Could you forgive your captors if you were a former POW? Or forgive the murderer of your child?
Thankfully, few of us have been tested this way on our ability to forgive. And when we think hypothetically about such situations, we are not even sure we could do it. But most of us have had some experience with less dramatic cases, i.e. the more ordinary situations of offense, injury and forgiveness in our relationships.
It’s still not easy, even in these more common situations. Sometimes we elect not to forgive at all. Other times we think we are forgiving but we do something else: We “win,” we shame the other, we exact a just penalty or perhaps we seek apologies to gain attention for our injuries.
All of our relationships are at stake, even the easy ones that have never had an issue requiring forgiveness. Have you ever become aware that your good standing with someone is only because you’ve managed not to piss them off? Somehow you intuit that this person’s practice of forgiveness would not be pretty, or even possible. One can sniff out whether a person has the capacity to forgive and whether acceptance is tentative.
So it matters how we forgive. A lot is at stake, and a lot of benefits are available. It makes us happy, finding health, well-being and a freed conscience. It brings spiritual benefit also. Those in the Christian tradition will know from the “debts” (“trespasses”) line of the Lord’s Prayer that as we forgive others, that’s how we are forgiven. One’s status with God is seen vis-à-vis his or her status with others.
A Forgiveness Primer
Using the story of the Prodigal Son will give us a powerful and meaningful framework to unpack the right practice of forgiveness. A few readers might wonder whether this limits this message to a Christian audience, but it does not. Discussions of forgiveness from other religions, and from psychological research, have a remarkable similarity in how the practice is defined. The Prodigal Son story is quite universal.
You may already know the story well: The younger son asks his father for his inheritance before it is due, then leaves home to spend it all. When his money runs out, and his circumstances become quite dire, he realizes that the resources back home with his father were quite plentiful and he determines to return. He practices an apology, including a strategy to work off his offense by taking a servant role, and sets out for home.
On sight of his younger son, the father runs to greet him. The apology is not even finished when the father orders a celebration to signify his return. This party infuriates the older brother. He refuses to celebrate because his younger brother sinned and insulted his father while he (the older bro) had stayed faithful and close (which has never been celebrated with a party, he complains, despite his constant obedience). The story ends with the father pleading with the older brother to join the celebration and we are not told how the older son responds to this.
From this story we draw this guidance for the practice of forgiveness.
Attitude Toward the Offense
How do we regard an offense as it happens? What is our attitude in the aftermath, prior to any apology or reconciliation? In the story, this has to do with how the insulted one (the father) treats events as they unfold, and his attitude during the time when the son is away.
Patience while the offense plays out. Sometimes we jump in quickly to prevent or sharply counter the insult. This will gain compliance but not solve the persisting issue. Intervening to stop an offense is sometimes necessary, of course, when for example the safety of our children is at stake. But in other situations patience is the wiser course. If we snap a quick, threatening warning we will have prevented the offense, but the issue still circulates in his or her heart to come back another time.
The prodigal’s father heard an insult the equivalent of “I can’t wait until you die” when he was asked for an early inheritance. The dad here does not want mere compliance, but allows the offense to play out (even gives him the money!) in favor of dealing with the heart of the matter at a later time. In Christian theology, this already illustrates grace: The father himself is absorbing the damages inflicted on him by his young son.
Status of the relationship is not essentially changed while it plays out. When our patience starts to wear thin, maybe as we wait for an apology, we tend to add demerits. In our hearts the offender moves from friend to “less of a friend” to acquaintance, to “dead to me.” But to the prodigal’s father, the boy was lost-and-found over this time but never ceased to be a son.
Predisposed to forgive. This is the tough summary of the right attitude: We are to do a deep gut-check and ask how willing we are to forgive, even after long passage of time. By deep reflection we are to cultivate a readiness to forgive at the mere hint of opportunity. Instead of creating a requirements document for restoration, the simple impulse of heart here is that a return of relationship is at the top of the victim’s agenda.
At the sight of the son, the wealthy patriarch does the unexpected by running to embrace him. He flaunts the common expectation that he should stay at home, arms folded, either dismissing the boy or making him crawl in a show of repentance. Instead he barrels down the path to embrace his lost son. The whole village would chatter in horror at this unseemly sight of the father running like an idiot to willy-nilly overlook the gross offenses of this kid and (what?!) hug him and throw a party? Are you kidding me?
The story shows no hint that the father struggled to do this. We do not read of any internal wrestling to balance his competing senses of love and justice, nor that he was weighing what kind of apology to accept. He just runs. He hugs. He throws a party.
Forgiveness is Hard Work
Being predisposed to forgive is a matter of attitude deep within; when the actual forgiveness occurs it’s time for these intentions to be realized.
Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
The work of forgiveness is all the forgiver’s. Deciding in advance to be forgiving, per the above, will prepare us for this step. Yet at the moment of truth, on approach of the offender, an innate sense of justice rises up to object to what we are about to do. Justice will tell us that people reap what they sow and no one should get off free. This is not wrong-headed, for justice is a virtue. But it’s not as if we are making a wrong into a right. No, the penalty is still there, it’s just that we offer to absorb it ourselves.
We pay for the offender’s penalty in that his or her shame is absorbed by us. We risk the reputation that we are soft on justice. People will—as they certainly did with the prodigal father—snicker behind our backs that we were a patsy, and they will falsely think that we approved the offense (which is not what is happening here).
We get to practice a shocking, even scandalous, grace like the father in this story. This judicial transaction takes place in a courtroom of the heart, one we get to control entirely in ourselves, deciding whether to leave a person in their sins or to show mercy instead.
The outcome of forgiveness exceeds expectations. Like the father in the story, we can offer a restoration that is not conditioned by whether the apology is adequate, sincere, or contains promises to do better. We can refresh the bond simply upon the value of the relationship itself, and built entirely on our unconditional love.
The boy came home expecting demoted status to “servant,” yet the father calls him “son.” The boy came home expecting to pay for his sins by working off the debt, yet the father pays for a party instead. Yes, the boy had to get up and return, to approach his father, but he was accepted even before he could start his speech. Appropriately, he dropped the scheme to work it off, and simply said he was not worthy to be a son.
Of course he is not worthy. Worthiness is not the point. (I would not want to be friends with anyone who regards me as “worthy” to be his friend.) Indeed, it is not by worthiness that any of us are in any relationship, but by the mutual grace we show to each other, creating an unearned bond.
Epilogue: Enthusiasm for Forgiveness
The parable of the Prodigal Son was spoken in response to Jesus’ critics who disliked his friendship with sinners. These critics then were like the older brother in the story, unwilling to come to the party to celebrate the forgiveness of the wayward younger brother who appears to get off freely.
We do not know if the older brother joins the fest, leaving an open question for us: Will we come to the party to enthusiastically celebrate this kind of forgiveness? Will we go beyond mere forgiveness and become enthusiastic champions of a scheme that gets offenders off scot-free? (No wonder the New Testament teaches that the gospel is scandalous!)
Given the human condition, we might not be capable of this without some kind of spiritual transformation. There’s even a body of research that describes this difficulty in psychological terms, showing that lack of forgiveness correlates to neuroses. Neurotic or not, I can see areas of my heart that are too much attuned to justice and my sense of being wronged in order to do this easily. I mean, c’mon. Some stuff is just wrong and I’m not going to let it go.
But understood another way, when forgiveness is seen as a radical act, it can be quite thrilling to set up a kind of courtroom of the heart, take the penalty away myself and then enjoy the release and healing that comes from it.
After saying all this, it must be acknowledged that not all of us can go to the party. In light of practicalities of deep injury, some forgiveness is not followed by restoration. The most common example is among any married friends who say “I’ve forgiven him, but we cannot stay married.” It happens.
Another instance occurs when a person simply decides that they do not want to forgive or restore. Sometimes this is covered up falsely with protests that the apology is inadequate or something, but we have already seen how this is not an impediment. The truth is that some people just plain do not want the relationship and do not move to forgive, even if they are approached for it.
The Sum of the Matter
If we mean to practice forgiveness well, these points will help us fuel all of our relationships, from the easiest to the most trying:
- Be patient as the offense plays out, keep the status intact till the bond is restored, and be predisposed, even eager, to forgive.
- If you want the relationship, do the entire work of forgiving, even if the apologies are lacking on approach, and exceed the offender’s expectations in what is granted.
- Be enthused about this opportunity to undo the surly legalisms that would make you temper your grace with conditions. Here’s your chance to be bigger than the law. (“Mercy triumphs over judgment,” James 2:13)