Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?
If you join an Episcopal worship service this Sunday you’ll hear Jesus speak of forgiveness–a timely, challenging topic. Peter sets Jesus up by asking how many times he’s required to forgive another. In essence, Jesus’ replies, “If you’re keeping track, you haven’t yet learned to forgive.” He then tells a story of an ungrateful servant who received lavish forgiveness but then refused to offer forgiveness to another. Things didn’t go well for the servant in Jesus’ story, to put it mildly. His message to all who will listen is clear: don’t be like the ungrateful servant. Receive God’s lavish forgiveness with gratitude and then pass it on.
I’m no expert at forgiveness. But I know that in some situations forgiveness comes easily and in others we struggle, for good reason. What are we to do, for example, when others demand, to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “cheap forgiveness” without restitution or even acknowledgement of the pain that was caused? “What we call ‘asking for forgiveness’,” C. S. Lewis once observed, “often consists of asking God or another to accept our excuses.”1
Like many in the diocese, I’ve been participating in Sacred Ground, an in-depth historical study of race and racism in America from a faith perspective. “I had no idea,” is a common refrain each week as our small group grapples with what we never learned about our past. How do we seek forgiveness for the harm we’ve never taken the time to learn about or acknowledge, from which some of us benefit? What does restitution look like across generations and in light of ongoing disparities that are matters of life and death? These are difficult questions, but ask them we must.
Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, as if the offense never occurred or has no lasting consequence. We know it doesn’t work that way. Forgiveness is not some kind of erasure, nor would we want it to be. Think of all the hard won learning we would lose if we forgot what we needed to forgive. Even when forgiven, living with the consequences of our deeds is costly. About our abuse of the environment, Pope Francis warns, “God always forgives; Nature cannot.”
For the deeper wounds, forgiveness isn’t a given and it cannot be forced. “True forgiveness,” writes the Buddhist Jack Kornfield, “does not paper over what has happened in a superficial way. It is not a misguided effort to suppress or ignore our pain.”2 Nor is forgiveness an entitlement.
The work of forgiveness–both offering and receiving–takes courage and sufficient internal strength to rebalance the scales of power. It isn’t the same as reconciliation, but at its best, forgiveness leads to a mutual process of setting a relationship right. We can’t be reconciled until both sides are willing. We can, however, forgive on our own, for our own soul’s sake. It isn’t easy. For some it’s impossible, and we dare not judge. For all of us, forgiveness takes practice.
But how do we forgive, exactly? What does it feel like?
As the word implies, forgiveness feels more like a gift we receive than something we do. Indeed, the harder we try to forgive, the more resentment we may feel. For what forgiveness requires is not effort, but openness. It feels like letting go, relinquishing control, and allowing the grace of God in. In 12-step groups, if a wounded person speaks of resentment and an inability to forgive another, the advice typically offered is, “Pray for the S.O.B. that hurt you.”
What happens in prayer is that we’re reminded of the full humanity of the other person, and not just the part of him or her that hurt us. It takes a lot to do this, and sometimes we’re not ready to make the effort. “Staying angry with you is how I protect myself from you,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “Refusing to forgive you is not only how I punish you; it is also how I keep you from getting close enough to hurt me again, and nine times out of ten it works.” But there’s a cost. “There is a serious side effect,” Taylor warns. “It’s called bitterness and it can do terrible things to the human body and soul.”3
In time, forgiveness brings acceptance and a spiritual power none can take away. Remember the words of criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson, “Everyone is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.” With forgiveness, we help restore another to their full humanity.
Jesus teaches that our capacity to forgive is linked to the experience of receiving forgiveness ourselves. In fact, it’s the only thing he says about how to forgive. When Jesus instructs us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” he isn’t setting up a contractual arrangement between us and God, but merely describing how forgiveness works. It’s a mystery.
If either receiving or extending forgiveness is a struggle for you, know that you’re in good company. We all struggle. Every relationship we have affords ample opportunity to practice forgiveness. That’s a good thing: practicing forgiveness is what makes us Christians and better human beings.
How often shall we forgive? Will seven times take care of it? “Not seven times,” Jesus said, “but seventy-seven times.” Forgiveness, you see, is a way of life. For Jesus, forgiveness is the way of love.
1 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: RandomHouse, 1952).
2 Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2001), 28.
3 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Arthritis of the Spirit,” in Gospel Medicine (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995), 9.