Sunday, May 29, 2011

Forgiven, or just excused?

Have you ever known someone who was never wrong? "Henry" was an engineer I used to know. If his program didn't work, it was someone else's fault; if something he said wasn't true, it was because somebody mis-informed him. But he personally never made a mistake.

I'll now remove my tongue from cheek and recall that "we all stumble in various ways," as James tells us, and these failures aren't always private. When a failing obviously and undeniably injures someone, my initial reaction is often to make excuses -- whether I'm perpetrator, victim or observer.

But even when I'm the perpetrator, is that what I really want? Excuses for my screw-up, whether a moral failure (cold-heartedness, impatience, unkindness) or mental error (forgotten appointment, miscalculation) or manual slip-up (spilt milk, shattered glassware)? Excuses minimize either the magnitude of the failure or its impact on others; they're unsatisfying because they're false.

Oh, an excuse may be factually true: maybe I really was under a lot of stress when I snapped at someone, and it could very well be true that "worse things have happened" to the one I hurt by a thoughtless remark. But the intent, the import, of the excuse is wrong. My stress doesn't give me license to snap at my victim. And that "worse things have happened" to them doesn't make the damage I've inflicted any less real.

No, what I need in such a case is to be forgiven. Forgiveness doesn't minimize the perpetrator's failure or the victim's pain; it offers authentic grace and sincere truth where an excuse has only half-truths and counterfeit grace.

And if I'm the victim, I need to forgive, not make excuses or pretend I wasn't hurt. Now an excuse is more comfortable because it papers over inconvenient truths -- that the perpetrator did actually fail and the victim was actually hurt. I don't like thinking I was actually hurt, and I don't like thinking that people I trusted have failed—especially if it's someone in a position of leadership. It hurts less, at least in the short term, to just deny both the pain and the failure. Indeed, forgiveness is very uncomfortable precisely because it acknowledges real failure and real pain. Yet ultimately only forgiveness brings real growth and real healing.

If there's been a real failure and real hurt, pretending otherwise is just denying the truth, and no good will come from that. Forgiveness is costly, but it may bring reconciliation. On the other hand, no good thing comes from denying reality, as Jeremiah reminds us:

They dress the wound of my people 
     as though it were not serious. 
"Peace, peace," they say,
     when there is no peace.
Jeremiah 6:14

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