Monday, April 19, 2010

Following Jesus - The Unmerciful Servant//Are You Mistaken?

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"

Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21 - 22

Peter was being generous. One thing that is important to notice here is that Peter is asking about forgiving people who have sinned against him. This means people who have intentionally hurt us, who have chosen to do or say something that is morally wrong, wounding us in the process. He is not talking about mistakes, those accidents, trip ups, stumbles and messes that happen because we are human and fallible. Telling a woman one has just met that she is a fat, ugly cow is sin. Asking her when her baby is due when, in fact, she isn't pregnant, is a mistake. Mistakes happen when we don't know enough, aren't physically strong, capable or quick enough or can't remember enough.

We live in a world that can get pretty harsh with mistakes. Accidentally bumping into someone on the street will get you at least a angry look, and sometimes a flurry of angry words as well. Even in the church, we can be an easily irritated, grumpy, demanding lot. Someone is too slow, in the wrong check-out counter or highway lane, gives the wrong change, uses grammar the wrong way, accidentally damages our property, and we get angry. We don't like to call it anger. So we call it our "pet peeve". It's a way to fool ourselves into thinking our attitudes about others are more benign than they really are. Let's face it, sometimes we get downright venomous about other peoples mistakes. One only has to look at the entries on a few social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter to see people venting with hot, ugly rage about people making mistakes.

The assumption behind all this anger is that we don't make mistakes, so how can other people be so "stupid"? I think another factor is that we inevitably assume negative motives to other peoples mistakes. The guy who cut us off on the highway was purposely insulting us. The cashier who gave us too little change was trying to rob us. The person who bumped up against us wanted to hurt us. We can't really know if our assumptions are true or not, but they give us permission to give full vent to the anger inside of us. Consequently, we miss opportunities to be graceful, and to show gratitude for the abundant grace that we have been given.

The single most effective way that I have found to lessen irritation and refrain from anger when someone hurts me mistakenly is to keep in mind how fallible I am, how many mistakes I make, how much forgiveness I have received. Understanding how lousy I am at many things makes me kind to those who are at least trying. Even when I am good at something, I can be graceful to others who aren't because I know that they excel differently than I do, and I may need grace from them. It may sting to admit that we are fallible, but it only stings for a short time. The anger and resentment at the mistakes of others burn holes into our souls.

Jesus and Peter are talking about forgiving people who purposely mean to hurt them. Jesus' answer, seventy-seven times, (or in other translations, seventy times seven), indicated infinity. Always. Every time. If that is the case, then how much more should we be willing to forgive those who accidentally hurt us?

Being a fallible person living among fallible people is "grace-school". It is where we learn to love unconditionally and radically. Every error is an opportunity to be kind, a chance to touch someone with God's love. Even if they never hear your vent, someone else will. What do our children learn when they hear us tearing apart someone who inconvenienced us by their mistakes? How can our friends relax around us when they know that you may be venting about them, next? Christ followers know that there is no pain like the pain of anger and bitterness in their hearts. And there is no joy like the joy of offering peace and kindness to others. God is so patient with us. If we are brave enough to ask Him to show us how many mistakes we make, how many people we hurt, we might find that we have plenty of reason for grace to others.

Recently my fifteen year old daughter and I were talking about one of the most difficult periods of our lives, when her dad and I divorced. My daughter told me that there were things about her dads behavior and why he left that she wasn't told at the time, and only learned later. She shared how confused she had felt at the time. I honestly thought I had kept her informed, and had dealt with these issues with her. I think what happened was that in my desire to protect her from being hurt, I told her what was happening but I did it in such an abstract, euphemism-riddled way that it was not clear to her, as a 11 year old. In trying to protect her, I failed her and caused her more pain. She was so gracious to forgive me, though. When I think of things like that, my daughter allowing God to love me through her, offering forgiveness and love to me, how can I do less for others? We all make mistakes, and as hard as we try, we will make more tomorrow. Anger and condemnation crumples the soul and make it all the more difficult for people to do better.

If we cannot be graceful towards the mistakes of others, how will we ever be able to forgive those who hurt us through sin?

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