We all deal with repeat-offenders that seem to have a knack of getting on our last nerve and then challenge us to forgive them. My best buddy has a saying that is so perfect in this kind of situation, “There’s no lesson learned from the second kick of a mule.” How do we know when to cut our losses, move on, or disassociate from the hacks? Do we act like Jesus who compassionately dared to call Judas his “friend” in Matthew 26:50, or do we use Christ’s method of cleaning house at the Temple with a whip (John 2:15-16)? Do we respond to repeat-offenders by emulating “Buddy” Jesus from the movie “Dogma,” or the tough Jesus who said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me…” (Matthew 16:23)?
This is so difficult. Our choices run the gamut of engagement, disengagement, retaliation, turning the other cheek, righteous indignation, going nuclear with mutually assured destruction, radical forgiveness, or cautious pleasantries. What I wonder about my own need to forgive is whether it’s so hard because the same people do the same or similar things over and over again – the second, third, fourth…kick of the mule. I find it a little more doable to forgive someone’s one-time misbehavior.
If it or something like it keeps happening, it’s more difficult. The Lord, however, put an indefinite number on the times we should forgive (Matthew 18:21-22). In answering Peter’s question about the subject, his reply was a whopping “seventy times seven.” Most of us would have a hard time doing what the families of the Charleston Nine did in forgiving their killer. I can much more easily forgive someone if they do something to me, but it’s a whole other story if they hurt one of my children, grandchildren, or spouse. “Seventy times seven” is more kicks from a mule than I want, but I am shocked by God’s radical forgiveness for those who crucified his Son.
Jesus himself practiced extraordinary forgiveness – unilateral forgiveness, a one-sided forgiveness that didn’t depend on the offender’s repentance or even their stated desire to be forgiven. There’s not one instance in all the Gospels where anyone ever asked Jesus to forgive them, but he did. The paralyzed guy let down through the roof by his four friends didn’t ask to be forgiven, but Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven; take up your mat and walk.” The woman with a shady past who poured expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet didn’t ask to be forgiven, but Jesus said, “Daughter, your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more.” More amazing was when Jesus was hanging on the cross. There’s no evidence at all that anyone in that crowd asked to be forgiven, but Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” So, I’m convicted and convinced that if I want to be like Jesus then I’ve got to forgive. If I want to be forgiven then the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us,” must come true in my life.
Anne Lamott is a wonderful author whose wit and pen flare with zingers. Her book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, combines a spiritual sincerity with a refreshing authenticity. A lot of it won’t ever make the hit-parade of sermon quotes because it’s more than a little ribald, but it’s so real. The third chapter is titled, “Forgiven,” and it is loaded with her self-exposure in harboring resentment at the seemingly perfect mom of her young son’s best friend. Her angst at this woman hits a fever pitch when this well-intentioned mom offers unwanted help. Anne Lamott’s words resonate, “I smiled back at her. I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”
It is so pithy and well-written! Another section goes like this: “I tried to will myself into forgiving various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years – four former ——— presidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree – it was “The Twelve Days of Christmas” meets Taxi Driver. But in the end I could only pretend that I had forgiven them. I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, ‘If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.’”
Her easier person, her son’s friend’s mom, turned out to be harder to forgive than expected, but she finally gets there, and gives a glimpse of hope for all of us who have a difficult time with this. She finally sees things from the other person’s perspective and understands. It didn’t mean that they became best buds like their sons, or even that she liked her all that much. Simply put, her epiphany was that she needed to work on herself more than someone else, and all the energy she spent raining on someone else’s parade was causing a flood on hers.
Seems like Jesus said something like it with these words in Matthew 7:3, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?” As a matter of fact, reading the whole Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a pretty good remedy for anger and unforgiveness – life in general. I guess we’re people of the second, third, fourth, ad infinitum chance. I’m counting on it. You?