Unpacking the Mystery of Forgiveness in the Day After Day After Day
Forgiveness. It’s always seemed like such a heavy word to me. One that evokes a unique weightiness. Intention. Deliberation. It’s what we’re commanded to do. What we teach to our kids. What we demand from others. What we give to ourselves, even when we don’t realize that we do. What we know is best for us. You don’t even have to believe in the God of the Universe to acknowledge the benefits of forgiveness to our physical and mental health, to our friendships, marriages, and family relationships. But its heaviness aside, or maybe because of it, forgiveness is also a word that I’ve wrestled with for a lifetime. One that I have never been able to really sink my teeth into. One that I can’t ever seem to get a tangible hold of. And, if I do, it’s only for a moment, like a mysterious mist that vanishes before I can contain it, much less comprehend it. Just when I think I “get it” and dole it out, I realize I don’t “get it” at all. So, it sometimes seems easier to avoid it altogether than face it head on, even if it means suffering the consequences of such a choice.
Even though I’m well aware that the entire foundation of Christianity rests of the singular matter of forgiveness, I’ve always found frustration in defining exactly what forgiveness looks like, feels like, sounds like. I regularly love me a nerdy dictionary definition from good ole’ Merriam and Webster, which tells us that to forgive means “to stop feeling anger toward someone who has done something wrong,” “to stop blaming,” “to stop requiring payment,” “to give up resentment of or claim to requital,” and “to cease to feel resentment against an offender.” But even with it spelled out so clearly and academically, forgiveness and all it entails can in reality be quite the complicated matter. Or so it would seem.
First off, let me be more than up front and tell you that this post is definitely not a sermon on forgiveness. Actually, I take that back. It might be, but it’s me that I’m preaching at, so you can relax and sit sedate and solemn in your virtual pew and simply nod your head in agreement. (Or shed a few tears for dramatic effect. That’s always welcome here.) In fact, as I have parked myself on the bleachers at my daughters’ gymnastics for the last two hours with my fingers on the laptop and my mind focused on the topic at hand, I have barely managed to pound out two measly paragraphs on forgiveness. While writing typically comes easily and effortlessly to me—and often quite cathartically, my ability to unpack this topic does not. And so it is.
As I go to the Source itself, I realize you actually don’t have to dip your toes very deeply into the Word of God to begin to get an inkling about forgiveness: humanity’s need for it, the Savior’s demonstration of it, and the mandate for us to deliver it—without exception. So go ahead and pull off your sweaty socks and roll up your skinny jeans (or mom jeans, for that matter) and wade these waters with me, would ya? Because I generally don’t like swimming alone.
Are You Kidding Me?
Just yesterday, I encountered—yet again—hurt and frustration and anger in a relationship which very often brings me all of the above. You know that feeling where you CAN’T TAKE ANYMORE OR YOU’RE GOING TO DIE? Yeah, that’s me in this relationship as of late. While I was driving alone in the car (which is as huge a miracle as forgiveness itself), I literally said out loud to God, “HOW MUCH LONGER DO I HAVE TO PUT UP WITH THIS? I mean, am I supposed to just keep forgiving them DAY after DAY after DAY? Like, how many times do I forgive them for the SAME stupid things OVER and OVER and OVER?” And just like that, it hit me like a salty wave that slams you onto the sandy shore: SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN. “You mean, like I have to keep forgiving them for the same thing even when they don’t stop even after I’ve pointed it out and shared my feelings with them and even when it’s costing me my sanity and solace?” YES. Duh.
And so this recent wrestling began. And so came a new revelation of what Jesus meant in Matthew 19 when Peter (and I) asked him what seems like a perfectly reasonable question to me: “No, really. How many times do I have to put up with this? How many times do I have to forgive a brother or sister? Er, maybe seven?” And Jesus replied, (probably with a laugh and “Are you kidding me?”): “Seven? SEVEN?!? Psha. Try seventy TIMES seven!” Aha. That’s it. And now I am beginning to understand. Oh, man. So that means like EVERY SINGLE DAY for EVER. Are you kidding me? (Psst. He’s not.)
Same Ole, Same Ole
Quick. Think of the last time you were frustrated with someone close to you. Think of the last time they made you mad. Probably just yesterday, right? I’d make a wager that whatever it was that recently ruffled your feathers wasn’t a new offense at all. In fact, I’d bet it’s happened a million and one times before. And you were ticked a million and one times because of it. And maybe/probably even rightfully so. Whether it’s our spouse, our kids, our in-laws, our neighbors, our kids’ teachers, our friends, or even our dumb dogs, most of what gets under our skin is what we already know to expect…because it’s the same ole thing over and over again.
So when Jesus told
Peter me to forgive this person 490 times and then some, He wasn’t just emphasizing the degree to which we must forgive; he was dictating the number of times we must forgive for the same offense. Day after day after 490 days. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought about forgiveness in terms of the Big Bad Things, the things that very clearly hold us back from becoming all we are made to be. You know, Big Things like violence, violation, and victimization. When you hear about forgiveness on TV, it’s the mother of a kidnapped child who is sharing how she forgave her daughter’s perpetrator; the wife of the teacher killed by a school shooter; the daughter forgiving the drunk driver for taking away her father. It’s easy for me to consider how the lack of forgiveness for the Big Things can permanently cripple the victim’s loved ones who are left behind to survive the pain and trauma, so I ultimately expect and hope to see forgiveness for the extraordinary (if I expect to see it at all), because I know we humans would die inside by withholding it. And many tragically do.
But forgive my son for losing the car keys AGAIN? Or my neighbor for letting their dog poop in our yard AGAIN? Or my husband for forgetting that it’s Trash Day AGAIN? My mom for being late AGAIN? My daughter for leaving out her dirty dishes AGAIN? Yes, those are the Small Things, but they’re the very things that challenge my ability to forgive at all.
Maybe I’m really not that mature, or maybe it’s just a new discovery, but I’m actually just beginning to truly and honestly consider and understand the gravity of forgiveness in our daily relationships—the imperfect people to whom we are married, the children to whom we are parents, the brothers and sisters with whom we grow up, the friends with whom we rub shoulders, our co-workers, fellow church members, and neighbors. If we are honest and objective, we’ll realize that most ongoing relationship struggles and blockades are almost entirely due to unforgiveness. So it’s the same ole same ole stuff—the daily crap we complain about and put up with (or not), the too-often offenses that repeatedly drive us batty and nearly insane with frustration and anger, the normal abnormalities—that demand our forgiveness all the more. For if a relationship is going to survive and thrive, it’s the same ole same ole offenses that will need to be forgiven EVERY SINGLE DAY over and over and over again. After all, it’s not the Big Bad Things that destroy our relationships necessarily, but rather a million Small Things that go unforgiven day after day after day. A million Same Ole Same Ole Things.
We must forgive if we want to live. Plain and simple (but definitely not necessarily easy.) We must forgive for all the Same Ole Same Ole hurts and offenses and pains and aches that nag at us daily and threaten to destroy us. And while it would be FAR easier and WAY more appealing if there were a flowery way to unfold forgiveness and deliver it like a dozen red roses on a doorstep, the reality is that this daily brand of forgiveness can be freaking hard to conjure up and sometimes nearly impossible to carry out. But we must. We must forgive. Even when they don’t “deserve” it. Even when we don’t want to give it. Even when it’s the Same Ole Same Ole Thing.
It’s peculiar, because I can forgive some pretty traumatic events in my childhood, and I have, which then prepared me to forgive some even more hellish hurts in my adulthood, and I have. But those were pains and tragedies and sufferings that cut so deeply and damaged relationships so severely that I willingly placed them on the altar and handed them over to the Ultimate Forgiver of All. I had to, or I would not be in one piece today, and those relationships would not have survived after it all.
But you don’t actually have to forgive the things that drive you crazy. You can just let them drive you crazy. You don’t really have to forgive the offenses that seem so minor but frustrate you to the major degree. You can just let them frustrate you. You don’t actually have to forgive the Same Ole Same Ole Things that make you scream and yell and pitch a fit, even if just on the inside. You can just keep screaming and yelling. But every time you hold onto your anger, every moment you choose madness, every act of unforgiveness, no matter how seemingly small, is one more brick in the wall that drives a wedge between you and your loved ones. And eventually that wall will divide so concretely that only a wrecking ball can bring it down.
We Know Not What We Do
The thing about forgiveness for the Same Ole Same Ole things is that it feels so undeserved and rests on such a risk—No, a guarantee—that it will happen again. And it’s the Small Things that we hate every single day, and we just don’t like that kind of Heart Testing on a daily basis. But Jesus didn’t ask us to forgive just once and for all for all the Big Bad Things. It’s every day of our everyday living for all the million Small Things. And His own forgiveness for all of us while He was hanging on the Cross was not just a One Fell Swoop Forgiveness that took care of the Big Things (though it most certainly did). It’s His daily mercy and grace and forgiveness for us in our everyday, stupid, human insanities on a very day-to-day basis that enable us to have a New Every Morning relationship with our Savior. And when I look at it that way, the absurdity of my own unforgiveness over my own daily hang-ups and hurts is not lost on me. It’s actually quite ridiculous.
Literally reading between the lines of Jesus’ response to Peter, I hear Jesus shooting him straight: “How many times should you forgive your brother or sister? Are you kidding me? Look. I’m about to DIE to forgive you. DIE to forgive them. I’m not asking you to die for them. Just to get over yourself and forgive them.” Ouch. And then some. The people Jesus forgave He actually gave His life for, and very rarely would we ever be asked to do the same. When you think of it like that, it doesn’t seem that hard after all, does it? To quote my eloquent husband, “It ain’t gonna kill you to forgive them.” Ouch again.
So just as Jesus asked the Father to forgive us all, for we know not what we do to each other, we must do the same. We don’t know what we are doing to each other by not. We don’t know that it’s not in fact the daily offenses that destroy our relationships; it’s our own unforgiveness for them. It’s not the day-to-day violations that our loved ones commit that build the wall; it’s our inability to overlook them. It’s not the everyday grievances that drive us away; it’s our lack of mercy over them.
So join me and Merriam and Webster and their fine definition of forgiveness, and let’s make every attempt to “to stop feeling anger toward someone who has done something wrong,” “to stop blaming,” “to stop requiring payment,” “to give up resentment of or claim to requital,” and “to cease to feel resentment against an offender.” Even if it’s for the Same Ole Things 490 times over. Yes, especially then. Let’s let them off the hook, just as we want to be let off of ours. For really, we know not what we do if we don’t. We know not what we do.
“To err is human. To forgive, divine.” -Alexander Pope
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.And be thankful.
***But wait! Just in case you’re thinking that you must forgive every offense and STAY in a particular relationship, church, workplace, or the like, let me just say this: NO NO NO NO NO, my dear! If you are in a situation that brings harm, abuse, damage, danger, or threats of any of the above to you, get out of that relationship, church, workplace, or the like PRONTO. Forgiveness will be your freedom, not your prison. In my own experiences, I’ve found that sometimes God has brought me out of places of pain in order to bring me to places of forgiveness. Bottom line: Sometimes we forgive and stay. And sometimes we must forgive and move on.