Tony Woodlief | Author

Easing the burden

“I’m sorry I shot you in the face with my Nerf gun. Do you forgive me?”

My son knows he is supposed to ask for forgiveness, just as his brother knows that sooner or later he will be expected to say yes.

He knows to say it because he knows he is supposed to forgive. What is on the lips and in the heart can be day and night, and so one challenge a parent faces is to encourage right action without engendering falsity. Like when the offending brother’s apology is as the litany of a foreign tongue: I’msorrydoyouforgiveme.

There is work to do in their hearts, in mine. And so my children ask and grant forgiveness. Sometimes they even mean it.

Broad chain closeup

I find myself coming repeatedly to a hard reality, for myself, for them. If God is to be believed in and therefore believed, then forgiveness is conditional. We are forgiven as we forgive. It is jarring, when I stare it in the face, especially when I consider the grudges I am prone to harbor in the darkened places of my heart.

Perhaps even more jarring is the implication of this condition, which is that our every trespass against another jeopardizes his soul. We heap burdens on others. How many of us heap the greatest burdens on those we claim to love the most?

I try to explain this to my sons, not because I believe they are steering one another toward the abyss with their occasional trespasses, but because I want them to comprehend the awful power they will carry with them all their days.

I once heard someone say that if we Christians really believe in salvation and damnation, then more people ought to approach hell with our hands gripping their ankles. I used to think that meant offering them clever words about God. More and more I think it means the much harder and more radical work of actually living out what we say we believe. All that business about loving our neighbors, and giving alms to those in need, and humbling ourselves.

I think about this especially during this season of Lent. To repent is to turn away, to desire to undo the wrong. But how to take back that boulder on my brother’s shoulder, the boulder I placed there when I lied to him, cut him with my words, gave him the passive scorn of my neglect?

There is no path, is there, but to beg for forgiveness? I’m still learning how. Still working to graft the humility it requires onto a hardened heart. And working, at the same time to help humility take root in the hearts of my children.

My hope is that their heart’s ground becomes more fertile as they realize that we are not, each of us, working out his personal salvation alone. The Scottish pastor John Watson put it this way:

“This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.”

Do not add to the weight under which your brother labors, Watson was saying, for you know what a load it is to bear. I hope my children learn to forgive, and to beg it. Our lives are intertwined. My struggle affects yours, for better or worse. Do you forgive me?

On Key

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