“Please forgive me”… “Oh I forgive you, don’t worry about it”. How many times have I heard that? Or perhaps more pertinently, how many times have I been a party this exchange or something similar? But is this really forgiveness? It took me a long time to see that forgiveness achieved quickly with a few words, often involves one party begging and the other condescending. Perhaps more importantly, I came to the realization, with some help from David Augsberger (Caring Enough to/not to Forgive), that forgiveness granted as a favor to the ‘offending other’ is no more than a form of control. This never really achieves the real goal intended and often leaves the difficulty unresolved.
The Lord’s Prayer certainly implies forgiveness moving in multiple directions; from God to us and from us to others. But I want to focus on the mutual act of forgiveness that doesn’t allow flippant granting of release without true reconciliation. I believe that reconciliation is the true reward for all parties concerned when the journey to forgiveness is fully engaged. Here is something that looks more like “forgive me as I forgive you.”
Probably one of the most well-known and profound stories told by Jesus was that of the ‘Prodigal Son’. If you have don’t know the story, you can find it in Luke chapter 15. There is much to be gleaned from this story, but I want to focus on the attitude of the father when his son returns, destitute and expecting to be no more than a servant. The father comes out to meet him when the son is still far off in the distance. He then treats him as an equal and reinstates him with extravagant celebration as his son. Now, I am not sure I wouldn’t have had the same petulant attitude as the older brother to this turn up for the books, but I believe the story has a vital message to convey.
First of all it begins with love. Love is a choice, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, which takes no account of wrongs. Before forgiveness can happen, those involved must choose to love, and unconditional love puts value on the individual, takes no account of past wrongs and accepts the person just as they are, warts and all. The father in our story starts right there before any questions, accounts, explanations can even start to happen.
Once love has been chosen, the real work of forgiveness can begin. I have no proof of this, but I would like to think that the father accepts he had a part to play in his son leaving with his share of the inheritance. Perhaps he didn’t feel valued, perhaps he had in some way pushed his son away. His attitude, in meeting the son as he arrives, conveys his willingness to enter in to the ultimate reconciliation. He also senses the son’s contrition and sorrow as he approaches this opportunity for healing. His shame has brought him to an end of himself and he is humbled to believe his rightful position would be as servant in his father’s house. But this is not where his father sees him. It is on these grounds that the real work of forgiveness can take place.
Without this two sided approach to forgiveness, the wounds and pain inflicted seem almost certain to blight their futures. Now, don’t get me wrong here, I don’t believe that every journey of forgiveness ends in fairy tale happiness. There is no guarantee that relationships will be restored to their original state. Those who were married may separate. Those we were close to may be more distant. Friends inevitably come and go. Sometimes there are real opportunities for greater measures of trust and togetherness. I have experienced this in my own life where I sadly gave opportunities for forgiveness and was met in a place of reconciliation. Whether relationships are restored completely, move on to higher levels of intimacy or simply go their separate ways, forgiveness opens a door to the future that can otherwise stay closed and hinder what may lie ahead.
Lastly, the celebration of the father in the story for the return and reconciliation with his son puts a seal on the transaction. The father wants there to be no ambiguity about where the son stands and though the prodigal’s elder brother may be struggling, it also draws the whole household into the transaction that has taken place. For those who seek to walk once again in step, to grasp the opportunity and the other’s hand in seeking out that future together, forgiveness is no ‘one off’ occasion and sometimes draws others into the work of reconciliation. So, till the next time, when, once again, we have the opportunity to bring an end to pain through the journey to mutual forgiveness, I look to choose mutual forgiveness and not the one sided version that I have so often been tempted to accept!
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31
Yes, I agree with all that – more questions than answers! Also the forgetting – I agree with Kingsolver – it’s not something you forget but isn’t that perhaps the reason forgiveness is so important in the quest to move forward in life – it’s a bit like leaving a prison cell behind – without forgiveness the door remains locked. When we really push through to the kind of mutual forgiveness that restores the relationship the door is open, the key may even be thrown away but the physical cell and its memory remain. We, hopefully, are no longer its prisoner.
Thanks for taking the time to ponder and post: I’m definitely leaving all of this with more questions than answers (definitely the way it should be!!) Next week’s sermon on Love perhaps? That bit from Poisonwood is right at the end. I quite like that it is stripped of any religious connotations, and is just about raw forgiveness – perhaps the most elusive forgiveness of all.
(as an addend, forgiving and forgetting. Now that is an interesting relationship, and is the one that I think Kingsolver is hitting upon? To forgive is one thing. To forget is quite another…)
I was very much looking forward to the ‘forgiveness’ instalment, mostly because I still have no idea what forgiveness really means. There are people in my past who I think I have forgiven, but when I scrutinise the issue carefully I’m not sure I could put my hand on my heart and say that it is so. But I also feel a very significant dislocation between love and forgiveness: I unconditionally love some who I will never forgive, and forgive many who I have no love for. It’s very interesting that you draw the link between forgiveness and control, which perhaps brings it full circle to the thorny issue of confession.
It was happenchance that I was reading the Poisonwood Bible this week, which has one of the most cutting quotes about forgiveness I think I’ve ever come across, and one which feels very real.
“Mother, you can still hold on, but forgive. Forgive. And give for long as we both shall live. I forgive you, mother. I shall turn the hearts of the father to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers. The teeth at your bones are your own. The hunger is yours. Forgiveness is yours. The sins of the fathers belong to you, and to the forest, and even to the ones in iron bracelets. And here you stand remembering their songs. Listen. Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember. Move on. Walk forward into the light.”
I read the Poisonwood Bible a couple of years ago but don’t remember that quote – really interesting you should come across that this week, I need to think more about what she is seeking to say here.
As for knowing we have forgiven – I am still working on that one. I think that those we don’t love or have long term connections with, we can release and more importantly release ourselves without what I have described as forgiveness. There is little need for reconciliation, more a letting go.
When it comes to those we ‘love’ (now there’s another big subject), I believe that the journey of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation is the only route to those relationships being healthy and for us to have a relatively untainted future. This may apply not only to the relationship in question but also to other relationships we have with those close to us.
Thanks again for taking the time – your feedback is extremely valuable in developing my own understanding, which is definitely a work in progress!