It is a commonplace that we call Jesus a great teacher. While true, it is an empty phrase because it falls so short of describing him. Teachers, even the great ones, can be ignored without great peril. Instead, we need to recognize him as “Lord.” Jesus asked, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)
As a teacher, Jesus the Lord spoke some truths which are very hard to hear, such as Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Love forgives. When forgiveness is withheld, so is love. And what is the fundamental requirement of being people of high character, of Christlikeness of character? Love. Love cannot be hoarded. We cannot receive it without sharing it.
I once saw an old man (probably younger than I am now) give a pack of gum to a little kid, whose two friends naturally wanted a piece. The little kid refused and insisted, “It’s mine.” On the man’s face came a very sad look. He was deeply disappointed that his generosity had not fostered generosity in the child but selfishness.
Over the years, I have observed three stages of forgiveness. The first and simplest is little more than acceptance of the quirks and shortcomings of the other person. The flaws are not held against him or her. All that is required at this stage is graciousness on the part of the forgiver.
The second stage of forgiveness means foregoing anger. It requires on the part of the forgiver a willingness to pay a price for the flaws of the other, absorbing the pain without retaliation. It is helped a very great deal if the offending party offers at least an apology.
The third and deepest level is needed when the offense has not just hurt the person’s feelings but has caused a substantial breech of trust. On the part of the wounded person, there needs to be not just a relinquishing of the desire to retaliate but a return to the vulnerability of trust. It is almost inconceivable that this level of forgiveness could occur without the offending person not just apologizing but showing genuine signs of repentance.
This repentance is something quite beyond mere sorrow: It is a change both of intention (“I promise I’ll never do it again”) and of the mindset which led to the offense in the first place. The guilty party must accept full responsibility for the wound and effect a significant change of values and thinking. The apology of an addict is utterly worthless because it lacks this level of change.
Trust, once broken, is restored very slowly. The one who has wounded another must prove in humility and persistence over a period of time that trustworthiness is in fact a growing mark in his or her character.
The Lord is ready to forgive us at this deepest of levels, but if we fail to become forgiving persons ourselves, we prove that we are not yet persons of trustworthy character. And forgiveness will not be ours.