When Peter asked Jesus, “How many times must I forgive, seven times?” He responded, “Not just seven but seventy times seven times.” There may be a few different translations of the seven and seventy numbers but essentially the message remains the same. Seven is a biblical and religious number pointing to human completion or perfection: seven days of creation, seven sacraments, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven commandments that pertain to human relationships, seven demons that possessed Mary Magdalene, washing seven times in the Jordan to be healed, seven colors of the rainbow covenant, seven last words of Jesus from the cross, and scores of other examples. Peter was seeking perfection or wanting to reach a sense of completion in his obligation to forgive. Yet Jesus proposed that followers adopt forgiveness as a way of life. For literalists, it is important to note that we aren’t to keep track till 490 so that we can return to holding grudges. Rather, we should take perfection to its tenth-degree, times itself; in other words, stop counting and incorporate forgiving into our lifestyle.
I am part of a team podcast called “Time for Forgiveness.” Though only on our seventh episode, I hope we make it to seventy or some nth degree thereof. It was created by Robert and Kelly Pascuzzi, authors of The Ravine, a story about forgiveness that challenges many people’s understandings of God’s mercy and our summons to imitate it. Listeners of the podcast, like readers of the book or viewers of the movie, grapple with difficult situations in their lives and weigh their own capacity to forgive those who have hurt them in ways that seem unforgiveable. Among the early guests is Lisa, who, when she was a teenager and eldest of four children, suffered her mother’s murder at the hands of her father. Another is Darryl, who was wrongfully accused and condemned of murder, serving twenty-four years in horrifying prison conditions before being exonerated. Others include Holly, Tracey, Tyrone, and Dien who deal with everything from family dysfunction through alcoholism, suicide of loved ones, divorce and family break-ups, narrow escape from war and seeking asylum as a mere child, victimization of a shooting that left one paralyzed for life, and other tragedies. They each help us wrestle with forgiving through their own experiences and difficult decisions.
There are essentially four steps to forgiveness—though often additional steps might accompany the process. The four are: 1) tell the story, 2) name the pain, 3) decide to forgive, 4) determine to either renew the prior relationship or release it. Most people cannot forgive and forget, nor should we; we need to remember so that we can make wiser choices in the future. But we should, if possible, forgive and move on; otherwise, we will be hampered by our bitterness. Sometimes the harm done is so horrific, as when a child or family member is murdered, that people cannot forgive but still must move forward. There are various levels of forgiveness, from a full pardon to a disentanglement that allows us to not cling to or obsess over the hurt. And, as one guest voiced, sometimes we cannot forgive because our human limitation does not allow it but we can do as Jesus did from the cross and permit God to forgive through us. Jesus knew that forgiveness is difficult and sometimes downright impossible for humans. Yet, for God, all things are possible.
In the podcasts, the Pascuzzis and I discuss the human capacity to forgive, some psychological, biological, and anthropological factors at play, religious teaching and guidance, and spiritual assistance that, at times, miraculously assists those who seek deeper understanding of their unbearable situation. To listen to the podcasts, go to timeforforgiveness.com. I hope that you will find something helpful in the conversations that will assist as you deal with forgiving or releasing past hurts in your own life. Our church was born through Christ’s salvific act of forgiveness. Let us strive to be church for one another.