Learning to Do What Is Hard - How Often Must I Forgive Another?
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
How often do I have to forgive someone who hurts me?
That’s a pretty common thought all of us have had at one time or another. And when we look for answers, we can get all kinds of responses. Some will tell us not to forgive. Others will limit forgiveness. When we look at social media, we can basically find plenty of examples to support whatever we want. Yet ultimately, we all have a conscience, the voice of God telling us what to do deep within our heart. The problem with our conscious, however, is that sometimes we drown out this voice of God by allowing other louder voices of the world to dominate and influence our heart.
I recently had a conversation with a dear friend whom I was trying to encourage to start reading the Bible every day. I explained to him how reading Holy Scripture daily is one of the ways we hone our conscious to hear God speaks to us, how it can help us discern what God wants from us in our lives.
He responded quickly with a very common excuse – “The Bible is an old book for old times. It’s not really relevant for us today.”
I hear this misunderstanding of the Bible often, and yet, I explained to him, “No matter how much times changes, with all the advances of technology, it’s interesting to note that human beings haven’t changed. The fundamental temptations that lead the heart astray haven’t changed at all! What are the greatest temptations facing every human being? Our pride, greed, lust, envy, anger and apathy. These deadly sins haven’t changed over thousands of years and will never change. So, when our Faith teaches us how to become “a new creation,” and Jesus Christ shows us the path on how to overcome these temptations and become more like Him, how can we say the biblical teachings are irrelevant?
Well, my friend then went on to say, “The Bible is too hard to read and understand!” To which I agreed. It can be very hard to read. Yet like most things, we have to learn how to read it and where to start. It’s helpful to understand that we begin by focusing on what we do understand, and not worry initially about what we don’t understand. The more we read, the more we journey in our faith, the more we seek out God in the Church, the more He will reveal Himself to us and we will better understand.
Then I think my friend got to his main point. “Well, honestly speaking, there are things in the Bible I just don’t agree with. I don’t want to hear what it says!”
I think here lies the crux of his problem. My friend felt comfortable with his own views, with what he believed was right and wrong. Unfortunately, I’m not sure he truly understood how much of what he believes has been influenced by the secular, worldly society in which he has been raised.
When one reads the Bible or seeks to sincerely grow in their Orthodox Christian faith, they will realize that what God calls his people to do has always been counter-cultural. Yes, it’s hard to walk that narrow and straight path because it’s a path that goes counter the desires of our fallen human nature. It goes against the way of our egocentric desires and contrary to the deadly sins which constantly tempt us!
Today’s Gospel story gives us a perfect example of this:
When Peter asked Jesus “How many times must I forgive my brother? Up to seven times?” our Lord shocked him with his response. Peter was a faithful Jew, and Jewish tradition says one may ask forgiveness from another up to three times, but no more is necessary. So, Peter quite generously offered to forgive the other “up to seven times.”
Jesus isn’t content, however, with human generosity! He wants to fill us with His divine spirit. And thus, forgiving someone up to seven times isn’t enough! He tells Peter “Not seven, but 70 x 7!” Christ reminds Peter of our call to imitate our heavenly Father, to become perfect. He wants us to forgive like our heavenly Father forgives. He wants us to live with God’s spirit of unlimited mercy and grace, with a heart filled with forgiveness and compassion towards others!
Note carefully, Jesus doesn’t say that we forgive others because they deserve it. God doesn’t forgive us because we deserve it. Mercy is not mercy if someone deserves it. It’s mercy exactly when the other doesn’t deserve it; when we choose to give it freely and undeservedly to others!
Offering such mercy and grace opens up our heart to receive God’s own mercy and grace. When we choose to limit our own mercy and grace towards others, however, when we choose to number how many times we forgive others, we close our heart God’s great mercy. It isn’t that God won’t forgive us, but we turn away from His unconditional and extreme love; we reject His mercy and compassion.
We become like the unforgiving servant in today’s Gospel story. A servant owed a king an insurmountable debt. Ten thousand talents would be equivalent to millions of dollars for a servant who could never possibly repay this in his lifetime. The king, though, forgives the debt for no other reason than his great mercy. Following this incredible act of grace, this same servant meets a fellow servant who owes him 100 days wages. For a servant, this was a serious debt owed to him. Yet, a debt incomparable to his own debt owed to the king. Instead of imitating the king’s grace and forgiveness, he chooses to NOT forgive his fellow servant. And in this act of not forgiving, he turns away from God. He rejects his master’s mercy. His hardness of heart, his arrogant rejection of God’s mercy, in the end harms himself, because he no longer stays open to God’s gracious spirit.
Whenever we question WHY we should forgive another, especially when they don’t deserve our forgiveness, we need to remember this story. We forgive others NOT because they deserve it. Mercy is something that another doesn’t deserve. Mercy is mercy precisely because we offer it as an undeserved gift! And this is what God offers each of us every day! Each and every day!!!
If we want to cultivate the heart of God within ourselves, we need to imitate Him. If we want to always keep our hearts and minds and souls open to God’s spirit, having Christ dwell in us, we need to follow His example.
This may seem quite difficult. Maybe there are the stories we don’t want to read in the Bible because they make us feel uncomfortable or challenge us in ways we simply don’t want to follow. And yet, if we truly want to follow Jesus Christ, then we need to test our sincerity and ask Him to help us follow His ways!
So remember that when we choose to forgive others, even those who have greatly harmed us, we are choosing to open up our heart to receive God’s mercy and grace. Yet when we choose NOT to forgive another, we are choosing to turn away from God’s mercy and love. Holding on to resentment and bitterness is holding on to poison that will destroy our soul. We may feel good for a moment holding on to our anger, our hatred, our bitterness, our desire for revenge. Yet such feelings will be short-lived, and in the end, we close our hearts to God’s amazing grace and mercy.
Yes, reading the Bible and learning our faith may make us feel uncomfortable at times. We may learn things we really don’t want to learn. And yet, this is what it means to be serious in our faith. We need to open up our hearts and minds, expand the little worldview that we hold on to so tightly, and embrace the vision of our Almighty God.
How often must we forgive another? Seventy times seven. An unlimited and a divine amount of mercy. Just like the mercy that God shows to each one of us! This is what He freely gives to us, and what He expects us to show to others!