Category Archives: forgiveness

The Prodigal Father

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When the long-expected words came, the sting of them stole his breath.“Father, I cannot stay any longer.” The boy was a delight: free, adventurous, always joking, always smiling. But those traits that made him so easy to love—and to like—were the very things that now pulled him away. “I want to live,” the boy said, dragging out and emphasizing the live. “I want my inheritance. Now.”

And in living, the father thought, he puts me in my grave. Like a butcher’s razor-sharp knife, his son’s words cut deep into his soul. He gasped for breath, steadying himself on the table as strength nearly left his legs. The labored pulsing of his heart masked the shame he ought to have felt at his son’s rejection. With his free hand, he reached for the boy’s shoulder and drew him close. No arms encircled the broken, weeping man. Weakly, he called a servant and gave the order to divide the flocks. The servant, feeling his master’s shame, did not look in his eyes.


Dark nights passed in sleepless misery. With each new dawn, he stood scanning the distant horizons, hoping beyond hope the nightmare was over and he would see his son’s silhouette against the sunrise. At dusk, he stood again — staring, wishing, longing.

The boy had run away once before, when he was young. Scarcely taller than a ewe, he’d wrapped a few loaves and some fish in a bag, scrawled a note, and set out. He was gone some hours; but before dinner his mother found him, sitting on a rock with his arms around his knees, looking over the swollen Jordan. “I can’t swim,” was all he’d said, before walking home, hand in hand with her.

Now the father sat often on that same rock, staring across the fabled waters. As the days drew into weeks and the weeks to months, he’d sent messengers throughout Judea in search of his youngest. Always they’d returned, unable to meet his hope-filled eyes. East, across the Jordan, in the land of Perea…perhaps this is where his son had gone.

Meals were quiet now. His wife and younger son had always made the table a lively place, but she had died long ago and now… now it was just he and Reuben, his older, ever-faithful son. Reuben reported on the condition of the flocks, where the best grazing lands were now, where the wolves were attacking lately. He’ll do well when I’m gone, the father thought. He choked on the final word. Gone? I am already gone; my boy has taken my life. It was right for Reuben to keep account; after all, all that remained was his—or would be, when his father was at last buried next to his wife.

Buried. A final resting place. A place to mourn, but also to remember. He had sat Shiva for his wife—the seven days of mourning Moses had commanded—but had returned often to her tomb when being a single father to two boys had gotten the better of him. There he remembered her smile, her gentleness, her wisdom. There he found the grace to love when the boys fought, to forgive when they wronged him.

He’d gone often, almost daily, these past months. Now his son, too, was dead—must be dead—but there was no tomb for him, and so no place from which to remember. And it was from there that he looked up and saw the specter in the distance: an emaciated and tattered figure, empty handed and bare footed, head hung low.

And the old man ran….
This is Part III in a series looking at the story of the Prodigal Son. Find parts I & II here:
Part I: It Wasn’t Hard to Leave That Day
Part II: Alone with the Pigs

Alone With The Pigs

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(This is Part 2 in a story of the prodigal son. Read Part 1 here.)

The desert was no place for a man in silk. Blowing sand pierced the fine cloth, peppering his skin. It stung his unprotected eyes, burned his face.

Weak, hungry, alone, he cursed the sand and wind, cursed the city that mocked him, cursed the useless silk, cursed his birth. He cursed his father’s birth to the pastoral life from which he’d run. An unfamiliar odor assaulted his sand-whipped nostrils; he cursed the stench. Then, through squinted eyes he saw it: a herd of swine, their irritated squealing riding the wind toward him. He cursed the unclean beasts even as he hoped the drovers might spare him some bread.

“For a price,” they said. “Stay with this swine this night. What they don’t eat is yours.”

This night became two, then five, then a month. The famine that starved the land tore at his stomach. He watched in vain hope that the pigs would leave more than scraps, but even their rations were meager and their owner dared not feed them less; even in famine, no one wanted to buy a skinny pig.

Finally, lying awake, cold, and hungry in the desert night, sense came to him. The life he’d so longed to escape—the animals always needing care and feeding, the constant repairs to fences and troughs, the bucolic boredom—these were again his lot … minus the plentiful food on his father’s table. Even the ranch hands ate better than he ate now.

But how could he return? How could he possibly face again the father whom he had all but declared dead when he demanded his inheritance? Could he humble himself before the man he had so humiliated? Yet nothing could be more humiliating than his present state: silk rags torn and stained, body reeking of pig dung, hair and beard filthy and matted. It was decided then; he would return, fall on his knees, and beg for employment as a ranch hand.

It hadn’t been hard to leave that day, so many months before. It wasn’t hard to leave this day, either.

Part 3 coming soon….

It Wasn’t Hard to Leave That Day

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It wasn’t hard to leave that day. The conversation was awkward—”Dad, I want my share. Now, please.”—but walking away wasn’t hard. There wasn’t much to take; less to leave behind. He’d never fit, anyway. The work, the animals, the quiet but grueling life of a nomadic sheepherder. Adventure called, and the city they’d passed two days earlier. No, it wasn’t hard to leave that day.

He’d sold his share of the flocks and with the silver weighing down his bag, turned his face toward the city. Soon, having traded his bedouin robe for city silks, he sought new life in the strangely solid buildings. Friends were easy to find; wine, an enticing invitation. Never again would loneliness sit heavy in his heart. Little did he know that his dark, herdsman’s skin and heavy purse betrayed his ignorance and innocence. Had he known, he would only have worked harder to win the friendship of ones already willing to drink from his bottle. He slept little, and never alone.

Far away, another man also slept little, his aloneness magnified by the vastness of the familiar night sky. At first light he scanned the horizons. Each setting sun darkened his hope a little more. 

The endless city noise grew deafening. The constant press of people—even the women sharing his bed—only magnified the loneliness he tried constantly to escape. The wine only made him forget last night; morning carried memories of home – and the love he’d never acknowledged. Day by day, his purse grew lighter. When it was at last empty, so were his bed and table. No face in town knew his; no familiar face did he see. Alone. Again.

The flocks grew, replenishing the loss of the too-soon divided inheritance. But even as the pens filled to bursting, so the father’s broken heart spilled out its last hope. Still he watched….

It wasn’t hard to leave that day. What was hard was knowing which way to go. The city spurned him, its lights and sounds betraying the emptiness of a false life—and revealing his own emptiness. No, it wasn’t hard to leave that day.

(to be continued…)

True Confessions

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Last November I wrote a post called, “Preemptive Forgiveness.” In it I suggested that Jesus’ model on the cross was to offer forgiveness to those who were in the very act of sinning against him—and that we are likewise called to offer forgiveness even before confession takes place.

Throughout Scripture, God reveals Himself as the initiator of grace. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus’ crucifixion; Paul states it beautifully in Romans 5:8—”but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (emphasis added). Following Jesus’ example means that we must also be initiators of grace.

But forgiveness is only one side of the equation.

Relationships are two sided, and broken relationships are not restored only by forgiveness. Not even the relationship between a person and God. Those who say that Jesus’ death and resurrection bring reconciliation to all humanity are preaching a universalism that denies Scripture.

Reconciliation—whether between God and persons, or between two individuals—demands not only forgiveness, but also confession.

Without confession, there is no possibility for reconciliation. (Tweet this.)

Confession says, “I was wrong.” It is one of the most humbling statements we can make. But even confession is not one dimensional. “I was wrong” is a start, but not a finish. In many marriage conferences, I’ve been taught that the most important words I can say to my wife are, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” According to Gary D. Chapman and Jennifer M. Thomas, though, there is still more!

In their book, When Sorry Isn’t Enough, Chapman and Thomas discuss five aspects of a healthy apology:

  • expressing regret (“I’m sorry”)
  • accepting responsibility (“I was wrong”)
  • making restitution (“how can I make it right?”)
  • genuine repentance (“I want to change”)
  • requesting forgiveness (“Can you find it in your heart…?”; or, in my words, “please forgive me”)

The authors suggest that each of us needs to hear one or two of these statements more than the others. For some, “I’m sorry” is sufficient; others need the hope of change.

In the same way, we probably tend to use one of these statements over the others—even if it’s not what the other person needs to hear. Sometimes that can do more harm than good.

True, full confession, however, demands all five: genuine regret, responsibility, restitution, repentance, and requesting forgiveness.

What do you need to hear when you have been hurt? Does your spouse or other close friend know this? What do they need to hear from you?

Maybe this is a good topic of conversation for this evening.

Preemptive Forgiveness

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As Christians, we have our work cut out for us. If we’re serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ, then we’ll diligently read and study the Bible not only to learn more about God, but to learn how to live. And as we do that, we discover that we have a pretty lofty set of examples to follow. Paul gives the example of perseverance in the face of open hostility, beatings, and prison. James offers instruction about both our words and our attitudes. The shepherd king David demonstrated a spiritual rawness and emotional openness unparalleled in Scripture. And of course Jesus himself gives a lifetime of examples for everything from teaching through stories to loving the most unloveable of people. But the hardest example to follow is the one that came at the worst possible moment in Jesus’ life.

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Luke, a doctor and painstaking detailer not only of Jesus’ life but also the lives and ministries of the apostles following the resurrection, gives an account of the crucifixion that is surprisingly devoid of the details you might expect from a doctor. Most of Luke’s story, in fact (see Luke 23), seems to be focused on what was going on with other people: Simon the Cyrene, the crowds, the soldiers, the two criminals. All he really says about Jesus is, “they led him away… they crucified him… he breathed his last” [verses 26, 32, 46].

Maybe this scarcity of detail about the physical suffering Jesus endured allows Luke’s readers to be that much more taken with the words of Christ that he records—especially the words that give us the hardest example we will ever be asked to follow: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

History tells us that crucifixion was a terrifying, torturous ordeal leading to a slow and agonizingly painful death. Some victims were lashed to the cross while others—like Jesus—were nailed through their wrists or palms. Sparing us these details, Luke simply says, “they crucified him.” And immediately he gives us Jesus’ words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” As the hammers are coming down on the spikes, Jesus offers forgiveness to those holding the hammers. As the cross is being hoisted into its vertical position, Jesus asks His Father to forgive those lifting the wood. 

While in the very process of being wronged, Jesus offers forgiveness.

That is an impossibly difficult example to follow. We are even tempted to excuse ourselves from following it because Jesus, after all, was God, and we’re not. But Jesus was also a man—the same man who only hours before had begged in blood-stained sweat for his heavenly Father to let him get around this hour. We have no excuse. We also have no power, except through the One who gave us the example.

Preemptive forgiveness. Forgiving before the one who hurt you apologizes. Forgiving when what you want most is for them to know they hurt you. Forgiving when they don’t even acknowledge that they hurt you, or they deny hurting you at all. Or, worse, when they say it’s your fault for being hurt. Forgiving when there is precious little hope for confession, let alone restoration and reconciliation. Forgiving even when you don’t feel forgiving, you don’t want to forgive, you’re not sure you can forgive. It’s impossible. [*See footnote and my first comment below.]

But it is most necessary, for only in preemptive forgiveness is there hope of something better even than restoration. Only in preemptive forgiveness is there hope for resurrection. New life. Re-creation.

Jesus’ agonized prayer—“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”—made possible not only his own resurrection, but also the resurrection of every believer. We can’t stop people from hurting us; we can’t make them confess or apologize or repent when they have hurt us. But we have the power to bring new life through forgiveness.

Father, forgive them.

*11/27/15—I made some small but important changes to this post after first publishing it, changing “forgive” to “offer forgiveness” in a couple places, and changing the statement from “Jesus forgives” to “Jesus asks His Father to forgive.” See my comment below for more on this.