Seventy Time Seven
Matthew 5:23-24 &18:21-22
In Star Trek II, The Wrath of Kahn, 1982: Kahn famously said; Kirk, old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb, “Revenge is a dish best served cold”?
Sometimes revenge can be deliciously sweet, yet most of us understand that vengeance is not a satisfactory response to being hurt, especially for those who follow Christ. On the other hand, neither is carrying around a lifetime of hurt feelings. The answer as we all know is found in the gift of forgiveness
Over the past several weeks we have exploring this important spiritual and emotional issue concerning forgiveness and how it that effects every aspect of our lives.
- We examined how do we forgive someone who has hurt us?
- We looked at how do we overcome our painful emotions and reconcile with someone who has done us wrong?
- How do we go about forgiving? And how many times must we forgive? That is what our lesson for the day is about.
Simon 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?”
Simon Peter’s question was a sincere one. He wanted to know exactly what the Master expected out of him. The prominent rabbis of the day were teaching that one should forgive someone who has done us wrong three times. Was that enough Simon Peter wondered? And so he asked Christ this important question: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Some of us would like an answer to the same question. Forgiveness is a big problem in our lives. There have been persons who have wronged us and it is so, so difficult to let go of our feelings of anger, resentment and even hatred. How many times shall we forgive?
Jesus’ answer was, of course, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” That is a demanding stance. Some of us may feel it is asking too much of mere mortals. And yet Jesus, believe it or not, was looking out for our best interest. Forgiveness is to our benefit as much as it is for the person who has injured us.
Let’s begin by asking, why do we find it so hard to forgive? Obviously, one answer is that the pain is simply too deep to forgive.
A name that has become synonymous with forgiveness is retired South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. After the final defeat of apartheid in South Africa, it was Bishop Tutu who set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by which black persons in that country publicly forgave those who had done them serious harm. It was one of the most stunning events in history . . . literally.
People who had family members tortured and murdered by police confronted the officers who had committed these crimes and publicly forgave them.
In a book titled The Book of Forgiving Tutu tells how as a young boy, he had to watch helplessly as his father verbally and physically abused his mother.
He writes, “If I dwell in those memories, I can feel myself wanting to hurt my father back, in the same ways he hurt my mother and in ways of which I was incapable [of understanding] as a small boy. I see my mother’s face and I see this gentle human being whom I loved so very much and who did nothing to deserve the pain inflicted upon her.
When I recall this story, I realize how difficult the process of forgiving truly is. Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he was in pain. Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them.”
Some of you can relate to Tutu’s experience and I know in some ways I can. For others it may have been a teacher or a friend or a sibling or a spouse who abused us, but somewhere along the way someone has hurt us deeply and we can still feel the pain. For some the pain is so intense that it is simply easier to cut that person out of our lives than to forgive. That is one reason it is difficult to forgive–the pain is too deep. So how can we forgive seventy times seven?
Pride can also get in the way of forgiveness, as does a mistaken sense of principle. We think to ourselves, “This will teach him a lesson.” Then there are family members and friends who may encourage our estrangement: “You surely are not going to forgive him after what he’s done to you, are you?”
They probably mean well but they may not understand our own need for healing. Pain, pride, other people–these are usually the reasons why we do not forgive. And our inability to forgive can have devastating effects on us as well as on others. Holding on to resentful feelings can shorten our lives, poison our memories, weaken our relationship with God and even affect our own feelings of self-worth. This is in addition to the damage to the relationship with the person we cannot forgive.
Again, how can I forgive seventy times seven?
Several years ago, a book came out titled To Forgive is Human–How to Put Your Past in the Past. It was written by 3 doctors who evaluated the various benefits that come when you move past resentment to forgiveness. Here are three of those benefits:
First of all, when you let go of past hurts and learn to forgive, there is a physical benefit to you. Attitudes of bitterness, hostility, and resentment are like poisons and toxins to your body. Chronic anger and hostility can be more toxic to your health, say these doctors, than being a smoker or eating a high fat diet.
Secondly, there is a psychological benefit to forgiveness. People with angry, bitter thoughts become angry, bitter people held hostage by their own bitterness.
And finally, there’s a relational benefit. Any time you move in forgiveness toward someone you consider an enemy you open the door to the potential of reconciliation.
These doctors say there is a high price to pay from holding on to resentment and hatred. But how do we let go and forgive? That is the question. Let me suggest three ways.
- We let go, first of all, by recognizing that forgiveness is a gift from God. We have been forgiven, and so we are able to forgive others.
- In the second place, we need to recognize that forgiveness is the most powerful witness we have to the activity of grace in our own lives.
- We need to recognize, finally, that forgiveness is a positive activity necessary to the healing and wholeness of our own hearts.
Now please understand. Forgiveness is not passive resignation to a bad situation. We do not shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, there’s nothing else to do. I might as well forgive.” There is little healing in that kind of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a positive, joyful activity in which we change from seeing ourselves as victims to seeing ourselves as victors. Forgiveness allows us to move from weakness to strength, from inadequacy to self-affirmation. Forgiveness allows us to experience within our own lives the power and the presence of the indwelling Christ.
Is there someone you need to forgive? An unfaithful spouse–an overbearing parent–a friend who has stabbed you in the back–an employer who has taken advantage of you? I know there is pain. The most powerful witness we have to the action of the grace of God at work in our own lives, however, is the ability to forgive others. As we forgive, we heal not only the wounds of a broken relationship, we find healing for wounds inflicted in our own hearts by anger, hurt and resentment.
God has forgiven each of us for every soiled thought, act, and deed of which we are capable. Can we not forgive one another? Three times? Seven times? Yes, even seventy-seven times?