It was the wrong question. It was also not the real question that Peter wanted to ask Jesus. What Peter really wanted to say was, “Lord, if someone gets on my wrong side, when can I let ‘em have it?” But Peter figured that Jesus wouldn’t respond too well to a question like that, so instead, he asked, “If a member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Thinking that he might win some extra points with Jesus for being patient and kind and forgiving, Peter set the bar high for putting up with all the mean and difficult people we have to deal with: “Shall I forgive as many as seven times?”
I am sure that Jesus knew the question that Peter was really asking and also knew that Peter thought that seven times was a lot of times to forgive anyone. His answer floored Peter and should floor us, if we really understand what Jesus is saying: “Peter, don’t just forgive seven times but seventy-seven times.” Jesus was NOT saying that there is a limit to forgiveness; rather he was saying, “Forgive until you have lost count how many times you have forgiven.”
Forgiveness may be the most difficult discipline of the Christian life. In his book Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis says, “I suddenly discovered today that I had forgiven someone who wronged me twenty-five years ago.” It can take 25 years to forgive someone who really hurt us; it can take a lifetime; perhaps it can take even longer than a lifetime. I don’t know anyone who is really good at it, and that includes me. In fact, I think I’m especially bad at it. This may be more than you want to know about me, but I believe there are two kinds of anger: I call them “fast burn” and “slow burn.” People whose anger is “fast burn” lose their temper quickly but then they also get over it quickly. People whose anger is “slow burn” don’t lose their temper quickly or easily; it takes a lot to get them riled up. But when they get angry, they stay angry. I’m embarrassed to admit that my anger is the “slow burn” variety. It takes a lot to get me angry, but when I do get angry, it can take a very long time for me to stop being angry and a long time for me to forgive someone who has angered me. I’ve gotten better about it, but it’s still a problem I wrestle with.
But forgiveness is not only a discipline of the Christian life, it is also an essential discipline for our well-being. Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University has done extensive research on forgiveness and claims that practicing forgiveness enhances all aspects of our health – mental, spiritual, and physical. Luskin even claims that forgiveness may help lower blood pressure and reduce stress that damages cardiac health. Luskin teaches that there are nine steps to achieve forgiveness, but I think the nine can be summarized in this way: acknowledge your feelings, choose to feel differently, don’t give away your peace of mind and self-control to the person, institution, or situation that hurt you. And keep in mind that forgiveness doesn’t not necessarily mean condoning what happened to hurt you. (For more information go to http://www.learningtoforgive.com)
The New Testament hints at some of the problems associated with the unwillingness to forgive. A few weeks ago the gospel reading included Jesus’ statement to Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” One way to understand forgiveness is to understand it in terms of binding and loosing. However, the paradoxical thing is that when we forgive someone, we are not releasing that other person, we are releasing ourselves. We are untying the mental and spiritual knots that bind us.
One of my best friends in college was John. A few years after graduation, John did something that I found enormously offensive, and if I were to describe it, you would probably agree that it was offensive. I told John that I was offended but he not only never acknowledged that he had done anything wrong, he was unwilling to give me a hearing. The result was that we were estranged for more than a decade. Finally, at our 25th college reunion, John apologized. As soon as he did, my anger and estrangement instantly evaporated. Now, John was not the one who was bound; I was the one who was bound by my anger. I could have unbound myself at any time by forgiving John.
The trick is to distinguish between accountability and forgiveness. John needed to be held to account for what he had done, but I believe it is possible to hold someone accountable and at the same time to forgive them.
Note that Jesus did not tell Peter to forgive and forget. Sometimes, especially in intimate relationships, we need to both forgive and forget. When your spouse forgets to take out the garbage or put the top back on the toothpaste tube, then we need to forget as well as forgive. But the child or spouse who is abused needs to find a way to forgive or at least let go of the anger, but they do not, indeed they must not forget. In fact, healing begins with remembering things that have long been forgotten.
Near the exit from the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem is a sign bearing a quotation from a 17th century Jewish mystic: “Remembrance is the path to redemption but forgetfulness is the path to exile.” We don’t have to forget the harmful things that people have done for us, and it20may be necessary to remember them in order to heal them. Indeed, forgetting them, sweeping them under a mental carpet, can make it possible for the perpetrators to harm us or others again. But we also don’t have to hang on to the feelings that those harmful events caused.
It is interesting that this gospel reading comes at the end of the week when we remembered the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Can we forgive those terrorists? Can we forgive Al Qaida? Can we forgive Osama bin Laden?
I believe that forgiving and also holding people accountable are perfectly compatible. I believe that in some sense all Americans, perhaps even all civilized people, were attacked on 9/11. But I also believe it is possible to forgive them. Forgiving does not mean excusing or condoning but it does mean operating from a position of love, not anger. However, the loving thing to do may be to do whatever is necessary to bring terrorists to justice and prevent them from harming others.
One of the best portrayals of the power of forgiveness I’ve ever seen is the film Dead Man Walking. In it we see two couples who are quite understandable filled with rage at a man who murdered their children and they are even angry at the nun who becomes his spiritual advisor. It powerfully illustrates the truth that the inability or unwillingness to forgive binds us, ties us up in knots that only we can untie. Thefilm also illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding about capital punishment. The two couples want their children’s murderer executed because they believe it will bring them peace of mind and heart and in some way will right the wrong of their children’s murder. But there are some wrongs so great that I don’t believe they can ever be made right on this side of heaven, and I doubt that capital punishment has ever brought anyone peace of mind and heart.
Now, even though I am personally opposed to capital punishment, I believe that it may be possible to forgive someone and still believe that the only proper punishment for their crime is to have their life taken from them. What is wrong and indeed contrary to the spirit of Christ is to seek revenge. Capital punishment may be the most appropriate punishment for a small number of crimes, but it must be understood as a penalty imposed by the legal system. It must under no circumstances be understood as a way of righting a terrible wrong or an act of revenge. What brings us peace of mind and heart is forgiveness – letting go of our feelings of hurt and angry and revenge and trying to practice love.
The story is told of a young Roman Catholic seminarian who was verbally and emotionally abused by the head of his seminary. Finally, the head of the seminary expelled him and forced him out of the seminary on a dark, cold, and snowy evening. The seminarian seethed with rage toward this man for years. Once when he was telling the story of this man’s cruelty to an old, wise priest for the millionth time, the older priest said, “My son, you must forgive him.” The young man said, “Oh, yeah, sure… you don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know ….” The older priest interrupted him, “What I mean is this. When you say your prayers, say, ‘Heavenly Father, please kill this man who has so cruelly mistreated me.’ And keep on praying that prayer until God changes the prayer to ‘Heavenly Father, forgive him.’”
Be honest with God about your feelings. Pray for your enemies, even if the prayer starts out with “Dear God, please kill them.” But keep on praying and try to change your prayer and your behavior by learning to practice love toward those who have harmed you or harmed someone close to your heart. Henri Nouwen once said that forgiveness is the name we give to the kind of love practiced by people who love poorly and the truth is that all of us love poorly. And because we love poorly not only do we need to forgive others, it is an indisputable fact that there are lots of others who need to forgive us, too.