“Some things can’t be forgiven.”
Jim said these words as if he were reporting a fact so obvious as to be trivial. Judging from his tone, he might as well have said, “The sun rises in the east” or “Chickens lay eggs.” It’s the way things are. No point in discussing it any further.
It may sound paradoxical, but his resolutely flat delivery and emotionless tone conveyed a churning, barely contained menace and a gnawing despair.
We were eating burgers at a pub near the church I was serving at the time. Jim had only just entered his twenties. He had the wiry, muscular frame of a wrestler in the lower weight classes. His black hair was a riot of uncombed locks shooting in all directions and tumbling over his forehead into his eyes.
Those dark eyes were smoldering with unspoken judgment: “You’re clueless.”
Jim’s parents were at wit’s end. His drug and alcohol use worried them, but it was his frequent violence that moved them to ask me to speak with him.
Night after night he would get wasted, capping most evenings with a brawl. If he didn’t remember the fight, the fresh scrapes on his knuckles and the new bruises on his body told the tale plainly enough.
He never struck his parents or his siblings. But he was perpetually irritable, verbally abusive, and predictably unpleasant to be around.
As you might imagine, I made all the referrals to the professionals that could work with Jim. And I was honest with his parents. Fixing Jim was way beyond my skill set. But I agreed to have lunch with him. To offer him my friendship as a formerly angry young man.
“So, what do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, some things can’t be forgiven,” he said.
“What sort of things are you not forgiving?”
I was expecting him to express anger toward his parents or an ex-girlfriend. Maybe an authority figure or a friend who had betrayed him.
Instead, he said, “I don’t have any trouble forgiving anybody. I’ve done things. Terrible things. They’re not forgivable. I’m not forgivable.”
I told him that I believe that God can and does forgive anything. I thought that he would need some serious persuading about God’s love for him. His response showed me that I had actually been completely clueless up that point.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t want God’s forgiveness. I know I don’t deserve it. I’m unforgivable.”
And that was that. End of the conversation as far as he was concerned. Clearly not one of my great pastoral success stories. And yet it was a significant learning experience for me.
Offering forgiveness can be wretchedly difficult. Conversely, accepting forgiveness can be just as profound a challenge as forgiving somebody else.
As shorthand for the struggle to accept forgiveness, people will often talk about how hard it can be to forgive yourself. But I think this turn of phrase can be a little misleading. Our relief from the sins of our past comes not from within ourselves. It comes from beyond ourselves as a free gift.
When we forgive, we let go of grievances we have. Grievances can be hard to let go of, and we seem endlessly capable of picking them right back up. The temptation to seek relief for our woundedness by blaming or harming another is very seductive. No wonder forgiving someone is often a long, uneven process.
Accepting forgiveness from another involves a different set of struggles.
For starters, we have to admit not only that we have done something hurtful to someone, but that we cannot fix it or set things right. Admitting guilt for another person’s sorrow or injury can be very painful.
We are accountable, and yet we can do nothing to acquit ourselves. Oh, we might try to defend our actions by making excuses or to make up for what we’ve done through some future kindness. But we know that the future does not simply erase the past.
To be forgiven means to hear from the one we’ve injured, “I have let this go. I will not let what you have done stand between us.” In other words, we have to put ourselves at someone else’s mercy. We have to admit our powerlessness and to rely upon a power greater than ourselves to make us whole.
Even more difficult still, accepting forgiveness also means to take the first step toward reconciliation with the one we’ve injured. We do that by admitting that the hurtful thing we did was not just a one-off. Our wrongdoing arose from some deep, abiding flaw in our soul.
And there we have the rub. To accept forgiveness, we have to submit ourselves to the transforming power of love. Yielding to love means to let go of what we have been and to embrace what love will make of us.
In other words, to accept forgiveness means to stop trying to write the ending of our own story. Jesus writes an ending that will give new significance to every episode of our life. Even and especially those episodes that we assumed must diminish us or condemn us.
And that is exactly what the risen Jesus is doing with Peter on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias.
Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And three times Peter answers, “Yes.”
After Jesus’ arrest, Peter had denied him three separate times before the rooster announced the coming dawn. So the threefold question is not a coincidence. It is a lesson in accepting forgiveness.
Peter had been the brashest of the apostles. “Oh, I’ll follow you even to death, Jesus! Even when all these slackers bail on you, I’ll be right by your side.” He was sure that his moral rectitude and spiritual depth would sustain him.
His story was going to be a hero’s tale. He would write the triumphant ending that tied everything together.
And now, Peter has fallen on his face. All of his big talk highlighted and amplified the worst moment of his life. He had betrayed Jesus.
So, he could take Judas’ example and end it all. Or, he could admit his powerlessness. He couldn’t see how he could write a noble ending after such a betrayal. And so he decided to let Jesus write it.
Consider how we read a novel or view a film. Through each scene we anticipate an ending that will reveal the significance of all that has come before. For instance, being stuck in an elevator or spilling a cup of coffee on a complete stranger can, in retrospect, become a crucial turning point in a love story.
In Christ, none of us is defined by the worst moment of our lives. Or even what we take to be the best moments of our lives. The risen Jesus gives us a new life, makes us a new creation.
New life in Christ transforms every episode of our lives. In Jesus’ hands, even the events that make us wince with embarrassment and the ones that fill us with remorse become turning points in the story of our redemption.
We cannot write that ending for ourselves. Only Jesus can give us eternal life. We cannot know the details of life eternal. However, we can live our earthly life in anticipation of that redemptive ending.
When we fall—and we will fall from time to time—we can rise in courageous confidence to take the next step. Jesus is risen. And he is raising us with him.