William Blake, one of the greatest artists and philosophers in human history, said, “In Heaven the only Art of Living is Forgetting and Forgiving.” If you want to live in heaven on earth, you need this art of living.
Life is about relationships, but relationships are often very messy because we deal with fallen people. That means you often get hurt by people even if you don’t hurt others. Then you must possess the fifth blessing: Forbearance and Forgiveness to maintain your sanity and sanctity of life and relationships.
My Grandma had a very folksy way of teaching me to forgive. She said, “Your tongue is soft, but your teeth are hard, so your tongue often gets hurt by your teeth. Your tongue has to forgive your teeth all the time, but now look at me.” Then she would open her mouth and show me her missing teeth, “See, my teeth are gone, but my tongue is still there. You will live longer by forgiving.”
No matter how much my Grandma taught me, I still loved to sing Simon and Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa,
“I’d rather be a hammer than a nail. Yes, I would, if I only could. I surely would.”
We live in a society that often teaches us to get even, or we would appear weak. If I am a nail, I want to be a hammer for a turn. We wonder how many times we should forbear or forgive. We know we should forgive, but we want to set a limit. There should be a point where we say, “Enough is enough!”
So, Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Traditionally, the Jews were taught to forgive three times by the rabbis. That was where “three strikes and out” came from.
Knowing that Jesus emphasized a lot on mercy than traditional teachers, Peter thought seven times should be more than enough. However, to his surprise and disappointment, Jesus said to him,
“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” This phrase, seventy-seven times, can also be translated into seventy times seven. It is a pun or a creative play of words. In any case, this number is not to be taken literally but figuratively to mean unlimited times.
Peter thought Jesus would be proud of him for being able to forgive seven times. But Jesus said, you must forgive seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven, depending on your version of the Bible. That number does not only represent a pun but also a Hebrew humor. Jesus often used humor to teach.
In fact, if you understand the Hebrew humor, you will realize that Jesus was quite a funny guy. Exaggeration is a type of Hebrew humor. He talked about the rich young ruler,
“It’s easier for a camel to enter the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Many Christians take that statement beyond its intention, thinking that Jesus was literally saying that rich people cannot enter heaven. However, for the disciples who understood Hebrew humor, they were laughing to death, “LOL! Lord, Jesus, you are so funny! How could a camel enter the eye of the needle! Teacher, you are just hilarious.” Of course, behind the humor is a profound lesson that he wants us to remember.
So, when Jesus said that you must forgive seventy times seven or seventy-seven times, the disciples must have burst into laughter.
Still, I know a guy who takes this literally. His elder brother offended him repeatedly since his childhood. As a Christian, he was taught in Sunday School that he must forgive seventy times seven, which equals 490 times. So, he kept a journal of how many times his brother had offended him.
By the time he was fifty years old, he had recorded 491 times of offenses by his brother in his worn-out journal. He said, “That’s it. I am going to revenge.” So, he planned to get even. He literally thought he got the license to kill anyone after forgiving them 490 times.
When I heard about this story, I could not believe there is such a person in this world. I am sure most of you would find it quite incredible. On the other hand, when I put myself in his shoes, I could feel his pain. It must take a lot of effort to record those 490 offenses. It is a half-century of burden. Is it worth it?
If you are counting the offenses, you have totally missed the point of Jesus’ humorous lesson. When you count the offenses, you lose your sense of humor. One important thing about life is not to lose your sense of humor. Human, humor, and humility came from the same root word, “humus.” The moment you lose your sense of humor, you are no longer a human. I will talk more about this in the eighth blessing.
Now, let’s go back to William Blake statement, “In Heaven the only Art of Living is Forgetting and Forgiving.” Forgetting is as important as forgiving. Some people wrongly teach that you must forgive but not forget, but the true forgiving is forgetting. The Bible says,
“For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Heb 8:12).
Not only does God forgive your sins but also forget them forever. “I will remember their sins no more.” Recent weeks, I have been talking about Paul’s concept of, “It is no longer I who lives, but Jesus Christ lives in me.” In this case, you must forgive and forget as Christ does.
I understand that, sometimes, the wounds can be deep, and the scares can be big. However, remember that Jesus has the scars on his hands and his side, but he mentioned nothing about the crowd that crucified him. He only celebrates the resurrection. He has not only forgiven but also forgotten their sins.
If you have someone hard to forgive or forget, I understand. I am a deeply wounded person during my childhood by an adult in the family. I could forgive everyone but that person. I could not forget the pain that person has put on me unfairly throughout my childhood. However, I must. I must forgive and forget if I want to move on to live in heaven on earth.
Wayne Dyer said, “It’s not the snake bite that kills you, but it is the venom left in your system that takes your life.” The snake bite will only leave a couple of fan marks on you. It does not kill you unless you purge the venom immediately. The purging of the venom is the act of forgiveness. Don’t leave the poisonous memory inside you to keep killing you.
Another reason I must forgive is that I am fallen being too. I might knowingly or unknowingly offend others. Jesus said,
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Mt 5:7).
On the surface, it sounds like God’s mercy is conditional to our mercy. Just like the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” It is like quantum physics—the arrival could be earlier then departure.
If you read The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:21-35, it becomes clear that God has forgiven us first for a bigger debt than anyone could owe us, but if we don’t forgive it forward, the forgiveness is withdrawn. Again, let us not get stuck in the logic of whether it means conditional or not.
The point is, God has given us no choice but to forgive. There is no room in our systems to keep the venom. The memory of offenses will kill our brain cells. Our head is not created to store offenses. Our life becomes a waste if we remember the sins of others. Life is short; spend it in good memories.
Moses wrote in Psalm 90,
“The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; …
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
If you want to be wise, count your days on earth. A hundred years on earth is nothing. Life is too short for us to spend any moment in grudges and grievances. It’s not worth it!
How do we forgive?
First, we must remember that we have been given the commission and the authority to forgive sins. After his resurrection, Jesus commissioned the disciples this way,
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:21–23).
First, you are sent to forgive sin. It is your commission. Secondly, you have been given the Holy Spirit. Christ lives in you through the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
That is a huge blessing that comes with a great responsibility. That means you have a God-like authority. You can literally send people to heaven or hell. It makes sense if you believe that Christ lives in you, so is his authority. The question is, why would you want to punish people?
You might wonder, if Jesus wants you to forgive people, why did he give you the authority to punish? The answer is “mercy.” If you don’t have the authority to punish, how can you exercise mercy? Mercy is withholding punishment from someone who deserves punishment. If you don’t have the authority to punish, you don’ have the authority to withhold it either. That’s why Jesus gave you both.
Jesus has both the authority to forgive and to fetter, but he chose to forgive. If you have the mind of Christ, you will choose to forgive as well. Why? Because they do not know what they are doing. Jesus said on the cross,
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).
The wisdom behind this statement is that people do what they do because of their state. We must separate the person from the state. Life is like a stage. Each person plays a role. A state is like a role they play. We must separate the person behind the role of the role they play.
If you know that someone plays a thief in a play, why do we want to punish the actor? Instead, you can change the role of that actor from a sinner to a saint. Isaiah said,
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18).
The real forgiveness is to transform a person’s state—from scarlet to snow, from crimson to wool.
How do you do that? By your imagination.
Imagination is the eternity in human beings. Eternity is a place with no limitation of time and space. Even though we are physically limited by time and space, our imagination is not. I can imagine myself in Burma right now. My imagination does not need an air ticket to fly there. I can then immediately imagine myself in London, even though I have never been there.
I can also imagine myself in the past or future. It can do time travel in a split-second with my imagination. In other words, God has put eternity in us as our imagination. The Bible says,
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” (Ec 3:11a)
Our imagination is also the image of God in us because God is omnipresent, and our imagination is also omnipresent.
So, using our imagination, we can turn a sinner into a saint, just as God turns our scarlet sin to be like snow. That is the true forgiveness because if you can imagine a sinner as a saint, you have forgotten his sins. You now see him or her in a new person.
In fact, history has proven that imaginations do come true. The inventions we are enjoying right now were once only an imagination.
I have heard about a man who rescued the sex slaves and called them “little princesses” every day no matter how much low self-worth they felt. They all eventually transformed into ladies of good characters. We may call it self-fulfilling prophecies.
Sometimes, our ego does not want to set people free. We prefer to punish people for their sins to satisfy our ego, or maybe to satisfy our own low self-worth. We don’t want to exercise mercy. As mentioned previously, we can be spiritual people doing unspiritual things, which Paul called the “carnal people.”
However, if you are a Christian, you have been given the scepter of Jesus Christ to forgive or to fetter. God maintains your free will. God ever encourages you to exercise mercy but never coerce you to do so. You must know that it is by setting others free that you reveal your freedom.
Claim this blessing, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Mat 5:7).
Here’s your homework this week. Meditate on this verse,
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:23).
Imagine what authority you have been given by Christ. Imagine this special blessing that comes with a special responsibility. Imagine how you are going to use it if you have the mind of Christ. Imagine your freedom to show mercy.
Think about someone you need to forgive and imagine the new person you want to see in them. Exercise your mercy with your imagination.
Let us all exercise the blessing of mercy and see miracles happen in our relationships.
Please feel free to leave your comments. I would love to read your thoughts and opinions.