(Please note: the original version appears to have been lost. The title was still here but the rest of the blog post was blank. I’m not sure how or why it happened. My apologies to anyone who visited this site or this blog post.)
I’ve been thinking about the word “forgiveness” and the act thereof. We hear it, see it and feel someone’s desire to implore forgiveness over others quite frequently it seems. Friends, family, coworkers, our church or place of worship, teachers, and the media are all filled with conversations about forgiveness.
Personally, I think some of us try to simplify the act of forgiveness. There are so many layers of forgiveness, so many various acts and consequences. It seems we get the whole forgiveness premise mixed-up. It can be quite complicated.
I used to work with someone whose mother died when she was five years old. Her name is Micah. Micah said the one thing that bothered her over the years is how people would tell her they ‘were sorry’ after she told them her mother died when she was five. She said she got tired of hearing it and would often avoid telling others. Micah said she couldn’t understand why people were sorry.
It does seem strange how we can so easily tell someone that we’re sorry for something that was no fought of our own. We say we are sorry to show or convey our compassion for someone. For Micah, I think since she was so young when her mother died, hearing the same response repeatedly over the years probably seemed more like an automatic response rather than a sincere condolence. For her, someone saying I am sorry was the same as someone apologizing for a wrongful act.
When Jaren was around five years old, we were having dinner at an Outback Steakhouse near Austin, Texas. We had been traveling all day, from Dallas, and were on our way back home when we stopped there for dinner. Towards the end of our meal, Jaren began to vomit. Then he began to projectile vomit. With a packed house of customers, I quickly gathered Jaren and scurried to the bathroom. One of the staff members came in the bathroom to ask me if everything was okay. I told her my son was sick and apologized for the disruption. She could see that Jaren’s clothes were wet. She showed great compassion to me and my son. She said they would clean up our table.
Jaren was overcome with emotion. Although I had remained calm with deep concern for my son and never scolded him, he began saying, “I’m sorry, Momma. I’m sorry, Momma.” He was almost in tears. I repeatedly told him that it was not his fault. I told him he could not help it that he was sick.
I was concerned about Jaren not having spare clothes to wear home. A few minutes later, the staff member returns with an Outback Steakhouse T-shirt for Jaren and an Outback bag for Jaren’s wet clothes. She apologizes to me because she says they only have a large. I graciously thank her and Outback for their kindness. I put the t-shirt on Jaren, which covers him completely. Then we gingerly walk to our table looking around wearily. I am prepared for an evil eye or a remark from someone. I pay the check and gather our belongings. As we walked out, trying to make as little eye contact as possible, I sense compassion from patrons.
To this day, I still wonder why Jaren felt he needed to apologize. I think he felt compassion for the others eating and he felt bad about what happened. At that moment, I felt like it was a pivotal moment in his childhood. One that could have an impact on his emotional well-being. I needed to convey to him so that he understood that he had no control over what happened and that it was in no way his fought.
In Christianity, we have several stories that are used to provide an example of forgiveness. One parable has a traumatic story. The other appears to be an average familial story. Both stories involve jealousy, greed, and ego.
Let’s take a look at the Prodigal Son story.
We have one son who lavishly wastes his father’s inheritance. When he has nothing left, he returns home. Ashamed of himself and his actions, he asks his father if he can return to the family as a servant. To his surprise, his father welcomes him back home, not as a servant but as his son. He even celebrates his son’s return. The older son is upset with his father for welcoming back his younger brother and celebrating his return. The father explains to his older son that he will in fact inherit everything almost as if he needs to insure his older son that the return of the younger brother will not financially impact his inheritance.
In this parable, we have three parts to forgiveness.
First, we must realize that neither the father nor the older brother searched for the younger brother who left home with his inheritance. Forgiveness is not seeking out and searching for someone so you can forgive them, especially someone who does not want nor seek someone’s forgiveness.
Second, when the younger son returns, he is not cocky or proud. He does not shout or complain to the family that they should forget about what happened, get over it, or move on. No, he is actually the exact opposite. He has been humbled by his experience. He comes home submissively. He knows his choices have consequences. And he has prepared himself for those consequences.
Third, we have a father willing to forgive because he sees his son’s heart has been humbled. His father believes his son is truly sorry and has learned from his experience. And… he is his son. It is easy for a parent to forgive their child. But the older brother on the other hand doesn’t really care that his younger brother is truly sorry or humbled. His jealousy prevents him from forgiving his younger brother initially.
In the other story, Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors, jealousy again appears to be a factor between the brothers. The brothers decide to take drastic matters. First, they planned to kill Joseph. Then, they put him in a well but had planned to rescue him later. Then they decided to sell him.
Joseph goes from being a slave to second in command and a ruler over the land of Egypt.
Twenty some years later, Joseph’s ten older brothers come to buy food in his land. They don’t recognize Joseph, who is now dressed as a prince and seated on a throne. Joseph recognizes them. However, Joseph is not ready to make amends just yet and decides to not disclose who he is to his brothers.
The story then tells us that Joseph wished to be sharp and stern with them to test them. He wanted to see if they were still selfish and cruel. The story unfolds much slower than the Prodigal Son story. Joseph is not easy to forgive. And who can blame him. His story is much more traumatic than that of the prodigal son. Still, Joseph has a desire to forgive his brothers. So he continues to test them until he realizes that his brothers are truly sorry and no longer cruel and selfish.
Again, as in the Prodigal Son story, Joseph never search for his family who wronged him. Surely he could have. He was pretty powerful and had lots of resources. He could have gone home and told his brothers that he forgave them without them offering an apology to him. He could have gloated about his position and his wealth. He could have used his power and demanded they show remorse. Or he could have punished them. But he didn’t. Joseph didn’t allow what his brothers did to him make him hard, resentful, hateful and cruel. Joseph remained humble and true to his heart and to his God. He continued moving forward with his life. Joseph knew his worth as a human being. Not as a powerful ruler over Egypt but as a messenger of God. It seemed that God was working through Joseph and had big plans for him.
Another thing to point out is that Joseph didn’t forgive his brothers at the first sight of them. Before Joseph could forgive his brothers, he needed to be sure they were truly sorry and not the same as before. Forgiveness did not come forth as easily for Joseph’s brothers as it did for the prodigal son. Only after Joseph was sure his brothers were not selfish and cruel was he able to forgive them. His brothers were sincere in their humility. They were submissive in his presence and sincerely remorseful for their actions.
For me, when I hear Jesus speak about forgiveness, these are the elements I think about.
I believe that if someone is truly repentant of their actions that caused us harm and apologizes, then we have an obligation to forgive them. Truly forgive. However, if it becomes a repetitive cycle, as in abuse, that’s a very different story. When a person is truly sorry and remorseful for their actions, they don’t retreat back to cruel or selfish acts over and over again.
On the other hand, we may or may not ever hear an apology or an admission of guilt or remorse from a person who directly or indirectly harmed us. However, we cannot allow what happen to freeze or burden us with anger and hatred. Whether or not we ever get an apology or are given an opportunity to forgive, we cannot allow the actions of someone else who meant us harm to keep us from our good.
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. – Genesis 50:20 (NIV)