“To err is human, to forgive divine.” Alexander Pope
Admitting the frustration of some relationships and how hard forgiveness can be, Peter once asked Jesus a question I think all of us can identify with. “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!” (Matthew 18:21-22)
You do the math. That was not an answer Peter was expecting nor wanted to hear. Then to top it off, Jesus proceeds to tell a sobering parable that warns that unforgiveness can have serious consequences. It is the story of the servant who receives compassion and forgiveness of a huge debt by his master but then turns around and refuses to grant the same grace of forgiveness to a fellow servant who owes him a very small debt by comparison. (Matthew 18:23-35)
Forgiveness is easy to talk about but often difficult to do. When someone offends us, depending on the magnitude of the offence, there are often a number of obstacles that we have to work through in order to bring us to a place of forgiveness. We may need healing for the emotional and/or physical pain inflicted. We may be devastated by a sense of betrayal and loss of trust. We may be battling frustration and anger. And we may have to deal with confusion as to how to proceed; wanting to either resolve the conflict or escape from it all together. Forgiveness can be complicated.
Here are five truths that simplify forgiveness. When Jesus responded to Peter’s question he gives us the clearest teaching on forgiveness found anywhere in scripture. These truths should empower us to forgive others as he has forgiven us.
1. Forgiveness is a decision, not an emotion. The unforgiving servant chose to close his heart of compassion toward his brother. Here we see that the will is the engine and the feelings are the caboose. Feelings of forgiveness usually follow in time, but we must not wait for them to lead the way.
2. Forgiveness is an ongoing process. Sometimes we have a forgiving attitude toward someone until we see them. Then we are faced again with feelings of unforgiveness. That is where the seventy times seven come in. We need to continue to make the decision to forgive them again and again until it is no longer an issue.
3. Forgiveness is tearing up the IOUs. The common analogy of forgiveness Jesus uses in this parable and elsewhere is that of monetary debt. I have found this very helpful both for myself and others in walking through the forgiveness process. Imagining some ones offense against me as an IOU of love or understanding or kindness makes it easier to see that my forgiveness of them is releasing them from that debt.
Sometimes it helps to write out on a piece of paper their IOU and list the things you feel they owe you. Then in proclaiming your forgiveness of them in prayer, tear up that IOU you are holding. It is a prophetic act that releases power and finality to your decision.
4. Forgiveness is letting it go and leaving it behind. The Greek word in the New Testament for forgive is “aphiemi.” It has two major uses in the New Testament. It is translated “forgive” 47 times and “leave” 52 times. When Peter and John left their boat and their father to follow Jesus they “aphiemied” them.
Understanding this aspect of forgiveness should also be empowering. It means that when we forgive someone an offense we are leaving it behind (aphiemi), we are letting it go (aphiemi), we are sending it away (aphiemi): just like Jesus does with our sins and offenses when we confess them to him. Which brings me to the final point –
5. Forgiving others comes easiest when we remember all we’ve been forgiven. The unforgiving servant too quickly forgot how much he had been forgiven. Remembering the compassion that God has shown to us should help us to more readily show compassion on others. Those who have been forgiven much should love much.
What’s your take on the whole forgiveness thing?
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