The Power of Forgiveness
God exists everywhere and anywhere. He is eternal and omnipresent. And not only is he present everywhere, he is everywhere pursuing us.
“How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Forgiveness, for Jesus, is not a quantifiable event. It is a quality; a way of being, a way of living, a way of loving, a way of relating, a way of thinking and seeing. It is nothing less than the way of Christ. If we are to follow Christ then it must become our way as well. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Does that mean the drunk driver? Yes. The cheating spouse? Yes. The lying businessman? Yes. The racist? Yes. The rapist? Yes. The bully? Yes. The abusive parent? Yes. The greedy corporation? Yes. Even the terrorists ? Yes.
Often when we ask God to forgive us, we are really asking him to excuse us. But according to Lewis, forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites (Lewis, “On Forgiveness,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 178–181). Forgiveness says, “You have done an evil thing; nevertheless, I will not hold it against you.” Excusing says, “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.” Therefore, to excuse someone is to let that person off the hook because he didn’t really belong on the hook in the first place. We refuse to blame someone for something that wasn’t his fault to begin with.
When it comes to God, C.S. Lewis notes, “What we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.” We want him to remember the extenuating circumstances that led us to do what we did. We go away “imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses.”
When seeking God’s forgiveness, we must set aside the excuses and the blame-shifting. If there were extenuating circumstances, God is more aware of them than we are. What is required of us is to find what’s left over after every circumstance has been stripped away, the little ball of sin that is hardened like a cancer. That is what we are to bring to God. That is what he must (and will) forgive.
Do you know the most famous prayer on the planet? The prayer that most people on the street could recite portions of if asked? The prayer hundreds of millions of Christians of every stripe pray regularly and tens of millions of non-Christians have heard enough to repeat?
If you recite the Lord’s Prayer by memory with a group of people outside of your local church, I imagine things usually go pretty smoothly till you get to the fourth line. Some will say “forgive us our debts,” some will say “trespasses,” and others will say “sins.”
The very first thing Jesus did after reciting this prayer is expound on the importance of forgiveness. And to really drive home what he meant, he purposefully chose a different word for sin with a different nuance than the one he used in the prayer. Matthew chose the Greek word paraptōma to capture Jesus’ intention in these verses, which in the context means a kind of sin that oversteps prescribed limits or boundaries — what we call a “trespass.”
Jesus wanted his disciples (including us) to understand sin in both the sense of owing a debt and the sense of trespassing into territory that doesn’t belong to us.
But that still doesn’t explain why some English Christian traditions use the word “trespasses” when Jesus’ actual prayer used the word “debts.”
Everyone, I suspect, is in favour of forgiveness, at least in principle. “Every one,” C.S. Lewis writes, “says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until there is something to forgive” (Mere Christianity, p.115). What do we do then? What do we do when there is something to forgive?
Some will strike back seeking revenge. Some will run away from life and relationships. Some will let the darkness paralyse them. I don’t say that out of criticism or judgement of someone else but out of my own experience. I’ve done them all. I know how hard forgiveness can be. Like you I too struggle with it and often avoid it. I also know that none of those answers are the way of Christ. All of them leave us stuck in the past, tied to the evil of another, and bereft of the future God wants to give us.
Forgiveness is the only way forward. That does not mean we forget, condone, or approve of what was done. It does not mean we ignore or excuse cruelty or injustice. It means we are released from them. We let go of the thoughts and fantasies of revenge. We look to the future rather than the past. We try to see and love as God sees and loves. Forgiveness is a way in which we align our life with God’s life. To withhold forgiveness is to put ourselves in the place of God, the ultimate judge to whom all are accountable (Romans 14:10, 12).
God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness are integrally related. That is more than apparent in the reading from Matthew 18:21-35. The king forgives his slave an extraordinary amount. Ten thousand talents is about 3000 years of work at the ordinary daily wage. It seems there is no debt too large to be forgiven. This man, this debtor, was forgiven. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. That’s how our God is. This slave, however, refused to forgive his fellow slave 100 denarii, about three months of work at the ordinary daily wage. Too often that’s what our world is like. Frequently, it is how we are. In that refusal the forgiven slave lost his own forgiveness.
This should not be news to us. We know it well. We acknowledge and pray it every Sunday and I’ll bet most of you pray it every day. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We pray those words with ease and familiarity but do we live our prayer? Do our actions support our request? “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
That’s a lot of forgiveness but the pain of the world, our nation, and individuals is great. We need to forgive as much, maybe more, for ourselves as for the one we forgive. Forgiving those who trespass against us is the salve that begins to heal our wounds. It may not change the one who hurt you but I promise you this. Your life will be more alive, more grace-filled, more whole, more God-like for having forgiven another.
Forgiveness creates space for new life. Forgiveness is an act of hopefulness and resurrection for the one who forgives. It is the healing of our soul and life. Forgiveness takes us out of darkness into light, from death to life. It disentangles us from the evil of another. It is the refusal to let our future be determined by the past. It is the letting go of the thoughts, the hatred, the fear that fill us so that we might live and love again.
So how do we begin to forgive? There is no easy road to forgiveness. Don’t let anyone tell you, “Just give it up to God. Forgive and forget.” Simplistic trite answers only demean those who suffer and pick at the wound. Forgiving another takes time and work. It is something we must practice every day. It begins with recognition and thanksgiving that we have been forgiven. We are the beneficiaries of the crucified one. Hanging between two thieves he prayed, “Father, forgive them” (Luke. 23:34). That is the cry of infinite forgiveness, a cry we are to echo in our own lives, in our families, our work places, our parishes, our day to day life.
Forgiveness does not originate in us. It begins with God. That’s what the slave who refused to forgive didn’t understand. It was not about him. It’s about God. We do not choose to forgive. We only choose to share the forgiveness we have already received. Then we chose again, and then again, and then yet again. For most of us forgiveness is a process that we live into. Sometimes, however, we just can’t. The pain is too much, the wound too raw, the memories too real. On those days we chose to want to forgive. Some days we chose not to want to forgive. Then there are those days that all we can do is choose to forgive. But we choose because that’s the choice Christ made.
How many times must we choose to forgive? Tell me this. How many times have you been hurt and suffered by the actions or words of another? How many times has anger or fear controlled you? How many times has the thought of revenge filled you? How many times have you shuddered at the sight, the name, or the memory of another? How many times have you replayed in your head the argument with another? That’s how many times you choose. With each choosing we move a step closer to forgiveness. Then one day, God willing, we will meet, victims and perpetrators, as happy thieves in the Paradise of God, the Father of us all.
“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
C.S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 178–181
C.S. Lewis, "Mere Christianity", p.115
Michael Marsh - Infinite Forgiveness