READ : Luke 17:3-5
Of all the things Jesus taught his followers, none is harder than this: unless we forgive, we cannot be forgiven.
Listen to these words of Jesus Christ, surely among the most astonishing he ever spoke. They’re from the 17th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, beginning at verse 3:
“Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
Now let’s be clear at the outset about the kind of action that calls for forgiveness. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you. . . “ What did he mean by that? Would it be little mannerisms that annoy you? Habits of a brother or sister that get on your nerves? Hardly. To make every tiny irritation an occasion for forgiveness is to trivialize something big. In dealing with other person’s foibles and idiosyncrasies, acceptance is the word. We accept people for who they are and overlook their petty faults. We need to forgive, on the other hand, when people have really hurt us, not simply offended our tastes.
Nor was Jesus speaking about the minor slights we all experience. Say an acquaintance doesn’t recognize you in a crowd. You aren’t nominated for a position you had wanted. Someone failed to send a card when you were at home sick. People may overlook us. And, we may feel that keenly, but it doesn’t mean that they have sinned against us.
Injuries that require forgiveness are personal (against us or those who belong to us.) They are unfair: we never did anything to deserve them. Then they go very deep. Professor Lewis Smedes in his admirable book Forgive and Forget suggests three kinds of offenses which need forgiving: disloyalty, betrayal, and brutality.
I am disloyal when I mistreat someone who belongs to me – who is bound to me in ties of family or friendship – as though that person were a stranger. I deal with them as though they meant nothing to me. A husband is disloyal when he carries on a secret affair, and by that deception goes on treating his wife with contempt. A wife and mother is disloyal when she leaves her family in the lurch in what she calls a quest for self-fulfillment. A son is disloyal to his parents when he manipulates them by lies to get what he’s after.
At a deeper level, I betray someone when I treat that person who belongs to me as though he or she were an enemy. A friend of ours divulges something highly embarrassing to us which we had told to him in confidence. We find that someone who had promised to support us has instead actively campaigned against us. A father professes parental devotion even while he sexually exploits his daughter.
Brutality is something else again. There may be no special ties between you and other persons, but when by violence or insult or scorn you demean or diminish them, that is brutality. You rob them of their human dignity.
Now hear what Jesus urges when someone treats you in that way. You are to confront that person with what has happened, to name the wrong and how it has injured you. Then, if they repent, if they express sorrow at what they’ve done, if they feel your hurt with you and ask your forgiveness, if they want to begin again, you are to forgive them. You are to let go of the hate and vengefulness that boils up within you. You are to see them through new eyes and treat them as though the injury had not happened.
But that’s not the end. If that person hurts you again in the same way, and again returns to ask for forgiveness, you are to forgive again. In fact, if that sequence of events occurs seven times within one day, you are to forgive that person all seven times!
OVER AND OVER AGAIN
Now I ask you, was anyone ever commanded to do anything as stunningly difficult as that? Who can even imagine it taking place? To forgive one treachery is heart-wrenching enough. But repeated wrongs? A whole succession of injuries or betrayals? How could anyone be expected to do that?
The rationale for it is in the gospel. The pattern for it is God’s way of dealing with us. It can hardly escape us that we are the habitual offenders. We are the ones disloyal to the God who made us. We profess devotion to him and yet do the things he hates. We are the ones who demean and take advantage of human beings made in his image. We wound the very persons in whom he presents himself to us. And remember, we do it not once or twice. We are more than occasionally guilty. What day in all the multiplied thousands that each of us lives is without its varied sins against love?
But we hope to be forgiven, don’t we? We trust that God will blot out our offenses and deal with us kindly in spite of them all. The wonder of the Christian gospel is that he does. God freely forgives us because Jesus Christ bore our sins and carried our sorrows. He bore the stroke of judgment we deserve when he died for us. Daily we come to him and pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And he does. “If we confess our sins,” says the apostle John, “God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins . . . The blood of Jesus Christ keeps on cleansing us from all sin.” The Lord always finds in us something to cleanse, yet our wanderings and treacheries somehow do not destroy his love. There is again and again and again “forgiveness with him that he may be feared,” that his faithfulness may be trusted.
This word of Jesus, then, is a call to his followers:
“Deal with your brothers and sisters – as God has dealt with you. Love as you have been loved. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Let your forgiveness [for this is what the seven times in a day means] be without limit, even as God’s grace to you has been boundless and free.”
DESPERATELY HARD TO DO
But that, you say, is so desperately hard. You’re
right. It is. And those who have been most tragically hurt know that far better than the rest of us. I would be false to you if I pretended to have been wounded as deeply as many have. Injured slightly here or there, spoken against at times, but I have known comparatively little of disloyalty and betrayal, still less of brutality. It would be cheap and insensitive on my part to tell you that forgiveness is easy or painless.
But even those of us who haven’t been outrageously wronged know how hurt we can feel at offenses and how hatred can surge up within us. The very thought of forgiving at times like that seems grossly unrealistic. Something in us stubbornly resists giving up the grudge, relinquishing the desire to get even.
Isn’t that what the dreadful conflicts around us are about? They are ugly cycles of revenge. It’s the most natural thing in the world to respond to violence and vindictiveness with rage and revenge. The agony and passion are so intense as to make Jesus’ words about forgiveness seem fragile, impotent, hopelessly out of touch. “What?” they demand, “when our children are slaughtered, our wives ravished, and our lands, our rights, are heartlessly snatched away, you say we should forgive? Preach that in the church if you want to, but we’ll show you how to deal with things in the real world!”
The English novelist Charles Williams seems to present that same cynical view. He argues in effect that “forgiving is really a game; we can only play at it. We cannot do it.” And much of the time we seem to bear that out, don’t we? We play at forgiveness; we make believe. We pretend to wish our tormentors well. But our actions, perhaps overt, perhaps cleverly subtle, give the lie to what we say.
THE POWER TO FORGIVE
But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could forgive even if those who hurt us don’t want to be forgiven? If they care nothing about what they’ve done to us, to pardon them would still be a priceless boon to us. The hate we cherish, the ill will we hide away, damages us most of all. The revenge we may never take against them yet eats away at us. What would it mean for hurters, haters, begrudgers like us to be really free?
Do believe, friends, that we can forgive. Whatever our hurts may have been, they all seem deep to us, don’t they? But we can find healing for them. We can release ourselves from that pain of our past.
When we do, we are signs of hope for the future. We are harbingers of a time when life can be a bit more fair. We are hints of an answer to the worst evils that have plagued us since Cain killed his brother Abel. And maybe, just maybe, relationships that now seem to lie in ruins can be rebuilt, even dead loves resurrected.
How can we know that forgiveness is possible? Some of us have been privileged to see it in action. We have known people who broke all the normal laws that bind us to getting even and who found it in their hearts to forgive the most terrible wrongs. I can’t forget the father who pursued with loving concern the young man who had murdered his boy. I can’t forget the woman unjustly imprisoned, abused again and again by prison guards. When she was asked how she spent her lonely hours of imprisonment, she answered simply, “I pray for my enemies.”
They give us a glimpse, don’t they, of God’s heart toward us? We hear behind their words the One who once prayed for his betrayers and murderers, “Father, forgive them.”
No wonder the disciples said, “Lord, increase our faith.” We simply haven’t the resources in ourselves to forgive. It’s always a divine miracle when it happens. Our eyes have to be opened to the unimaginable mercy that has reached us in Christ if we are to see people in that new way, through these “magic eyes.”
Don’t let the “seven times a day” put you off. It’s simply Jesus’ way of saying that you can’t stop forgiving. Friends, if you want to forgive, you’re already on the road. If you find yourself even faintly wanting the best for someone who has hurt you, you’ve begun to forgive. Maybe you do it by fits and starts. Maybe the old hurt and anger come sweeping back at times, but you don’t give up. You keep crying out, “O Lord, help me!” Do remember this, though you’re having a struggle at doing it, you’re no “phony.” Though you’re an amateur at the art of forgiveness, you’ve made at least a start. You’re part of the miracle God began in the gift of his Son which, in circles large and small, is the real hope of this world.
“Lord, you know our struggles. You know how hard it is for us to forgive. Lord, increase our faith.” As you pray that, the prayer the disciples prayed, take heart. You can be sure of this: grace and graciousness go together. The forgiveness you find in Jesus Christ brings with it a new power to forgive. So rely on the wonderful mercy of God in Christ that forgives you. Pray that by the power of his Spirit you will be able to let that be seen in a forgiving heart toward others.