by Peter Vethanayagamony
Associate Professor of Modern Church History and Director of D.Min. Program
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, And our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
At a bowling alley, two men were talking about marriage. One man said, "My wife and I argue a lot, and every time we argue she gets historical." His friend interrupted him, "You meant to say that she gets hysterical, didn't you?" The first man responded, "No, when my wife and I argue, she doesn't get hysterical; she gets historical. She drags up everything from the past and holds it against me."
I wonder if some of us are excessively historical in our relationships. With pinpoint accuracy, some of us can recall every bad thing that has ever happened to us and the smallest details surrounding each event. Perhaps you cannot anticipate the future or enjoy the present because you are imprisoned by the pain of your past.
Some of us have hurtful memories playing repeatedly on the screens of our minds, and these mental re-runs can make us hysterical. There is often a fine line between being too historical and being hysterical in our relationships. The unwillingness to move beyond episodes where we've been messed over can produce spiritual dysfunction that hinders us from enjoying God's peace, power, and prosperity. Thus, the question before us is this: When people have messed over us, what are we, as God's people, to do? Jesus provides an answer, "Forgive."
In Matthew 18, the Apostle Peter poses a question to Jesus. "Jesus, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus responds, "Not seven times, but seventy-seven times." In other words, forgiveness is not a product that we should seek to quantify. It is a practice that enriches the quality of one's character.
When Peter asked Jesus about forgiving his brother or sister, he wasn't talking about nameless stranger. It's someone with whom we share a spiritual bond; someone with who you study, work, or sing. How many times must we forgive the one sitting next to? The debate rages even today, seven years after "nine-eleven," as to whether it is possible to forgive the perpetrators behind that day.
The ability to forgive is a Christian's birthmark-a sign that we have been justified by grace through faith and born anew spiritually. To be a Christian is to be forgiven. To be a Christian is also to be someone who forgives.
We all remember the old saying, to err is human and to forgive is divine. Godly forgiveness is counter-cultural. We live in a culture that says, "If you mess over me, I will sue you or worse." Few would dispute our right to get even. The rule of the world is 'do unto others as they've done unto you.'
Ours is an age of countless lawsuits, continual retaliation, and cold, calculated revenge. We live in a very litigious society in which we like to hold others responsible for things. Matthew 18, however, compels us to take our cues from Christ, not from culture. We are in the world but not of the world.
Brad Braxton defines Godly forgiveness as follows: "Forgiveness is the disciplined, lifelong commitment to offer Godly reactions to ungodly actions."
Forgiveness is an evidence of being forgiven, a manifestation of grateful heart for the grace bestowed on us. It requires discipline and a lifelong commitment. It is not a sporadic occurrence: seven times. It is a lifelong commitment: seventy seven times. Furthermore, forgiveness requires us to focus on our reactions, not the actions of others. We cannot control other people's actions, but by the power of the Holy Spirit we can control our reactions, even our reactions to unrighteousness.
As I explore what forgiveness is, I also need to explain what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not condoning wrong. God does not expect us to ignore injustice or injury. Sin must be acknowledged for what it is both by the victims and the perpetrators. Too often, Christians equate forgiveness with passively accepting or ignoring wrong. That's why so many victims end up bitter and angry.
When the church preaches that forgiveness requires persons to put themselves in situations to be victimized, the church dispenses cheap and lethal grace. For example, the church should never send battered women back to their homes to be beaten. Genuine grace creates new life and does not condemn us to old patterns of death. When Christians fail to insist that perpetrators confess, repent, and make restitution for injustice, we short-circuit the transforming power of forgiveness. Rather than condoning wrong, forgiveness responds to wrong in the right way. This kind of response involves courage so that genuine justice can lead to genuine grace which can lead to genuine healing.
Forgiveness also should not be simply equated with forgetting. The slogan "forgive and forget" is a recipe for denial, not a formula for forgiveness. Forgiveness does not require spiritual amnesia. There are some hurts and scars from our past that need to be remembered. Getting historical too can bring healings.
Healing is not found in forgetting; it is found in holy-not hostile-remembering. We remember the hurts of our past not to repeatedly play the role of victim or to hold the perpetrators hostage with guilt. Instead, through a holy remembering, we are empowered to make wiser choices in the present and the future and to help perpetrators do the same.
Remembering the hurts of South African apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that forgiveness draws out "the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence." We remember the evil done to us in the past in order to liberate the past from evil. Once the sting of evil is removed, the past is redeemed to impart to us wisdom for today and tomorrow.
In other words, forgiveness does not condone evil; nor does it require us to forget. What it does require is "release," the release of the negativity and hostility associated with being messed over. In Matthew 18, the Greek verb translated "to forgive" also means "to let go." Even if justice for our injuries is delayed or denied, Christ compels us to forgive so the desire for revenge will not poison our souls.
Like the Apostle Peter, many of us have asked Jesus, "Lord, how many times should we forgive?" Just as Jesus' response likely puzzled Peter, it baffles us as well. "Seventy-seven times is a whole lot of forgiveness, Jesus." To that response, Jesus replies, "Seventy-seven times; seventy-seven hundred times; seventy-seven thousand times; or even seventy-seven million times cannot compare to that one time that God forgave the whole world." On the cross, as Rome "messed over" him, Jesus pleaded with God from that old rugged cross, "Father, forgive them!"
All of us have been messed over at one time or another. Yet Christ, our Great Redeemer, our great Liberator calls us to forgive because we have been forgiven. C.S. Lewis has said, "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you."
Here is what I wish to say to you today. Forgiveness is not an act of will; it is a function of divine grace. Forgiveness is unconditional gift of grace and a process of discovery, more so than something achieved. You cannot make yourself forgive anyone, but you can make the intellectual connection between your own dependence on God's acceptance of you and all your brokenness and inadequacies, and your reaction to those who have injured you-even deeply, terribly injured you. Moreover, who knows, as in the case of Joseph of OT, even what was intended by the opponents evil against you, God would mean it for good.
And if today you are at a point at which you simply cannot forgive, I do know one thing you can do. You can pray that the time will come when you can forgive. Even if you cannot pray that prayer, you can be honest before God in confessing that you cannot. I have wonderful news for you: God can take you in whatever condition you are in.
I remember Golda Meier's poignant confession, "I can forgive the Arabs for killing my son, but I cannot forgive the Arabs for teaching my son to kill Arabs." Which is to say, some things cannot be done simply by decision. We will have to wait on many things, the big things. We must open ourselves to receive from another realm that which we find humanly impossible to accomplish on our own. And if we can finally receive the gift of being able to forgive those who have done us serious injury, a spouse who has betrayed us perhaps, a parent who abused, a careless driver who killed, we will never want to forget that forgiveness is not to forgetting. To forgive is not to deny the pain or the wrongness of an act. To forgive is not to excuse that which is unjust or cruel. To forgive means this: to make a conscious choice to be unbound by evil. When someone does an injury to us, the first injury they do is their fault but if we hold on to a feeling of vengeance and hatred in our own hearts, then that person does a second injury, and the fault for that is ours.
What is the most important message faith has to tell in a world that is filled with vengeance, bitterness and violence? It is, I believe, the message of forgiveness. That is God's antidote to human sin and destruction. May God grant to each of us the grace to allow at least the seed of forgiveness to take root in our hearts, and may God's love, healing, and reconciling power be the cornerstones of the world we begin to build from this day forward. Amen.