It seems such a simple question. And, for that matter, a simple enough answer.
The disciples have heard Jesus speak of forgiveness. And perhaps they’ve understood how their own deep need to be forgiven – by others, by themselves, and by God – finds an echo in the call to forgive one another.
But when, how, and, and here’s the question Peter brings – how often? And when he offers his question “as many as seven times?” I don’t think he was talking about seven random, unrelated offenses. The question that was bothering him was the one that bothers us, the question which is both genuine and difficult, and at the same time easily becomes our excuse, our get-out card.
If we are to embrace Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness, what we do when someone does wrong, gets forgiven, and takes advantage of that forgiveness to sin again in the same way. The forgiven thief, who is entrusted with money and steals again. The abusive partner who begs for forgiveness only to continue the pattern of abuse.
How many times? How often do I forgive only to be hurt again? Do I really have to go through that, seven times?
And of course, Jesus’ answer is ridiculous. Forgiveness is to be, in effect, unlimited. Because, as he would often say, that is how we need to be forgiven by God. Honestly, if I thought of the ways that I most often fail, and come back to God asking forgiveness, only to fail once me – seventy-seven times, even seventy times seven (as it might be translated) would not be enough.
Seven times?, Jesus, in effect, says to Peter. No. Don’t keep count.
And this is at the same time one of the most profoundly important declarations of our faith, and one of the most terribly abused doctrines.
Because it has been used, through history, to tell women to return to a violent husband, to tell children to forgive the abuse that has been done to them, to tell indigenous peoples to get over the wrongs of history, to tell victims, in general, to forgive those who have hurt them and move on.
Because aren’t we supposed to forgive without limit, as God forgives us? Isn’t that exactly what Jesus says here?
Yes, we are.
But careful with that word, ‘forgive’.
Our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth is also about forgiveness, and contains, almost in passing, a wonderful description, almost definition, of forgiveness. Encouraging the Church to forgive a member who has hurt them as a community, Paul writes
“I urge you reaffirm your love for him”
Reaffirm your love. Here is the core of forgiveness.
It’s not “forgive and forget” – indeed, if you ask me that’s one of the most harmful phrases in the English language. Genuinely forgetting the harm that someone has done is not only impossible, but would be downright dangerous. Indeed, I’d even go as far as to say, unloving.
If someone we love has a weakness that leads them, to harm us, or others, or themselves, then to forget is to place them, ourselves, and others, back in danger. We might forgive a friend who is an alcoholic, for the hurt they caused when drunk – but we don’t forget. Instead, informed by the experience we might intervene earlier – or at very least, not take them to pub.
And what do we say to the one who has been hurt if we speak of “forgive and forget”? Do we say that if they still remember the pain they have suffered then they have not yet truly forgiven?
No. To forgive is not to forget. It is not even to act as if the offence never happened – that sometimes might be the way, but by no means always. It is not to pretend that the past was somehow different to the truth.
Forgiveness is, perhaps, the reaffirmation of love, without denying the reality of the wrong.
Forgiveness is, perhaps, the offer of reconciliation, but made in the light of truth.
Forgiveness is refusing to allow the offense to be the only factor defining the future of the relationship.
This is the core of forgiveness. What it looks like in practice depends a great deal on the circumstances. Forgiving another, one does not lightly give them freedom and power to reoffend. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes the one who has hurt us needs to be trusted, needs to know that they are trusted. But not always, not automatically, not unreflectively.
It is not unforgiving to say: “I love you, but I can’t trust you with this right now”. Or “I love you, but I’m not going to let you hurt me again”.
For when Jesus teaches about forgiveness, his words always come back to our need of forgiveness – forgiveness by others, and by God – and the challenge to offer others the grace we ourselves need to be given.
And so what is it that we need, when we come, naked of all our pretentions and excuses and defences and self-justification, before God?
When we finally dare to confess our darkest side to God – or harder still, to another human being?
Do we want them to say “oh, consider it forgotten, we’ll just pretend it never happened”?
Or do we want them to say “I hear you. What you are telling me is hard to hear, it’s a darkness neither of us want to think about, but I hear you. And I still love you.”
If, in seeking to offer forgiveness to another, you keep letting them hurt you again in the same way, you may not be doing the best that love can do; for love, in forgiving, would be seeking ways to protect the wrongdoer from their temptation to sin again.
This is where the assumption behind Peter’s question breaks down. “Do I just pretend they don’t keep doing it?”
No. Love doesn’t do that.
God’s forgiveness of us is not the forgiveness of forgetting what we have done (does God forget?), of pretending that it never happened, lying about the past. It is the forgiveness of re-declaring love.
“Yes, this is what you have done. This is what you are like. This is who you are. I know. I always knew. And I still love you”.
How much better is that than the kind of image we seem to paint of God saying: “I’ll pretend you’re not like you are, I’ll pretend you didn’t do what you’ve done, because then I’ll be able to love you.”
As if God could only love an idealised version of ourselves, a version of ourselves that we know well doesn’t match to the reality, doesn’t truly exist. As if God could only love the other us, the one we wish we were, not the one we really are.
Love does not deny the truth. Forgiveness does not pretend, or change the past – it looks at the past with clear vision, and with love.
Forgiveness knows the darkness in another soul, and still loves. As God knows the darkness in us, and still loves.
Forgive and forget? No. Know the truth about another, and still love. For you are known, and still loved.
Seventy times seven.