Getting to Four Ninety One
How many times do I really have to forgive?
By Quaime V. Lee | March 16, 2016
The Path of Forgiveness Part One
Each year many Christians and even non-believers around the world consider what to give up for Lent. It might be Facebook and Instagram. It might be binge-watching Netflix and Hulu. Others put aside meat, sugar, or food altogether, all in an effort toward a greater piety. During those forty days before Easter, the precious time that we expend watching, messaging, chatting, and eating, we can now reinvest in God and in cultivating a greater appreciation for the suffering of Good Friday and the victory of Resurrection Sunday. I invite you to add a new practice during this time of Lenten observance: forgiveness.
Forgiveness is perhaps one of the earliest lessons we learn. In kindergarten, we might lose a friend at morning recess only to reclaim them at our coat cubbies by lunchtime. But as we get older, apologies come harder and the accretion of past hurts, unresolved snubs, accounts in arrears, and abuse never vindicated can leave the heart hard and relationships locked away with no seeming hope of parole or commutation.
An instructive story that has left an indelible mark on me was one I learned some thirty-plus years ago. As a boy in Montserrat, I would gather with my schoolmates in morning assembly devotions. One particular day, the head teacher told us that the Apostle Peter had asked Jesus if forgiving someone seven times was enough, and Jesus had told him to forgive seventy times seven. I started wondering if I could ever experience the 490 offenses to then get to the great unknown of number 491.
The ensuing years taught me over and over again how unreachable 490 was. As a shy, awkward, clumsy, and unpopular kid, I learned far too soon the fickleness of friendships as confidants came and went. I dealt with years of resentment and slow burning anger toward a father who didn’t measure up to my TV-fed dreams of what an ideal dad should be. I was outwardly compliant but subversively suspicious of others in authority, guarded at the overtures of what seemed like too sweet hospitality, and cynical about the authenticity of practically anyone’s love—all while professing to be a believing, regenerated child of God and follower of Christ. And as I passed into adulthood, those who ventured to get too close to me would in time find periodic mini-ice ages of aloofness and eruptions of caustic sarcasm.
Then starting in 2004 a series of teaching moments began to challenge me that I needed healing and that healing would come through forgiveness. An elderly mentor at the church I was attending encouraged me to write a letter to my father and ask him to forgive me, while also declaring to him my forgiveness of him. I listened to a sermon—more than once—in which pastor and theologian Charles Stanley shared how he had gone to his abusive stepfather to ask for forgiveness and to offer the same in return. Out of that meeting came a wealth of tears and the repentant heart of a broken man turning to Christ. I listened to a message from author and minister Tim Keller, in which he talked about the cost of forgiveness and how the wounded needed to take on the cost of the offense in order to release the injurer and break the cycle of unquenched resentment.
I started wondering if I could ever experience the 490 offenses to then get to the great unknown of 491. The ensuing years taught me over and over again how unreachable 490 was.
I also revisited that lesson of the 490. About four and a half years ago, I was leading a workshop on how to study the Bible for a church men’s group. Ironically, I was led to examine “forgiveness.”
First we looked at Genesis 50:15-21, where Joseph, as prime minister of Egypt, faces his brothers who had sold him into slavery many years earlier. Their father Jacob now dead, they dreaded that Joseph would seek revenge. Instead, Joseph assuaged their anxiety: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (vv. 19-20, ESV). Instead of responding as a bitter judge, Joseph received them as a loving brother, promising to provide for his brothers and their families.
Then we looked at Matthew 18:21-35, where Jesus uses a parable to expound on the 490 instances of forgiveness. There was a servant whose debt to his master was hopelessly unrepayable, yet the master released him from it. But a peer owed the servant a comparably insignificant debt. The former servant threw the latter into debtor’s prison. (Perhaps Jesus threw in some ironic humor, for how can someone pay off a debt if you lock them away until they pay off what they owe you?)
These texts have much in common. Both stories contain a master and a servant. Although Joseph was the powerful governor of Egypt, he understood he had a greater fealty to God. As a result, his relationship with God needed to dictate how he dealt with his brothers. How could he condemn his brothers when ultimately his life belonged to and was directed by God? On the other hand, the servant in Jesus’s parable had missed the message of forgiveness from the master, and instead of trying to settle with his colleague he tried to assume the role of master and judge—only to lose everything.
Both passages demanded that I shift my perspective. How many times had I held others—friends, coworkers, and family—in slavery to my pain for a past (perceived or actual) wrong? Joseph could have demanded that his brothers work in his court or labor in the fields for a lifetime, but their toils would never fully make amends for what they had done. The only way to restore the relationship was for Joseph to assume their debt to zero out the balance.
Was I going to be a Joseph or the vengeful servant? I was bitter that my father was not what he should have been and my offer had not yielded the broken heart and tears I wanted to see. It took me about a month to muster the courage to push past my pride, but I finally sat down and drafted a letter and emailed it to him. His response was to forgive me, too. Nice, but that was not what I really wanted.
From these teaching moments—my sagacious mentor, the teachings of Drs. Stanley and Keller, and the Genesis and Matthew passages—I realized that I had it wrong. Trying to hold onto my bitterness was costing me the hope of healthy relationships with my father and with others. Every wrong committed by a coworker, classmate, fellow believer, friend, or family member—be it intentional or inadvertent—was laden with baggage and could trigger emotional shutdown and distancing in me. I often punished even the innocent for the justice I could not get from those who had hurt me in the past. When they didn’t do enough to show their godly sorrow—and it was never enough—it would trigger deeper resentment, more toxic bitterness, festering and spreading like gangrene into other relationships. The cycle needed to stop.
When God sent his Son, he allowed Jesus to zero out the cost of the many, many times I have fallen short of his standards of holiness. More, his forgiveness is never exhausted: “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19, ESV).
Think of how vast the oceans are! In Jesus’s death and resurrection, my sin debt was assumed and eliminated into eternity. I needed to learn from the foolish servant and approach those in my life with an active, concrete, tangible forgiveness as Jesus had given me. That meant going the extra mile to remember Father’s Day even when I didn’t feel like it; it meant honoring birthdays even when mine was forgotten; and it meant learning civility when a nasty attitude seemed so much easier.
When it hurts too much, I am learning to turn to God and plead for strength, and to seek practical ways to give the person a new chance. While things are not perfect, in faith each overture to actively release wrongs done creates new opportunities to build relationships and creates space for the love of the God to come in.
I realize that there are hurts for which my story rings hollow and I can’t pretend to equate my situation to those. The ravages of child abuse, the gaping loss from the death of a loved one at the hands of another, and others can’t be simply wiped away. And yet, as seen in real-life cases, forgiveness is still possible. We have only to look at the example of the family members of the victims of South Carolina church shooter Dylan Roof, who extended forgiveness to him during a June 2015 court proceeding. Nadine Collier, the daughter of one of the deceased, said, “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you, and I forgive you.” Though I am sure Ms. Collier’s heart still aches for her mother, she deeply grasped the lessons of the benevolent master and the wicked servant, of generous Joseph and his brothers, and applied those lessons to her own pain, freeing herself from the toxic cycle of bitterness.
During Lent, I invite you to find a broken relationship, bring it to God, and then actively seek ways—
maybe something small—to begin to set this person and yourself free, just as Jesus freed us in the ultimate act of love.