In 1971, Albert King famously crooned the words, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” In the same way, it seems everybody wants to be forgiven, but nobody wants to forgive.
I believe in forgiveness. I believe it’s available for everyone, even me. That means, however, that it’s available for everyone, even the person who has wronged me. It’s available for the person that has wronged you. Yes. That person too - - don’t pretend someone’s name isn’t crossing your mind as you read this paragraph.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story about two sons. One goes off and squanders his share of his father’s money on what the King James version calls, “riotous living.” Once it’s gone, the story picks up with him working in a pig pen during a severe famine, so hungry he’s wishing he could eat just a little bit of the slop that he was feeding to the pigs. But then he comes to his senses and he realizes what he’s done. He decides to return to his father, rehearsing his speech the whole way, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son, but please, take me on as one of your hired servants.” When the father sees his son, however, he doesn’t even let him finish his little speech, but immediately welcomes him back into the family. Most of us probably know this part of the story, but what comes next isn’t as well known.
After this, the older brother – the one who did everything right, never disobeyed his father – he is not at all pleased. It’s understandable. “This disrespectful punk goes off and wastes a third of his father’s money, my future inheritance, and now my father is wasting even more money throwing a party in his honor.” The older brother refuses to go in to the celebration and the father comes out, pleading with him, “Son, come in, your brother was lost, but now he’s found.”
What does the older son do? We don’t know, because this is where the story ends. I always thought this was a strange place to end a story, until I realized what Jesus was trying to communicate. In leaving off the end of the story, Jesus is communicating that the ending of the story is up to you. It’s up to what you intend to do with that person, the one whose name just popped through your mind again.
Sometimes forgiveness is difficult, and some people don’t deserve our forgiveness. Some people who are not Christians look at my faith, and say things like, “It’s not that simple, there are some things you just can’t make up for.” And they are right. There are words that can’t be unsaid and harm that can never be undone, but forgiveness – if looked at the right way – acknowledges this. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily say, “that’s OK,” because sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the only thing forgiveness can say is, “That’s not OK, but I have to let it go.”
When we get tied up in bitterness and anger toward another person, they’re usually not the one’s losing sleep, wringing their hands over the fact that you haven’t forgiven them. You aren’t torturing them by withholding forgiveness. More often than not, you’re torturing yourself. Maybe they don’t deserve to be forgiven, but you deserve to be able to move forward without that bitterness weighing you down. So, if you can’t bring yourself to forgive so you can let them off the hook, at least let yourself off the hook. Chances are they probably didn’t even know they were still on the hook. Let it go for the sake of your own emotional and spiritual health.
This isn’t my first trip around the block. I recognize this is hard, maybe the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. I recognize some people are victimized in horrifying and traumatic ways, and I’m not saying that’s OK. It’s not OK, it’s criminal and justice will be served one way or another. I’m just saying that it’s time to stop letting them continue to victimize you. Justice will be served, but it doesn’t rest on your shoulders, and when I finally began to realize that, my shoulders started feeling a whole lot lighter.
The Rev. Jason Koon is pastor of Bridge42 Church in Morganton and can be reached at email@example.com.