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:
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.
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.