Sometimes it’s not forgiveness we need to extend, but love.
In the early days of our marriage as my husband and I adapted to life as a couple, sometimes we acted as if we were still living separate, individual lives. I’d plan meals and organize chores without consulting him and expect him to pitch in whenever he saw me working. Steve would schedule meetings or learn about activities at the boys’ school and forget to tell me. While he mostly shrugged off my insensitivity, I routinely got my feelings hurt. The problem was, I assumed he should know I was upset, even if he didn’t.
While we’ve gotten better at communication, we haven’t solved all the problems of two sinners trying to make a life together. We’ll always have to deal with the worst parts of ourselves bumping up against each other.
But marriage isn’t the only situation that forces people to confront daily offenses. The same dynamic is at play in all kinds of relationships—with parents, roommates, coworkers, neighbors, children, and friends. Maybe you’ve been there yourself?
Left unchecked, these kinds of regular, minor infractions can be nursed into bitterness, which leads to all kinds of animosity and discord.
In Luke 17, Jesus warns against these kinds of “stumbling blocks” in our relationships. Surprisingly, He places the greater responsibility on the one offended rather than the offender. For instance, if a brother sins, it’s the role of the offended to rebuke him. If he repents, the one wronged should forgive. If needed, repeat the process over and over, even seven times, Jesus says (Luke 17:4). Clearly He knows something about relationships.
But in Matthew’s account of this same story, we see Peter pushing back. Really? Seven times? I have to forgive my brother seven times? Jesus responds by upping the ante to “seventy times seven”—and not only that, but He also tells a story about a servant who, after being forgiven a very large debt, demands repayment of a much smaller debt owed to him. Upon hearing of the double standard, the master, who originally forgave the very large debt, throws the servant in prison. “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” the master asks (Matt. 18:33).
It’s a fair question. The long list of infractions that occur in my life travel both ways: I’m both the offender and the offended. But I often don’t experience it that way. True, in the big issues, my sensitive conscience usually propels me toward speedy reconciliation. And I’m quick to forgive others, too, when it comes to major offenses. But in those daily interactions with my husband and sons, or with friends or coworkers—when someone utters an unkind word or eats the leftovers I had planned for my lunch or stretches the truth to make the situation look better than it is—I struggle. I don’t remember all the times I’ve made the same hurtful comments or taken the same offensive actions toward others. I assume the role of victim, and if I forgive at all, it’s out of a sense of self-righteous magnanimity.
But that’s not the kind of forgiveness Jesus is calling us to. We can’t smugly brush each other’s sins under the rug because we think we’re so much better. That’s why He calls us to something different in this parable. It’s why He tells the disciples to forgive “from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). Because often, forgiveness is just a small part of what’s needed. What we’re really lacking is a greater sense of love.
In fact, I often confuse the need to forgive with the need to love. Certainly there are times when I need to confront sin and extend forgiveness, even in the day-to-day offenses. But more often what I really need is to love those whose sin collides with mine. In 1 Peter 4:8, Peter describes this kind of love as “cover[ing] a multitude of sins.” It’s the same kind of love Paul calls the church to in 1 Corinthians 13—love that’s patient and kind, love that isn’t easily angered, and especially this: love that keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
This kind of love isn’t easy for those of us with thin skin, who are easily offended by the sins of others. If I had to guess, I probably weigh out the options between love and forgiveness at least a dozen times a day. When I hear a criticism or detect a sarcastic tone, suddenly my shoulders stiffen and my breath catches. I physically feel the offense and wonder whether I should say something. Sometimes I do, and forgiveness is quick to follow. Other times I think, Love can cover this. And it does. Love has a way of doing that.
God has a way of doing that, too. From the annual sacrifice of atonement on Yom Kippur, we get a better understanding of how love and forgiveness work together. The law of atonement wasn’t prescribed for the particular sins of the people. Those were handled through individual sin offerings. But for all those sins that were never addressed, as well as for the ongoing presence of sin that infected the whole nation, the priests made an annual atonement offering. Two goats were brought: one sacrificed on the altar, the other released to the wilderness (Lev. 16:7-10). Together, they made the people “clean from all [their] sins before the Lord” (Lev. 16:30), and together, they offer a picture of how Christ made atonement for us. By His love, we are both forgiven of our sin and released from its power, just as Paul says in Romans 6:18: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (NIV).
In a perfect turnabout, it’s the Lord’s forgiveness of sin that serves as the basis by which we can forgive others. As Paul writes, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). But the freedom from sin that Christ offers is what allows us to love as He loved: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Gal. 5:13 NIV, emphasis added).
Just last night, after a few carelessly flung words, I had the opportunity to choose again: Rebuke and forgive or let love cover over it? I felt the familiar tension and understood the stakes. Then I remembered the goats, how love and forgiveness both spring from the sacrifice Jesus made for me. And this time, I decided to let it go.
Originally published at In Touch Magazine on August 20, 2018. Illustration by Matt Chase.