“Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often shall I forgive? As many as seven times?’
“Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”
One of scriptures clearest mandates to those who profess to be Christian is an obligation to forgive. There are more than 150 references to forgiveness in the Bible. Over and over and over again we are told that God has forgiven our sins, and so we are commanded to forgive others.
The mandate to forgive is clear, but the reality of forgiving is not so easy.
My guess is that most of us here today already know that we should forgive. We know that there is value in letting go of cherished hurts. But all too often we find it difficult, or even impossible, to do what scripture says we should.
To be told we ought to forgive and let go of past pain doesn’t mean we are able to do so. And hearing Jesus’ words today, that we should be willing to forgive someone who has wronged us not once, not twice, but an unlimited number of times can make us feel even worse, by making us feel guilty about our inability to forgive.
When we find ourselves in that situation we are not alone.
“The inability or refusal to forgive has become one of the great destructive elements in the modern world, both for individuals and communities,” says New Testament scholar William Countryman in his book Forgiven and Forgiving.
“We hold grudges,” he says. “We seek revenge. We cultivate victimhood as our identity. We let the past rule the present. We tend to make war more easily than we make peace, to harbor or even treasure the wrongs done to us more easily that we turn them loose.”
Forgiveness is not easy, Countryman admits, but we make it even harder when we think of it as primarily a duty, something that we should be able to force ourselves to do.
“However hard we have worked over the centuries to reduce Christian faith to a list of rules – be neat, clean and obedient; never miss church, say your prayers, read your Bible – it is really about something much more fundamental and life-giving than duty,” Countryman says.
Christian faith is about changing hearts and minds. That’s what makes forgiveness possible. The point is not to acquire a technique of forgiving or to drive ourselves harder through sheer will power, but to acquire a whole new way of relating to God, the world, and one another.
That is something that the forgiven slave in today’s gospel reading is not able to do. The slave owes the king 10,000 talents – or as Bible commentaries tell us, about 165,000 years’ worth of wages. The point is the slave owes an astronomical amount, a debt that can never be paid.
But when the slave begs for mercy, the king astonishingly forgives the entire debt. One would think that such an extravagant act of generosity and kindness would transform the slave’s life.
But it doesn’t. Instead, the forgiven slave immediately goes out and demands repayment from the one who is in debt to him.
The heart and mind of the forgiven slave have not been changed. Even though his debt has been canceled, he remains in bondage to his past.
It seems obvious what the forgiven slave should do. But in reality, he is not so different from us. Every week in church we are reminded that our sins – all our sins – are forgiven by a God of astonishing mercy and love.
Yet all too often we do not let the forgiveness we have received transform our lives; we do not let God’s generous spirit give us a new sense of generosity that makes it possible for us to forgive.
In our struggles to forgive, it is helpful to remember what forgiveness is and is not.
The dictionary defines forgiveness as “granting pardon without harboring resentment.”
Forgiveness does not mean “making nice,” pretending that someone did not hurt us, or did not intend to be mean. Sometimes people do intend to do harm.
Forgiveness also does not mean denying that a wrong has been done. For centuries people, particularly women, have stayed in abusive situations because they believe the Bible’s mandate to forgive means pretending the abuse never happened, or taking responsibility for another’s abuse.
Forgiveness does not mean staying in dangerous or abusive situations.
Indeed, Countryman says, forgiveness must begin by recognizing and acknowledging what has happened, by naming the injustice or wrong that has been done, and if possible removing ourselves from the situation.
We cannot successfully deal with a problem that we refuse to admit exists.
It is not until we can acknowledge and name what has happened that we can move into the process of forgiving.
Forgiveness is often not a one-time act of will, but a process that can take years. The process begins with prayer regarding the one who has wronged us. That prayer may acknowledge our anger and hurt, and our honest feelings about the person who has caused them.
Writer Madeleine L’Engle admits that she had found herself in this situation.
“I sat in my quiet corner one night, the Bible open on my lap, and I knew I still had hurt in my heart, and that I was still angry at the one who was permitting a great load of blame and shame to be laid on me,” she writes.
Then, in the midst of her anger and hurt, L’Engle found herself asking God to bless the person who had hurt her. “God bless that jerk,” is what she actually prayed.
Her prayer was perhaps not gracious, but it was honest. She prayed for no demands for justification, vindication or revenge. No manipulation or insisting that everything be straightened out in her favor. No denying feelings of hurt and anger. No pretending that evil doesn’t exist or didn’t happen.
L’Engle admits that she had not forgiven the person who hurt her, but she was able to turn that person over to God, “knowing that God’s powerful love will do what our own feeble love or lack of it won’t.”
The White Queen in Alice in Wonderland thought that it was a good practice to believe in six impossible things every morning before breakfast. L’Engle says in her own life she has found “it is salutary to bless six people I don’t much like every morning before breakfast.”
If we can do that, remembering that the person in the world who has done us the most harm can by forgiven by God, just as we are, then we have begun the long road to forgiveness.