Over the last few months I have written in this newsletter ad nauseum (so I’ve been told) of learning enough about what we teach, preach, confess, and believe as Lutherans to apologize (defend) our faith in the face of false teachings and untruths. This month, this Lent Season, I’d like us all to think about the other apology…
Some years back a teaching colleague and Baptist friend of mine were having a spirited chat about Christians and forgiveness. He offered this nugget of wisdom, which I still carry in my faith’s back pocket to this day: “Unforgiveness is like taking poison and hoping it kills the other person.” Why is forgiveness so easy to speak of in the pew (or from the pulpit) and so difficult to “do” beyond the sanctuary?
For God there are no unforgivable sins (though some well-meaning Christians are fond of pointing out Matthew 12:32; however, for the believer, no sin is unpardonable). Why, then, for the rest of us is the list of transgressions for which retribution is the only answer so long?!
I bring this up because a congregation is like a family—well, it is a family—and no family is perfect. A family is as imperfect as its members. And, let’s face it, some families can be downright dysfunctional. Christian families are no different. Scripture regularly reminds us of our seemingly infinite capacity for dysfunction, for hurting the ones we love. We are, after all, sinners, at odds with God from the day we were born.
Most of us associate human forgiveness (or lack thereof) with an apology (or lack thereof)—even God’s forgiveness is offered freely to apologetic (that is, repentant) sinners. Yet it’s easy enough to make excuses when we hurt others, and some people (mostly men) believe saying “I’m sorry” to be a sign of weakness. Some believe that an apology is only needed to take the heat off; afterward, we can go back to living with just one real concern: self.
According to Psychology Today, an “apology is not just a social nicety. It is an important ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person. It is also a way of acknowledging an act that, if otherwise left unnoticed, might compromise the relationship. Apology has the ability to disarm others of their anger and to prevent further misunderstandings.”
Forgiveness requires neither an apology nor atonement to free the one who has suffered a transgression; however, the same is not true for the transgressor. The burden is truly upon the sinner to mend the fence, so to speak. Particularly for the believer before God, as Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew 5:
“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council… So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Forgiveness is a personal response to an acknowledged transgression for which the transgressor was clearly responsible. We say “You hurt me, but I am not going to seek retribution, because I forgive you.” Then—right then—the debt is cancelled. Jesus said that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us (Matthew 6:14), yet I haven’t found anywhere in Scripture where that forgiveness must be unconditional. Atonement, in contrast to forgiveness, is a contrite acknowledgement of wrongdoing and any necessary reparation. Forgiveness and atonement work together to repair broken relationships.
Forgiveness certainly frees us from anger and resentment, but an apology—sincere repentance + the desire to “make it right”—is truly the first step toward patching up, even renewing a damaged relationship. When we mend our relationships with one another in Christian love, we mend our relationship with God. And then our faith can truly receive the forgiveness Christ won for us on the Cross.
(Just as Christ keeps forgiving us, so we must keep on forgiving our fellow men. If this precept were observed, says Luther in his exposition of Matthew 5:32, there would be fewer divorces.)
Until April, may the Lord’s Peace be with you all!Pastor E.B.