Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" What prompted Peter's question to Jesus? Perhaps someone had said or done something that offended Peter. Perhaps it was a friend, perhaps it was another of Jesus' disciples. There must have been a difficult person in Peter's life as there is in every human life. Perhaps Peter had had enough of this person, felt that he had been as forgiving as he should be, and wanted Jesus' permission to let him have it.
I can just see Peter counting up the number of times he had forgiven this difficult person in his life. One, two, three, four, five, six... "Jesus, I only have to forgive him seven times, isn't that right? So the next time, I'm going to let him have it with both barrels, OK?"
Imagine Peter's disappointment when Jesus says, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven." In other words, Jesus says to Peter, “Throw away your calculator, your computer. Stop calculating the level of your brother or sister’s wickedness and the number of times you will get to beat the heck out of him or her. Your capacity to forgive should be as inexhaustible as God's.”
The problem most of us have with Jesus’ response to Peter is not only with how difficult it is to forgive someone who has really wronged us, I mean did something genuinely underhanded, unethical, and nasty, the problem is that Jesus takes all the fun out of it. I mean, be honest with me: Isn’t it just a whole lot of fun to engage in fantasies of revenge? To imagine all the ways that you would torture the person who has wronged you? To see in your mind’s eye that person being held up for humiliation in public? We can spend hours engaged in such fantasies. We can think about it all night. Well, I know I can, and I am certain that I am not the only one who does that.
Jesus says, “Stop it. No more fantasies of revenge.”
We were reminded this week of the anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Most of us remember where we were that day. We remember the clear blue sky, the cool early fall breeze, the panicked voices of reporters on radio and television, the dreadful images of enormous towers crashing to the earth.
Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, was speaking at Trinity Church, Wall Street, that day and very nearly became one of the victims. The next day he spoke at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and said, “I'm sure in the city and the country in the days ahead, the pressure to do something, anything, is going to be greater and greater. The rhetoric will become more and more intense. There is something I want to say to that. One very simple personal observation. Quite simply: I wouldn't want what we experienced to happen to anybody. I wouldn't want to see another room of preschool children hurried out of a building under threat. I wouldn't want to see thousands of corpses just to satisfy someone’s idea of justice. And very simply: I don't want anyone to feel what others and I were feeling at about 10:30 yesterday morning. I've been there."
Keep in mind that Jesus wasn’t telling us to forgive only seventy times seven times; he was telling us to forgive until we have lost count of how many times we have forgiven. But I wonder: Why did Jesus pick that number as the appropriate number of times to forgive? The fact is Jesus was referring to a story in Genesis in which Lamech, a descendant of Cain, the first murderer, claims the right to avenge himself “seventy-sevenfold.” In other words, Lamech claimed the right to avenge himself innumerable times for a single injury. That is the usual calculation we make when we are wronged. We are much more likely to claim the right to infinite REVENGE than to practice infinite FORGIVENESS.
Notice something else about Peter’s question to Jesus: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” “If another member of the church sins against me…” I wonder if Peter was an Episcopalian? But it is not only Episcopalians who have a tendency to hurt fellow church members; it seems to be characteristic of all churches.
The late second/early third century theologian Tertullian said that the pagans of his time admired Christians and would say, “See, how these Christian loved each other!” I wonder what Tertullian’s pagans would say today if they sat in on the average church meeting!
I don’t know why it is, but church fights seem to be the worst fights. Henry Kissinger said that fights between academics were bitter because the rewards were so small. I think the same might be true of churches. We fight over the smallest things.
We fight over whether to use port or sherry as the communion wine. We fight over whether to use incense or not. We fight over the 1928 Prayer Book or the 1979 Prayer book, Rite I or Rite II. We fight over whether or not to use energy efficient light bulbs in the parish hall. Remember the old joke: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? How dare you change that light bulb? My great aunt gave that light bulb to this church and it’s a perfectly good light bulb!!
I want to say four things about forgiveness: The first is the most important, so I want to be as clear as possible: Forgiveness is about behavior not feelings. The great psychologist William James said, “Act yourself into a new way of feeling.”
“Act yourself into a new way of feeling.”
It sounds completely counter-intuitive, but it is absolutely true. If you want to change the way you feel, then start by changing the way you behave. If you want to forgive someone, then start acting as though you have already forgiven them. Practice kindness toward the person who has wronged you, even if you have to grit your teeth to do it. But I absolutely guarantee you that the day will come when you will not only behave in a forgiving way, you will wake up one day and be startled to find that you have let go of your anger.
Jesus was clearly concerned with actions and deeds, not feelings. When Jesus said, “Love your enemies” and “Forgive those who persecute you,” he was not talking about feelings. Jesus did not say LIKE your enemies and those who persecute you. Jesus did not say, "Do not be angry with those who have done you wrong." Anger is a perfectly good emotion when it is used correctly. Jesus both felt and displayed anger. Concealing and denying our anger is not the route to spiritual vitality; it is a short-cut to emotional illness.
Secondly, forgiveness is based on tolerance. Ecclesiasticus says, "Does a man harbor anger against another, and yet seek for healing from the Lord? Does he have no mercy toward a man like himself..." St. Paul makes it even clearer that to forgive we must recognize that all of us stand under the judgment of God: "Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall stand before the judgment seat of God..." (Romans 14.5-12) Every wrong that has been done to me I have done or am capable of doing to others.
Thirdly, we have all heard the saying, "Forgive and forget". There are wrongs that we should forget--the unkind word said thoughtlessly, the social group that does not include us in its plans. Keeping a list of such small complaints is spiritually and emotionally dangerous. Yet, there are some wrongs that should not be forgotten. The child who has been physically and sexually abused often blocks out the abuse so that she or he literally cannot remember the terrible things done to him or her. It is only later in therapy that the dreadful details of the past come flooding back. In the case of severe abuse, redemption comes in remembering, not forgetting. I think, I hope, I pray that it is possible for abused children and abused spouses to forgive those who have abused them. But I think that it is not wise for them to forget what has happened to them and who was responsible it, for to forget may be to invite the abuse to happen again.
I think there is a difference between letting go and forgetting. I think that it is possible both to let go of the pain so that it no longer has power over us. But at the same time we may have to remember who inflicted it, so that it doesn't happen again.
The fourth thing I want to say is that Jesus’ commandment that we should forgive until we have lost count of how many times we have forgiven is not about our enemies; it is about us. It will probably do nothing to change our enemies’ hearts. They may still be as mean as snakes after we have forgiven them. But that is not our business. Our business is simply to imitate our Father in heaven who forgives us no matter how many times we do wrong. And God has Her hands full doing that!
I want to tell you two stories about forgiveness. First, I want to tell you the true story of a young man who was studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood. He was sent to a seminary in Toronto where his living arrangements were supervised by an older priest who was probably psychotic. The older man terrorized the younger man with emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, and finally, in the middle of a bitter Canadian winter night, he locked the young seminarian out of the house.
Later talking with another older priest, the young man began to pour out his bitter feelings of rage about this psychotic supervisor. The older man listened quietly and finally said, "My son, you must forgive him". That's just what I need", said the younger man, "that old tired business about forgiveness just doesn't work". "No," said the older priest, "what I mean is this. Every night you must get down on your knees and pray to God and say, 'Dear God, please kill Father So-and-so. I despise him. He doesn't deserve to live'. You must pray that prayer every night. And not that night and not the next, but later, perhaps years later, you will find yourself saying to God, 'Dear God, please forgive Father So-and-so'."
The point of the wise old priest's advice was this: Acknowledge your feelings and honor them in prayer. God knows how you feel and you cannot change your feelings by denying that they exist.
Finally, I want to tell you a story about forgiveness in my own life. Father Harry Reynolds Smythe was the librarian of Pusey HOuse in Oxford, and he's one of the holiest men I know. One day at lunch I began to tell Fr. Harry about someone, a man of great power and influence, who had wronged me and hurt me deeply. Fr. Harry listened carefully, quietly, and sympathetically. Finally, he said, "You must do two things. First, let Jesus bear your pain. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That's his job; not yours. Secondly, you must forgive him".
I think both stories are helpful. I confess my prayers about this man who wronged me are more often "Dear God, please kill so-and-so" but sometimes they are also "Forgive him and forgive me, for we are both sinners". But it is very helpful to remember, as Fr. Harry said, that Jesus bears the sin of the world, that he bears our pain, and that that is his job, not ours.
I don't know about you, but all this leaves me feeling uncomfortable. My reaction to Jesus' radical challenge to forgive those who have wronged me is at least discomfort, if not depression. More often than not I am a failure at loving my friends, much less forgive those who have done me wrong.
I am tempted to say that Jesus sets before us an impossible ideal, but that would be too easy. It would let us off the hook. The trick is to aim at forgiving those who have wronged us, really try to do that, and at the same time to know that most of the time we will fail. And to realize that God sends sun and rain on the just and unjust, gives life and health to those we love and those we despise, that you and I and all of us need God's mercy as much as anyone in the whole creation.
Perhaps W.H. Auden said it best,
O stand, stand at the window
as the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.
All of us have crooked hearts, but God knows that. It is with the crooked love of a crooked heart that God asks us to forgive those who have wronged us. But we might find in trying to forgive that we succeed in forgiving. And we will find, in the end, that forgiveness is not an accomplishment, it is God's gift, for only by the grace of God are we able to forgive at all.