An excerpt from “Assurance of Grace” May 29, 2016:
The thing about forgiveness is that it’s complicated.
It’s rarely as simple as saying you’re sorry.
It’s rarely as simple as somebody saying they’re sorry to you.
In the case of the church at Corinth, it sounds like maybe there was one person who messed something up – who tripped somebody and caused the pileup. But they all fell, and as they fell, somebody’s elbow banged somebody’s nose, somebody got a knee in the back, somebody else landed on somebody’s foot, and everybody ended up getting hurt.
So who apologizes? And who needs forgiveness? And who grants the forgiveness?
And what if – as in Ms. Gloria’s case [in the movie Because of Winn-Dixie] – there are so many bottles hanging from the tree, so many bad things, so much guilt, and so many bridges burned, that it’s not clear where one would start to clean up the mess.
Or what if – as in Opal’s case, with the pain caused by her mother’s leaving – her mother is long gone, the wound is just out there, raw and unhealed. There’s no apology coming.
But here’s the thing about forgiveness: it doesn’t actually require an apology.
It makes forgiveness easier, for sure. That’s why we teach toddlers the way we do. When one of them grabs a toy away from a friend, we say, please say you’re sorry; and they say I’m sorry and the other says, it’s okay, and then they go on.
A sincere apology makes the whole thing easier, for sure – that’s why successful reconciliation efforts like the one following the end of Apartheid in South Africa involve deep soul-searching and story telling, in which everybody talks honestly about the pain they endured and the pain they caused.
That’s why some of the most amazing stories of grace and healing come from victims of crimes who were able to meet and talk with the perpetrators.
That’s why broken relationships are best mended when everybody names the ways they were part of the breaking.
But it’s never that simple, and sometimes there’s no way to say “I’m sorry” and the thing is, forgiveness doesn’t actually require an apology.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean everything all works out and is all peachy keen again.
See, forgiveness isn’t about what happened before, it’s about the way ahead.
It’s not about the past, it’s about the future.
The past doesn’t get changed.
The hurt is still there.
The good news of the resurrection isn’t that Jesus didn’t die. He did. The good news is that he lives again. There’s new life beyond the hurt. That’s what forgiveness does.
Forgiveness is about laying down all that guilt and pain.
It’s about getting up from the pile of brokenness and taking the first step forward again, taking along all our bumps and bruises, but walking forward just the same.
See, I think, that this sort of forgiveness – this sort that Paul was talking about, the sort that Jesus tells Peter about – seven times seventy times – that’s radical stuff, that’s extraordinary grace.
I think that – in a world in which we are hell-bent on revenge and vindication – offering another person undeserved grace might just be the most radical thing we Christians can do.
Let me say that again: Offering another person – or maybe ourselves – undeserved grace might just be the most radical thing we Christians can do.
Take Jesus’ answer to Peter when Peter asks about forgiveness. How many times should we forgive? Jesus says 7 times 70 times – and there’s some ambiguity here; some translations say 77 times, some say 7 times 70, which is 490 – either way, it doesn’t really matter, because Jesus isn’t really giving a numerical answer to this question. It’s not like there’s a point at which Peter will have forgiven enough and then doesn’t have to do it anymore.
What Jesus is describing isn’t a magic number, it’s a way of life. A way of life which is oriented toward grace.
That doesn’t mean we walk around letting people knock us down. It doesn’t mean we stay in abusive relationships.
It doesn’t mean we get a free pass to hurt other people because they have to forgive us.
It doesn’t mean that living in community and walking alongside each other is always going to be easy.
It does mean that we live a life tuned to the sort of grace that our gracious and merciful God has given us. It means that we lay down the weight of all that pain – the pain we caused or the pain done to us, and we pick up the abundant and undeserved grace offered to us.