by Rev. Dr. David Van Horn, President, Marshall Ministerial Alliance
In the Gospel of Matthew 18:22, we find the subject of forgiveness. The question arises about how many times must one forgive someone who has hurt me, abused me, exploited me? This is Simon Peter's question in the text. How many times? Would seven times be enough?
Peter thought that he was being generous. After all, the rabbis of his day taught that only three times were required. They said, "Forgive three times, but no the fourth." That was how they interpreted passages like Amos 1:3, "For three generations of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment ..." Peter was taking what the rabbis commanded and multiplying it by two, and adding one more for good measure. Seven times, Peter thought, should be plenty enough forgiveness.
But it was't enough for Jesus. In answer to how many times we should forgive, Jesus said. " I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven." In other words, forgiveness is limitless. This is important because some of you reading this are probably thinking, "That's a lot; seventy times seven. But at least the four-hundred ninety-first time, I can bob him/her one real good."
I think we miss the point. There is to be no limit to our forgiveness. Forgiveness is at the heart of Christian faith. We are not to hold grudges, carry resentment or harbor bitterness. It is a tough teaching, but it is one of Jesus' most important teachings. It is at the center of everything we believe about Christ.
Refusing to forgive can be deadly. What is the alternative to refusing to forgive? Isn't it to carry around for a lifetime a feeling of bitterness, resentment and simmering hatred? Why would you do that to yourself?
Someone has once said that harboring resentments is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Someone else has said that letting hatred simmer in us, eating at our emotions and our body, is like burning down our house to get rid of the rats. C.S. Lewis once observed that he has finally forgiven a man who has been dead for more that 30 years. Meanwhile, as oft been noted, the other person is out dancing. Why would you do that to yourself?
When we carry anger and resentment toward someone else, the person we really hurt is ourselves. Philip Yancey writes: "Not to forgive imprisons me in the past and locks out all potential for change. I thus yield control to another, my enemy, and doom myself to suffer the consequences of the wrong." I once heard an immigrant rabbi make an astonishing statement, "Before coming to America, I had to forgive Adolf Hitler," he said. "I don't want to bring Adolf Hitler inside me to my new country."
"We forgive not merely to fulfill some higher law of morality, we do it for ourselves. I fear sometimes that we regard forgiveness as something we do for God, or something to do because it is the nice thing to do. All of that may be true, but forgiveness is ultimately a gift we give ourselves. We need to purge ourselves of our negative feeling toward a co-worker, family member, an ex-spouse who has hurt us -- for our own well-being.
Forgiveness is a choice. You do not have to carry around feelings of bitterness, resentment and anger. You can choose to forgive. That's important for us to understand. It is possible to forgive another person. We can choose to forgive.
Colossians 3:13 says, "Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any" even as Christ forgave you, so you do ye."
This is to say that we are to model our forgiveness on God's forgiveness of us. This can be a hard teaching for many people. Sometime our hurt can go so deep, we feel we cannot let go of it. But we can -- and we must for our own well-being. With much prayer and a clear commitment to it, we can forgive as we have been forgiven.
"How may times may my sister or brother sin against me, and I forgive them?" asked Peter. " As many as seven times?" Jesus answered him, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven."