"Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?"
Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." (Matt. 18:21–22)
Hang around this world very long and you are going to get hurt. Someone will let you down or betray you. It happens to all of us. It has happened to me. While I may not be a person who is easily hurt or offended, there have been moments when the words or actions of a family member, friend, coworker, or acquaintance have wounded me deeply.
Another part of life in this world gone bad is that sometimes I am the offender. I too am guilty of moments of self-centered words and acts that have hurt others. I need forgiveness and need it badly. I need it first from God and then from the people I have wounded. Therefore, I need to get good at giving it for Jesus taught us that when it comes to forgiveness you can expect to receive in the measure that you give (Matt. 6:14; 18:21–35)
Often our idea of being a good forgiver has limits. Peter certainly thought of himself as a generous forgiver when he asked Jesus how many times he was required to forgive. Certainly seven was an impressive number, right? But no. Jesus undoubtedly surprised Peter with his reply, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." The point here is that God's expectations for the limits of our forgiveness go far and away beyond the point where we would naturally stop forgiving.
God himself is the most generous of forgivers. Our calling is to imitate him and we will have ample opportunity to do so as we go through life relating to broken and selfish people. But the reality is that it's just not that easy. I have presented several workshops on this topic and they never fail to draw a full house. Many of us know that we have a root of bitterness in us toward others who have failed or betrayed us in some way. We may want to forgive, but just can't seem to figure out how.
As with many things that are worth knowing how to do well, forgiveness doesn't always come easily or overnight, but it can come. With continue practice and effort and reliance upon the Holy Spirt, we can become really good, even joyful forgivers. We can become imitators of Christ. My aim in this series of blogs is to offer help with your journey toward becoming a skilled forgiver.
We must being with understanding what forgiveness is and is not. Sometimes we engage in false forms of forgiveness that keep us from getting to the real thing.
Forgiveness is not MINIMIZING. When we minimize an offense we try to brush it off and say "it's no big deal." Now somethings really are not a "big deal," but those things don't usually make us feel hurt or angry. If something is big enough to cause us to feel hurt or angry it is a big deal to us, even if it might not be to somebody else. If an offense has caused us some sort of emotional pain then it needs to be forgiven not minimized. When we minimize, we actually keep ourselves from forgiving. In order to forgive we must fully face and feel the offense rather than live in denial of the pain that has been caused.
Forgiveness is not simply FORGETTING. In fact, if we have been deeply wounded by an event it may not even be possible to forget. Even if we try to forget and stuff our feelings, like pushing a beach ball under the water, they are likely to pop up to the surface again in some other situation or relationship. Indeed, the all-knowing God himself does not lose conscious memory of our sins, but rather chooses to not hold them against us when he forgives us.
Forgiveness is not EXCUSING. If something can be excused or completely understood it probably doesn't need to be forgiven. If I don't fulfill a commitment because I am in the hospital, that is understandable and excusable. I don't need forgiveness. I need understanding. But if I fail to fulfill a commitment because I am lazy or overbooked myself, then I need forgiveness. We need to know when to forgive and when to excuse, but they are not the same thing. When a person could have made the choice to do the right thing and did not they need forgiveness. When they, through circumstances beyond their control, could not have made another choice they need understanding.
When we engage in these false forms of forgiveness we short-circuit what God is wanting to accomplish in our hearts and perhaps in the hearts of others. Next time we will examine what forgiveness is and how to get what we need to do it well.