On Forgiveness – Part One

I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately – what it is, what it means, what it does, how it makes us feel when we give it and when we receive it. What it does to us when we withhold it. Forgiveness exists on so many levels, from the mundane, like asking forgiveness for stepping on someone’s toe, to the eternal, the way God forgives us for all the sins we have ever committed over our whole life.

It’s hard – some folks aren’t so easy to forgive, you know? I’m certain that I am one of them sometimes. So I’m reading along in Matthew 18 and Jesus takes some time to talk with people about how to live. He says some hard things, extreme things. In verse 22, Peter asks him, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” I would imagine that Peter might have been thinking to himself that he had made a generous suggestion. But then, Jesus blows it out of the water when he replies, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy TIMES seven.”

There are at least two things that we try to wrap our heads around with that statement. Even now, I can see Peter doing the cyphering in his head, “Really?! Well, Jesus, that’s…you know…quite a lot!” That’s my nature – my first thought is to calculate the actual numbers, find the tangible limits of what my forgiveness to others should be. I ask the wrong question and I often miss Jesus’ point entirely – He’s not saying that we can write someone off on the 491st offense. He’s saying that we should be characterized by forgiveness, that we should make it our habit, our nature – our very heart. Our model for our forgiveness should mirror the picture of how God forgives us: eternally. We have been made in God’s likeness and we – although imperfectly – reflect his attributes like love, joy, patience, creativity and maybe most of all, forgiveness.

He has given us the capacity to forgive, but now I’m wondering, maybe along with Peter, “How do we forgive perfectly, continuously and completely as God does?” I think Jesus’ point is that, in our own strength and by ourselves, WE CAN’T. Time after time in speaking with the people around him, Jesus would take a moral standard that had been manipulated by men and diluted down to something that was a workaround and give it back it’s true meaning and real power. He shows us that the moral standard is impossible to achieve apart from God’s enabling Holy Spirit within us.

He talked about adultery – a term that folks had been taking liberties with and finding workarounds – and he redefined it to extend beyond any physical act and showed that it is a matter of the heart. It is ultimately and primarily an offense against a holy God. He shows us that in order to control the immoral act, we need to nip it in the bud and control the lust in our heart.

And so it is with forgiveness.

I call this “Part One,” not so much because I have lofty ideas of writing a nicely thought out seven-part series on forgiveness, but because I know that forgiveness is such a multi-faceted wonder. I will continue to examine, wrestle with and ponder it with the goal of embracing forgiveness on a daily basis.

And since I’m not fond of reading or writing lengthy posts, I thought I would stop here and pick it up again.

A likely starting point for next time:

What do we do when the offense seems too much to forgive? Infidelity? Physical injury? Betrayal? These and any number of other horrendous acts are difficult to forgive. And what if the offender doesn’t seek or feel the need to be forgiven?

I don’t claim to have easy answers to such weighty situations. One thing I do know is that, sometimes, the one who benefits the most from forgiveness is the one who gives it – not necessarily the one who was to receive it. I don’t know how that works, really, but I have experienced it personally.

Let me know what YOU think.

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