Pop quiz: What emotion tends to “go viral” most frequently? If you remember from a few weeks ago, things “go viral” when they get shared through social media and email. We might share news stories, videos, short pieces of writing, etc. So if we survey all that, what emotion has the best chance of spreading throughout the internet? Is it happiness? Sadness? Humor? It’s anger, at least according to recent reports from the Smithsonian Magazine. In 2014, Matthew Shaer reports:
“Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, reached a similar conclusion after conducting a study in the United States. “Anger is a high-arousal emotion, which drives people to take action,” he says. “It makes you feel fired up, which makes you more likely to pass things on.” (Matthew Shaer, “What Emotion Goes Viral the Fastest?” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2014)
Anger—particularly reactions to perceived injustice—seems to thrive when shared. There’s certainly nothing wrong with anger, necessarily; it would be troubling if we responded to injustice or offense with indifference.
Jesus understood that as the church increased, so too would the opportunities for hurt and betrayal. So Jesus outlined for his disciples a general method for dealing with pain within the church:
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)
Today we call this “church discipline.” Now I know what you might be thinking, but “discipline” in this context isn’t about punishment but about restoration and keeping the community intact. Still, the idea of having to bear with one another must have seemed a bit troubling to Jesus’ followers.
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him,“I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)
In some ancient cultures, the number seven was conceived of as bearing special significance. So Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to keep a journal; he was telling them that their forgiveness should be limitless.
That’s hard. After all, there are some things that can be forgiven through an apology and some sort of restitution. If I wreck your car, then I owe you the cost of the damage. But not everything can be so neatly measured in dollars. What about things that can’t be fixed through a simple apology? Relational betrayal, lies, manipulation—these leave us with what pop psychologists have started calling “emotional debt.” We feel better when we can distribute this debt around: we might run down that person in front of other people, we might vent our frustration to close friends, we might fantasize or wish for their unhappiness—or worse. In 2009, you might recall the scandal surrounding the South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. His affairs were quite public, as was the emotional toll on his wife, Jenny. In September of that year, Vogue magazine ran a feature story on Jenny Sanford, though you’d have to skim to the end to really see the fruits of Jenny’s faith start to emerge. Regarding the affair, she said:
“If you don’t forgive…you become angry and bitter. I don’t want to become that. I am not in charge of revenge. That’s not up to me. That’s for the Lord to decide, and it’s important for me to teach that to my boys. All I can do is forgive. Reconciliation is something else, and that is going to be a harder road. I have put my heart and soul into being a good mother and wife. Now I think it’s up to my husband to do the soul-searching to see if he wants to stay married. The ball is in his court.” (Rebecca Johnson, “Notes on a Scandal,” September 17, 2009, Vogue)
Jenny’s courage and character are equally admirable, as his her admission that forgiveness is part of a larger, lengthier process.
As Christians, we are called to forgive one another. The natural question is: “How?” But that’s what makes the parable Jesus tells—that is, the parable we’ll be looking at this Sunday—so unusual. Jesus doesn’t go on to explain a method for forgiving others; he goes on to explain the basis for forgiving others. See, it’s easy to say: “Forgive others because the Bible says so,” or to insist on forgiveness as part of a larger moral code. Many religions have exactly that. If that’s true, what becomes of our “emotional debt?”
Come along with us on Sunday as we explore the answer—though for now let’s pause and ask God’s Spirit to search our hearts for any unconfessed or unaddressed anger, that we might pursue healing first of all for ourselves, and second to step toward healing in our relationships.