There is no spiritual act more important or more pervasive in life than forgiveness.
The Bible is filled with examples of brokeness caused by the absence of forgiveness. Jesus addresses the problem on several occasions. He considered forgiveness so important that he called attention to it with shocking clarity in what we know as "The Lord's Prayer". That salient sentence in the Lord's Prayer causes any sensitive person to choke on the words when praying: "Forgive us our trespasses even as we forgive those who trespass against us." If we miss the serious implications of that sentence when we pray, then Jesus' commentary that follows in the very next sentence of that passage will stop us dead in our tracks: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:15). That leaves no place to hide.
The general understanding of the Old Testament concept of forgiveness is that it is to be limited to three occasions of offense, whether it is an offense against God or another human being. Our spiritual forebears seemed to believed that on the fourth offense, God would not forgive, and humans should not. The New Testament knows no such numerical limit to forgiveness. After 60 years of experience with Christians, I would have to say that most all of us are "Jewish" in our understanding and practice of forgiveness. Truth of the matter is that most of us are less than "Jewish". We tend more toward being pagan. "Do not forgive, get even".
When Peter asked Jesus how many times one should forgive an offense, he proceeded to answer his own question. He generously took the formula of three, doubled it, and added one for good measure, and suggested to Jesus that seven times would be appropriate. Expecting to be commended for his generosity, Peter must have been shocked by Jesus' answer.
Not seven, said Jesus, but "seventy times seven." Now if you are a literalist, you will note that the total comes to 490. You can probably calculate it in your head, but this is divine arithmetic and we must do it by heart Jesus really meant 70 x 7 x 7 x 7, and on to infinity. Forgiveness is not a matter of arithmetic but attitude. Once is not enough. The lesson here is "don't count". When at last we stand before the Great God of the Universe we may expect God to forgive us as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.
The "unforgiving" and the "unforgiven" walk a lonely and a dangerous road. Its perils are many, and it is downhill all of the way. It is the road that leads to the wide gate, of which Jesus said: "There are many who travel it." It represents a journey that we have all taken, to some degree, at some time.
Most of us have lived long enough to have been burned by some circumstance or some person. We are familiar with the rush of anger, which the body registers with blotched and reddened skin. When our instincts call for blood, and our minds say: "Don't get angry; get even", only our spiritual resources will save us from a war in which there are no winners. There are so many relationships in life which generate situations in which we must forgive or be forgiven in order to maintain those relationships. Courtship, friendship, marriage, children, divorce, politics, church - the list goes on and on.
Forgiveness is a superhuman act. It requires a source of strength that we do not have on our own. Some offenses are easily forgiven. Others we can put into perspective, and we may get away with nothing more than a slight scar; but there are some offenses and hurts for which forgiveness is humanly impossible. This message is not just for the neurotic grievance collectors, in whose life littleness expresses itself in many unlovely ways. It is also for those who have experienced some Mt. Everest offense which threatens to overshadow all of life. It is to those who labor under an offense that is larger than life - too big to carry and too serious to turn loose. In your mind you know that keeping it will not resolve the problem. But you are so glued to it that giving it up will require a super-human act. It is an emotional tar-baby.
As strange as it may seem, it does not matter whether a gigantic offense is real or imagined; its power to derange and destroy is the same. Several years ago, a forty-year-old man stormed into St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and took three hostages: a doctor, a nurse, and a psychologist. Twenty-four hours later he was shot to death as a Memphis SWAT team stormed the room to rescue the hostages. A year earlier his six-year-old son had died at St. Jude where he was being treated for leukemia. After the child's death, the father became a very sad and a very lonely man. He was unable to cope with his son's death. The loss of his son was an offense too great to bear and too serious to turn loose. The hostage-taking was an act of desperation on the part of a man who felt the hospital was responsible for his son's death, and he could not forgive them. Forgiveness for an offense of that magnitude, whether real or imagined, requires a superhuman act. There are some whose suffering and pain constitute an offense of such magnitude that blaming human beings is not adequate. Only God is big enough to bear the blame. A prominent example of this kind of offense can be seen in the Holocaust.
In his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea, author, journalist, professor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, tries to write about his anger at God in a manner in which he hopes that those who were not victims of the Holocaust can begin to understand. Wiesel was in Auschwitz the last eleven months before the end of the war when the Nazi regime was in a race against time to kill all the Jews they could. He saw unspeakable scenes. Reflecting on his struggle to reconcile his experience with his faith, he wrote:
"I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within my faith and not outside it. ...Abraham, Moses, and Jeremiah teach us that it is permissible (for man) to accuse God provided it be done in the name of faith in God. ...I may someday come to understand man's role in the mystery Auschwitz represents, but never God's. ...I will never cease to rebel against those who committed or permitted Auschwitz, including God. The questions I once asked about God's silence remain open. If they have an answer, I do not know it." (Wiesel, Elie, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Knopf, 1995, pgs 84-85)
We have all had theological problems, but few of us have had a theological problem of this magnitude - and perhaps never will. We may have a problem of that species, but not of that magnitude. None of us who were not there dare offer an easy answer. There are some things in life too large and complicated to understand in this world. You may safely argue with God, and have a reconciliation with God that is held together only with the "spit and hair spray" of faith. There are things that happen for which a meaningful answer may not come in this world.
There are some who are living under an offense you cannot carry and cannot forgive. You need not let this destroy you. The Bible teaches us that God can help us do what we cannot do on our own. He can help us perform the superhuman act of forgiveness. When Christ calls us to forgiveness, his words are not empty. The call to forgive enemies must have represented a premonition on the part of Jesus, who was soon to look upon the faces of His executioners and pray to God: "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do."
Forgiveness must become for us as much a lifestyle as grievance collecting tends to become a lifestyle for the unforgiving. Once is not enough! How we all hope and pray that we can conquer evil in our lives in one decisive battle, but as desirable as this goal may be, it is not a very realistic hope. The way of forgiveness is not one decisive battle. It is a running fight. We will constantly be confronted by occasions in which we must forgive and forgive again.
We come now to one of the most difficult of all transactions of forgiveness - self forgiveness. How in the world can we manage that?!! Think about that, and perhaps both you and I will come up with some answers by next week.