09/12/2012 12:42 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

Can We Forgive Others as Well as Ourselves?

Forgiveness is not something that many people seem to take seriously. And yet, for those of us who are Christians, forgiveness is a part of who we are and what we believe. Matthew 18 reads as follows: "Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, '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 seven times seventy.'"

What is it about the repetition of forgiving someone that Jesus thought makes a difference? I wonder if it has something to do with our penchant to flippantly say "OK" when someone says "I'm sorry" for something they did. Do we really take the time to consider their apology? Part of forgiving someone, I think, requires a conversation with that person -- not just a flippant "OK." Perhaps it is helpful for us to know why they did what they did, or what their thought process was behind doing what they did -- and that requires a conversation.

Besides, can you truly forgive someone from your heart flippantly? Jesus says that we must "forgive our brother or sister from our heart" (Matthew 18:35). That requires doing more than just accepting their apology. It requires taking the time to search our heart and ensure that when we forgive, we are able to do so from our heart and not continue to harbor ill-will towards that person. I sometimes wonder if we "forgive" someone flippantly because then we do not have to deal with being misunderstood or finding ourselves in conflict with the other person. Confrontation is not one of our strong suits, and so we often find ways around having to confront someone for something they have done wrong that directly affects us or has deeply hurt us.

Forgiveness is on my mind because for my Jewish colleagues, family and friends, the High Holy Days, which are approaching, offer an opportunity for one to seek forgiveness and to be written in the Book of Life for another year. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the most holy of days. During the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, people search their hearts and minds and seek forgiveness from others and from God.

Forgiveness is also on my mind because a part of saying goodbye to my mother involved my thanking her for what she was able to protect me from, and forgiving her for those things from which she could not protect me. My being able to do this with my mother brought me a great deal of peace and enabled my wound to be "deep but clean."

The other part of forgiveness that I think is also important is that we forgive ourselves. When we harbor anger or hurt within ourselves, we use up so much energy holding onto that anger or hurt. One man to whom I provided pastoral care could not let go of the fact that he had stolen a candy bar when he was a child. Stealing was a "sin" and so he was going to go to "hell" when he died. This came out when he was talking about his fear of dying. This man had lived a life of providing for those who were the "least of these" -- those without food and housing and clothing. He was a philanthropist and very generous. And, yet, his main concern was that he was going to go to hell for stealing a candy bar for himself and his starving siblings during the depression. During our conversations, it became clear that he had sought and received forgiveness from God but he had not been able to forgive himself. He had carried this "sin" around with him all his life, and it weighed heavily upon his heart. It was only after we talked and prayed about his forgiving himself, that he was able to find peace before he died.

We are often harder on ourselves than God is on us. That is what grace is all about. God's grace is amazing and is freely given to us, particularly when we have sought forgiveness from our hearts. And yet, we often can't forgive ourselves or others for the human mistakes we make. God doesn't expect us to be perfect -- we are human. If we were perfect, there would have been no reason for God to give God's Son for us.

But God does expect us to forgive and to seek forgiveness, which includes forgiving ourselves, because we have to love ourselves as we love our neighbor (Matthew 22:29). This means both giving and accepting forgiveness. So, I encourage you to search within yourself to see if you are holding back from forgiving others. And further, to search within yourself and see if you are withholding forgiveness from yourself. Don't wait until you are dying and have carried guilt around with you. Give yourself some of the amazing grace and love God gives to you so freely. Forgive others from your heart, and also forgive yourself -- from your heart.