Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
Matthew 18: 21-2

On most readings of today’s familiar passage from Matthew, I have just assumed that Peter is asking how often he must forgive his brother’s or sister’s repeated hurts and sins against him. Somehow today, however I found myself thinking about how I hold onto a single long since past offense of another against me. I may try to forgive, yet discover that deep within I continue to resent and rage against one who hurt, diminished or shamed me even decades ago. In short, I may need to forgive seventy-seven times the same hurt from the same person.
It’s not very edifying to think about how difficult it is to forget hurts and even relatively small slights against. us. There is a part of us, a child in us, that never ceases to “smart” at the neglect or the abuses, small and large, that we have experienced. From the most significant of persons for us, our parents and initial caregivers, to those who exercised authority over us as children, to those who betrayed our friendship or diminished us in public, there are always many whom we must repeatedly forgive.
In this regard, there is real consolation in Jesus’ teaching to ceaselessly forgive. We need to practice understanding and acceptance of the infantile residues in us that continue, long after the fact, to rage at those who hurt us. When what we may have thought were long since passed feelings of resentment arise again in us, we can, yet again, await the longings for connection and reconciliation that lie in the sadness beneath the rage. If we bear once again the painful feelings that the memories evoke, we can allow the deeper life within to touch the compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and the others that holds us all. We can receive, and so offer, the gift of mercy and forgiveness that is ceaselessly given to us.

The Buddha’s story illustrates that a relational home can uHltimately be found within. This does not mean there is no place for psychotherapy, no role for therapists like Winnicott or Carr, only that the function of such interventions will ultimately be to point the way toward this truth. In losing his mother at such an early age, the Buddha affirmed the underlying and inescapable anguish at the heart of existence. While it is compelling to read his journey toward enlightenment as a process of coming to terms with this trauma, I believe it is much more. Not only did he find a way of awakening to and releasing his own pain, he figured out something that applies across the board. As the Buddha made clear, suffering is a universal truth. While the things that bother us cannot always be eliminated, we can change the way we relate to them. In uncovering the inherent relational capacity of the mind, which finds its natural expression in a mother’s concern for her baby, he found the transformative medicine he was looking for. Trauma, if it doesn’t destroy us, wakes us up both to our own relational capacities and to the suffering of others. Not only does it make us hurt, it makes us more human, caring, and wise.

Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life, p. 205

One comment on “How Often Can I Forgive?

  1. James Boyle on

    Jesus puts the question of forgiveness in perspective by giving us the parable in which the master forgives his servant a huge debt only to have the servant throttle his fellow servant for a much smaller debt and then throw him into debtor’s prison until the debt is paid. God is willing to forgive us everything, but we aren’t so sure about forgiving others. Unless our confreres, colleagues, friends and acquaintances dance to the tune we call, we may have to resort to the sharp side of our tongue in order to correct the situation. Please God, let me understand the irony inherent in my nastiness when contrasted with your loving care for me and for all your creation.


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