How Can We Forgive?
I would suggest the hardest thing about being a Christian is not the praying or reading the Bible or even telling people about Jesus. I firmly believe that the hardest thing about being a Christian is forgiving people who hurt us.
I suspect that as soon as I mention the difficulty of forgiving that there is a specific experience that comes to mind. There is a hurt that has happened to you that rushes to the forefront. Not the time that someone cut you off on the highway. Not the time that an employer failed to praise you for a job well done. There is something deeper.
I am pretty easy going and do not get angry easily. Also, I have never been the victim of any real abuse and most of the things done against me, although perhaps unpleasant at the time, were easy to get over. But things that affect the people I love is different. Let me tell you my story.
A number of years ago, Amanda was going away on a mission trip to Europe. Logan was still living with us and Amanda had had arranged that Logan would go away to a Christian camp. This was a great idea as Logan had gone to that same camp the year before and had an amazing time. Logan was very excited to return to camp, and he doesn’t show excitement for many things. We arrived at the camp and some of the leaders from the previous year saw him and were happy he was back. I signed Logan in but discovered that they had no record of Logan having special needs or requiring one-on-one support. I told them that all this was made clear six months before when we first registered him. The head of the camp talked to me and said they were not sure they could do it but were willing to give it a try. He did not seem very optimistic. That night, the leader called me at home and told me that they had no idea how to engage Logan or include him in activities and that they wanted me to come in the morning and bring him home.
I can’t express to you the anger I felt at that moment. Here was a little kid with autism, so excited about camp, and these Christian leaders were not willing to give him twenty-four hours. Going to pick up Logan from camp was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. But do you want to know what made it worse? The day I picked up Logan, Justus and Emma decided they wanted to play with Logan. They were able to engage him and get him to interact in such a way you would never guess that he had autism. Justus and Emma were very young at the time and they succeeded and yet these camp leaders, who were all Bible school students, weren’t even willing to try.
I will tell you that I want to hold onto that anger. I want to be bitter toward them. I don’t want to forgive them for hurting my son. But I must. Forgiveness is part of being a Christian. It is not an option. And so I choose to forgive.
What about you? What are you struggling with? I hope that this passage will help you in the situation that you are facing.
The passage that we are looking at does not take place in a vacuum. It is important to notice the surrounding context. The passage before it is teaching by Jesus on how to restore a brother or sister to fellowship. That teaching assumes that there will be conflict within the church and between individuals. Here is the main problem with the church: It is composed of human beings. Because of that, we will do things to offend one another and some of those hurts will be more serious than others. But Jesus doesn’t just shrug his shoulders that the church is messed up and there is nothing we can do about it. As much as Jesus assumes conflict will happen, he also assumes that conflict must be resolved and he gives instructions on how that happens.
The passage after is a parable about an unforgiving servant. The basic story is a servant who had received forgiveness from the master, refused to forgive another servant. The message is that if God forgives us, then we must be willing to forgive others. It is as simple as that. How can we take the forgiveness we receive from God seriously if we are not willing to forgive others?
This brings us to the question that Peter brings to Jesus. Peter asks how many times we must forgive a person. There were some in that culture who taught that you only needed to forgive three times. So Peter thought he would impress Jesus with his generosity by asking if we should forgive seven times. That is more than double of the standard expectations. For many of us, the idea of forgiving one person seven times sounds rather excessive and it is no doubt difficult. But the problem with Peter’s question, as generous as he was, is that he was still assuming that there was an upper limit. There was a point at which we would be justified in not forgiving a person. And that is what Jesus would respond to.
Instead of being impressed with Peter’s question, Jesus corrected him. Now there is some difficulty in translating Jesus’ answer because of the way numbers are represented in Greek. Jesus said that we should forgive not seven times but either seventy-seven times or seventy times seven. We can debate which one is correct but the problem with that debate is it assumes that Jesus is saying we can stop forgiving on the 78th or the 491st time that someone hurts us. Jesus is not raising the limit, he is removing the limit.
Christians are forgiven people, that is how we become Christians. But as much as we are forgiven people, we are also forgiving people. How many times do we forgive? Every time.
That is not to say that forgiveness is always easy. It rarely is easy. There is a story in Acts where Paul is hurt by Mark, because Mark had left them at a crucial time. The conflict was so tense that it caused a break between Paul and his ministry partner Barnabas. We don’t know how long the conflict lasted but we see that by the end of Paul’s life that he and Mark had reconciled.
Even hearing this, doesn’t take away the difficulty of forgiving. I have talked to numerous people who have been hurt and who have told me that they simply can not forgive the offender. The hurt was too deep to be forgiven. I will say that it is important to remember that holding on to bitterness isn’t punishing the person who hurt us, it is punishing us. In many cases the person is either unaware they hurt us or have forgotten all about it. In some cases, the person is now dead. And yet we may feel the draw of holding onto the bitterness. We may feel that the person doesn’t deserve forgiveness. But it is not about whether they deserve it or not. God wants the best for us and that means being free from holding grudges. Forgiving a person actually removes the last bit of control they have had on our lives.
There is something I want to make very clear. Forgiving a person does not mean that we put ourselves or loved one in danger. There have been recent revelations of a denominational leader counselling women to stay with their abusive husbands. He wanted them to continue to forgive their husbands every time they beat them. While we are to forgive every time, we should not continue to put ourselves in danger. Not only should a wife or child escape abuse, the full force of the law should be brought against the abuser. Forgiveness should take place, but from a position of safety.
So how do we forgive a person, especially if we really don’t want to forgive them? The most important thing to understand is that forgiveness is not an emotion. I am not suggesting that you should be filled with affection for the person who has hurt you. Forgiveness is a decision. We choose to forgive the person who hurt us. Not just once or twice but every time. But the decision, to be real, must be reflected in our actions. It must include a surrender of any intention to seek revenge. What would happen if the tables were turned and you had the opportunity to hurt them as bad as they hurt you? Again, it has nothing to do with feelings or emotions. Can you choose to not seek revenge or take the opportunity to return the hurt?
The strength to do all of this come from God. It is God working in our lives, filling us with his love. Like every other area of life, it is a process. We need to grow day by day. Depending on the nature of the hurt, it may take longer for some than others. But the point is that as a forgiven people, we must also be a forgiving people.