St. Peter's Blog 'Enough is Enough' from St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church – North Wales, PA's Blog

Enough is Enough

Friday, Sep 19, 2014
Author: Pastor Andreas Wagner

Contemporary thoughts about forgiveness based on Matthew 18

Forgiveness, no doubt is one of our core Christian values, touted again and again in scripture, in worship and in our teachings. Yet, forgiveness can also be a surprisingly complicated and loaded concept. Take the recent high profile case of football player Ray Rice who knocked his fiance unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator last year. The story made headlines throughout the sports world and now far beyond, since a video surfaced that revealed the gruesome graphic details.

Ray Rice used to be a running back for the Baltimore Ravens. He was released last week. What makes the whole case more complicated is the fact that his fiance has since married him. She claims that she had a part in the altercation, that she has forgiven her man, that they have forgiven each other and have long moved on from the incidence. She accused the media of destroying their livelihood by bringing this private matter back into the limelight of the public sphere. "You are ruining our lives!" she wrote on Twitter.

But women's groups, especially those associated with domestic violence, say they have heard this song before, the woman standing up for her man - again and again, to her own detriment.  Abusive relationships are often prolonged by a pattern of the abuser (most often the male) begging for forgiveness after the violent outbreak and the battered person giving in and forgiving over and over again, you could say something like seven times seventy times. Let us be clear: it is not good, it is not healthy, it is not the will of God that such patterns of abuse are perpetuated, and I say this deliberately against a gospel text like Matthew 18. At the very least, this high profile case shows us that forgiveness can be a much more difficult and complicated concept than it may seem. People sometimes sum up their doubts about the effectiveness and healthiness of forgiveness in one phrase: "When is enough enough?" Isn't there a limit at some point?

Incidentally, that is exactly the question that Peter asked the Jesus. "Peter came and said to him, 'Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?'  In other words: "When is enough enough?" With modern psychology in mind, we could also paraphrase Peter's question: "When does forgiving become unhealthy? When does it enable offenders to continue their destructive schemes?" Peter asks a question that most everybody has asked at some point in life, not always in situations of clear abuse. Maybe it was about your work and all the outrageous things your boss asked of you and you said, "When is enough enough?" Maybe it was about a family member in trouble that you helped over and over again, with money, with empathy, with your time and your efforts, and at some point you said, "When is enough enough?" It seems that wired in our brain is a notion that there should be a limit to the strain people can put on us. That seems only fair.  

But we all heard Jesus' surprising answer to Peter's question. He advises him to offer an unlimited credit of forgiveness: "Not seven times, Peter, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.'" Of course, we have to understand that Jesus is playing with powerful biblical tradition here. In the Book of Genesis, in the context of the story of Cain and Abel, it says, "If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy seven fold." In the Genesis story, this marked an escalation of revenge at the onset of human civilization, an escalation of sin and violence. So, Jesus is really interested in reversing that. He says to Peter: Instead of seeking revenge you need to forgive, seven times seventy times if necessary!"

But is that practical? And what should we make of this?

I can only tell you what I make of this after giving it some thought, prayer and deliberation. I believe when we say, "Enough is enough," we express a desire to protect ourselves, to end something that we feel deep inside our hearts is no longer helpful. And most of the time we should trust those intuitions. But I also think that we tend to confuse forgiving and condoning. Jesus is not saying here: "You should condone bad behavior or abusive behavior!" Jesus is not saying, "You should condone people walking all over you seven times seventy times."  Probably he would say: "Don't tolerate that even once. Be assertive!"

But forgiveness is a different matter.

Forgiveness is as much about you as it is about the other person. And it is actually more about your peace of mind than about the other person's. If you continue to hold a grudge, no matter how justified, and if you allow that grudge to define you, you become an angry person and you become imprisoned by that emotion. In order to move on, in order to be free, you need to forgive. These days, in addition to Jesus' teaching, we have even more reason to practice forgiving. Mental health sciences have shown in repeated studies the effects of anger on people's well being. For instance, researchers at Hope College in Michigan showed in a study a few years ago that forgiving thoughts yield both emotional and physical benefits, including reduced stress, fewer cardiovascular problems, and improved immune system performance. And there are other studies like it. Forgiving is life giving!

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