In the name of God. Amen.
Last week, we discussed conflict. And more specifically, Christian strategies for dealing with it. Today, we take a look at the mirror image of conflict resolution: forgiveness. You can’t have any real resolution to any sort of real conflict without forgiveness.
And it’s easier said than done.
“How many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Seven times?”
“No. Seventy-seven times!” Or some translations say, “Seventy TIMES seven times.” (If you’re curious enough to think it through, that one comes out to 490 times for forgiveness.)
But the point isn’t the number of “times” we offer forgiveness. Even if you take the larger number, it’s not like saying to your neighbor, “Okay, I’ve forgiven you once. 489 more times and we’re done!” That’s not the point.
The point is that forgiveness is an ongoing process. Forgiveness can’t end. A truly forgiving heart draws from a well of love and grace that never runs dry. When you can’t forgive anymore, that’s when it’s time to dig deeper and find a way.
Just as is so much of the Christian message, this, too, is a challenging instruction.
In the church, we know - at least intellectually - that we are charged to replicate the kind of forgiveness that has been extended to and modeled for us. But the problem with that is, too often we try to rush forgiveness without doing the work that true forgiveness requires.
Because we think it’s what we ought to do, we often proclaim forgiveness before it’s real.
In his book Don’t Forgive Too Soon, Dennis Linn compares the process of forgiving with the process of overcoming grief. Just as recovery from grief can’t be rushed, we, also, can’t be rushed into forgiveness if it’s to actually mean anything.
You’ve all probably heard about the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance - but Linn writes about those as five stages of forgiveness. Recognizing the close relationship between forgiveness and grief, he uses that same framework to examine how we can move beyond pro forma expressions of forgiveness that tend to assume are expected of us, into genuine forgiveness that springs from a place of deeper truth.
And the truth is, if forgiveness doesn’t come from a place of truth, it will breed resentment.
A common idea in twelve-step/recovery groups says that resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Without forgiveness, we are destined to breed resentment in our hearts. And it will kill us spiritually.
Even if our brother or sister might only cause offense once - even then we have to forgive “seventy times seven” times. Only then can it begin to come from a place of truth.
The fact is we do hurt one another. We do offend the heart of God. We exploit each other. We betray each other. We fail to recognize the humanity in each other.
We are all victims, and we are all guilty. But we must learn to forgive, even when it’s not easy to do so, and even when it doesn’t make sense in our hearts.
It can seem all but impossible, but we have to do it. We have to find a way to forgive because it’s the call of Christ; but also, because it’s necessary for our own spiritual health and wellness. We have to keep finding ways to forgive, even in the face of our deepest pain; because even when we think its over – just something from the past, the work is not yet done.
In this country, we talk a lot about justice. Through the years, we’ve taken a lot of steps - for good and for ill - at doling out justice around the world. The “criminal justice system” attempts to pass out “justice” in the form of punishment to people every day. But too often, we’ve mistaken revenge for justice. In the end, true justice will only ever come alongside deep forgiveness. It’s only in a world where forgiveness is a way of life that we can ever hope to find real justice.
And forgiveness will only become a way of life when we keep practicing it. Seventy-seven times. Seventy times seven times. Whenever the hurt and the anger and the fear are renewed, try to forgive again. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because doing it will make things right.
How many times are we to forgive our brothers and sisters when they sin against us?
As many times as it takes. There isn’t really a number.
Unlike conflict resolution, there isn’t some clear, methodical process for forgiving. It happens in the heart, and it happens on its own time. We just have to keep doing it. Not just saying “I forgive you”, but actually forgiving. Again and again. And again, and again. Until true, deep, holy, and healing forgiveness is achieved.
We have been forgiven by the God who keeps creating us. We keep being forgiven by God. Again and again. As a witness to the love of that same God, we are called to forgive, also. Again and again. Amen.