How imperfect people love: Developing the forgiveness habit

September 16th, 2020

“It’s not about you, it’s about them.” When I’ve been injured by another person’s cruel words or actions, friends have said this to me. Maybe your friends have consoled you in a similar way.

And there is sad truth to what my friends have said. Some people offload their hurt onto others in the form of blame or gossip, criticism or even physical violence. That’s the only way they’ve learned to deal with their own pain.

Dumping our hurt onto others doesn’t really heal the wounds causing our pain. Our attention may be temporarily diverted. But the wound remains and the hurt returns all too soon.

So, retribution will never mend our broken hearts, our fractured relationships and our shattered world. Causing pain to relieve pain is a bit like smashing a dish to repair a crack that we’ve found in it. All we get is bits of stoneware scattered across the kitchen floor.

Let’s face it, we are all more or less wounded. And we have all done our fair share of wounding others. So the question facing each of us is this: Where do we go from here? Will we keep breaking things or shall we set about the work of mending?

This is why Jesus talks so much about forgiveness. And our own woundedness is why we struggle to forgive and, crucially, why we strain to understand what Jesus is actually talking about. We keep thinking that somebody has to pay. We view forgiveness as a sort of transaction: contrition earns forgiveness.

But as our most reliable friend, Jesus tells us something that we may find startling. When it comes to forgiveness, it actually is about you.

What kind of person do you want to be?

What kind of world do you want to inhabit?

How free do you want to be?

If the whole forgiveness thing is hard for you, you’re in good company. Well, there’s me. But more impressively, there’s Peter.

After listening to Jesus talk in-depth about forgiveness and reconciliation, Peter asks him, “How many times do I have to forgive? Would seven times be enough?” Seven is the number for completeness—you know, the seven days of creation. So, Peter is being sincere. But he’s missed the point. (Matthew 18:21-35)

Peter seems to have in mind repeat offenders. He wants to know how many times he has to forgive such people before writing them off. After all, if they keep doing hurtful or dishonest or selfish things they’re obviously not sorry. So, we can stop forgiving them, right?

Jesus responds, “Actually, seventy-seven times is more like it, Peter.” In other words, learn to become a habitually forgiving person. It’s about you. The habits of your heart and soul and mind.

Forgiveness is not a reward for someone else’s contrition. It’s a freely given expression of our enduring character and our commitment to the dream of a world shaped by the algorithm of grace. Paradoxically, Jesus teaches us that learning to be forgiving people is rooted in our identity as forgiven people.

To make his point, Jesus tells the familiar parable about a slave whose enormous debt is written off by the king. The slave’s first action is to toss a fellow slave into debtor’s prison for a small debt that he could not repay. Hearing of the first slave’s lack of mercy, the king throws him into jail and throws away the key.

Let’s be clear. The point here is not that God is like this king and will forgive us only on the condition that we forgive. Instead, Jesus is teaching us that we are already forgiven. As a result, we are free to respond to each other in a radically different way from how we’ve grown accustomed.

We are all imperfect people. We will love imperfectly. And, as I heard someone say somewhere, forgiveness is how imperfect people love.

When we feel ourselves to be the forgiven—forgiven by God even if not by other forgiveness-resistant humans—we can approach each other in the only way that will make things whole:

Well, this is a mess. Looks like we’re in it together. Where shall we go from here?

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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