Monday, November 14, 2005

Only for the Asking?

“And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.”

(Matthew 6:12)

“When you forgive someone, you are dancing to the rhythm of the divine heartbeat… God invented forgiveness as the only way to keep his romance with the human race alive.”[i]
Lewis Smedes

“Community always involves a kind of promise, whether or not it ever is stated out loud. It is a promise of commitment and loyalty” writes John Ortberg. “In a world of uncertainty, you can count on me. When that promise gets broken, so does someone’s heart. No one can love us like someone we’ve given our heart to, but no one can wound us like that person either.”[ii] Ortberg continues:

This truth is the driving force behind country music. Just think of how many songs center around the pain of betrayal:

“If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?”
“I Bought the Shoes That Just Walked Out on Me”
“How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?”

God created
human beings in his image so they can be friends – intimate, love-filled companions – with him and one another. But soon they learn to live as enemies. To all the wonders that God has created, human beings add an invention of their own: revenge. You hurt me, and I’ll hurt you back. A kind of Newtonian law becomes an inevitable as the law of gravity: For every infliction of pain there must be an equal and opposite act of vengeance.

A character in the book of Genesis named Lamech takes this concept to its ultimate extreme. He kills a man for wounding him; he says he will seek revenge seventy-seven times over against anyone who hurts him.
“If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold."
(Genesis 4:24)
This is the Law of Lamech: If anyone inflicts pain on me, I must make them pay. One of the most poignant statements in Scripture comes shortly after the episode of Lamech as God views the violence and corruption that has spread like an epidemic through the creatures he loves: “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”[iii]

So God, who created the heavens and the earth in six days, has to create once more after the Fall. He invents a kind of spiritual surgery that can remove what is toxic to the heart and make dead relationships live again. This new creation is called forgiveness. It is in some ways his last, best gift to the human race. It is the only force strong enough to heal relationships damaged by hatred and betrayal.

Peter comes to Jesus one day: “Someone’s hurt me. He’s done me wrong. Not just once. I know I’m supposed to forgive him; but it feels so unfair. Why should I always have to be the one to forgive? How often do I have to forgive him – seven times?”[iv]

Most likely Peter is expecting Jesus to say that such magnanimity would be beyond the call of duty. The rabbis used to say there was an obligation to forgive someone three times; Peter here is doubling it and throwing in a bonus round for good measure.

And it’s not just anyone who has hurt Peter. It’s his brother. Somebody he trusts. How can he keep setting himself up for heartbreak?

The concern behind Peter’s question has been felt by everyone who has ever been hurt. Why should I forgive? What if the other person doesn’t deserve it? I might get hurt again. Forgiveness looks like a pretty risky business. Forgiveness looks to Peter like one of those activities that Jesus is always talking about, and it is probably a spiritual thing to do, but it doesn’t always work out for those of us who live in the real world.

Imagine Peter’s response when, instead of commending him, Jesus tells him he still has seventy acts of forgiveness to go: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”[v] Of course, Jesus doesn’t mean that on the seventy-eighth[vi] violation Peter can let the man have it. Jesus is reversing the Law of Lamech. He is making a point that there are two ways to live with hurt: the way of vengeance and the way of forgiveness. The first way leads to death, and the second to life.

I love how Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament captures the connection between Lamech’s vengeance and Christ’s redemption. “The unlimited revenge of primitive man has given place to the unlimited forgiveness of Christians”[vii]

“There is another reason, I think, that Jesus uses such large numbers. Forgiving is a little like breathing: If you try to keep track of every time you do it, you’ll go crazy. Even seventy-seven times is just a warm-up. Forgiving will have to be a way of life.” (John Ortberg)
Jesus’ teachings prescribe forgiveness as a way of life. Jesus said that things like hurt, betrayal, persecution and injustice will come in this life.[viii] If these things are a given, then the quality of life that we live will largely depend on our capacity to extend forgiveness to others, even those most undeserving. I think of what Dorthy Day once said, “We love God as much as the person we like least.” It could also be said that our depth of understanding of God’s forgiveness towards us is only as deep as our ability to grant that same forgiveness to those who have wronged us.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, f
orgiving one another,
even as God in Christ forgave you.”
(Ephesians 4:32)

“Bearing with one another,
and forgiving one another,
if anyone has a complaint against another;
even as Christ forgave you,
so you also must do.”
(Colossians 3:13)

“Every person should have a special cemetery lot in which
to bury the faults of friends and loved ones.”

q What do you think about Jesus’ response to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive his brother? (“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”)

We typically say things like, “I’ll forgive them if they ask me for forgiveness.” Or “I’ll forgive them a couple of times, but if they keep doing it over and over it’s obvious that they’re not ‘really sorry.’” The latter statement implies forgiveness will only be extended when they ask and when they are really sorry.

q Do you think Jesus was saying, “Forgive them this many times, but only if they ask. And, be sure that when they ask they are truly and sincerely sorry ?”

"I have discovered that most people
who tell me that they cannot forgive
a person who wronged them are handicapped
by a mistaken understanding of what forgiving is."
(Lewis B. Smedes - The Art of Forgiving: When You Need To Forgive And Don't Know How)

[i] Lewis Smedes, How Can It Be All Right When Everything’s All Wrong? San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992, 43.
[ii] John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 151-152.
[iii] “The LORD was grieved.” (Genesis 6:6).
[iv] Peter: See Matthew 18:21ff.
[v] “Seventy-Seven Times.” Several translations render Jesus words as “seventy-times-seven.” Robertsson writes, Until seventy times seven (ἑως ἑβδομηκοντακις ἑπτα [heōs hebdomēkontakis hepta]). It is not clear whether this idiom means seventy-seven or as the Revised Version has it (490 times). If ἑπτακις [heptakis] were written it would clearly be 490 times. The same ambiguity is seen in Gen. 4:24, the LXX text by omitting και [kai]. In the Test. of the Twelve Patriarchs, Benj. vii. 4, it is used in the sense of seventy times seven. But it really makes little difference because Jesus clearly means unlimited forgiveness in either case. (Robertson, A. 1997. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.V c1932, Vol.VI c1933 by Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Logos Research Systems: Oak Harbor.)
[vi] “seventy-eighth” violation, or the four-hundred-and-seventy-first, depending on which translation you’re reading.
[vii] Quoting McNeile: Robertson, A. 1997. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.V c1932, Vol.VI c1933 by Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Logos Research Systems: Oak Harbor.
[viii] Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that  in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

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