I don’t like letting go of things; it doesn’t come easily to me. In order to let go of something, the story has to change. I have to decide that since I only used it once, I don’t actually need the tea light fondu set. I must choose to recognize that nobody in my house is clamoring for the Scooby-Do ‘Learn to Read’ books, so we’re probably done with those. Maybe that dusty basket of bleached seashells from that trip to Florida when the kids were in preschool no longer represents for me what it once did? And perhaps, with every bathing suit I’ve owned for 20 years folded neatly in a bin under my bed, instead of being armed and ready for any possible future, I could risk living in the now, and only own swimsuits that currently fit me.But letting go of being right? Letting go of how I know things should be? Letting go of regrets and disappointments? Letting go of something unkind or unfair that was done to me? These are harder. If we can’t control the circumstances, at least we can control the narrative. If we can’t control what happened in the past, at least we can control what we do with it, learn from it, not make the same foolish mistakes again. Control is a strategy we use to feel secure, to reduce anxiety, to combat fear, to give us a feeling of protection. Letting go of control? No thanks.
The Greek word we translate as “forgive” means simply “to let go.” Sometimes we see forgiveness as giving up control, letting someone get away with something, or acting like what happened didn’t matter. We feel loyal to our pain. We stroke it and stoke it, longing for our injury to be recognized as unjust and wrong, and act as though to forgive someone else is to somehow betray ourselves.
Peter has been listening to all Jesus’s teaching about conflict and forgiveness, and thinks to himself, Over, and over, and over again I go through the work of forgiving someone who hurts me. So when is enough? When can I stop? How much am I expected to put up with?
Generally speaking, we are all for forgiveness, most of the time, but there’s a limit, right? So, Peter suggests a good, large, and even holy-sounding number: How about seven times? Surely that is a beyond-generous amount of times to forgive. Right, Jesus? I mean, let’s not go crazy. Surely, some people don’t deserve forgiveness.
But forgiveness isn’t in the same zip code as deserve. They are completely different languages, contradictory accounting systems. Forgive and deserve are more like opposites, since forgiveness frees us from a system of gauging and measuring, and puts us instead into the realm of boundless and unlimited love.
So Jesus answers, Try seventy times that. In other words, Forgive infinity times, Peter. Just keep on going till you lose track. There is no end to forgiveness. No point at which you’ve reached the limit. No lifetime maximum out-of-pocket amount.
Then, to drive the point home, he tells one of his trademark parables with absurd extremes to reveal how we’re living trapped in the way of fear instead of free in the way of God. The servant in the parable is forgiven more than he could repay in fifteen lifetimes and then immediately and violently demands someone repay a tiny debt, and when he can’t, throws him in jail. This is like celebrating sobriety with a drinking binge, like running back into the burning building you were just rescued from, like scrapping the Ten Commandments for the golden calf and pining for the slavery of Egypt.
He sticks with his old identity instead of the new one offered him by the king. He says, “Thanks, but no thanks.” to a life of freedom and generosity, and chooses instead captivity to a life of debt and indebtedness, where it’s all kept track of, and there is no forgetting, no forgiving, no letting go, ever.
Which currency will you use? Which way will define you and shape your life? If you choose a world without forgiveness, you stay chained to the suffering of the past. You repeat old hurts and live them current, you nurse your pain with no chance of release. Hanging onto wounds, insults, and offenses, practicing and spreading this pattern of deprivation and resentment, traps you ever more tightly in a misery of your own making.
So I can’t help thinking Jesus told his parable to Peter with a twinkle in his eye, his words like a shove on Peter’s shoulder, to highlight the absurdity of Peter’s question:
How much forgiveness is enough, Jesus, before I can stop and be done with it already? How much freedom from injury do I have to endure before I get to be imprisoned in bitterness? At what point am I allowed to quit living in a future shaped by love? Is seven times a sacrificial and generous amount of letting go before it’s appropriate to throw in the towel and go back to hanging onto betrayal and stoking anger?
Peter doesn’t know what’s coming—that Jesus will die and take into himself all suffering and betrayal, all pain and injustice; that none of it, ever, goes unseen, untended, unmet. God incarnate will bear it all, all that has been and all that will be.
And they will cease being those who are killing God and instead become those on whom God has poured unending love. Jesus will die in freedom, and release his killers—and all of us as well, taking into the heart of God all the terrible things we think and say and do to one another, everything, every one of us.
Setting aside deserve and debt, punishment and payback, Jesus will open to us mercy, grace, forgiveness, and freedom. All that is dead—between us, within us, around us—is swallowed up by resurrection. Our brokenness is now the ground from which new life is born, green, beautiful, and eternal.
But how in the world do we forgive? How do we let go?
Several years ago, I heard Dr. Fred Luskin speak. He’s a world expert on forgiveness and director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. His work began out of frustration that most faith traditions speak extensively about the need to forgive but don’t tell us how to forgive. And we can get so trapped in unforgiveness. So, he began to study forgiveness. And by the time I heard him speak he had dedicated twenty-five years of research and work to teaching people how to forgive, and to measuring scientifically the effect it has on people’s bodies, minds and relationships. And do you know what his team has discovered is at the very root of all forgiveness?
Abiding in God’s love.
Of course, they wouldn’t say it that way in the laboratory. Instead, they would talk about finding that place of peace within, about living from that place. But the way you get there? Love.
Love drives out fear and frees us to forgive, because all forgiveness, all love and mercy and with-each-other-ness, come from God’s own love, God’s own being. Love unclenches our heart. When we are no longer defined by our woundedness, but by our belovedness, it changes the story.
I’m learning something right now about loving and letting go. After 18 years of raising a person, looking out for them, looking after them, you just send them away to fend for themselves and that’s that. Of course, I know that’s not that and all that, but still, there’s a lot of letting go involved. There’s an uncomfortable surrendering that makes life feel precarious and precious all at once. And how similar the captivity can feel, between regret and fear! Not unlike anger, resentment, harbored pain, or the obstinate need to be right. How much my worry can keep me from being present in love to those I love! All of it ties us up and keeps us chained.
But it has helped me to recognize in my learning this letting go, that there is a kind of fundamental forgiveness to it all, a gentleness with myself, a grace for each other, an acceptance of life as it is. The truth is, none of us can go back and redo anything differently, and none of us can control what will happen in the future. Right now, these two facts could paralyze me with sorrow or anxiety. But I am forgiven, and I can forgive, which is to say, I am released from keeping score, and I can be free from illusions of control.
Letting go, and letting in the delight, the wonder, the incredible privilege it is to love, and the awe I feel at being loved by, these particular, quirky and astonishing humans my life gets to be tangled up with, I find myself unclenching. I discover I am being set free to receive the unearned, undeserved gift of my one, limited life, bound inextricably to dear people I can only love by letting go.
To let go, the story has to change. Life’s not about what anybody deserves or doesn’t deserve. We’re loved and held in a boundless and unlimited love. We no longer need the anger. We can let the pain go. The worry is not serving us. The story of regret, recycled over and over, no longer represents what it once did. What was may no longer fit us, and it’s time to release it so we can receive what is. Instead of living fearful and guarded, armed and ready for any possible future, we can live in the present. Instead of grasping for control we will never have, to feel a security we will never reach, we can let go, and find we are already held secure by love. God’s healing, forgiving love meets us where we are and flows through us, and we abide in the love that holds us all.