I remember seeing a banner hung along the wall of a florist’s shop. Beneath the banner was an array of cut-flower bouquets ranging in price from a few coins to quite a few notes. The banner asked the question: “How Sorry Are You?”
We’ve all done it…there’s no point in denying it. We’ve all gone beyond the limits and caused damage; we’ve hurt someone, insulted someone, devalued someone. The question isn’t so much whether we’ve done it, it’s more to do with what we’ve done about it. Have we sought forgiveness?
On the other side of the coin we might hang a similar banner over our own heads. It could be on the wall behind our desk at work, on the visor over the driver’s seat of our car, or even over the armchair where we sit and brood over our grievances. The banner would read: “How Forgiving Am I?”
Any insult, any offence can be resolved through the delicate choreography between these two banner questions. It usually takes two to dance the forgiveness tango. Not always, but usually. Let’s review some of the basic steps in the dance. By the way, if dancing isn’t your thing, all these steps work just as well sitting down!
First, there needs to be agreement that an actual offence has taken place. Was it a simple accident, something done or said without any intent to cause harm? Wires can get crossed when we make appointments, momentary lapses of memory can happen to the best of us. Buses can run late, cars can break down, shops can run out of milk, the wrong words can come out. Surely there’s grace enough to simply overlook many of these frequent inconveniences and not even take offense. No point in being grumpy when it wasn’t really their fault. But you’d be surprised at how many times we can take a small upset in the plans and build a simmering resentment over it. Let it go!
“Ah!” you say, “I can’t let this grievance go. It’s just too much to overlook.” Well then now you have to dance the forgiveness tango. Proverbs 18:19 makes an astute observation about our human frailty:
A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle.
When we are hurt, we have a tendency to raise the drawbridge and get defensive. We instinctively strengthen up our fortifications and get all bristly. When Rosie and I have a chance to take visitors to Windsor Castle, I always point out the sharp little shards of flint set into the mortar on the outside walls of the battlements. There’s no way you could climb those walls without being reduced to shreds. And sometimes that’s exactly how we want to deal with the ones who have caused us grief. We shut them out and make any attempt to approach a painful one. But how will they ever have the chance to seek forgiveness if you won’t let them in? Peace and grace might be just beyond that spiky wall you’ve built. You can’t dance without looking each other in the eye. Let them in!
Now what if the patent leather shoe is on the other foot, and you’re the one who needs to make things right. Perhaps your conscience has been bothering you over a careless word or a harmful decision. Or it may be that the person you have hurt has come to you and made it clear you are out of line – well, either by your conscience or by them, you have been asked to dance, and how you respond is crucial.
How do we usually react when we’re told we’re in the wrong? Once again we can get defensive. The wall goes up, we take offence and instead of acting out of honesty, we adopt a stance of prideful indignation. “What right does he think he has bringing that up? It was just a little dink in the door of his Ferrari – he’s the one at fault, he shouldn’t have risked parking there in the first place!” We try to save face by shifting the blame, or we try to quickstep around the problem by dodging the one we have wronged. We twist when we should tango.
Jesus says it’s absolutely right for someone to let us know when we’ve done them wrong. It’s the right approach – just between the two of us, talking it through, listening without being defensive, privately working towards fellowship:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. (Matthew 18:15)
By the way, it is worth noticing that Jesus doesn’t say to do this after you’ve told the rest of the town how cross you are – not after you’ve dragged his name through the mud amongst your friends; the dance does have rules after all. But if the person you have wronged is genuinely inviting you to privately apologise, then let your guard down, own your fault with transparent humility. Let them know how sorry you are. Flowers might not be necessary, but the tango is essential.