Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Miraculous! That was the most fitting word that I could use to describe what had just happened to me. I had literally just finished my prayer time and had asked God for insight on what forgiveness was. Journeying back to my tent, I was approached by a stranger who gave me her brand-new Bible, and in its cover was a pamphlet on forgiveness. No one had been miraculously healed from a physical malady, but nonetheless, this felt like my “money out of the mouth of a fish” moment.
So what did the pamphlet have to say about forgiveness? It spoke of forgiveness as a point of personal capacity and capability. The pamphlet defined forgiveness as the act of an offended individual choosing to relinquish someone from an expected obligation to “make things right.” When I first read this description, I instantly became defensive. What kind of definition was this? Was I supposed to be a doormat for people to treat me however they wanted? Looking back now, I see that my initial response suggested that I had not actually forgiven—and that I was still trapped as a victim of trespasses perpetrated many years ago. As one stuck in the cycle of unforgiveness, I was naturally defensive, and I read this definition from a defensive stand point. When I took the time to reread it, there were a few things that I learned about forgiveness.
Forgiveness deals with our internal expectation
Rereading the definition allowed me to see that it had been intentionally nuanced to address the internal disposition of the offended party. People trapped in unforgiveness focus on the external demands of being satisfied as a prerequisite to internal peace, and subsequently forgiveness. Yet the pamphlet made it plain that the two were connected but not dependent on each other. People who are hurting have the reasonable expectation that the offender should couple remorse with action to satisfy their violation. People who engage in forgiveness choose to waive their expectation for action as the prerequisite to clemency. This does not mean that people should not do everything in their power to make amends. In fact, anyone truly remorseful will seek to make it right, like Zacchaeus did when Jesus confronted him with his transgressions. However, forgiving parties don’t wait for these actions to release people from the internal prisons that we often hold them in.
We are empowered to forgive
I came to appreciate the intentional way that the pamphlet articulated forgiveness. The language used was empowering and affirming. People who are in the cycle of unforgiveness often feel trapped, hurt, and more importantly, powerless. Regardless of the transgression, the offended party feels like they lost something—whether peace of mind or something tangible. The use of the words “choose to relinquish” break this feeling by putting the offended in the position of power. In order to be able to forgive, we must realize that we are empowered to do so. We can forgive because we have all been recipients of forgiveness. And as offended people, we must be the initiators of forgiveness because the power exclusively falls in our hands.
God, help us to understand forgiveness from your perspective. We need your help and grace to overcome the fear of vulnerability. Sometimes we fear that people will take advantage of our forgiveness, and that we’ll be left without justice. Thank you for empowering us to forgive. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.