Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:32 (NLT)]
As I sorted through the papers that my mother-in-law had saved through the years, I came to a letter written to her in 1936 by her soon to be mother-in-law, Hattie. Hoping the young couple liked the mixer she’d given them, Hattie sent best wishes for a “long happy wedded life.” Wondering why such a mundane letter had been saved for 83 years, I read on. “May there be lots of love, joy and contentment in your home,” she continued, “forgiving each other as God forgives you.” Praying that my in-laws would have a long and “sweet contented life,” Hattie signed the letter “One who wishes you well in everything, Mother.”
Hattie’s prayers were answered; my in-laws were together for 68 years and, at least from my view-point, they did, indeed, live a “sweet contented” life. Could the secret to their marriage be hidden in Hattie’s advice to be forgiving? Is that why my mother-in-law had saved the letter?
I think of the story of a man who, when told by the doctor that he had an incurable case of rabies and but a few days to live, immediately got out paper and pen and started writing. When asked if he was composing his last will and testament, the man said he was making a list of everyone he wanted to bite! With an attitude like that, if the rabid man were married, I doubt that his was a happy marriage or that he lived a “sweet contented life.”
As I pondered my ability to forgive, I began to wonder how willing I was, not just to offer forgiveness, but also to ask for it. I’m not one to serve “cold shoulder and hot tongue” for dinner, give the “silent treatment,” or bring up past offenses but (and that’s a really big “but”), I also am not one who readily admits her failings. When I’ve committed the relationship sins of sharpness, impatience, pettiness, or indifference, I tend to assume forgiveness rather than apologize. Although my husband and I readily forgive one another, I think our relationship suffers if one or the other of us falls short and doesn’t admit it and apologize.
When we accept Jesus, all of our sins (past, present and future) are forgiven on a judicial or “positional” basis which means we will not suffer eternal damnation. Nevertheless, we should never take God’s forgiveness for granted or treat it as something we deserve. We must confess our sins for what could be called “relational” forgiveness in order to restore our relationship with Him.
Author and theologian Frederick Buechner calls unconfessed sins an abyss between us and God, adding that, once confessed, they become the bridge. I think Buechner’s abyss/bridge metaphor applies to our earthly relationships, as well. The prodigal’s father had already forgiven his son before the boy’s return but it was not until his son admitted the error of his ways that their relationship was restored. A certain amount of forgiveness is assumed in a family—husbands and wives forgive one another as do parents and children simply because love forgives. But, we must never take either the grace of God or the gift of forgiveness lightly.
Lord, give us forgiving and humble hearts. May we always be as willing to apologize and admit our errors as we are to accept both your forgiveness and that of others.
Few things accelerate the peace process as much as humbly admitting our own wrongdoing and asking forgiveness. [Lee Strobel]