The Challenge of Forgiveness

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The word FORGIVE written in vintage metal letterpress type on a soft backlit background.

Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Did you hear about the guy named Bubba who called 911 because his wife was going into labor? 

“Please send an ambulance,” he said, “because I can’t get my truck started.  We live on Eucalyptus Drive.”

The dispatcher said, “Could you please spell that for me?”  There was a long pause, after which Bubba said, “If I walk her over to Oak Street, could you pick us up there?”

When it comes to the hard work of healing damaged relationships, there are no shortcuts.  The number one relational issue in Scripture is forgiveness – and summoning the will and the desire to forgive was just as challenging in Bible times as it is today.  That explains the question that Peter poses to Jesus in Matthew 18:21: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?  Up to seven times?”

In other words, is there a statute of limitations on the hurtful behavior of other people?  Is there a point at which I can finally scream, “Enough is enough!” and then simply let them have it?  Peter asks, “Lord, is seven times a good cutoff point?”

In all likelihood, Peter was expecting to receive a smile and a pat on the back.  After all, according to certain first century rabbis, the “going rate” for forgiving someone for doing the same thing over and over was three times.  One could respectably pardon someone on three occasions for the same act of malice or ignorance.  Only a saint could be expected to go beyond that.  Peter figures he is coming in at more than twice the Saint Rate.    

That’s why Jesus’ answer is such a shocker: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Actually, the bar might be set even higher than that.  The Greek in this verse suggests that Jesus could be saying, “seventy times seven,” or 490 times.  The bottom line?  There is no limit to the number of times we must forgive our neighbor.  Why?  Because there is no limit to the number of times God is willing to forgive us.

Jesus illustrates his point with a parable.  Yesterday we considered Act I, where a king graciously forgives the massive debt of one of his servants. 

Ideally, this should accomplish more than just the greatest wave of relief this man has ever experienced.  It should change his life.  Having received a tsunami of grace, is he now willing to shower such grace on everyone else he knows?

Sadly, it appears his heart is petrified.  Act II is essentially a betrayal of the gift he has received.  He tracks down another servant who owes him about as much as it takes to buy lunch at a fast-food restaurant.  “You owe me!” he says. “Now pay up!”  The second man cries, “Just give me a little time and I’ll get you the money” – the very words the first servant had originally spoken to the king.  But there’s no grace in his heart.  He won’t even consider a “grace period.”  He immediately has this other man dragged off to jail.

It’s clear the servant has seriously missed the point.  The king (God, that is) has already demonstrated that relationships aren’t meant to operate on the Payment Plan.  We don’t have to maintain active ledgers of what other people owe us.  “You owe me an apology.  You owe me an explanation.  You owe me the fulfillment of the happy life you promised me when we got married.” 

When the king hears about the grace-less behavior of the man he forgave, his reaction is entirely predictable.  Act III is painful.

“Who do you think you are?” he asks the servant.  “I canceled that impossible debt of yours.  Can’t you forgive somebody else a few lousy bucks?  Apparently you want to operate on the basis of Pay Me What You Owe Me.  As you wish.”  And with that he instructs his treasurer to re-enter the sum of 10,000 talents into his debit column.   

Few places in the Bible are scarier than Matthew 18:35, where Jesus says, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Here we need to catch our breath.  God is not saying, first forgive everybody else, and then I will forgive you.  That would be putting a Mt. Everest-size condition on God’s love – a condition that none of us could possibly fulfill.  God has given us both a gift and a task.  We receive his grace so that we ourselves might become grace-providers.  But the gift and the task must always come in that order.

We cannot give away what we have not received.  And we dare not make others pay for what God has given us for free. 

We learn a great deal about ourselves when someone hurts us.  Are we able and willing to forgive?  To what degree has God’s love penetrated our hearts? 

You may have heard that forgiveness requires us to forget traumatic wounds and painful moments.  But such a thing is rarely possible.  Forgiveness is not to be confused with amnesia.  Instead we refuse to “weaponize” our memories and nurse our grudges.  We humbly ask God, by his Spirit, to gradually heal the hurts associated with the things we remember.    

Forgiveness is not denial, either.  It is not announcing that a wound never happened, or that it didn’t actually hurt.  That would be distorting the truth. 

Nor is forgiveness saying that evil shouldn’t be punished.  Justice must be brought to bear where justice is due.  Forgiveness, at the personal level, means tearing up the debt sheets that we hold over other people.  Instead of saying, “You owe me,” we lower our buckets into the deep aquifer of God’s grace and mercy and treat others as God has treated us. 

For years I sensed that I wasn’t particularly qualified to talk or write about forgiveness.  That’s because I had never been seriously wounded or betrayed.  Maybe I would make it through my entire adult life unscathed.

But as sportscaster Lee Corso might put it:  Not so fast, my friend.

From out the blue came a handful of shattered relationships.  I have never felt such anguish.  The cumulative pain robbed me of my sleep, my optimism, and my hope that life would ever feel safe and normal again.  I began to empathize with author Anne Lamott’s lifelong wrestling match with unforgiveness.  For years she went around saying, “I am not one of those Christians who are into forgiveness.  I am one of the other kind.”

That remark had always earned her a laugh.  But then it started to be too painful.

Lamott decided to begin forgiving people who had harmed her either directly or indirectly over the years.  She remembered that theologian C.S. Lewis had once said that if we really want to learn how to forgive, we should probably start with something easier than the Gestapo.  So she decided to forego her “major enemies” and shoot lower. 

Even so, she was immediately assailed by contrary emotions.  She realized that she didn’t want to forgive.  “I had such awful thoughts that I couldn’t say them out loud, because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I didn’t want to forgive, either.  Years went by.  I was imprisoned by my own resentments.  I either rationalized my emotions or tried valiantly to bury them.

I once heard someone say that the resources of heaven are always aligned with those who choose to forgive – or who at least pray for the desire to forgive.   So as an act of raw obedience, I decided to speak aloud the names of the people who had hurt me:  “I forgive So-and-So.”  My heart wasn’t really in it, and I felt rather foolish.  But for several days I kept at it nonetheless.

And then the strangest thing happened.  I felt an inward stab of kindness.  My heart softened.

That’s how it starts. 

I gradually began to experience a power beyond myself.  Every now and then, I even began to wish those individuals well.  The more I opened myself to the possibility of God’s love and power, the more my heart began to thaw. 

I’ve learned that there are no shortcuts, and there’s still plenty of work to do.  But the process of releasing deep hurts is underway. 

Wise people have pointed out that forgiveness means giving up all hope of having a better past.

Why would we ever do such a thing?

So we can welcome the hope of having a far more gracious future.