In the Gospel reading last Sunday, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus answers, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
It’s not so much that Jesus is establishing seventy-seven as a threshold after which we are justified throwing people out into the street and perhaps out of our lives. How many times must we forgive? Jesus’s answer: Many more times than we would probably like.
A couple of disclaimers here: 1) In no way is Jesus suggesting an obligation to remain in an abusive relationship. We have an obligation to protect ourselves. If you are in an abusive relationship, please get help. 2) Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation. We can forgive people without letting them come back into our lives, just as many do when they forgive someone who has already died.
We all know that forgiveness is hard. When someone hurts us, it’s natural to reflect back on the experience and ask ourselves questions, like “Why did this happen? Could I have avoided it? Did I do something to cause the other person to do this? Should I continue to allow this person to be in my life?” Asking such questions helps us learn and gain perspective. It can also help us avoid remaining in toxic relationships. However, if we continue “playing-back” the experience in our minds, it can feed our anger, resentment and even cause us to desire revenge.
The idea of “playing-back” memories reminds me of when our oldest daughter was about 5 years old. One day she was downstairs watching an old VHS tape of the movie “The Fox and the Hound.” Suddenly, she came upstairs in tears and appeared completely devastated. My wife asked her what was wrong and she said she was crying because she had just watched the part where “Tod” the fox was taken out into the woods and abandoned. My wife comforted her, gave her a snack and she went back downstairs.
Twenty minutes later, she came back up in tears once again. My wife asked her “What’s the matter now?” She said, “It’s so sad when Tod’s left alone.” My wife reminded her she had seen the movie a thousand times and said, “Tod doesn’t stay alone forever right? Why are you still crying?” At that, she replied, “I we-winded it.”
Playing-back the movie brought up all of the same emotions she had experienced the first time.
In the same way, regularly playing-back the memories of how we have been wounded brings us back to all of the shock, and pain we initially felt. It also causes us to pull that person out of a larger context. They are less and less remembered as someone’s son or daughter, someone we once considered a friend. They are simply, the one who hurt us. There are, therefore, much easier to hate. When we reach that level of anger, we have very little control over ourselves, and Jesus’ command to forgive becomes impossible for us.
We cannot control what other people choose to do. All we can do is learn to control our own reactions. Once we have gained perspective, we can choose not to replay what they have done.
It is also possible, to replay the good and charitable moments we shared with that person and reflect on the qualities that most likely drew us into relationship with them in the first place. Doing this helps us keep the moment of offense in perspective. It remains just a part of the overall experience of the relationship, rather than its defining moment.
Finally, we can pray for them. We know that if we want to interpret something accurately, we have to keep it in context. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In other words, there is nothing and no one outside of the context that is Jesus Christ. We can ask Jesus to help us see them as he sees them. If we can do that, we will begin to see them and the wounds they caused us in a much larger context. And the Truth will set us free.