Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times” (Mt 18:21)?
Peter’s initial question of asking to forgive seven times may sound pretty generous to us, because the usual question most of us ask is, “Do I have to forgive at all?” Many of us do not do forgiveness well, even if we look at it as a virtue. If someone says to us they are sorry, do we reply, “I forgive you?” Often our automatic response is, “That’s alright”, “It’s ok”, or “No problem”. When we are convicted of a mistake, error or offense, do we ask for forgiveness or operate from a defensive posture to explain why we did what we did, or defend what we did as right, not willing to admit any inappropriate action?
We are very habitual creatures, and much of what I shared above is learned behavior. We are conditioned and shaped from our youth. That is why when we hear Jesus’ answer to Peter, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times”, we may dismiss Jesus’ statement as mission impossible. Another thought that may come to our minds are those cases or positions in which we feel justified in our stance of unforgiveness. Jesus is yet again raising the bar for us.
We are to strive to forgive as our heavenly Father forgives. Forgive the same person seventy-seven times? Yes. If someone is seeking forgiveness, we are called to forgive. Jesus does not mean that we don’t hold people accountable, remain in a dangerous or life threatening situation, or enable people in their self-destructive behavior. Forgiveness has to do with not holding on to the hurt, not allowing the offense to fester as a grudge that builds to hate and negative or violent behavior. Forgiveness is also not a curse but a blessing. For when we forgive, it is an antidote to the poison someone has injected us with. If we refuse to forgive, we allow the person who has injured us to do so over and over again, for by being unwilling to forgive we allow that poison to fester.
If you are struggling with holding onto a grudge and/or past hurts. One approach that may be helpful is to visualize yourself approaching the person you have the issue with and saying to them, “I forgive you”. You may also find it helpful to visualize Jesus standing beside you while you do this exercise. Repeat the process each day in your time of prayer until you start to feel yourself coming to a place of forgiveness, and can imagine that reconciliation is indeed possible.
If you find visualizing difficult, sit down and talk to Jesus. Be honest with him, tell him the situation and that you do not want to forgive the person. Then ask for Jesus to help you. Embrace the sacrament of Reconciliation and confess your unwillingness to forgive. When ready, determine how best to reach out to the person to say that you forgive them; a phone call, letter, email, text message, or in person.
A third idea that may work is to write the person a letter, whether you send it or not. Each of these are practical ways to approach a great gift that Jesus offers us, to forgive seventy-seven times, or to forgive each and every time we are given the opportunity to do so.
We don’t do forgiveness well. But with Jesus, we can begin again. Let us practice saying each morning, “Please forgive me, (Name)” and think of a few thoughts, words, or actions you need to be forgiven for. Then say, “I forgive you (Name), for…” and think of a few words, actions, or inactions to insert. Also, Jesus gave us a pretty good prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are not alone. Remember, Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him. We can ask God to forgive those who have offended, hurt, or abused us. Then we can actually move to the point where we begin to develop the freedom to say to others, “I forgive you”, and “Please forgive me.”