Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-23 ESV) I’m among the fortunate people. I grew up in a home in which Christian principles were understood as the foundation for all of life. Dad and Mom taught me early to be nice and that forgiving those who wronged me was part of what being nice meant.
During my early childhood, forgiveness came easily. I learned both to forgive and to ask to be forgiven. Doing so was no problem until I entered the second grade. That was about the time that my pudginess became of interest to a handful of schoolyard bullies. Their constant efforts to make fun of the “fat boy” became worse when I got my first pair of glasses about midway through the year. Being called “fatty four-eyes” became a daily experience. Everyday I could count on Jackie and his cronies to come after me at recess. Did I really have to forgive these guys? If so, how often?
One Sunday our Bible lesson at church included Peter’s question to Jesus and Jesus’ answer to Peter. How, I wondered, was a kid supposed to keep track of forgiveness up to 490 times? Once Jackie and his cronies had received their 490th forgiveness, what then?
Once I entered the Junior Sunday school class (ages 9-12), my dad became my teacher. He told us that Jesus’ seventy times seven wasn’t about keeping track. It was, he told us, a way of saying that Christians were to just keep on forgiving. Being Christian demanded more than I had thought.
Looking back at those days, it seems to me that over time forgiving others became easier. I now realize that part of what made it easy was that the wrongs done to me were not all that awful. The real test was yet to come.
The test came when I was in my early thirties when I discovered that my dad, whom I had seen as a pillar of virtue, was involved in an affair. I was angry and disappointed. I confronted my dad. I listened to his explanations and excuses and became angrier. The affair lasted for years. As I watched what was happening to our family, Dad and I grew farther and farther apart. After years of this, I finally realized that I had a choice. I could have a relationship with the Dad I had but not the Dad I wanted him to be. “I have to forgive him,” I told myself.
In forgiving Dad, I learned the real meaning of Jesus’ response to Peter. Forgiveness is not a one-time experience. When the wrong done is great and the subsequent pain deep, forgiveness has to happen again and again each time the pain resurfaces, each time a new disappointment is experienced.
Amazingly, it was my Dad who became my best teacher about the nature and consequence of forgiveness. In August of 1998, Dad was the victim of shooting that left him partially paralyzed for the remaining eight years of his life. A year after the shooting, I stood beside Dad as he faced the shooter, held out his right hand to him, and said, “Terrell, I hate what you’ve done to me, but I don’t hate you. I forgive you and pray that the rest of your life can be as good as possible.” That act of forgiveness set three men free that day: a father, a son, and a convicted criminal.
A few months before Dad died in 2006, he and I talked about the encounter with Terrell. I commented to Dad that his act of forgiveness seemed to have set him free to live well after the shooting. Dad responded, “It wasn’t an act of forgiveness. I’ve had to forgive Terrell over and over again. Each time I’ve encountered something I couldn’t do that I’d always been able to do before the shooting and each time the pain in my leg flared up, I had to revisit the forgiveness and do it again.”
In the years between the shooting and his death, Dad ended the affair and he and Mom rebuilt their relationship and discovered anew the love they had for each other. At Dad’s request, I preached his funeral, acknowledging the affair and the pain it brought to so many and celebrating the wholeness that came through forgiveness and the repentant life Dad lived in his final years.
And we lived happily ever after . . . not quite. Dad was right. Forgiveness is not a one-time act. It is an act that must be repeated each time the memory recalls the wrong and the resulting pain.
Forgiving those who wrong us is not a matter of accounting (seventy times seven). It is a way of life. It is the way to find life in the midst our own brokenness and in the midst of the broken world in which we live.