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: 21-22
This lent is becoming a most challenging one for me. I have known, at one level, for a very long time that at the very heart of the Christian faith and form tradition is the call to forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As I’ve often noted, the great scholar of religion Houston Smith has pointed out that the 3 great monotheistic religious traditions highlight a unique aspect of the call to follow the One God “unreservedly,” as we hear in the reading from Daniel today. The Jewish tradition focuses obedience; the Islamic tradition highlights prayer; and the Christian tradition emphasizes forgiveness. When Peter asks Jesus how often we are to forgive, Jesus replies with the eternal number. We are never to cease living in and from forgiveness.
Now there is really nothing new in any of this for us. Of course, we are struck when we see the practice of forgiveness become the very cornerstone of religious practice, as with the Amish. At the feeling level, I am still in awe and a bit unbelieving at how the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania so immediately and fully embraced the family of the man who had murdered many of their children and how over half of the mourners at his funeral were Amish.
At the time I remember asking myself over and over, “How did they do this?” As I couldn’t emotionally really comprehend it, I read and studied and thought about the Amish formation tradition that from childhood teaches its children that their being forgiven by God depends on their forgiveness of others, and that they need not seek retribution because the justice of God will prevail. At least for me, and I suspect many Christians, this is something we say be believe cognitively but our hearts have not been formed by practice of the dispositions we require to live out such forgiveness.
Now this lent I find myself personally struggling as seldom before with the difficulty in “forgiving your brother from your heart.” Even as my head realizes and appreciates the call to forgive as I have been forgiven and continually need forgiveness, I am truly recognizing the hardness of heart in myself that makes it so difficult. In a western culture that is so much function-oriented, the ever present sinful human tendency to use other persons is perhaps one of our greatest and most subtle temptations. So accustomed are we to see our work projects, whatever form they take, as the ultimate value that our use of other persons to realize our project is almost something we take for granted. As I examine myself, I often think that there are no relationships in my life in which there is not at least some degree of using the other for my life project, be it a particular concrete physical project or the more subtle and pervasive project of holding my own life together.
Despite this deep tendency in myself, however, I am profoundly angered and hurt when I realize that another has used me for his or her own purposes and then been most willing to discard me when I am no longer valuable to him or her. It is a great disillusionment to realize that I am expendable when what I bring to a relationship is not of use to, does not fit into, the other’s plans. Then, to the degree that relationship is mere utility, I can find myself not only unappreciated but even unwanted.
It is so difficult to forgive one who uses us because our sense of our own value and worth is always to some degree fragile. As Jesus hangs on the cross, he can express the feeling of his heart as “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” precisely because he remains united with His Father. Even as he feels abandonment, he knows, in a place deeper than his desperation, that he is not abandoned. He lives only for the truth, to do the will of the One who sent him, and so he can finally utter that “It is finished.”
To the degree that we look to another to ratify the meaning and value of our lives, we shall find their using of us unforgivable. And so, as I experience the struggle to find a place in my heart from which I can forgive, I realize that the inability to do so is a measure of my distance from the love of God in me. There is real suffering in the experience of the gap in my own life and experience between the teaching of Jesus regarding forgiveness and the blocks to forgiveness I feel in my own heart. My compulsion to be vindicated in the human world is a real measure of my lack of trust in and love for God. Jesus is able to declare his work finished because, however it looks to those around him, he has done his Father’s will to the end. He has been persecuted and killed by those he came to serve and been misunderstood and betrayed by his friends. Yet, he prays to his Father that they be forgiven. He loves the others, that is all of us, in such a way and to such a degree that what they do to him doesn’t matter. This lent I am very aware of how far I am from knowing, practicing, and realizing such a love. But this may be the point. As the letter to the Hebrews reminds us: “Son though he was, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8)
Perhaps it is lesson worth learning that it is really not in what we take to be our nature to forgive our brother and sister from the heart seventy times seven times, that is without end. We may well come to more and more deeply understand the Lord’s command to forgive in our very experience of violating it. It well may be that by suffering the truth of our hardness of heart and vulnerability of spirit that we are being slowly transformed into that which, in Christ, we are called to be. As we read in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”
The second major section of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Prophets, introduces the necessary suffering, “stumbling stones,” and failures that initiate you into the second half of life. Prophetic thinking is the capacity for healthy self-criticism, the ability to recognize your own dark side. Without failure, suffering, and shadowboxing, most people (and most of religion) never move beyond narcissism and clannish thinking (egoism extended to the group). This has been most of human history up to now, which is why war has been the norm. But healthy self-criticism helps you realize you are not that good and neither is your group. It begins to break down either/or, dualistic thinking as you realize all things are both good and bad. This makes idolatry, and the delusions that go with it, impossible.Richard Rohr, “Human Development in Scripture,” Daily Meditation, March 26, 2019