While I was watching a TV drama recently, I was struck by a statement from one of the characters that, if you are wronged, you have to totally forgive, with no thought of revenge. It’s either/or. There is no middle ground. I found myself recoiling from this idea. I was surprised by my reaction, since this sounds like good Christian theology. Jesus made it very clear that his followers need to be forgiving people:

“If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

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?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

 Why did I react so strongly to a statement that was in harmony with what Jesus taught? I think it’s because we hear so many easy platitudes about forgiveness in Christian circles. Forgiving others is presented as just about the most Christian thing you can do. In fact, you can hardly call yourself a Christian if you have not completely forgiven all the wrongs that have ever been done against you.

Well, that doesn’t describe me. I’ve always found it hard to forgive wrongs that are done to me, as well as injustices I see in the world around me. Is there really no “middle ground,” where I’m working on forgiving, or I’ve kinda forgiven someone, for now?

You see, I’ve heard a lot of forgiveness talk from people who really haven’t forgiven. They know they should forgive, so they say they forgive. They even persuade themselves that they’ve forgiven, but their deepest feelings are still resentment and a desire to hurt back. I think it’s better to be honest and ask the Lord to work with you, over time if necessary, to deal with the problem thoroughly, than to say a few magic words and believe the matter is resolved.

I experienced a liberating moment at the recent ABC Retreat. In a workshop she was co-leading with her husband Rob, Lori Ottaviano encouraged us to keep our relationships open and growing. She said, “Give out a bit of forgiveness; give a little slack.” “A bit of forgiveness” — I can handle that. I’m not good at total forgiveness, but a bit is right up my alley. It seems manageable; in fact, it feels downright good.

I believe Lori is on to something. If we’ve got a grudge against someone, giving a bit of forgiveness here and another bit there can help us develop a habit of forgiveness, so that forgiveness, with God’s help, can become a part of our character. Trying to forgive totally, all at once, may be going against our character and result in bitter feelings that never go away.

Another of Jesus’ unbelievably hard challenges is that we love our enemies:

“I say to you, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:27-30)

Love? How can I do that? It’s so total. Can you give me a bit to work with? So Jesus does. Turn your cheek — that’s a simple act; you’re not even asked to feel anything. Give him your shirt — that’s not complicated either. These are bits of forgiveness we can give even to our worst enemy.

— Pastor George Van Alstine