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Forgiveness 101

For some reason this time around the theme of Genesis seems to be forgiveness. Adam and Eve find that, as soon as they leave the garden, opposition enters the world in a variety of forms (including noxious weeds, menstrual periods and disputations about how to follow the rules) and as children arrive, the tension grows. My husband used to remind our teenage boys every time they went out in the car, "Remember, basically everybody's mad." Given the nature of the world we live in, it's safe to say that at any given moment, each of us is battling some kind of nagging irritation, and it may not take much to push one or two of us over the edge.

Adam was made from the earth, adama in Hebrew, so his name literally means earthling. (Apparently Hebrews loved those kinds of puns, and we just miss them in the translation.) He and Eve were created to be in complete harmony with their environment. But that harmony begins to crumble as their sons square off over their respective sacrifice offerings. Cain's jealousy over God's preference for Abel's offering is a sad foreshadowing of the endless debates about how to properly worship God, that have been the cause of so much strife and bloodshed. The irony of that would be comical if it were not so heartbreaking.

If Cain could have simply forgiven Abel, or at least agreed to disagree over the proper form of sacrifice, how would the history of the earth be different? Because he could not, sin entered the world. The conflict goes on as we enter the saga of Abraham, in the rivalry between Sarah and Hagar. We don't know if Isaac and Ishmael got along, because their parents separated them before they could really have a shared story, but the enmity of their mothers nearly cost Ishmael his life. Jacob and Esau are our next example of brothers who rival for God's favor (as they suppose) and again history is shaped by that family feud.

Are our family relationships enriching, or ruining our lives? How many of us have hesitated to attend a family event because we will meet someone there with whom we are in conflict? How many of us have harbored grudges for years? Jacob had to live far from his home because of his actions and the anger they caused in his family. How often, like Cain, do we exile ourselves from the garden of familial love because we can't get along with the other people who live there?

How Do We Get Back to the Garden?

Given the fact that disharmony causes all the trouble on earth, we ought to think a little more about how to get over the hurt and anger that drive us away from those we love. Here is where Genesis has a lot to teach us, and it begins with an unlikely hero, Esau. His remarkable response to Jacob's return signals an amazing turn in the narrative of Genesis. Jacob's journey toward reconciliation with his brother has taken twenty years, years during which he has been deceived as thoroughly as he once deceived his father, and in which he has lived with a father-in-law who wished to exploit him as much as he wished to exploit his brother. The man he is now, returning to his homeland with his wives and children, still retains elements of his former self (he sends the wives and kids ahead of himself as human shields, putting the least favorite in front, and keeping Rachel and Joseph close) but he is also sincerely penitent.

As the dreaded moment of meeting arrives, Jacob does as the vassal traditionally did to the suzerain, or lord, and bows to the earth seven times before Esau. It is clear that Esau has also grown more world-wise, as he comes to meet his brother flanked by 400 men. But he shows no desire to punish Jacob. Instead, he runs to meet him and embraces him, and is gracious to his wives and children. His behavior and his comments offer us a few hints into the mysterious process of forgiveness.

A Formula for Forgiveness

As a child I was taught the four steps of prayer and the four steps of repentance, and repeated those teachings as a missionary and church instructor. It is comforting to have some steps to follow when facing a large, abstract principle, isn't it? I've noticed however that nobody has offered a formula for forgiveness. When I am offended or hurt, I know I must forgive, because the scriptures make it clear that forgiving others their trespasses is essential to being forgiven by God for our own trespasses. But how do I go about turning my angry, defiant heart into a forgiving, merciful one? I need some steps to follow! So, with the help of some of the great characters in the scriptures, here's a shot at a formula for forgiveness.

First, we need something to forgive. Let's say you get cheated out of some money by someone you've trusted, and the rat got away with it! How do you forgive and move on?

Step #1: Stop Adding Up the Offenses

Most offenses don't come singly, they come in bunches, and it is tempting to continually add them up, mull over them, and repeat them to any sympathetic friend who will listen.When you are cheated by that unscrupulous person who attends the same church that you do, you can't stop doing the math. Hey, it's not just the money, but the unfairness, and the fact that the person claims to be a Christian, and then there's the betrayal of your trust, etc. etc. etc. Esau teaches a great lesson as he is reunited with Jacob. He does not choose to discuss the individual offenses Jacob committed. Instead, he firmly places the past in the past, and focuses on the present, extending courtesy to Jacob's family and just moving forward.

Step #2: Count Your Blessings ~ You Have Enough

That $1,000 you lost probably didn't bankrupt you; you may even have much more money than you need. And even if it did bankrupt you, you probably have other wealth that is even more important. The point here is that no one person or event can take away all of our blessings. Job came close to losing everything, but he was still breathing, and so he used that as a starting point to build a new life. Esau neither bemoans his many losses at Jacob's hands, nor does he downplay his current abundance. He simply says, "I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself."

Step #3: Realize That it Isn't All About You

As he writhed in agony on the cross Jesus said of those who drove the nails, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." Esau was a clueless youth who gave away his birthright for a "mess of pottage." Jacob was a young, ambitious fellow who thought the ends justified any means. Both men were seasoned and tested by time. Though we do not share in Esau's story, the fact that he comes in state, attended by hundreds of men, shows that there was more to him than we see in the early scenes. Neither man probably understood the seriousness of what they did when they were young. This is true of many offenses; they are committed more in ignorance than in malice. Rather than see every offense as pointed at us, it helps to realize that element of ignorance, and make allowance for it.

Step #4: Know that Forgiveness is a Gift from God

The power to forgive has two halves: it requires an act of will on our part and an outpouring of grace on God's part. Both parts are essential. In a moving scene that will later be repeated in Jesus's parable of the prodigal son, Esau runs to meet and embrace his brother, and as he embraces him, grace pours out on them both. Jacob, who has wrestled through the night in search of God's blessing, finds it here in the frank forgiveness of his elder brother. Jacob marvels at the mercy extended to him, as he had marveled the night before at meeting God face-to-face. He connects the two experiences thus: "For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably." (Gen 33:10)

Forgiveness is a miracle, of which God is the source. Without divine help, we can no more forgive the sins of others than we can forgive our own sins. We can only step forward and begin the process by opening our hearts and minds to a forgiving attitude, and then asking for God's grace to provide the miracle. When we do, we will find that to forgive is to enter the presence of God. To fail to forgive is to forever shut ourselves out of that presence. M. Catherine Thomas observes: “Forgiveness is primarily an issue of Presence, because with forgiveness comes the restoration of the Presence of God.” Forgiveness, we find to our surprise, is the only way back to the garden.


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