How many times should we forgive someone and when we do forgive them, what’s next? Peter came right out and asked Jesus this popular question. We read about the recollection of the conversation in Matthew 18:21, 22. Jesus says, “not seven times but seventy times seven”. That’s a lot of grace for one person to dish out, don’t you think? What’s the popular phrase? Oh yeah – “Once burned, shame on me; twice burned shame on you”. Doesn’t seem to match up with scripture but most of us are inclined to proclaim the popular secular decree rather than the scripture-based instruction.
First of all, let’s do the math. Seventy times seven is 490. So we need to forgive people 490 times. Is that for the same transgression or do we keep a tally for each transgression for which we grant forgiveness? Let’s take a look at Israel…there is a chance that Jesus was actually referring to historical significance here. The people of Israel transgressed a LOT. It wasn’t necessarily the same transgression but wow they really racked up the points. Lucky for them, and for us; God shows mercy and grace – unlike his creation who seldom show mercy and grace especially to repeat offenders.
Do you think the act of forgiving is a choice or a feeling? Is it a state of being or an actual physical action? We have clear Biblical instruction: Colossians 3:13, “bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” You read that right – we are to forgive (just) as the Lord (has) forgiven us! The prayer that Christ himself taught us to pray states, “..and forgive us our sins (or trespasses, depending on your faith tradition) as we forgive those who sin against us”. Oh wait a minute – THAT was tricky. He threw that last part in to trip us up, right? Kinda like the time they were about to stone that poor woman and Christ picked up a rock and said, “He who is without sin must cast the first stone”. We thought for a moment that, as Christ picked up a stone, he was affirming that we were actually right and justified in stoning that poor woman to death. But at the last minute, when we least expected it, he throws in a “yeah, but”. Kinda like Steve Jobs always did in his announcements, remember? He would always say, “oh, and one more thing”…and that one more thing was always HUGE!
We know we should forgive but what happens when we just plain don’t feel like it? Our grievance is valid, right? Our anger justified. Why should we forgive some of the uglier sins of others like lying, stealing, cheating…how about physical pain or even murder? Why assume that God will have complete jurisdiction over them and will judge them according to His standards when our standards seem pretty fair, right? Hmmmm…fair…
Corrie Ten Boom, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, says, “Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you.” There is a wonderful clearing of the conscience when we forgive and then move on. That moving on may involve a lot of healing time, and grappling with our definition of justice versus God’s. Relationships may falter during that time and friendships are re-defined. We become a new sculpture, really, in the artists’ hands during this time. For when we forgive, as the Lord’s Prayer says, and we forgive just as we want and hope that God will forgive us and that our fellow man will forgive us; there is a sweet release in the Spirit. The prisoner is indeed set free.
Forgive the man who drove drunk and killed a mother and her children? Forgive the man who, without notice or warning, takes his own life and leaves behind a path of destruction? Forgive the one who cheated in mind, spirit AND body? Forgive the one who sold us out, threw us under the bus, ratted us out, and turned against us? Forgive the very ones who crucified you and left you on the road side to die? Forgive the one who beat you? I’ll have to think about that one for a while.
And while we think, we continue to utter those words all too easily; “…and forgive me of my wrong doings in the same manner in which I have forgiven all people who have done wrong things to me”… and don’t be surprised if you don’t feel the release of that burden right away. After all, you just asked God to do something very specific – not simply forgive you, but use YOU as His guide to how to forgive. You just asked God to use you as the standard by which he will shower you with mercy and patience.
We don’t forgive for the sake of the sinner – that’s God’s job. We forgive for our own sake. It doesn’t mean forgetting nor does it mean we are enabling the sinner even more. It means we have let it go. As long as you have un-forgiveness you have anger, or hatred, or maybe resentment towards that person. Which means that person is still in control of YOU.
Is has been said that forgiveness “is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me”. Mark Twain said that “forgiveness is the fragrance the rose sheds on the heel that has crushed it”. Forgiveness is not about forgetting – it is about finding a new definition for that experience. It’s about discovering a new ‘normal’. It’s about creating a new way to remember that changes the bad memories of the past in to the hope for our future.