Jesus said to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven. I’ve come to understand this to mean that if you are seeking to live with God, you will have many opportunities to forgive.
My friend Susan suggested that forgiveness is an English word that really should be two different words. Perhaps she is right.
There’s the type of forgiveness that we can offer when there is a chance for reconciliation, when there is an “I’m sorry,” and an attempt to make amends. We forgive by allowing another chance. Then there is the more difficult type of forgiveness. The type where we forgive without any sign that our being hurt has changed or will change anything. It is the forgiveness unattached to the action of another. We forgive to be free.
Over the years I have heard people say, “I need to be able to forgive,” or “I struggle with anger.” Each one I speak to understands that if they could forgive they would be free of that ungodly feeling which keeps them in its grip. But how do you get from wanting to forgive to being able to forgive?
A pair of Biblical images come to mind, both from the gospel of John. In John 4, Jesus sits with a woman at a well, speaking to her of “all she had ever done.” Despite the narrative not describing her deeds in detail (all we are told is she has had many husbands and the one she is currently with is not her husband), it is clear that she felt Jesus heard her, knew her, and understood her. Then, at the close of the gospel, the resurrected Jesus meets Peter. Remember, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times in the courtyard as Jesus was being questioned by the authorities who would have Jesus crucified. Peter was scared. However, after all is done, the resurrected Jesus comes to Peter and gives him the chance to speak three times of his love for him.
“Peter,” Jesus says, “do you love me?”
Peter responds, “Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus commands, “Then feed my sheep,” referring to the people Jesus led.
Both the woman at the well and Peter have plenty to be angry about. I suspect anyone who has had many husbands is not without culpability, but still has been, in one way or another, betrayed. And the woman would feel the guilt of having not lived rightly. Further, the Jerusalem temple priest’s insistence that only in Jerusalem could worship of God be properly performed would have set up a divide between one such as her and others who could afford to go to Jerusalem to worship the right way.
Similarly, Peter has experienced a great betrayal, as he watched his teacher, friend, and Lord die. The powers of this world won. Jesus didn’t save him. In fact, Jesus set him up. He, like the woman, feels guilty. He didn’t respond rightly when the time came for him to take a stand.
John’s gospel has a great injustice in the background of both stories. Yet, scripture moves away from righteous anger, choosing instead to emphasize the need for both to be forgiven by Jesus. In this way, John makes an important link. When anger has a hold on us, what we really need to be able to forgive, is to be forgiven.
While there may be a few in the history of Christianity who have been able to go directly to God to be forgiven, most of us require a friend, someone who will sit with us at the well, or find us when we are lost and give us a chance to speak. Note Jesus didn’t say to Peter or the woman, “what you need to do is to forgive.” He didn’t make the ability to forgive a prerequisite to experiencing what it is to be forgiven. He didn’t ask them to make lists of all their wrongs. Just as important, but slightly different, he didn’t allow what they were angry about to define the conversation. Instead, Jesus showed the way to forgiveness by listening and responding with compassion.
So, if you are seeking to forgive, seek out a compassionate friend, one who, like Jesus, will listen long enough and deeply enough that you are once again conscious of God’s love of you. If you are seeking to help someone who is stuck in anger, who knows she wants to forgive but cannot, follow Jesus. Be a compassionate friend—listen and love.
Then go one step further. One more guidepost is given by Jesus in these two encounters. He gets both the woman and Peter back to work. The woman didn’t need a clear directive. After her conversation with Jesus she went home and told everyone about the one she had met at the well. She preached. Peter, however, needed a last little push. So when Jesus visited him, he said, “If you love me, feed my sheep,” which meant “get to work caring for the people who follow me.” The goal is not simply for us to forgive, the goal is to get back to God’s work.
We help each other forgive when, whatever the difficulty, we remind one another that we have not been fired from God’s work in this world. In fact, whatever has happened has likely made us more able to follow Jesus.
And so, people of God, listen, love and help one other see our respective places in God’s work. With Jesus as our guide, despite the best efforts of our anger and shame, we will forgive–and we will carry the light that makes us free.