There he was, crouched in front of the fire, poking the logs with a stick to refresh the flame. Peter sat down on a large, flat stone next to him. "Jesus?" "Yes?" He didn't look up. "I have a question. How many times must I forgive my brother? Seven times?" Jesus gazed into the fire, seemingly captivated by the orange heat that wavered and crawled across the coals. Firelight and shadow played across the side of his face. Then... "No, Peter, not seven times. Seventy-seven times." "Whaaat! How am I supposed to keep track of that?" "Exactly." Not seven times. Seventy-seven times. Like three and forty, the number seven in the Bible has particular significance. It represents perfection, completion, or so I've heard it said through the years, often enough that I think it's true. So what does it mean to forgive seventy-seven times? What was Jesus telling Peter--and what is he telling us? How about this: Forgive, and keep forgiving, until the job is done. Forgive without keeping score, unto perfect perfection. Whatever it takes. Do it. What Forgiveness Is Not Notice that Jesus is not saying, Trust. He is not advocating, contrary to all common sense, that you put your confidence in a person whose behavior is patently untrustworthy. You can forgive the mad dog that bit you, but you're a fool to step back into the kennel with it. Jesus is also not saying, Forget. Forgiveness is not forgetfulness. Forgetfulness may follow forgiveness--or it may not. But forgiveness doesn't hinge on your ability to blot something out of your mind. After all, you can't forgive what you've forgotten. Finally, Jesus is not saying, Deny the injury. Forgiveness is not denial. Don't tell yourself the wound is nothing. You can't forgive nothing; you can only forgive an actual wrong done to you. It matters. It is something, not nothing. No, forgiveness is not blind trust, nor impossible forgetfulness, nor pretending the arrow in your back doesn't hurt. It is, rather, a seventy-seven-mile journey of desiring God's truth, grace, and freedom, not an eye for an eye, for the one who hurt us. It starts, perhaps, with this: "If I could send them to hell, I would not." It moves into this: "Father, grant them life!" And it ripens, I would like to think, into peace, gladness, and wholeness of heart for ourselves.
Forgiveness can be as swift and easy as accepting a friend's apology for being ten minutes late for lunch at the restaurant. Or it can be as grueling, as costly, as seemingly impossible, as forgiving a divorce or a business betrayal. What makes the latter kind of forgiveness particularly difficult is this: the other person may not care in the least. They may feel utterly justified in their mistreatment of you. They may even take pleasure at the injury they've caused you--or they may take no thought at all. Whether you forgive them or not means nothing to them because you yourself are of no consequence. That's the kind of forgiveness reflected in Jesus's words "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23:34). Father, they just don't have a clue. No idea whatsoever. They're prisoners of their ignorance, blinder than beggars and twice as poor. Mercy and compassion toward those who showed him neither: that's the extreme brand of forgiveness Jesus showed toward those who were killing him. Jesus didn't pray "Father, forgive them" in order to set a lofty example; he prayed those words because he meant them. In his heart he longed for something far better for his persecutors than vengeance; he longed for them to one day see, and understand, and live. What's particularly important to note is, forgiving his executioners didn't change Jesus's immediate circumstances. The black iron spikes remained in his wrists and feet. The agony of crucifixion wasn't relieved. Jesus still died a torturous, shameful death hanging naked on a post for all Jerusalem to see. What changed was that the back of hatred was broken. It lost its self-perpetuating power--because the One who did know exactly what he was doing absorbed its worst blow and countered it with love for those who inflicted it. Sometimes today we hear stories of that radical brand of forgiveness: The father who adopts his child's murderer and raises him as a son. The college woman who, without minimizing the violence perpetrated on her, refuses to harbor bitterness against her rapist. The prisoner wrongly convicted who, when the truth is finally revealed, forgives those who took fifteen years of his life from him and far more besides. For such people, forgiveness is no glib thing. It is big-ticket, and those who have been wronged are the ones who must foot the bill. Doing so may begin simply with this thought: "If I had the power to send those who have hurt me to hell...I would not." Forgiveness desires life, God-life, for the offender. It desires vision for the spiritually blind. It chooses--often against the forgiver's own conflicting emotions--to pray for the release of those held captive by their own hate or sheer, selfish unconcern for the pain of others. Forgiveness is not trite. It is not easy. It may even be miraculous. It is one choice followed by as many more choices as it takes. If--no, when--we are deeply injured, may Jesus grant us his eyes to see clearly what the other person cannot see at all. May he give us the grace to pray from our heart, "Father, forgive them. Help them to see. Help them to know your love for them and for others. And grant them what you have so graciously given me: life--true, deep, powerful life."
On Forgiveness Some injuries are hardly noticeable, and forgiving them is barely an issue. Others go so deep our soul doesn't know how to even begin processing the pain, the grief, and the rage. It's this latter that is the costly kind. Jesus both made the way for us and placed the requirement and glory of forgiveness on us when, on the cross, he spoke the words, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." What does such forgiveness look like? How do we walk it out in a way that is real and realistic? I think it starts with a single decision that initiates a long series of similar decisions, acts of the will that in time sink into the emotions. That first decision might be worded something like this: "If it were in my power to send that person to hell, I would not do so." That may be about the best we can do to begin with, but it is enough for God to work with, and we place it in his hands. We tell our Father, "I choose to forgive this person. I feel nothing but anger and the desire to make him (her) hurt the way he's hurt me. But I am more than my feelings; I am your child, and hatred and bitterness are not my heritage. Love and freedom are, and I will walk in your heart--for I myself am loved by you." We make this choice again, and again, and again, as often as is necessary, through the days, and weeks, and months, and quite possibly the years. We talk to God about it. He is in it with us, and he is pleased with us that we choose his character over fleshly vindictiveness, which seeks to draw us into its perpetual black hole. There is no peace in that hole. But forgiveness--that becomes a trysting place where we meet with the One who knows and loves and esteems us beyond what we can imagine. And in his presence comes "the peace that passes understanding." Forgiveness of deep injustices is not easy and it is not quick. Many Christians will be quick to tell us that we need to forgive, as if they're revealing some great wisdom we don't already know. Ignore these advice givers; they know the formula but not the answer. What we need isn't glib advice; it's wise friends who will walk with us in the Spirit of our Lord as we pay the cost of forgiveness. Encouraged and strengthened by such true, godly confidants, we struggle and pray through toward the day when our anger gives way to seeing the person who wounded us with different eyes, and the seeing ushers in compassion, and the compassion brings release for our soul. What Forgiveness Is Not Now, here is what forgiveness does NOT look like: It is not something that requires us to place ourselves back within striking distance of the person who hurt us. It is good to forgive the dog that bit us; it is foolish to try to pet him. It is we who have changed, not the dog, and forgiveness is not naivete. There is no need for us to get bit again. But what if the person who treated us wickedly really has changed? After all, God does transform hearts. Very true. Real change will show in that person's willingness to earn our trust over time. He (she) will not insist that we trust him, and he will not use forgiveness or our walk with God to manipulate us. Rather, he will demonstrate humility and a respect for where we are at, and understand that restoration of relationship is a great gift, not a cheap trinket that we must supply on demand. We are not so obligated.
Forgiveness is a change that occurs in us. Restoration requires a change in the other person.