The Spiritual Discipline of Forgiving Total Strangers

How do Jesus’ commands apply when we are remote witnesses, not in-person victims?

Some teachings of Jesus are ambiguous. His command of forgiveness is not among them.

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them,” he taught his disciples, “and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3–4).

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to forgive “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22) and then tells the parable of the unmerciful servant, which warns hearers not to be like a much-forgiven servant who refuses mercy for a small debt (Matt. 18:23–35).

In Mark, Jesus says we should forgive before we pray, “so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25), and in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4, emphasis added).

There’s no evasion of forgiveness available to us as Christians, it seems. Yet forgiveness—both giving and seeking—is never easy. No wonder the apostles, on receiving Jesus’ command in Luke 17, “said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (v. 5).

Forgiveness strikes me as particularly difficult in our public square, where we too often not only fail to forgive but also sometimes reject forgiveness as a virtue to which we should aspire.

“If forgiveness had a face, it would be hideous to us now,” wrote Catholic journalist Elizabeth Bruenig at The Washington Post in 2018. She continued:

Forgiveness means having the technical right to exact some penalty but electing not to pursue it. This breaks …

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