painting of bread and wine on a table

Taking Forgiveness Seriously

The gospel last week was Jesus’s words to Peter about forgiveness: “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Or, if we were raised on the KJV, “seventy times seven.” Either way, the main point is: Christians, following Christ, forgive.

Or, aspire to.
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It’s a harder, more complicated lesson than it seems, actually. In the back of my mind is always that lurking awareness of the way the instruction to forgive can be, has been, is, abused: to pressure people to accept abuse, to let abusers off the hook, to leave situations that cry out for lament and repentance and transformation unchallenged and unchanged.

When Christ’s redemptive word to Peter is twisted into yet another blunt object the powerful can use to beat up on the powerless, or is hollowed out to make yet another loophole we can use to avoid confronting our own need for redemption, it’s being mis-interpreted. Surely.

So “how forgiveness works,” actually, in practice, is not some paint-by-numbers project.

There is no ready-made formula, no just-add-water box mix. Forgiveness “from the heart” can only be made from scratch, by working out the next right thing, in the context of our own actual lives.
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Our pastor is alert to that. She mentioned the reservations that always come to her mind – and then shared the first part of this story of Corrie Ten Boom’s …

She emphasized the two points in that story: Forgiveness is not necessarily a feeling, but an act of will. And it isn’t something we can do alone – we need God.

And one more: the role forgiveness plays in creating the possibility for new life, for the person doing the forgiving. How it’s an essential ingredient in moving forward, living into the future, rather than being stuck in the past. Forgiveness is what opens up that future. Not only or even necessarily for the forgiven, but for the forgiver.

It reminded me of that saying,

Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.

Even the Quote Investigator doesn’t know for sure who said that first, but whoever it was did us a public service.
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Forgiveness does seem to be crucially about time. It seems most possible, when it is, for things that are, truly, in the past, that are over and done with. When time has healed some of the wounds. When the wounds are fresh, or are just being made, talk of forgiveness can seem monstrous.

This makes Jesus’s statement from the cross – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – and Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7 – “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” – all the more remarkable.

Those statements may signal us that Christians have a unique view of time and events, or would, if our sight were entirely clear. Maybe if our sight were as clear as Stephen’s, let alone Jesus’s, we’d realize that whatever we’re going through here and now is more already all over and done with than we thought.

That we are always already in a position to say “We can afford to let this go.”
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The metaphor that Jesus himself uses, in Matthew’s gospel, is financial after all. Forgiveness is like writing off bad debt. Or like subtracting that old check in the register that hasn’t cleared for months. “You owe me nothing.” “I hold nothing against you.”

I admit: when I finally said that to my parents, it changed my life.

Though maybe it was more like this: my life changed, and I could say that.

From a financial perspective, when we have plenty, or more than plenty, we can afford to cancel our debts. It’s when we feel short, feel we need those resources desperately, that we don’t want to write them off the books. When we have plenty, more than plenty, we have plenty of other options.

In that sense, forgiveness feels like it’s finally about freedom: freedom from the past, freedom for the future, freedom for something new

This seems to be the point of Jesus’s parable.
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Though, I suppose, we could be unforgiving even when we want for nothing – nothing, that is, but the need to teach someone a lesson, or make people see what they’ve done, or know the consequences of their actions, or any one of the number of things we think of as justice, as opposed to love, when it comes to wrongdoing and harm … when we feel people need to “pay for what they’ve done” … not even necessarily because we need the money, but because of “the principle of the thing.”

The “nothing personal” karma of the thing, more like.

As if the loan shark universe with its enforcers needs our personal help to exact the appropriate amount of retribution.

But karma isn’t a Christian religious idea.

Neither is justice as opposed to love.
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Thinking of forgiveness brings to mind Mitch Teemley’s film Healing River, which is a cinematic meditation on forgiveness, and its relationship to grief and loss and harm, and freedom, and “a future with hope.” You could say it’s a dramatic performance of the liturgy: “As Christ has forgiven us, let us also now forgive one another.”

With a story that brings home the human meaning of that liturgy.

Which is the whole point of church, isn’t it? Sharing our stories, the stories of regular people, the dramatic stories of ordinary extraordinary lives, that have been touched and changed by forgiveness?

Which isn’t something we can do all alone.

Since for that, we need God.

[Healing River is streaming on Amazon.]
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painting of bread and wine on a table

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