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Great resource, thanks Miriam.

  • Malana Ganz

    I went to a Native American Institute of Indigenous Studies (NAIITS) conference this summer. One of the presenters made this statement, and is has stuck with me and I am still chewing on it…

    When an offender is no longer around to ask forgiveness, or refuses to ask forgiveness, we have a different path before us. We no longer have the option to offer forgiveness. But what we can do is mourn the loss of the relationship, grieve over the pain and ache in our spirit, and ask God to forgive them.

    I haven’t decided whether this is a complete answer…in fact I am sure it isn’t. But I like the perspective, the humility it takes to admit that the relationship had enough value to us that the offense hurt, and that the offender deeply needs to receive something from God.

    A great indigenous movie about forgiveness is Smoke Signals. It meanders a bit but has a very powerful ending. Available on youtube. under Smoke Signals Full Movie.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks for this recommendation Malana. Really interesting to think about, that it takes humility to say something hurt and to grieve.

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