Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thoughts on Forgiveness

"Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?' Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.' " - Matthew 18:21-22

I bet Peter thought he was being pretty magnanimous by offering to forgive seven times. Jesus' answer cured him of that. And if I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I don't like these verses because they don't leave me any loopholes, any excuse to hang on to grudges, grievances, or rationalisations. I have to forgive, simple as that. Again and again and again and again.

But what does it mean, exactly, to say, "I forgive you"? I mean, what am I actually saying when I use that phrase?

Saying "I forgive you" doesn't mean that things are okay. I don't know why Americans do this, but when someone apologises to us, or even asks for forgiveness, we tend to say, "Oh, it's okay. Don't worry about it." I suppose we're trying to be polite, but the fact is, if it were "okay", the person wouldn't have need to apologise or seek forgiveness in the first place.

Saying "I forgive you" doesn't mean "I forget what you did," because we often can't forget. Unless we suffer from Alzheimer's or amnesia, our brains record life events and we can recall those events any time we want (or don't want. Have you ever noticed how a certain smell, a certain phrase, or even a place can evoke strong memories?).

Saying "I forgive you" isn't a once-off thing. It might be, to the person who has offended us, but in our hearts we sometimes have to forgive over and over. Anger and bitterness can come back so quickly - try to get a foothold or find an open door - and we have to fight that, sometimes hour by hour.

As best I understand it then, to say "I forgive you" is akin to saying something like: "I will bear the cost of your sin against me, and I will bear it ungrudgingly."

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