As we seek to understand what the Bible teaches concerning forgiveness, it isn’t enough to fill our head with knowledge about forgiveness. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. God wants your mind to assent to the truths about forgiveness, but He also wants your hearts to be absolutely captivated by the beauty of forgiveness. How do you feel when you hear a powerful story about forgiveness? What emotions run through your heart?
Let’s look at the story of prodigal son, and instead of trying to capture spiritual principles, or three points the parable can teach us (although those could be helpful exercises), I want you to track with the emotions of the major characters, and then find out which part you are playing in the drama.
- The prodigal:
- In the far country, he feels shame, guilt, sadness, emptiness, sorrow, and regret. This should be how we feel when we sin against our brother or sister in Christ, and it should spur us towards repentance. Knowing this should also help us to feel compassion for those who sin against us: even though they have hurt us, they have hurt themselves as well.
- When he is welcomed home, he feels joy, gratitude, happiness, relief, love, contentment, and peace. When we are assured of our forgiveness, there is no feeling like it on earth. God is no longer angry with us! We are at peace, and we don’t have to tiptoe around in fear and shame. We should bask in that feeling, and then apply it to others. If we are really doing unto others as we want done to us, we want even those people who have sinned against us to experience this same feeling, and this desire should move us to forgive them.
- The father:
- When his son is wandering, he feels sadness, rejection, pain, anger, loss, grief, pity, mercy, and hope. When we are sinned against, we should respond in a Christian way, but too often we think that this means that we shouldn’t feel anything at all, but just stoically bear up under our grief with a stiff upper lip. But experiencing a full range of emotions isn’t wrong; what matters is how we respond to those emotions, and whether or not we control them, or let them control us.
- When the son returns, the father is overjoyed, excited, glad, extravagant, relieved, and thankful. Think about the contrast between the “before” and “after” of both father and son. When it’s put to us like that, if we could choose between them, we’d choose to experience the “after” a hundred times out of a hundred. And this is God’s perspective. When continuing on in an unforgiving spirit looks better than forgiving, then we are not seeing things rightly.
- The older brother:
- he feels anger, jealousy, frustration, bitterness, hatred, discontent, envy, and pride. The Bible is drawing an oversize picture of a villain before our eyes, painting in black and white. Maybe he’s a caricature, but the point stands: choosing not to forgive (and forgiveness is a choice) is choosing to play the part of the older brother.
So run a short casting call in your heart: which character would you want to be? Which one have you been playing? Which emotions are ugly, and which ones are beautiful?
If you find yourself thinking that it’s got to be more complicated than the biblical picture, that there have to be more shades of gray instead of the stark black and white presented in the parable, try to imagine that thought as a line of dialogue spoken by one of the characters in the parable. “It isn’t that simple. I can’t forgive that easily. My situation is more difficult.” Which one of the characters above would say that? Do you really want to be that guy?