Of all of the doctrines and dogma that have accrued to Christianity, I think that forgiveness is one of the thorniest issues with which we are called to contend. Radical forgiveness has been lauded by many, but at least as many have found it, on the one hand, to be a stumbling block or, on the other hand, sheer folly. But resistance to radical forgiveness is often based on misconceptions, so, for a moment, let’s analyze four of them…
Number 1: Forgiveness is a function of arithmetic. Despite what Jesus’ words to Peter might seem to indicate, forgiveness doesn’t have a limit. When Jesus tells Peter to forgive ‘seventy times seven’ he does not intend for disciples to download the forgiveness app onto their iPhones and, after it hits 490 forgiveness events, they can refuse to forgive any offending party from there on. Think about it. Did Jesus forgive his executioners because he hadn’t used up all his “I forgive you’s”? Did Stephen forgive those people pelting him with rocks because his forgiveness card wasn’t maxed out?
The difference between Peter’s number of times to forgive, and the number that Jesus countermands, has nothing whatsoever to do with calculations… but it has everything to do with the New Birth. It has everything to do with understanding the unmotivated, undeserved love of God that never goes away in spite of our own wickedness. It has everything to do with realizing that we ourselves are sinners saved by grace. It has everything to do with the ‘Jesus heart’ put into us by the gentle Holy Spirit, and if we keep count of wrongs, we have yet to understand this truth.
Number 2: Forgiveness “seventy times seven” means being a Christian doormat. Forgiveness has nothing to do with not taking care of yourself. It does not mean that you remain in a hurtful, abusive relationship ad infinitum. And it certainly does not negate the need for boundaries or for repercussions. Forgiveness and tolerance are not synonyms. Tolerance of abuse only breeds more of it. Consequences need to be real for pathological behavior to be stopped. Forgiveness is not the dumbing down of a disciple. To the contrary, it is the wising up into healthy self-care… a behavior that, as an added bonus, may go a long way toward opening the eyes of (or at the very least, befuddling) the offending party.
Number 3: True forgiveness requires true repentance. This is always a tricky one. To forgive is a decision someone makes independent of the repentance of the wrongdoer. Did Jesus forgive his executioners because they were sorry for nailing him to the cross? Do we have any reason to suppose that Pilate was remorseful or that Caiaphas was repentant? I think not.
Flip over to the book of Acts. Is there any record of Saul uttering “Hey, I’m sorry, man” to Stephen before Stephen asked forgiveness for those stoning him? Hardly. Yet forgiveness was present nonetheless. Forgiveness is something the injured party chooses to do regardless of the offender’s attitude or change of behavior. Whereas reconciliation requires mutuality, forgiveness can be done unilaterally. Of course, hearing genuine repentance from an offending party may be helpful, but in the realm of forgiveness, it is not an quid pro quo proposition.
Number 4: Christians are expected to forgive, forget, and move on. Some folks may have an extraordinary capacity to let go of hurts and move on without missing a beat and I say, God bless them. For the rank and file, however, it isn’t that easy. Their pain and resentment do not melt away like the morning mist… nor should they. The hurt needs to be named. The trauma needs to be owned. The wounds need to be felt without rushing to the other side and jumping into the lap of cheap forgiveness that offers little more than temporary relief.
Again, forgiveness is not about denial. Forgiveness doesn’t gloss over pain, and, in a moment’s notice, declare: “It’s OK; I’m fine.” Forgiveness is not self-imposed amnesia nor is it pretending that nothing really horrible happened.
True forgiveness, for most of the people, most of the time, is neither quick nor easy… nor is it a once-and-for-all experience, but an on-again, off-again roller coaster ride of emotions and, more often than not, the memory of the injury will never go away.
But it is at those times… when forgiveness must be practiced anew… that I think it is important for us to remember that our Risen Lord still bore his scars. The evidence of grievous human brutality inflicted on him while on the cross had not disappeared. The scarred hands and feet, however, were no longer festering wounds. The marks remain… but they are mended.