My wife and I over the weekend saw, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the movie chronicling the relationship between a journalist and his subject matter, Fred Rogers—aka “Mr. Rogers,” played by Tom Hanks. It was a wonderful movie about forgiveness. Most of the movie focuses on the journalist’s dealings with his father, who abandoned the family when he was a boy. He feels hatred toward him and his lack of forgiveness is spilling over into his adult life. That is where Fred Rogers comes into the story—a true one, by the way. The character’s encounters with Mr. Rogers while doing research for a magazine article leads him on the road to forgiveness. But what caught my attention as much is his father’s attempts to set things right with his son.
When talking or writing about forgiveness, the emphasis usually focuses on the offended, whether it be from physical or emotional abuse as a child, sexual harassment or abuse, or the murder of a relative. There is a lot out there on the need to forgive and how to do that. However, one doesn’t hear nearly as much about the offender seeking forgiveness. In our move-on culture, it’s value is often dismissed as an inept attempt to get a lighter sentence, get an undeserved second chance, or to diminish the seriousness of the consequences. And I can understand that view, given that often the feeling from such attempts is “sorry, not sorry,” such as the standard public relations line, “I apologize to those who may have been offended…” It doesn’t seem to come from the heart, but rather from an expert in smoothing over P.R. disasters. How often do we hear, “Please forgive me for…”?
While I know personally the great difficulty of forgiving those who wrong or hurt us, I think it may be just as difficult to admit the wrong we did to someone and say, “Please forgive me.” This coming from someone who has said/written these very words several times over the past month. How easy it is for me to get in my own way and potentially damage relationships. I say “potentially” because admitting wrong and asking forgiveness is a powerful way to mitigate the damage of an offense. It allows us to truly move on in relationships.
In all of my recent confessions, there has been one constant—the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Several months ago, I said something to another person that almost immediately I knew was wrong to say. I put those thoughts aside, rationalizing that it wasn’t really that big of deal (and the person actually said that when I later sought forgiveness), but the sense of conviction never left me. Finally, I gave up my pride, confessed, and asked for forgiveness. In another instance, I was confronted with a decision I had made. Immediately upon reading a letter from the offended party, I was overwhelmingly convicted that the decision was wrong. In a letter of response and then a phone call, I confessed my wrong and asked for forgiveness.
In my experience, however, I don’t see many believers responding this way when they wrong others, knowingly or unknowingly. They just move on. I think pride is the big reason. It is so difficult and so against our human nature to admit in specific terms that we were wrong, even when the Holy Spirit might convict us. We meet that conviction with a strong dose of rationality, convincing ourselves that it wasn’t that big of deal, the other person did worse, or that a confession would only complicate things. Or we just run from the truth because our pride is too great. We are loathe to admit any wrong we did.
I have not always been quick to respond to the Holy Spirit’s conviction, but I can say that most of the time I eventually come around. I remember as a seminary student going home for visits and passing the grocery store where I worked in high school. As a night shift employee, I stole food off the shelves to eat during my breaks. After I became a follower of Jesus a couple years later, I considered that part of my old life and left it at that. However, every time I drove by that store during my holiday breaks, I felt a stab of conviction. The Spirit was telling me I needed to confess and make the situation right. Finally, I submitted my pride to him and wrote a letter of confession to the store manager, as well as enclosing a check for the estimated amount of the items I stole. I never received a response, but I knew I had done the right thing. I had been obedient, and immediately felt a sense of peace. I do every time.
Forgiving others is very difficult, but so is asking forgiveness. The devil prefers we do neither. And with deft cleverness, he works both ends of this because, by doing so, he can ensure that relationships remain broken and our hearts damaged by hurt, anger, and bitterness. Here’s how this works: When we are hurt deeply, our instinctive reaction is to become angry and hurt. If left untreated, this anger and hurt hardens into bitterness. Exactly what our enemy desires. To nurture our feelings in that direction, he works on the offender to harden his heart and confess nothing or offer up a half-hearted apology. This, in turn, makes it even more difficult for the offended to forgive. A sincere acknowledgement of wrong always makes the path to forgiveness smoother.
We are told to forgive others as Christ forgave us (Colossians 3:13). He did forgive us without us first admitting any wrongdoing (Romans 5:8), but a personal relationship is established with him when we acknowledge to him how we have sinned against him (I John 1:9). Biblically, forgiveness is a two-way street—I am willing to ask for forgiveness–“Please forgive me,” and I am willing to forgive–“I forgive you.” Both are extremely difficult, but imperative if we are to have healthy, well-functioning relationships. And the Holy Spirit is always present, not only to prompt us in this direction, but to enable us to do it.
No matter how deeply you’ve been hurt, and no matter how deeply you have hurt someone else, forgiveness is doable because with God, all things are possible.
© Jim Musser 2019