Embracing the Uncertainty of Forgiveness

Embracing the Uncertainty of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-22, 6:10-12, 14-15

It should be no surprise that one of the Christian character traits is the capacity to forgive. It’s part of the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6:12) Jesus spent a significant portion of His greatest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, talking about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. And it was so important to Jesus that He spent some of His very last energy forgiving those very ones who were crucifying Him by praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

Yet we’re still uncertain about this whole idea of forgiveness. How can we forgive when it is so hard to do so? How can we forgive when someone has hurt us to badly? Why should we even bother, why should we forgive? What difference does it make anyways?

Welcome to the series called “Embracing the Uncertain” where we are invited to take a different perspective on life’s uncertainties this Lenten season. We all know full well that there are no shortages of uncertainties in this world. But instead of ignoring or hiding our uncertainties, we’re studying God’s Word where we find the strength and power to actually engage those uncertainties with confidence, and in the end, find a stronger faith.

So, to do so we’re exploring six stories in the Gospels as Jesus travels towards Jerusalem where He will be crucified. These stories are like mile markers along the road because they point down at a world filled with uncertainty, but yet point us toward a cross that can show us how to follow Jesus with courage, obedience, and the hope of the resurrection. It is only when we embrace the uncertainty of who we are and the uncertainty of this world, that we can fully acknowledge the power of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

One of life’s greatest uncertainties is how to forgive, especially when it is so hard to do so?
Why should we even bother? Why should we forgive?

Apparently, we are not alone in our wondering because Peter wrestled with this question as well. In fact, he point-blank asked Jesus about it. You’ve got to love Peter’s boldness and straightforward questions, but you’ve got to love the way Jesus answers questions. Sometimes He would answer them directly, but often He would answer them with either another question or by telling a story. And then there were times He answered them with silence.

Peter asked a fairly straightforward question really. Matthew 18:21
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Seven times?”

Peter, always the realist, wanted a number. Exactly how many times, Jesus? Peter knew the Jewish law and the Jewish teaching that he was only required to forgive someone three times – sort of like an ancient “three strikes, you’re out” kind of rule.

And in his boldness, he said, “What? Up to seven times? Should I forgive as many as seven times.” You can almost hear in Peter’s voice the kind of puffed-up motivation. It’s as if he was saying, “Look Jesus, I know I’m only supposed to forgive a person three times, but what if I forgive the person seven? You know, double what I’m required to do and add one for good measure? Bet that would make me a pretty good disciple, huh?”

Just leave it to Peter to turn the most earnest question into a self-seeking opportunity for praise. But honestly, we can relate to him. One of the reasons we all love Peter is because he is a mirror to our own souls.

Let’s be honest and confess, we too are driven to forgive for the same motivations.
If I forgive this person, that will prove what a better person I am.
If I forgive someone, then surely God will be pleased with me.

Although both of them are true, they should not be our motivation. In that kind of thinking, forgiveness then can become more of an exercise in self-praise and personal glorification. What Peter was really asking Jesus is, “If I forgive more than I’m supposed to, won’t you be impressed?” We know what was in Peter’s heart because frankly, it’s in ours too.

And Jesus knew it too. He knew Peter wasn’t really asking how many times he should specifically forgive. Peter’s straightforward-sounding question wasn’t really so straightforward, and Jesus could see right through it. He knew Peter was really asking WHY he should forgive. Jesus saw in Peter’s question a need to know what forgiveness is for, what it’s really about, and that’s why He answered the question in such an odd way.

Matthew 18:22
Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

Now let’s be careful with Jesus answer because there are some who would try to interpret His answer literally. “I’ve got it, Jesus. 70 x 7 = 490. Forgive someone 490 times. Got it. Let me just break out my notebook and start keeping track.”

You know there’s a part of all of us that would do that. We like to keep track. We like to keep score. It would be like us saying, “You know what, I’ve got you right now at 433. By the end of the year, you’re going to be trouble.”

But to interpret Jesus’ answer in that way is to miss the whole point. Jesus was not answering Peter’s question about the number of times to forgive, but rather He was addressing Peter’s deeper question of why should we forgive? What should be our motivation? What even is forgiveness?

If forgiveness is not an exercise for self-praise, and if forgiveness is not a game of keeping score, then what is it? What does it really mean to forgive 70 x 7 times? How does this help us understand why we should forgive in the first place?

To answer these questions, let’s first remember the background of the Gospel of Matthew. It was written to Jewish followers of Jesus, which means it was written to people with a clear understanding of Jewish stories and Hebrew ideas.

They would have been familiar with the number seven and its symbolic meanings. They would have known that the number seven symbolizes completion and perfection. They would have known that the first and most major use of the number seven was in the very first story of the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Genesis, where it records how God created all things.

How long did it take God to create light, planets, stars, tree, animals and humans? Six days.

But the creation was not finished until God used the seventh day to reflect, to enjoy the creation, and to rest. It was the seventh day that brought creation into completion. It was the seventh day that brought God’s work of order out of chaos. It was on the seventh day that God was finished. (Genesis 2:1-2:4a)

The number seven would therefore take on special meaning in the narratives and rituals of the Hebrew people.
Every 7th day, they would be commanded to rest, observe the sabbath, and restore themselves to health. Ex. 20:8-11
Every 7th year, they would be called to give the land a rest and restore it to nourishment. Leviticus 25:1-7
Every 7th cycle of seven years, in the year of Jubilee, they would be called to forgive debts, release slaves, and restore the land to its ancestral owners. Lev. 25:8-13; 39-43.

The point is this: The number seven would always convey to the Israelites a sense of completion. It would convey a call to restoration, healing, and reconciliation. In the Hebrew mind, participating in the number seven would be what they did in everyday life that would have universal consequences.

Human rest every seven days was in harmony with God who rested on the seventh day. It involved joining together in partnership with a god who brought order out of chaos in the days of creation and is always looking to bring restoration, rest, and healing out of a broken world.
Jesus’ answer about forgiveness blew Peter away, not because it suggested this ridiculous number of times to forgive, but because by saying we’re to forgive 70 x 7 times, Jesus showed Peter that forgiveness is about our participation in the complete restoration of all the world.

The act of forgiving someone else for an offense may feel like a private matter between two individuals, but in Jesus’ view, it’s a sacred act with universal implications.

Forgiveness is participation in the activity of God to restore all creation back to its original state of goodness. If you think forgiveness is just a small exchange between humans, think again. Whenever you forgive, you are participating in God’s greatest ongoing project to restore the whole world back to the way it was originally intended.

That’s why, in teaching us to pray, Jesus linked, with the same breath, the kingdom of heaven and forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer:
Matthew 6:10-12
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Forgiveness is kingdom building. But make no mistake, a single act of forgiveness not only helps build the kingdom of God in the universal sense, but it also can help build God’s kingdom within your own heart, the healing that can happen in your own life.

In the past several years, there have been a number of studies that have proven that the more one learns to forgive, the healthier one can be mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Studies have linked the ability to forgive and move past grudges to reduce blood pressure and stress levels, decrease pain, depression, and anger.

In other words, there’s a link between forgiveness and healing. When you forgive, you participate in the healing of the broken creation being put back into divine order, and you also move toward a greater sense of your own healing and wholeness in your relationships.

But when we don’t forgive, the consequences are often brokenness, personal destruction, and deep sorrow. A failure to forgive over a long period of time can greatly hinder the experience of God’s peace and joy in a person’s life.

And please let me be clear. Forgiveness does not have to mean “forgive and forget.” We’ve all heard that cliché so many times that we believe that forgetting is necessary if we’re going to forgive.

But completely forgetting usually isn’t possible. Completely forgetting a past hurt is usually not achievable, given the way our minds work. We can’t simply erase a memory the way we can reformat a computer hard drive, or take an eraser to a chalkboard. Memories can’t just disappear, and the past offenses can’t just evaporate. Besides, isn’t it usually the most hurtful things that are most branded in our minds.

Forgiveness also does not mean just pretending that whatever happened didn’t happen. Nor does it mean that the offense is now considered okay. We don’t forget harmful events or the pain that they caused.

Forgiveness instead, involves the conscious choice to end the cycle…the cycle of bitterness, revenge, the grudge-holding that is destroying your relationship with another person and even destroying you. It means that you will stop trying to hurt the other person for what they have done to you. Forgiveness means owning your attitudes and your actions and saying to the other person, “I choose not to hurt you anymore, regardless of what we have done to each other in the past.”

Then forgiveness means you make another conscious choice to decentralize the impact of that hurt in your life. In other words, you move the pain away from the core of who you are. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the hurt, but it does mean deciding that you will no longer be defined by it. Your emotions and your reactions will not be dictated by it.

Instead of “Forgive and Forget,” you will “Forgive and Decentralize.” You will choose, slowly and steadily, to push the hurt away from being at the center of your life so it will not govern you anymore.

Forgiveness is a practice and it takes time. And there’s no doubt, it’s difficult.

If you are like me, I try to rationalize why someone could be so hurtful. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, understand what lead them to do so, but all in all, the conclusion is the same, that forgiveness remains difficult.

Which brings me back to Peter’s question because we want to know how to forgive, how long it will take to forgive, and how do I make it until forgiveness is complete. We want the number – how many times – because forgiveness is hard and we don’t want to do it one time more than we should.

But we must remember, the key to forgiveness does not lie in our method, but instead in our motivation for doing so. Our motivation should be to take part in God’s restoration and healing.

And let me add just one more thought. Forgiveness is not the wimpy way out. And it certainly does not advise that the victim continue to suffer abuse. Instead, forgiveness is a bold announcement to the perpetrator that the attempts at dehumanizing have failed. It’s a refusal to participate in the ongoing cycle of revenge that destroys relationships and human worth.
Forgiveness declares an end to mutual destruction an begins a path toward healing. And that’s why the three hardest words to probably ever say are, “I am sorry.” And yet they are powerful enough to set us free if we are able to say them.

If you ever need a vivid example of what forgiveness looks like, Lent points us to it: the cross of Jesus Christ. There you going to find the greatest model of forgiveness humanity has ever received. And thank God for it because it is in God’s forgiveness that we discover true freedom and true healing.

Forgiveness is a difficult task, and there is no guarantee that when we ask for it that we’ll get it. We may choose to forgive, but it’s impossible to forget. Even if we know we’re supposed to forgive, it doesn’t make forgiveness easy or its outcome predictable. And that’s what makes it so uncertain.

But we are still called to forgive, nonetheless.

And in the end, we must believe that forgiveness is not optional in the Christian life.

Matthew 6:14-15
14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Forgiveness is a calling of the highest standard, a sacred action. And it’s God who calls us to forgive, and it’s God who then enables us to forgive for the healing of the world and for the healing of our souls.

Gracious God, thank you for forgiving us of our sins. Empower us to follow the example you set for us in Jesus, that we might both forgive others and seek forgiveness. Help us to participate in your work to reconcile the world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.