Forgive Seventy-Seven Times
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21-22
The context for this passage of scripture is that Jesus is teaching his disciples about sin and the separation it creates. He begins chapter 18 by saying we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. He warns against putting “stumbling block(s)” before others. He goes on to illustrate how important each of us is to God, with the parable of the lost sheep. Handling members of the community who sin against each other is next, followed by this passage where Peter asks how many times we should forgive a community member who sins against us. Jesus says, in essence, that we should always forgive.
What does it mean, exactly, to forgive? Certainly, it does not mean to forget. An abusive spouse may be forgiven, but the abused partner should never forget the warning signs of impending abuse, nor the ways to best protect her or himself in the event of a reoccurrence. When a lender forgives a debt, the principal and interest of the loan are both wiped off the books so nothing is owed. The incurring of the debt still happened, but it no longer impacts life going forward. To forgive does not erase the offending event from our memory or from our past. Rather, to forgive is to release the tyranny the sin holds over us and others. It is a very personal and often difficult decision, and it is not necessarily the act of forgiving another as much as it is giving ourselves permission to let go of our attachment to the lasting physical, emotional, or psychological injury. There are two distinct impacts of sin of which we need to be aware, both very real. The first is the sin itself and what it did to us – the actual physical or emotional injury. The second is the aftermath of the sin, which is primarily our response. This secondary insult is a result of the power we grant the sin over us. It is this, too, that must be forgiven and healed for us to be able to move on with our lives.
Our emotional reaction, the secondary injury, is what tortures us long after the event and keeps it alive as an active, negative influence over our being. We may need to first forgive our seeming inability to let it go, before we can effectively release it. This may require professional therapy. How can we avoid finding ourselves in a similar situation in the future? How can we better recognize when circumstances are arranging themselves for a possible reoccurrence? What are strategies to minimize the damage of the original sinful act, should it be done to us again, and forgo the tyranny of the emotional aftermath?
The fact that it for our own benefit that we are encouraged to forgive is one lesson in Jesus’ words. Another is that our reaction to a sin against us is often much worse and longer lasting than the initial sin. Finally, and most revealing, is that many times, what offends us in or by another is something that triggers a deeply repressed, painful memory or feeling in our own self that we are reluctant to acknowledge. This is why our reaction to a perceived sin against us may be disproportionate to the actual sin. It is also why someone may sin against us and never know he or she hurt us. The place needing forgiveness in cases such as these is the place deep within that longs to be brought to conscious awareness where it can be acknowledged and brought to completion. Again, this may require therapy. Often, these hurting places have their origins in our childhood. In order to develop as whole persons we must “forgive” ourselves over and over again.
None of this is to say we should not forgive the other person, too. Jesus makes that clear. We should make every effort to also release them from the tyranny of the event. Forgiveness must begin within, however, or it will not be a lasting forgiveness. If, when someone sins against us, we discover a hidden and hurting part of ourselves that can now be healed, we will have turned an unfortunate occurrence into a personal blessing. How often should we forgive? Always.
This is the 32nd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
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