Forgiveness: Seventy-seven (or More) Times

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I used to think when Jesus answered Peter’s question today about how many times he must forgive with “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” that Jesus meant we accept someone’s regret for hurting us, no matter how many times a hurtful or unjust action is repeated. Maybe that meaning holds, but today I want to talk about another meaning of forgiveness.

This meaning is that Jesus may be asking us to forgive in our minds and hearts as many times as anger, judgment, and blame pop up. This could be for 77 instances of hurt or of one instance which is remembered and nursed as resentment in our hearts 77 or 770 or 777,000 times.

Looking at forgiveness this way adds meaning for understanding what mercy is to God.  It also gives us some guidance about how to actually do what Jesus asks of Peter–and us–today.

My work on myself and with couples and families through 25 years as a therapist has taught me that Jesus’ standard of forgiveness is a really good thing. It keeps evil from taking up residence in us.

There is more to forgiveness than simply stopping the thought that stops the flow of loving others because God has first loved us.  But this thought seems to be the root of difficulties with forgiveness.

Evil—as abuse, war, violence, or injustice—is present at some point in virtually every life. Evil as ordinary inconsiderateness, selfishness, anger, defensiveness, human frailty is present in most of our lives on a regular basis. Whether I mean to step on my brother’s toes or not, I do it. Whether he means to step on mine or not, he steps on mine.

We each yell “ouch” and remember the pain. We begin to protect our feet, as the servant did in the parable Jesus told Peter in today’s Gospel.  As we do, the flow of love from God through us stops.  We receive mercy, but we do not pass it on.

When we begin to protect ourselves, a conversation begins inside our heads that causes us to think of our pain again and again. That conversation may lead us to be afraid—or angry. It may cause us to hide—or to attack. It can come to plague us in the silence of the night. It can cause us to say and do hurtful things. It can cripple our hearts. Through this conversation in our head the evil done to us takes up residence within us. We are no longer just touched by evil, we hold it. We keep it.

How can we stop conversations in our heads to forgive 77 or 777,000 times? A friend of mine, Ron McClain, has a wonderful way of naming what to do: “Fire the attorney in your head!”

That is a way to look at what happens in your mind. There is this accusing voice that keeps you fired up. Sometimes that voice sounds like you telling the person off. Sometimes it is the person who has caused the wound, sounding absolutely despicable so you feel justified having ill feelings. Sometimes it is memory of the hurtful event played again and again. Sometimes it is your voice, naming your wounds.

Whatever it is, it is NOT the voice of God. It is not a voice of peace.

As a therapist I have taught many strategies to fire this internal attorney. I have taught people to imagine such thoughts are on boats that float away down a river. I have taught them to contain them in a box. I have taught them to write them down. I have encouraged them to put such thoughts in a larger context and to see if over-generalization or “awfulizing” is happening. I have taught them to confront the “evildoer” in a respectful way.

But this Lent, working on a not-big, but troublesome, struggle to forgive, I have found a new way to fire the internal attorney:

Quote Scripture.

Quoting Scripture at temptations makes them go away. Satan and his minions flee when we proclaim God’s Word.

I knew that.

But I never saw the conversation in my head as my entertaining temptation. I thought I was processing events.

Perhaps I was—for a day or so. But then Satan got in my imagination and thought to imagine conversations that either made me feel justified to be hurt or nursed the anger along. And I was NOT at peace.

The first day I started quoting scripture I think I did have to do it 77 times. The second day almost that much. I picked out some verses and said them again and again and again. I got really tired of it. But I also saw how often my mind was going in a not-Jesus direction.

The fourth day it began to work. My mind began to get the message that I meant it when I asked God to help me forgive.  After catching myself several times in a row, I would get up and totally turn my attention in another direction.  Peace would return.

I keep on working on it.  It is hard.  This tool helps.

This experience has led me to consider what it takes to forgive from another angle named in our readings today:  the angle of forgiving great wrongs.

Our parish prays often for Christians who are seriously persecuted for their faith—in the Middle East, Asia, Africa. I often wonder: how angry and unforgiving would I be if I saw my children or grandchildren killed for being Christian? Would I die, not a martyr with a crown of gold, but totally dependent on Christ’s mercy, because I died with the evil of unforgiveness in my heart because of the evil I had witnessed? I pray that those who do sacrifice for their faith may be free from unforgiveness. I pray I may learn to forgive fully.  I’m glad I’m not asked today to give my life for my faith. I don’t think I would do it with a pure heart.  In this light it is good to consider Azariah in the first reading.

Azariah is in the furnace where Nebuchadnezzar had put him for refusing to violate Jewish law. While he cries out loudly to God, it is without rancor toward God or king. Evil done to him has  not taken root in him. He had the freedom forgiveness can give.  God is going to save him, but he does not know that yet.  He prays, “But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; as though it were burnt offerings of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs. So let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in your cannot be put to shame. And now we follow you with our whole heart, we fear you and we pray to you.” 

Wow!  That is a great freedom from evil.

I am more like the servant in the story Jesus told Peter. Even though God shows me great mercy and goodness, when I have a close call in life, I draw back in self-protection. The meaning of this parable is very clear, however. “’Should you not have pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

Ouch, Jesus!  Help me!

Peter must have learned what he needed to learn from this story. When Jesus made it clear to Peter that he was forgiven at the Sea of Tiberias, but he would be asked to die for Christ, Peter’s response was to name the love he received and to give love in return.  “Lord, you know everything.  You know I love you.”  (John 21: 17)  Jesus response was, “Follow me.”

“Follow me.”  That is Jesus’ standard.  It is a wonderful standard that enables us to tap into Jesus’ mercy.  It coats our souls with teflon to keep the ordinary or extraordinary evils we experience from taking up residence within us.

Prayer:

Perhaps the application for you today is to pray for those who find forgiveness hard or to pray for those who must forgive great things. Or perhaps it is to pray that God will help you fire your internal attorney, so neither small nor great evil done to you no longer can live in your soul.

Talk to God about it. His mercy is endless.

Link to Today’s readings.

About the Author

Mary Ortwein lives in Frankfort, Kentucky in the US. Her time is divided between volunteer work at her home parish, Good Shepherd, and supervision in a non-profit mental health agency. In her writing Mary combines learning from her study of prayer and theology and learning from her practical work experience. At different times in her life Mary has been an elementary and college teacher, a full-time wife and mother, founder of prolife service agencies, an in-home family therapist, and a writer of relationship and mental health curriculum. The mental health agency Mary currently directs focuses on training young professionals and providing mental health services to those who otherwise might not have access to them. In her parish Mary works in Respect Life, ministry to the homebound and elderly, evangelization, and is a member of a very active prayer group. A convert to Catholicism in 1969, Mary has not always been strong in the practice of her faith. After a re-conversion in 2010 she earned a theology degree from St. Meinrad School of Theology in 2015. She now looks for ways to foster her own faith and the faith of others.

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17 Comments

  1. Hi,
    Ms. Mary Oretwein thanks to you…now today my mind is open on how to forgive fully….in your written talk to God His mercy is endless…pray for me and my children.

    More blessings…

  2. Thank you I needed to hear that message today. I am curious why the readings that are sometimes reflected upon, like today are not the same as in the lectionary, like today? It is funny but when I saw the reflection I sighed because the readings I just listened too were different but my little voice said read this you need it.

  3. Thank you Mary. I never heard that interpretation of 7 times 70…it is so practical because it turns remnants of past resentments into prayer…they are cell phone beeps that remind us to turn once again to Jesus. So many practical ideas in what you write. You are a blessings.

  4. Thank you. These thought have given me much to ponder on. Fire the attorney in your head – that is a great way to put it:)

  5. Thank you Mary. Your insight into the importance of forgiveness is truly helpful. It is so easy to not follow yet so crucial to do so.

  6. Wow! It’s a great feeling of reief I felt when reading about how you taught to fire the internal attorney in us. Coz I experienced that conversation in my head justifying what I did and experienced in the past. Thank you, Mary for sharing these knowledge. God bless!!!

  7. I started on this Lenten journey looking for guidance in forgiving. But two main obstacles. First, it’s easier to forgiv when you are the wronged person than when it’s a loved one like your husband. He was sued by his brother in an inheritance case. My husband wss deeply hurt and the action ripped the family (a big one) in two. But even if we did truly find it in our hearts to forgive, the brother I am sure would not accept our forgiveness with graciousness but just an overbearing smugness or actual rejection. Right now I’m just trying to get to the point that I don’t wish him imminent death each time I think of him.

  8. Hi! Mary.

    You are a blessing to people like us who read the daily scriptures and turns to A Catholic Moment for reflections and thoughts.

    Thank you and may God bless you and your family always.

  9. Thank you Mary. I am still struggling to learn what it really means and how it is to forgive fully and completely in such a way that I can totally surrender all to my Lord and say, Your will be done. Not that I have not tried or prayed and fasted about it, I have and continue to do so. Yet, very often than not, I find myself back nursing these same old hurts with the least provocation or opportunity. But your words this morning have brought me much relief and I could not but think of anything while reading this than go to confession. I think I know what my lenten exercise is now, not just fasting, prayer and arms-giving but to go to confession as soon as possible and ask the Lord to forgive me and to teach and help me forgive my past- both what has been done me and what I have done to others as well as myself. God bless you and all who are reading this message. This is my first time on this site but I know God led me here this morning for a purpose. Thank you Lord, for your ways are beautiful, merciful and renewing all the time. Your are my Shepherd … You lead my beside still waters, You restore my soul… Ps 23.

  10. Sister Mary, I can’nt just say how much I am blessed reading and reflecting on your sharing of today’s word of God. Don’t stop the flow of Mercy. Thank you and God’s blessings.

  11. This is a reply to some of the comments made on this reflection. There is a difference in forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus says we must forgive. He does not say we must be reconciled. Reconciliation requires that the person who has done the wrong be willing to be sorry. Peter was willing to make amends and was reconciled with Jesus after the resurrection. Judas was not. Forgiveness does not require that a person continue to be hurt by someone. Forgiveness does not require that a person being abused, for example, continues to live in an abusive situation. It does not require that a person refrain from cooperating with legal systems if a law has been broken. You can be forgiving and help send someone to jail. Forgiveness is about what goes on in your heart and whether your behavior is destructive to the offending person or whether you can at least refrain from vengeance in your mind, in words, or in actions. when you cannot do that, the evil done to you continues to do you harm. There is an old Alcoholics Anonymous saying, “Failing to forgive is like taking rat poison and expecting the other person to die.”

    When there is a great wrong done, firing the attorney in your head is only a small part of the healing necessary to enable forgiveness to happen. In my own struggles with forgiveness for great wrongs done, I have found that going to confession often to a confessor who offers helpful guidance and penance is a great help. Pouring out my hurt, anger, and fear to God–especially through the Psalms–has also helped me. Showing my pain to God and then letting Him work on me–that has been the key. Even so, forgiveness for great wrongs can take months or even years. Scientists who study forgiveness for great wrongs, even without a faith connotation, have found that what Jesus asks of us is what heals. Nonetheless, it can be hard, hard, hard. If you have experienced a great wrong, take it to God and beg Him to heal and help you. Mary Ortwein

  12. God is so good, and His timing is perfect…I have been struggling with the “voice in my head” temptress and the forgiveness/reconciliation issue. Thank you for allowing the Holy Spirit to minister through your reflection and postscript. I attended a Reconciliation service last night which restored the Peace that only God’s forgiveness can provide. Then this morning I read your words speaking to my heart, and I praise God for His gentle embrace and reminder of how I should strive to retain and allow Him to nurture that Peace. God’s Blessings on you and your work of service to Him.

  13. Thank you Mary! Your reflection on forgiveness is a great light onto my path! I struggle with angry thoughts when faced with abuse or evil. Now I see a way to confront this pattern! Fire the attorney by quoting Scripture which will bring God’s presence more into focus! Thank you so much for these words!

  14. Dear Mary, I realized reading this that I have been, that I do entertain reasons to hold on to resentments. I am grateful for this enlightenment. Being sober 26 years by God’s Grace, I know the negative effects of such mind tricking and I know it is not God’s will. I love Reconciliation and look forward to confessing and being forgiven. Mostly to open the channels of God’s Mercy. Bless you.

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