Part 2: The Layered Road to Forgiveness

I don’t believe in coincidence. I believe everything happens for a purpose under the providence of God. So, when my pastor preached last Sunday’s sermon based on the very same scriptures I had prepared a few days before, the Lord prompted me to put this message out while it was still fresh on my mind. Like I said….I don’t believe in coincidence.

When I was a child of about 10 years old, one of the most humiliating and embarrassing moments of my young life occurred. The incident happened while my mother and I were shopping for school supplies in our hometown drugstore.  At that time in the 1950’s, Mechanicsville was a small place. The only two doctors made house calls, no traffic lights, one barber shop, one butcher shop, and various locally-owned businesses. Everyone knew one another, and the store proprietors recognized you when you visited their establishment.  On this particular day, while we were shopping, and my mother wasn’t looking, I secretly pocketed a 2-cent eraser…..the kind which is made to fit on the end of a pencil. That sort of eraser was extra special because it wasn’t necessary. It was an extravagance.  Pencils already had erasers on them, and the tempting eraser box on the counter was reserved for people who had extra money to spend, which we didn’t.  So….I proceeded to steal it. I stealthily stuffed it into my coat pocket, thinking no one would ever notice my guilt-ridden face. 

Life seemed to go just fine for a few days, until unfortunately, my mother’s eagle eye zoomed in on the eraser attached to one of my pencils. Oh, no! The first thing I wanted to do was to play dumb. Next, I thought it would be clever to try and blame it on someone. For my encore, I figured it certainly wouldn’t hurt to start crying.  However, none of those clever options worked for me. Unfortunately, I was nailed and I had to fess up. As a result, we eventually had to discuss what should be done with this criminal child.  Mom’s solution came quickly…she would immediately walk me into the drugstore, ask for the owner, and require me to confess and ASK for forgiveness. I desperately begged for a lesser sentence.  Maybe have my toys taken away, instead? How about me being willing to have Palmolive soap jammed into my mouth and scraped across my teeth? I even tried to bargain for a 1-year house arrest. Anything, but having to admit I was a thief!  Mom wouldn’t budge from her position. Nope. I was going to confess my offense to the owner, ask forgiveness, and hope the owner didn’t call the police. When we walked into that drugstore, I was scared and embarrassed, especially because other customers were within earshot to hear of my misdeed. Additionally, I didn’t relish the idea of bread and water being my mealplan if I happened to be arrested. The store proprietor had no idea I had stolen anything. Why ruin a good day for me? No matter what…reconciliation was the order of the day in mom’s world.

In God’s world, the importance of  person-to-person reconciliation cannot be stressed enough. Jesus teaches in Matt. 5:23-24, “If you’re offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Jesus was exposing the depth to which we can be blind to our sin in the prior verses (vs. 21-22). Namely, we may be able to say we haven’t murdered anyone, but have we been angry at someone in our heart? The general principle is one we don’t want to miss. Think about what Jesus is getting at here…God considers the attempt to make peace with someone, to be a prerequisite as to how acceptably He receives your sacrifices to Him. Go make peace first, THEN come back and continue your worship of Him. The Lord commands us to do it in that order. He doesn’t say, “It would be a good idea,” or “I encourage you to do it this way.” Or, “After you’ve finished offering your worship, don’t forget to go make amends.”  It’s as if He’s saying, “How much do you love me? Do you love me as much as I’ve already loved you (through the reconciliation of the Cross), that you’re willing to take the initiative, humble yourself and seek peace for my glory?” (Please don’t confuse situational forgiveness among people, with the one-time saving forgiveness of the Cross. I’ll address some of the differences in my next post.)

Are you aware of your possible sin against someone, but have done nothing about it?  I have to admit I’m not very quick to ask forgiveness of people. I  find it much easier to ask God’s forgiveness, because He already knows how sinful I am. Why is asking forgiveness from people so hard for me? How about you? Why have we tried our best to avoid doing the right thing, just as I did about the eraser even though I knew I was wrong? What does it say about our heart when we excuse, blameshift, rationalize or justify our wrongdoing? The answer is, we don’t like to be exposed. Consequently, for us to ask forgiveness is an admission of our guilt in some specific way.  Of course, it’s easy to generically characterize the human race as broken, but when we have to name and take ownership of our own falleness, it gets really personal. This position of humility may open us up to possible rejection, makes us appear weak, and dispels the false idea that we can commit our sins in secret.  We want to be seen by others as kind and considerate. I wanted that drugstore proprietor to think I was a nice, honest kid. I had a reputation to protect.  I surely didn’t want anyone to hear about the covert sin which dwells in my heart. Consequently, when we have to admit an intentional, self-focused offense against someone, our selfishness is laid bare. Our heart is openly viewed by others via our actions. It’s a situation where we take a chance that someone may not like us as much, or be as impressed with us. Our good-looking cover gets blown, possibly opening us up to judgment, embarrassment,  and rejection. 

When we have to ask someone to forgive our offense against them, it takes godly courage. It takes verbally letting our guard down, allowing someone to see our evil heart, and possibly giving someone the opportunity to wound us based on their response. The person-to-person process of forgiveness is meant to bring peace between people, but what to do when the offended party may not be in a reciprocal frame of mind? Suppose you go to a friend you’ve offended, and said, “Tom, it was wrong of me to talk to you the way I did the other day. Will you forgive me?” And suppose Tom’s reply is, “Well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s unforgivable.  You should know better.” Or, “I’m done being the one dumped on. You do this all the time. We’re done.” What do you do then? Appropriately,  there should be more conversation in an attempt to sincerely understand your friend’s position, but at some point, a decision needs to be made. It may just be you’ll continue to pursue the relationship as long as the offended party is willing to seriously dialogue. If and when the conversation becomes exclusively an opportunity for them to rail on you, then it’s time to rethink how to proceed.  In Romans 12:18, the Word says,  “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” God realizes we can’t control other people’s responses, so He makes it clear that we’re to do our part in seeking peace to the best of our ability. Our effort honors Christ regardless as to whether it turns out to bring peace. (I’ll talk more about this kind of situation in the next post…..dealing with unrepentant people.)

Asking forgiveness usually results in some kind of healing, and often can be messy, but it’s always the right thing to do when you suspect you’ve offended someone. An unwillingness to pursue peace is always a matter of the heart. Being grateful for our reconciled relationship with God through Christ’s sacrifice is what gives us the desire to do the right thing.  Our “thanksgiving tank” is sadly low if we refuse to ask forgiveness because of pride, fear, stubbornness, or any other foolish excuse. I was young when I balked at asking forgiveness for that eraser way back when, but I still frequently have the same cowardly self-talk going on when I hesitate to do what is right. I often have to ask the Lord to fill my tank with reminders of His undeserved love and sacrifice for me.

A multitude of Scripture verses address the topic of forgiveness.  In this post, I’ve only briefly touched on one side of it…asking forgiveness.  My next post will address the situation of what to do and how to proceed when YOU’RE the one who gets sinned against, and granting forgiveness is required.   Stay tuned for, “The Layered Road to Forgiveness: Part 3” to appear in January.

TurnAround and do your part…. strive to make peace. Merry Christmas!