Forgiveness goes above and beyond seventy-times-seven pardons

by Brian Harper

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Nearly every time Jesus offers his followers a word of comfort, healing, or peace, a teaching that is either confusing, daunting, or damn near impossible seems to be waiting in the wings.

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God," he says in Matthew.

"Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood," he explains in John, "you have no life in you."

"This is a hard teaching," his disciples reply after hearing the latter. "Who can accept it?"

Who indeed?

Jesus' maxims hit each of us differently, but personally, one of the instructions with which I wrestle most is forgiveness. Its special place in the Gospel is unquestionable: Forgiving those who trespass against us is the only obligation placed on humans in the Lord's Prayer.

Its emphasis, however, is most strikingly stated when Peter asks how many times he must forgive his brother.

"I do not say to you seven times," Jesus answers, "but seventy times seven."

It is safe to assume this was not an order to offer 490 pardons before calling it quits. Rather, it is a command to forgive without limit.

I have never been pushed to the boundaries of what a person can be expected to forgive, but a number of years ago, I met someone who had.

While participating in a service learning program in South Africa, I was assigned to work with the Amy Biehl Foundation. Its namesake was an American Fulbright scholar living in Cape Town and helping South Africa develop a new constitution in the wake of apartheid's fall in the early 1990s. Amy, a young white woman, was pulled from her car and brutally murdered by a black mob while driving a friend home to the impoverished Gugulethu township.

Amy's parents went on to form the foundation, which offers support, education and extracurricular opportunities to black youth living in troubled communities in Cape Town. When the four men convicted of killing their daughter sought amnesty through South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Biehls endorsed their application.

Most miraculously, two of the men went on to work for the foundation and form a close relationship with the Biehls. One day, Amy's mother, Linda, and Ntobeko, one of these men, sat before my classmates and me to share their story and answer our questions. How had Linda forgiven Ntobeko? How had Ntobeko forgiven himself?

They had, of course, had years to live with these questions, and the reality was surely more nuanced than the answers. But much of it seemed to hinge on opportunity -- to honor Amy's legacy, to comprehend the brutal racial subjugation young people like Ntobeko had experienced, and to move forward seeking the good of all involved.

Linda and Ntobeko's story left me feeling like I would be an insult to humanity unless I forgave anyone against whom I held a grudge. "If they can find fellowship after something like that," I thought, "I have no reason not to bury the hatchet."

So I resolved to do just that, allowing myself no room for bitterness or recrimination.

Was there a degree to which making use of Ntobeko and the Biehls' positive example involved shaming myself into good behavior? Certainly. Nevertheless, it was effective -- to a point. There were still days when fatigue, misunderstanding, a particularly open wound or a strong appetite for acrimony made forgiveness pretty challenging, even when it came to petty piques.

So I developed other strategies. Sometimes, I guilted myself in an entirely different way. As I found myself starting to feel irritated or hurt, I would reflect on instances in which I had done something comparable to the party to blame, all the while chiding myself for my hypocrisy.

This tactic also had its benefits, namely in helping me to identify with the motivations behind others' actions. Often, however, it left me resentful not only of the person I was originally upset with, but also myself.

Whether it was scolding myself for being disobedient to a central tenet of my faith or repeating trite hakuna-matata-esque aphorisms to get over grievances, every solution fell short in helping me to become magnanimous and merciful. Some days, I did not think I could forgive. Other days, I did not want to.

In other words, I was still human.

One of the problems with forgiveness is that all too often, we view it as an end rather than a process, an act in an instant rather than a way over time.

The truth is that it is demanding, for large and small injustices alike. It is not a one-and-done decision; it is something with which we must continually wrestle and seek to go deeper. The fact that Linda Biehl could sit at peace with a man who killed her daughter does not mean she did not need to work to get there, or even to stay there. It also, by the way, does not mean she no longer felt annoyed with trivial offenses, like drivers cutting her off in traffic.

Like a climbing wall that occasionally requires a step backward to move forward, forgiveness is not a straight path. Sometimes we tell someone all is forgiven without meaning it or discover ill will we thought we had released but still must address.

It is in these moments that we must remember an oft-overlooked aspect of absolution: forgiveness of self. It is hard to imagine having the freedom to let go of another's mistakes if we have set the bar unreasonably high above our own heads.

Once again, none of this easy. Forgiveness requires room for error, and when we reflect on Jesus' desire for us to forgive seventy times seven times, the focus tends to be on just that: God's boundless generosity in the face of our shortcomings.

On the other hand, maybe Jesus' seventy-times-seven solution is also an indication that forgiveness involves practice, that we probably will not get it exactly right the first time or even after 490 attempts. When we do fail in our efforts, having the example of the one who is always ready to absolve will surely help us in what I have come to see as the true secret of forgiveness: trying again.

[Brian Harper is a writer, musician and community outreach coordinator for a small business. His work is available at]

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