Three years ago I was in the midst of a senior high youth gathering theme discernment meeting with a team of leaders. We decided on Love Like Jesus, but it soon became clear that there were several ideas of where this theme could go in a weekend. One suggestion was to focus on love through serving, another on loving by reaching out to the marginalized, another on the idea of radical love. Then another suggestion came – what if we talked about forgiveness as a way to Love Like Jesus? While we knew it would be a challenging focus, it was something we had not tackled before and recognized the possible importance of the topic.
Fast forward a few months to the gathering. Almost 300 youth and their adult leaders were introduced to this theme of Love Like Jesus. In my role as leader of our synodical youth ministry I had witnessed the power of past themes, but this year would prove to be something extra special. Through keynote speakers and testimonials at our mass gatherings they heard stories from people who had received God’s forgiveness, who had forgiven others and who had been forgiven by others. In small group time participants dove into the theme text, Matthew 18:21-22. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” That evening as our team met to debrief the day, several small group leaders noted that the youth really seemed to be into this idea of forgiveness and that many were already starting to share how forgiveness either has or has not entered their lives.
As the weekend continued we came to realize how hungry youth and adults were to learn and talk about forgiveness. There were hard questions about how far God’s forgiveness really goes, deep hurt around grudges people were carrying, strengthening conversation about how forgiveness isn’t promoted in popular culture, painful admissions from people who did not feel worthy of accepting forgiveness and helpful sharing on the relief and peace that is felt when forgiveness is part of a relationship. People wanted to explore forgiveness, recognize its messiness and talk about how difficult it can be to give or receive.
This Matthew text is challenging, especially if you keep reading to the end of the chapter. Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness and then offers what he probably thinks is a generous number of times to forgive someone – 7. I can imagine his mouth dropped open in shock when Jesus’ response was seventy times seven or 490 times! Jesus probably didn’t mean keep a tally until you reach 490, but rather that one’s forgiveness and mercy to another should go on and on. More times than we count or keep track of, more times than probably that brother or sister deserves, more times than feels humanly possible. We are commanded to love like Jesus and give to others the forgiveness that our Creator gives to us.
I fear that we as the Church do not provide enough places for people to talk about, practice and experience forgiveness. Outside of perhaps a scripted Confession and Forgiveness during weekly worship, when is your faith community pondering and practicing this important spiritual discipline? Where are people talking about forgiveness if not in their faith community?
The conversation around forgiveness is especially important for young people. More than 50% of young people will have their families torn by divorce. How is forgiveness talked about in that situation? In a culture that seems to put the greatest value on “flawless” individuals, where do youth hear that God loves them and forgives them? When TV, music and movies glorify grudges and revenge, how are youth being challenged to offer forgiveness? How are they being coached to forgive, but also taught what healthy and life-giving friendships and relationships look and feel like? Just because Jesus says we are to forgive someone seventy times seven times, doesn’t mean we have to stay in relationship with someone who had wronged or hurt us.
While the topic of forgiveness may be difficult and complicated, I urge you to wrestle with it personally and in your ministry with youth and families. Read scripture together, have times of (well-boundaried) sharing of how forgiveness has been a part of their lives, watch movies or TV shows that handle forgiveness well or not well and debrief it together, flip through a newspaper and identify stories that contain or may need forgiveness, have the chaplain or representative of a nearby prison or hospital come to share stories of how they have witnessed forgiveness in their setting. This gift of forgiveness may just be the Good News that some of them desperately need to hear.
Molly Beck Dean serves as the Director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Youth Gathering, a ministry that gathers 30,000 high school teens and their adult leaders every three years. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, Brent, two children, Clara and Connor, and the family’s two dogs.