Don’t get me wrong, fathers are equally guilty of uttering the inappropriate seven-word ‘sermon’; “Tell your sister (or brother) that you are sorry.” Surely all of us who aren’t only children have heard it (and the rest likely did as well, it just wasn’t a sibling they were forced to apologize to). And it would be the rarest of parents among us who hasn’t been guilty of mandating an “I’m sorry” or two. It is a poor homily on the topic forgiveness for a number of reasons.
- Forgiveness is required, but it is not on our authority that we forgive. God is the author of all that is and thus is the authority behind all forgiveness. But we can give parents a pass here as they are simply passing along the requirement down the chain of command as it were.
- Mandated apologies are by definition insincere. While penance is necessary to the forgiveness process, if it is coerced it won’t work. We must willingly choose the path of repentance if we are to find forgiveness.
- True regret will be marked by a change of behavior. Even the promise to not do it again has no real meaning until you actually don’t do it again!
- Even if there is genuine regret, this remains only partial forgiveness. It is only the first step of acknowledgement, there is no searching personal inventory, there are no amends. In other words, it is only a step toward restoring the broken relationship, which is the work of true forgiveness.
Yet, the parental desire to see the siblings in harmony does reflect God’s desire that we find restored relationship through repentance and forgiveness. That is why it is required. We are all too good at breaking the harmony that God designed and desires, so we need to be serious about the work of forgiveness. God makes the work easier on us by being the first to forgive. When we become aware of how great the burden is that has been lifted from us, we find the power in that freedom to become forgivers ourselves. Sadly, we too often take back the control that was never ours in the first place when we think that we have earned God’s grace through some merit of our own. Grace is not grace if it can be earned. So, no, we never deserve what we get…thank God, we get God’s love instead.
When we withhold forgiveness even though we have been forgiven, we are intentionally stunting our own growth. We become emotionally and spiritually stuck. God’s grace is meant to be the fuel that powers our journey to wholeness. So maybe telling someone that you are sorry, even when you don’t really mean it, is not the worst thing you could do. It may be the “fake it ’til you make it” sort of practice that gets you moving toward the restored right relationship with your neighbor that is also the way we find our way to most fully experience the life that your loving God has prepared for you.
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Brimfield, MA. He blogs about the intersection of spirituality and society at CultureDove.blogspot.com and the intersection of spirituality and ornithology at https://birdparables.blogspot.com