Abundant life, life in all its fullness, a life rich and satisfying, more and better life than you ever dreamed of – these are some of the ways to describe the aim of the way of life Jesus invites us to follow (John 10:10 NRSV, GNT, NLT, MSG). And he starts by assuring us that such a life is not far off in the future. It’s here and now, spread all around us, waiting for us to see and experience it. All we need is a change of heart and a different way of living (Mark 1:14-15). All we need is to wake up, step from night into a new day, and start living the life God makes for us and makes us for (Rom. 13:11-14). All we need is to step out of the illusion we’ve mistaken for reality and start living in the reality we thought was only a dream.
All we need – if only it were that easy. But to start living such a new life, we’ve got to stop living the old life that has defined us and leave it behind. That’s a hard thing to do, and few people ever complete the work. But the stakes are high, and if we don’t do it and keep doing it, we’ll never have the life we want. “If you try to hang on to your life,” Jesus said, “you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (Matt. 16:25 NLT).
So Jesus talks a lot about house cleaning. He never put it that way, of course, but he often spoke about cleansing our hearts. He called it “repentance,” clearing away the inner obstacles that obscure our ability to see the abundant life we dream about, clearing away the barriers that keep us from living the life we yearn deeply for, the life God promises. Let go of the life you’ve been living, he said, so you can receive the life you’re being given.
You’ve probably heard one version or another of the story of the disciple who had been searching for years for the abundant life he had heard about. He came to visit a spiritual elder known for his great wisdom and asked what more he could do to gain the life he sought. While the disciple explained the difficulty and frustration of his search, the elder served a pot of tea. The elder filled the disciple’s cup to the brim and kept pouring. The disciple watched the overflowing cup until he could stand it no longer. “It’s full!” he shouted. “It can hold no more!” “Like this cup,” the elder responded, “you are full of the life you’ve been living and can hold no more. If you would gain the life you seek, you must first empty yourself of the life you’ve been living.”
Emptying ourselves of all the illusions, all the ways in which the world has taught us to view life, all the things we covet, all the history and baggage we carry, all the anger and resentments, all the deep hurts we hold onto that never seem to heal – emptying ourselves of these things is an essential process on the way to abundant life. So Jesus talks about forgiveness, and he tells a story about what happens when we don’t forgive (Matt. 18:21-35).
It’s hard to forgive, I know, and one of the reasons is because forgiveness is so often misunderstood. When we forgive, we’re not excusing what someone did, and we’re not saying our injury isn’t real and painful and perhaps very long lasting. Forgiveness doesn’t change the past; it grows out of our decision that the past is not going to define or control the future. Forgiveness enlarges the future and opens new possibilities for life, and it lets us move into those new possibilities unencumbered by the baggage of the past. Forgiveness helps empty our cup and make room for the abundant life we’re looking for, and it’s an essential part of our growth toward maturity.
Jesus says we are to forgive seventy-seven times. Some older translations put the number at seventy times seven. Whichever it is, it’s a big number, so big it’s impossible to keep track of it. It symbolizes forgiveness without limit. It would take a lifetime to forgive that many times and make each one meaningful. And that, I think, is the point. Forgiveness is a lifelong process.
We’re always emptying our cup so we can receive the mercies of God that “begin fresh every day,” as sure as the sunrise (Lam. 3:22-26). We’re always clearing away the distractions of the past so we can see the new heavens and new earth God is creating, in which “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Isa. 65:17-18). What a blessing it is to forgive and be forgiven. What an opening it creates to receive the abundant new life that rains down all around us.