It happened 35 years ago. I was on InterVarsity Staff (campus ministry) when I got a lesson in forgiveness.
The offense was, in the scheme of things, very small. But the lesson was very large. We were at Windy Gap for summer camp with three hundred students from NC/Va. These were some of the best memories of my staff life. Lots of energy, lots of growth, lots of students and staff that I loved and admired. I was approached by one of the senior staff, who asked me for a favor.
He was slated to make a ‘book plug’ announcement at the lunch gathering, but he had a conflict and was asking me to stand-in for him. “It will really help me out,” he implored. “Well, I ah, ah…” I said. “Really,” he said. I looked up to this guy and wanted to impress him. “OK,” I said. He handed me the book, saying, “Thanks,” and left the cafeteria.
I looked down; the book was Knowing God by J.I. Packer – a Christian classic. It was a thick book plugged every year – focused on the nature and person of God. I knew that this book would help the serious disciple go deeper into the most important subject. I knew this because I had heard this book talked about many times. But, my heart was beating hard, I had never read the book! Oh, I had begun it several times, but always bogged down in the 3rd chapter or so.
I was sweating. The lunch would be over in a few minutes. The whole assembly would turn their attention to me as I walked to the podium, a ‘serious disciple’ there to help them become more ‘serious disciples’. I scrambled mentally to come up with a working outline. I considered pretending that I’d read the book – but couldn’t muster the courage to lie about Knowing God.
Just before I was called up – I hit upon the plan; I’d confess that I hadn’t read the book, but I wanted to. So my pitch would be, “I hear it’s good. I’m going to read it. Really. Why don’t you?!” I thought by adding the exclamation point and combining it with sincere honesty, that somehow this would create a compelling book plug. Well, I should have thought a little longer about that.
I walked up to the microphone and formed the words, “Well I haven’t read this yet, but…” Three hundred pairs of eyes blinked at me. The other staff’s expressions were, “Really?” I don’t remember much about the rest, other than I desperately tried save the announcement by reading an endorsement off the back cover, attempting a joke, and then doubling down on my sincere intention to read it soon. The best thing about the plug was that it eventually ended. The emcee dismissed the assembly.
The rest of the afternoon, no one said anything about it. But I saw groups of students huddled in groups discussing something. I am pretty sure that the staff committee on ‘the worst IV announcements of all time’ held a meeting somewhere. The vote was unanimous. I do know that the word got around because the senior staff that was supposed to make the announcement found me that night.
“I heard about the announcement,” he said soberly. “Oh yeah?” I tried to sound positive.
“Look, I’m sorry I pushed the announcement off on you,” he said, ” I wanted to play Frisbee Golf and so I got you to do it for me.”
“Oh,” I said, “Well it’s OK…”
Why did I say it was OK? (#1) I still wanted him to like me and (#2) wanted this conversation to be over quickly. I smiled and tried to take a step away. And then something happened that I won’t forget. It was the most pointed lesson I’ve ever had about how to deal with a real apology.
He grabbed me by my collar and pulled me close. Almost picked me up. He wasn’t mad – but intense.
“I don’t want you to tell me it’s OK,” he said, “I want you to forgive me.”
Honestly, it scared me, but I wasn’t scared of him. I realized that day that I am afraid of forgiveness. All the way round. I’m afraid of admitting I’m hurt or admitting I’ve hurt someone. I’m afraid of someone else being sorry or of being sorry myself. I’m afraid of giving forgiveness or receiving forgiveness. It make me feels vulnerable. It opens me up. It’s like I would rather live without it.
So I avoid it. When I am sinned against, I tell people, “It’s OK.” “Don’t worry about it.” I flee the only thing that helps. When I sin against someone else, I want to make up for it, grovel in a compelling way, make excuses. Anything but give what is really needed. Anything but ask for what is really needed. Anything but ask for what I really want; forgiveness.
Knowing God, He’s going to keep teaching me this lesson.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both with individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean and they have seven children and nine grandchildren.