“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:21-22). The parable that follows concludes with a warning of punishment toward those who, having received forgiveness, refuse to give it to others, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from the heart” (Matt. 18:35). Like the earlier instruction about confronting a church member who has sinned, the overall intention is “to gain your brother [or sister]” (Matt. 18:15). Unlimited forgiveness from the heart restores and maintains the church as a reconciled community.
Doing this may seem a simple matter if there is nothing to forgive, or only some minor irritation or inconvenience. The command to forgive from the heart, however, when one’s heart has been deeply wounded may seem almost cruel, especially when the wound is fresh and wrenching. A betrayal, a horrible injustice, careless cruelty, an emotional or physical attack — simple honesty requires space for a full range of negative emotions, which, if not allowed, will circle back with a vengeance, doing more harm to the person who has tried to rush or force forgiveness. This raises the difficult question of what forgiveness is.
The Latin version of the Lord’s Prayer offers, I believe, a clue to the real meaning of forgiveness, employing the same verb used by old man Simeon after seeing and holding the Christ child. Starting with Simeon, we recall that “it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he would not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). Here is the crucial part, the beautiful moment when Simeon holds and blesses Jesus, and then asks to be “set free.” As translated in Rite I, this line is a request, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant go in peace.” In Rite II, the verb is rendered in the perfect tense, with “nunc” (now) emphasizing a present action. “Lord, you now have set your servant free.” The Latin employs the simple present: “Now you set free your servant, Lord” [Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine]. God is the subject and God sets free. This has everything to do with forgiveness.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” [dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos demittimus debitoribus nostris.” The same Latin verb, dimitto, is used. “Set us free from our debts, just as we set our debtors free.” First, God sets free, and then, in response, we learn to set others free, not because the offense was insignificant, but because the “release” or “freedom” occurs principally in the heart of the one who was wounded. When we forgive, we are freeing ourselves from the agonizing claim a wrong and the offending party has upon our emotions and thoughts, our time and energy. This happens most commonly over time, after normal negative emotions are allowed their place and expression.
Something happens, a release comes, life starts over as the heart slowly heals and releases old wounds. Because forgiveness is the act of God, it cannot be forced. Like the Spirit who blows where it will, forgiveness comes in its own time and in its own way. When we forgive, we are free. We free ourselves, though, of course, God provides the release, and we release our offenders so that life can start anew.
Look It Up: Read Matthew 18:35.
Think About It: “From your heart” is the work of God.