September 13, 2020
How many times!
On March 6, 1927 the British philosopher Bertrand Russell delivered a lecture to the National Secular Society. His lecture was aptly called: “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Russell refers to, what he considered to be convincing arguments to reject Christian faith and belief in God. He debunks the so-called first-cause argument, the argument from natural law, the design argument, the moral argument and the argument for remedying of injustice. These were traditional arguments that tried to prove that God exists.
His arguments don’t bother me for I have never been convinced that our task is to prove that God exists. Faith after all implies a leap; it is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen (Hebr. 11:1)! By the way, the Bible does not start with an introduction that prove that God exists. It simply says: “In the beginning when God created….”
However, I am bothered by his next argument: He argues that the church tells people that they are miserable sinners. And this he says is: “. . .. contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings.” He says it is despicable to say that we are sinners and that we need forgiveness. According to him, saying that we are sinners who need forgiveness degrade human beings.
Let’s think about this for a while. Is it true that admitting that we are sinners, degrades us? Or does such honesty liberate us? Does it place a burden on us to admit that we need forgiveness? Or does it enable us to reach our full potential?
Russell’s optimistic view of humankind is not supported by history. Human history makes it clear that humans, as someone once said, “have a propensity to “spoil” things”. Forgiveness, on the other hand has the power to restore, to make whole, to transform and to free us from guilt, arrogance and self-centeredness!
In fact, forgiveness according to the Mayo-clinic has a number of benefits: Healthier relationships, improved mental health, less anxiety, stress and hostility, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, a stronger immune system, improved heart health, and improved self-esteem.
In our Gospel reading Peter approaches Jesus with an interesting question: “How often should I forgive?” In Judaismwhen you ask someone for forgiveness, he or she is allowed to turn you down. If this happens, you should return a second time and if you are turned down again, then you should go a third time- this time with three witnesses, and ask for forgiveness again. If the victim won’t forgive you after three tries, then you’re considered to have atoned, even if you have not been granted forgiveness.
When Peter therefor asks: “Should I forgive as many as 7 times?”, he is taking it to another level already! He must have noticed that Jesus is someone who is kind and gentle – one who is willing to forgive. Jesus responds: “Seventy-seven times! Or as some ancient readings have it, “seventy times seven”. Does it mean only 77 times or 490 times?
Jesus’ answer goes back to Genesis 4:24: “If Cain is avenged 7 times, Lamech will be avenged 70 times seven.” In this chapter it is about Lamech who takes it upon himself to revenge recklessly and without any limits! This story of unlimited revenge is linked to the story in Genesis of the increase in sin and the devastating effect increasing sin has on life. Let me remind you that in Genesis first there is the Fall, then a brother who kills his sibling and now the execution of vengeance which God has reserved for himself. So here we have a situation where humankind is drawn into a vicious violent downward spiral! Things are spinning out of control!
Jesus, by contrasting forgiveness with unlimited vengeance, in fact is saying that it is forgiveness that slows and stops the vicious cycle of revenge!
It is forgiveness that breaks through the vicious cycle of violence and disharmony! Forgiveness is the key in God’s kingdom that returns goodness and harmony to humanity! Forgiveness is the brake that prevents humanity from sliding into complete chaos. One could also say that it is forgiveness that reboots the broken and violent condition of human kind to return to a condition that is good and harmonious. Forgiveness is God’s chosen path to reset things.
The meaning of the Greek word for forgiveness is fascinating: It literally means “release” “surrender” or “leave in peace.” There are instances when it means “amnesty”. At times the word means “liberation.”
As the word evolves, the meaning in the NT ultimately refers to God who forgives us in Jesus Christ. We then, receive God’s peace, we receive “amnesty”, and we are “liberated” from the vicious power of sin and evil. In Christ we are returned to the goodness and harmony that God had in mind at the beginning.
But the concept of forgiveness also evolves in its use in the NT: those who received forgiveness, those who are restored and liberated are called to respond by forgiving others. Remember the Lord’s prayer includes: “forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors”. In Matthew 6:14 we read: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you”. It is followed by this warning “but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses.”
The parable of the unforgiving servant illustrates how perverse it is when someone who receives forgiveness, who is released, does not extend that release to others. It does not make sense and it is easy to blame the servant as an awful human being!
And yet, we have to confess that we sometimes do the same. We who have received forgiveness, who are made whole by receiving God’s peace, don’t always forgive others. We defend our unwillingness with a seemingly rational and even wise response: “No one should expect me to forgive this person.”
The importance of forgiveness cannot be overstated. I don’t think it is taking it too far to state that a willingness to forgive is the litmus test whether we understand, really understand, what it means that God has forgiven us.
All of us have a rather strong reaction when we read this parable: How can it be that someone who was forgiven so much, can refuse to forgive a little? Anyone who truly understands God’s grace, God’s unconditional love, God’s unlimited mercy, and God’s boundless forgiveness, will not hesitate to do the same – by letting go, by forgiving others, by starting new and starting over.
Someone has pointed out that human beings have three options in this life. The first option is to return harm for harm, to proliferate pain in the world by indulging in every petty act of revenge or cruelty. Forgiveness does not play role in this option.
The second option is to hide our passions, beat them down, deny them, and cover our strong emotions with masks of rationality and cold logic. Forgiveness is ignored or by cold reasoning made optional.
There is a third option: We can take the terrible risk of accepting our passions and allowing God to do the work of transforming them into the love and joy that properly forms the human soul. The key to this transformation is forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the choice to accept pain inflicted by another and to refuse to return that pain upon the perpetrator. It is a choice to end the cycle of violence and the spread of hurt.
It goes against our natural instincts to refuse to return harm for harm. The only thing that makes this possible is love. Love opens up a new option of finding healing, and turning the pain from the agent of evil to the use of good.
Love does not remove pain from one’s life, or protect one from hurt. Indeed, sometimes the choice to forgive will mean that we will suffer more. Instead of returning hurt for hurt, love absorbs the hurt and returns good. Far from protecting or eliminating pain from the life of the one who loves, the response of love can leave one terribly vulnerable.
One is not left defenseless, however, because although it may not initially seem so, the power of forgiveness is powerfully compelling to the forgiven. The one who is forgiven is also transformed and made whole.
The one who forgives, the one who loves is transformed away from the natural instinct to hurt and he or she becomes more Christlike.
Jesus on the cross took the full painful consequences of the natural and vicious human response on him. He embraced the vulnerability of love, absorbed every pain that evil and human cruelty could muster, and he chose forgiveness. In doing so he conquered the desires that in humans had been turned to evil. Christ became the guide for all who would follow him. He showed us another path and he guides us on that path! We must now take up our cross and follow Jesus in the same path of sacrificial love.
The path of love and forgiveness is a longer, harder road than the simple one of survival called for by natural instinct.
Love is the gift of divine grace in our life, but no path is harder than the path of true love. It “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). The love that will not bear pain is no love at all, and forgiveness where no pain has been suffered is not forgiveness.
It is when we forgive that the cycle of violence and hate is ended. It is through forgiveness that we are reconciled with God and able to start over. It is when we forgive that we serve God’s kingdom, sharing God’s mercy and grace with others.
So even though Bertrand Russell was a good philosopher, he simply was wrong when he argued that it is bad for our self-esteem when we acknowledge that we need forgiveness. What we need in our world is more forgiveness- not less! Amen.