I don’t really want to talk about forgiveness. I don’t like to talk about it because I’m not good at it.
And also, I’ve discovered forgiveness is quite controversial.
But before I leave the Year of Oprah for a while, I have to. Because one simple phrase kept me from throwing in the towel.
When someone you love has hidden things from you for a long time, and it’s suddenly exposed, there isn’t just a single moment of pain. It’s more like back labor.
. . . there is a particular kind of feeling that accompanies “back labor” . . . a pointed cowboy boot that kicks you right in the small of your back. At first it just hurts sharply, for a moment. But as the labor intensifies, the steel-toed kicks send you to the floor. And the time between contractions isn’t enough time to catch your breath.
With my first baby, this pain got to be so bad, I couldn’t stand upright. I would rock on my hands and knees, trying to keep the pressure of the baby away from the pain. The few minutes of rest between contractions was no relief. Barely time to cry.
That’s where I was when my friend Laura called to check on me one day while Dave was still in rehab.
Kicked so hard repeatedly by the revelations of debts, doctors and pharmacies, each time worse than the last and building in intensity with no time to breathe — I literally could not stand. I had to talk to her from the floor where I was rocking back and forth.
But my friend Laura was a very, very wise woman. I think she knew that words are not always helpful. That sometimes it’s best to let people cry out their grief to God and just be there and say very little.
This was the only thing she said:
I ran across this verse this morning . . . and I think I should share it with you. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him. (Luke 17:3-4) . . . that’s all I know, Deb.
By that point in my life, I had probably read through the Bible a dozen times. I grew up in the home of a Bible college professor turned Bible translator and missionary and seminary professor. I had received a Meritorious award for memorizing verses in AWANA. I had a minor in Biblical Studies. I beat my whole family in Bible trivia my freshman year of college — yes, even my Dad! I thought there wasn’t a verse or story in Scripture that I hadn’t heard.
But at that moment, I felt like I had never heard those words before. I actually thought she had it confused with the 70 times 7 passage. Or maybe it was from that part of the Gospels that is always prefaced with “not found in some manuscripts.”
If he sins against you seven times a day . . . forgive him.
There are a lot of books out there about forgiveness. Lots of opinions. Lots of limitations and provisos.
But I’m inclined to believe Jesus said all there is to be said on forgiveness. He gave us parables and examples. He said forgive as you’ve been forgiven. He said if you don’t, the Father won’t forgive you. And He spelled it out in numbers.
And He knew even being that specific wasn’t going to be enough for us. That we would count up our hurts all the way to seven per day and even to four hundred and ninety as a lifetime limit. That we’d tack on a lot of exceptions and rules. That we’d write books about it because it’s easier to study than to do. Just like the Pharisees, we want to know how far we have to go. . .
Seven times a day . . . seventy times seven . . . as I have forgiven you.
Maybe the problem is that we don’t really see ourselves in need of being forgiven. If we did, we’d know exactly what forgive as I have forgiven you really means. Maybe if we really had that kind of perspective on forgiveness, we’d understand that forgive as I have forgiven you means forgiveness isn’t limited by man-made boundaries.
Maybe that’s why forgiveness without limitations is one of the last things Jesus demonstrated for us as He died on the cross. Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they do.
Forgiveness in the middle of unimaginable, body-breaking, soul-crushing pain.
Addicts relapse. . . more often than not.
Sometimes several times before true recovery.
Seven times. . . that’s what the chemical dependency professionals told Dave that summer. Seven times is average.
* * * * *
In I Corinthians 13, St. Paul finally removes the numbers from the equation:
Love keeps no record of wrongs.
Forgiveness without limits.