Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
Matthew 18:21-22 NKJV
When I first read this verse, I couldn’t imagine why Jesus would tell Peter to forgive someone that many times. Surely walking away is a better plan than playing Charlie Brown to Lucy and her football for years on end! Yes, I was that arrogant. And no, I didn’t recognize the audacity of my ingratitude to begrudge forgiving others when I had been forgiven tenfold the amount. (The parable that follows directly after Jesus’ answer to Peter should have been titled, “Jennifer’s Story.”) The more the Holy Spirit teaches me about forgiveness, the more I see how limited my understanding of it has truly been. Forgiveness is a much deeper well than I ever suspected, and the joy that follows is greater all the time.
Joy in Humility
In a post I wrote a few years ago, I touched on the ridiculous virtues that I originally attributed to myself when I “deigned” to forgive. In reality, the act of forgiving is the opposite of ennobling—it’s incredibly humbling. When I forgive someone who’s hurt me, I do so because I know that I’ve hurt others in the past and likely will again in the future. I forgive them because my own forgiveness is on the line. Once I acknowledge that, I find myself sitting right beside the one who wronged me. Then we’re just two frail humans in desperate need of grace. It’s hard to feel puffed up under those circumstances. I rather think that’s why God set it up that way. That and the quiet joy that accompanies new humility.
Forgiveness is a deep work sometimes. The more painful the wound, the harder it is for me to receive the reality of that pain and let go of my lust for justice and/or revenge. It took time for me to learn that just saying the words did nothing. I had to exercise my will and choose to forgive. Then I was moving in the right direction. It was just the beginning, however. When I say, “receive the reality,” I mean revisiting the pain, whatever it may be, with the Holy Spirit. Until He shows me what happened, I can’t truly know what it is I am forgiving. The wounds haven’t always been what I thought they were. That’s a real blow to my belief that I at least know the nature of my hurt. (One day, I hope I will not be so astonished at how little I know!)
The Joy of Being Clean
Letting go of the big hurts was a true wrestling match for me. It would be more accurate to say that I hurled my hurts at Jesus’ feet because my surrender was no less dramatic than my wrestling. “Letting go” isn’t necessarily a calm and peaceful enterprise— it can be downright violent. But when the storm had passed, I was always rewarded with the peace of Jesus Himself. And His joy! I experienced the indescribable joy of being clean from the inside out. I was free of the nagging torment that had been with me so long that it had become my “normal.” The first time I stood before God clean-hearted and without pain, I thought, “People would kill each other in broad daylight to get their hands on this state of being if it could be bottled!” Such is the immediate reward of forgiveness.
But that’s not the end. With time comes a gift unlike any other, one that requires its own post to even begin to do it justice. The joy of forgiving was just the beginning.