Tuesday, October 7, 2008

70 X 7

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

                        Matthew 18.21-22

On Sin’s Wrong Side

In all the clatter and turmoil stirred up by today’s religious legalists, it’s quite possible many of us are so conscious of being mislabeled as sinners we forget what to do when others sin against us. At our dysfunctional worst, we may truly believe we deserve the attitudes, actions, and violence leveled at us. At our disengaged best, we may take it on the chin, dismissing discrimination and ignorance as par for the course. Neither of these fulfills Christ’s law.

More is demanded of us than suffering or tolerance when we’re on sin’s wrong side. (Not that there's a right side to sin.) We have to reach into the depths of our souls and consciously forgive those who mistreat us. This goes for everyone—not only those we know personally, but strangers and public figures who target us with malignant ideas and strategies. And, as Jesus explained to Peter, we forgive those who sin against us again and again and again.

No Limits

Surely, if a person continues to wrong us, he/she reaches a point where we can say, “OK, that’s it—no more forgiveness for you!” If that makes sense to you, I’m sorry to tell you authentic followers of Christ don't set forgiveness quotas. And here’s why. There are no limits on God’s forgiveness. If there were, we’d all be in big trouble, as we rely on His grace and mercy on a minute-by-minute basis. Since we’re created in His image to express His love and power in the world, we’re expected to forgive others just like He forgives us. This concept is firmly stitched at the center of the prayer millions of us recite daily: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Jesus followed His forgiveness statement with a great story. A servant owed his master a debt he couldn’t pay. The master planned to sell the servant’s family to make up the loss, but the servant pleaded for patience until he could repay it. Touched by his sincerity, the master forgave the debt entirely. Later, meeting someone who owed him, the servant wasn’t like his charitable master. He attacked the man and had him thrown in jail. News of this reached the master. Angry that the servant hadn’t offered his debtor the same mercy he received, the master withdrew his forgiveness and had his servant imprisoned. “If you don’t forgive from your heart,” Jesus said, “expect a similar fate.”

Surrender and Thrust

The etymology of “forgive” tells the whole story. It’s derived from an Old English phrase meaning, “complete surrender.” In a fascinating parallel, the original Greek word suggests more than merely extending mercy to someone who’s wronged us; it’s closer to thrusting mercy upon them. Putting them together presents an illuminating idea. Forgiveness happens in two steps. First, we totally release ourselves from the pain and shame of hurts and false accusations. Then, we force our mercy to clothe those who sin against us. We no longer see them as sinners; we look at them just as God looks as us—forgiven and guilt-free.

In the parallel universe of Hallmark cards and I-heart-you posters, we hear that forgiveness leads to healing. I’m not so sure about that. Many of us have suffered or may yet suffer evil that leaves us with harrowing memories and scars us for life. What forgiveness does do, however, is alleviate the pain. It emulates God’s nature, lifting us out of our human constraints to live above the hurt. There’s no reason to carry the sins levied against us. Let’s rise above them. Our debtors may never fully appreciate the forgiveness we give. But we can’t allow that to prevent us from reaping its benefits.

This Public Service Announcement opposing California's Proposition 8 (denying same-sex marriages) has been making the rounds. Still, its magnificent rendering of 1 Corinthian 13 helps remind us to forgive.

(Tomorrow: Our Father)


afeatheradrift said...

Tim your exquisite ability to write makes me literally tear up. You think so deeply and speak from the heart in a way that is compelling. I cannot tell you what a lift it is every day to come here and read your thoughts and reflections. You truly have put on the mind of Christ. Blessings.

Tim said...

Sherry, I've met many people of every stripe who've been so crippled by others that forgiveness is practically unthinkable to them. And for so long, I felt foolish saying things like, "But you still must forgive them." When they responded with "Why?" just saying "Because Jesus tells us to" never really satisfied them or me. I knew I hadn't really helped them and I was always left feeling weirdly insensitive to their pain, as if I'd just pulled this forgiveness thing off the shelf and dumped it in their laps.

I literally sat down recently and talked to God about it. "You need to lead me to a better response to this," I told Him. Sometime later, thinking about something altogether separate from forgiveness, a thought crossed my mind: the genius of Jesus was His ability to transform spiritual truth into practical, everyday advice. So what's the practical side of forgiveness, I wondered. It took a while for me to see it, but it was there (of course) all along!

Thanks for your comment. I feel truly honored to hear that Straight-Friendly has proven to be a consistent source of inspiration for you--just as I'm honored that you've chosen to be one of the S-F family!

Be blessed,

PS: I'm headed in your general direction this Saturday to help the Obama campaign's voter registration drive in Dubuque; say a prayer for our success!

Tim said...

CORRECTION: It's Davenport, not Dubuque. (Good thing I'm not driving!) And from what I understand, McCain--and probably Palin, since he keeps her tethered at his side (for obvious reasons)--will be there as well. Should be interesting...