A few weeks ago in class, a question was posed about forgiveness and the people of Rwanda. I know we have many other, newer tragedies to capture our attention, but have you considered the Rwandans lately? How do Christians in Rwanda go about forgiving their neighbors (and sometimes relatives) for genocide?
When we American churchgoers talk about forgiveness, it’s because someone sat in our favorite seat, or got more attention than we did, or missed our birthday, or didn’t say “Good Morning” properly, and a whole host of other trivialities.
Has someone ever said to you, "Well, you know I've forgiven you. But I'll never forget the time you ..."
If so, what did that relationship feel like afterwards? Was trust truly restored? Did you feel the warmth and intimacy of true friendship and a restored relationship? Did you still get that warm fuzzy feeling when you spent time with this person? Probably not.
Why is such counterfeit forgiveness so incredibly unsatisfying and disheartening?
It is because this is not the forgiveness that Christ teaches us to have for one another?
When someone claims to forgive you, but continues to remind you of your wrong over and over again, it is easy to have ongoing feelings of guilt and shame. If the person you wronged constantly brings up your past offense and keeps you at a "distance," it is amazingly hard to let your guard down and be yourself around that person because of the sense of ultimate rejection and a feeling of impending doom that you will offend them again.
This is the opposite of the cheerfulness, blessedness, liberation, and joy we have knowing that when God forgives us, he removes our sin "as far as the east is from the west." (Psalm 103:12) Compare the phony forgiveness to the sweetness of our loving relationship with "Abba Father" who grants us the gift of repentance and then runs to his wayward children to lavish forgiveness on us and restore us into his family.
This is not to say that some of us haven’t had terrible things done to us, but, what about forgiveness? Some of us have been molested, lied about, persecuted. But, easy or hard, Christ has commanded us to forgive.
Today, we will find ourselves in Matthew 18. Jesus has just finished speaking about how to deal with sin in the church, and is about to launch into a parable about an unmerciful servant. Do you think this was intentional? Are you ever struck by how these stories and parables are ordered? Could Jesus have foreseen that His followers might have a problem with un-forgiveness? That we’d have trouble showing even the smallest mercies to each other. Anyway, between these two tasks, Peter stops Jesus to ask Him a question, beginning in verse 21.
“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.”
Now, I don’t think Jesus was telling Peter to keep a little notebook, and count out nearly 500 offenses for a particular person. I think he is using what we call a hyperbole, an exaggeration to make a point. We all know some people who keep score and keep tabs of offenses in their heads so they can catch people “breaking the rules.”
I think what Jesus is saying is, that we need to forgive as many times as it takes. We can’t possible keep score. How many times has God, our Father forgiven us? For me, way too many times to count, but He keeps bringing me back, welcoming me into His arms.
What we are looking for is a restored relationship. There is a phrase that Pastor (McNeal Stewart, III) brought up in Bible study this week, Relational Justice. We are trying to get back to that place of equanimity, give and take, giving and receiving aid and support. All with no strings attached. Because, Jesus isn’t saying we should become someone else’s doormat or punching bag, either.
So what are we called to do?
First of all, we worship God and thank him for his amazing forgiveness.
Secondly, we pray for the grace to never say such harmful and unforgiving words to anyone ourselves.
And lastly, we are called to persevere in relationship with someone who claims to "forgive" us, but who consistently brings up our past offense, tells others about it, and keeps us at arm’s-length. We look for opportunities to bless them, share Christ with them, and prayerfully strive to help deliver them from their bitterness and un-forgiveness towards us and the rest of the world.