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Forgiveness is such a basic core tenet of Christianity that when confronted with the challenge of preaching about it, I often feel like “what else is there to say?” For lack of an elegant way to say it, forgiveness seems so obvious, although one does not need to look far to see how much the world is lacking in forgiveness right now. But, as I often lament, how does a sermon change that reality?
I can tell you (and myself) over and over again that to live well as a human is to live in sync with the ways of God, but… I am also utterly aware of how far short I fall in enacting the ways of God. Forgiveness is hard work. And, let’s be honest: there are plenty of people who don’t deserve forgiveness. This week I read that some cite that the most challenging word in the Lord’s Prayer is “as.” Meaning, forgive others ‘as’ we have been forgiven. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus links receiving forgiveness with the ability to offer forgiveness.
Now, obviously, there is some truth to this… At the cross, when Jesus cries out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” we plainly see that God is a God who cannot stop giving and forgiving. It is in God’s very nature. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to be in my very nature.
Because, if I’m truthful, this whole notion of giving and forgiving as God is beautiful. I can fully imagine that if we all lived that way the world would be more gentle, more generous, more beautiful. But, this picture paired with reality makes this notion seem more a dream than anything else. Because when I look at how we actually live, all the talk of generosity and forgiveness makes very little sense.
Peter, I believe, feels similarly to me.
How many times do I have to forgive?
Once? Twice? Three times?
Of course, Peter knows that Jesus is beyond generous, and so he ups the ante: Seven times? In Biblical terms, seven signifies completeness. It wouldn’t be a far-stretch to imagine that Peter in saying, “Seven times?” recognizes that Jesus expects a lot of him.
So, when Jesus says, “Seventy times seven” he’s indicating that when it comes to forgiveness, even seven is not complete or perfect enough….Sigh.
Do you know how far I am from perfecting just the seven acts of forgiveness, let alone seventy times seven acts? Part of what hangs me up is the justice element of forgiveness. As most of you know, justice and equity are a big part of my personal theology. I mean, does forgiveness mean:
~Excusing or overlooking harm that has been done to us and saying that everything is okay?
~Allowing those who have hurt us to persist in their behaviors?
~Forgetting what has happened?
~Does it happen all at once? And can I just decide to forgive and then it’s over?
In my life, I haven’t been able to just forgive and forget; hurts and pains haunt me. And, I know that I’m not alone in this. And so, writing about forgiveness from the perspective of Jesus seems unattainable and unreasonable.
And maybe a little… inhumane.
I struggled with what word to use to describe how difficult it is for humans to forgive, and how sometimes it seems that forcing the issue of forgiveness seems to mean you must denying your own self and own needs – your humanness. I guess that’s how I ended up at inhumane. I don’t think Jesus is trying to coerce us into forgiveness – I should be up front about that. What I am trying to say is: forgiving just because we’re supposed to, denies the very real difficulties which exist in relationship.
Additionally, it is also true that when we deny ourselves the blessing that forgiveness can offer, parts of our humanity are eaten away. And since God is a giver and forgiver, the part of us that gets eaten away is a portion of God that lives inside us.
Those two reasons are why I settled on the word ‘inhumane.’
And this is the piece that peaked my curiosity this week.
How is forgiveness a blessing and how does it return us to our intended humanity?
Before I go on, I need to underscore that in the parable Jesus tells, he chooses situations in which the forgiver stands in a position of power, and the person does not by forgiving prolong unhealthy situations, harm, or injustice. This matters from a justice standpoint and in promoting healthy, safe relationships.
Certainly forgiveness is universally applicable – none of us is without fault – but forgiveness is not meant to bind us, but free us.
Which brings me back to the blessing of forgiveness…
Sometimes we are given the grace to forgive more easily than other times. Forgiveness often requires practice. And time. It takes choosing to work at it. We might have to chip away at it again and again and again. For the times when forgiveness is hard work or undeserved, it helps me to think about the seventy times seven command. Not in the traditional sense where we assume we have to keep forgiving a wrong-doer over and over again until their ‘sorry’ holds no meaning. But rather experiencing Jesus’ mathematics as blessing, as a gift.
I’ve often thought seventy times seven meant forgiving someone who keeps wronging you. But, what if it’s the internal work you do: when the anger over the misdeed flares up again in YOU, then YOU accept Jesus’ gift of grace, mercy, and forgiveness anew. So that the hooks of vengeance don’t take hold of you.
I’m not going to ask you to disregard the wound. That would be asking you to deny your humanity. But, don’t let it bind you. That would be inhumane: to allow yourself to be traumatized over and over again by the same tear in the soul.
These sharp tears will require the fiercest kind of love. God’s love – who loves you even when you can’t love yourself; who forgives you even when you can’t forgive yourself; who deems you worthy even when you carry shame; who cleanses you even when another has sought to sully.
Because at the heart of forgiveness lies love of ourselves and love of God – that is what is required to releasee these deep aches we carry.
I know we all carry different regrets, secrets, and pains.
I know they can keep us up at night.
I know they whisper vengeful thoughts and promise satisfaction through retaliation.
I know seventy times seven may not even be close to enough…
But, if we allow pain to consume us, then we’ve made injury our identity. If we insist on weaponizing our well-deserved anger in every interaction with people who have hurt us, then it’s like we’re drinking the devil’s poison, and the poison will kill us long before it does anything to those who have hurt us. To choose forgiveness is to release ourselves from the tyranny of bitterness.
Acknowledging and reckoning with the damage that has been done takes practice, persistence, and promise. I think that’s why I hear so much blessing in Jesus’ words this week. It’s like he knows this business of forgiveness is the hardest grace to give and receive.
It might take seventy times seven to receive.
And seventy times seven to give.
Forgiveness is not quick and easy; it is a process – messy and non-linear, often a cutting process that can leave us feeling whole and liberated one minute, and bleeding out of every vein the next.
Which is maybe why the cross is such an apropos depiction of what it is like to forgive. One moment we’re nailed up, certain we will die under the weight of our pains. But then the balm of forgiveness soothes our scars and new life arises from our wounds.
Forgiveness is hard work. But, I believe it may be some of the most important, humane work we do as children of God. May God loosen the chains that bind us. May we rise. May we enact the healing grace and forgiveness of God.