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Lessons in Forgiveness

I am better at sinning than asking forgiveness. This morning, as if to prove this, I found myself thinking about a situation that came up a couple of years ago. For weeks I had been trying to figure out something with a nearby bank—something that should have been simple. It had been a comedy of errors. Every time I tried to do something (anything!), it seemed that their incompetence or ignorance conspired against me. I would receive a phone call telling me to come in and sign papers, but when I got there I would be told that the papers were actually still at the head office. The next time I went to the bank they ran around the branch scraping together some paperwork, all the while calling across the branch with personal details of my account and its contents (despite all kinds of other customers milling about). After a couple of weeks of this I had to admit that I had been holding on just to satisfy my own morbid curiosity as to whether they could actually follow through on any of their promises.

Finally I was told I could drop by to fill out the paperwork for a safe deposit box they had reserved for me. When I arrived at the branch I was told that all of the boxes were already spoken for. A little vein in my forehead started throbbing. I tried to explain with decreasing self-control that every time they called me to the branch I took time out of my day only to find that they had been wrong. The girl behind the counter explained that her manager and all other superiors were out at the moment but that they would call me when they arrived later. Of course I could also wait at the bank if I preferred. I rolled my eyes, barked something grumpy and stormed away with a black rain cloud over my head.

Fifteen minutes after I got home the branch called and left a message to say that there was a safe deposit box for me after all. Once again I headed back to the branch just hoping that I’d be able to get in a word or two with that manager. There was so much I wanted to say. I was ready. I was prepped.

I got to the bank and stood in line. In just a few seconds it was my turn and I marched up to the wicket to see the same girl there that I had spoken to that morning. This was going to be good. It was time for some justice.

And right then and there, God whacked me on the chest with a two-by-four. Or if felt like it, anyway. It was like my conscience was something physical, something palpable and something that was anxious to burst out of my chest. Suddenly I didn’t feel like fighting. All I could say was, “I’m sorry I was a jerk this morning.” She replied as people always seem to: “That’s okay!” And I said, “No, it isn’t okay. I shouldn’t have acted like that and I’m sorry.” And then, after many more delays, we opened my safe deposit box.

It was a humbling and even humiliating moment, but I was grateful that the Lord struck my conscience. I needed his help. I learned a little bit about apologizing there at the bank, but it’s a lesson that has been lost at times and fumbled at others. I have many more lessons to learn, I’m sure. 

After that situation I came up with a short list of tips on apologizing. This list has been helpful to me, when I’ve thought to apply it.

Just Do It

Just apologize. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Don’t let bitterness take root. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Don’t let pride sever your relationships. If there is anything that will keep you from apologizing, it is pride. Your pride will rebel against humbling yourself before God and before other people. Don’t trust your pride. Just apologize. If you’re anything like me, you won’t ever lack for opportunities to practice apologizing. As times goes on it may not get any easier or any less humbling, but it will become something you do sincerely and out of a desire to please God and to honor people created in his image.

Ask for Forgiveness

It is easy enough to say, “I’m sorry, ” but far more difficult to ask, “Do you forgive me?” Asking forgiveness allows both you and the offend party to understand that you are not merely seeking to salve your conscience by apologizing, but that you are seeking true reconciliation. Forgiveness is something that needs to be both given and received. Actually asking for forgiveness invites the person you have offended to extend forgiveness to you.

Don’t Rationalize Your Sin

I try to teach my children that an apology does not include the words but or if. We do not say, “I’m sorry if I offended you.” We do not say, “I’m sorry I did it, but if you hadn’t…” We apologize sincerely and from the heart (or we try, anyway). If we cannot apologize without rationalizing our own sin, we are not truly apologizing. It is a good discipline to examine your heart before attempting to make a true and sincere apology. Do not allow yourself to make an apology that is actually an attempt to rationalize the wrongs you’ve committed. Rather, apologize sincerely and apologize from the heart, not as an attempt to clear your own record but as a step of love and obedience.

Learn to Forgive

And finally, learn how to extend forgiveness. As difficult as I find it to be the one asking forgiveness, I often find it even more difficult and awkward to be on the giving end of forgiveness. You may well feel the same. Far too often, when someone apologizes to me, I am embarrassed and inadvertently excuse that person’s sin. “That’s okay! It didn’t bother me…” I may reply. But it is not okay; sin is never okay. Learn how to forgive!

The Lord has been gracious in helping me overcome sin, but plenty remains. I am still a committed sinner. And this makes me all the more grateful that God is more committed to forgiveness than I am to sin.