Who Forgives Whom?

There's long been a theological debate as to whether we sin against one another or sin against God. If we sin against one another, then forgiveness is a matter between the sinner and the person who is sinned against. But, if a person can only sin against God, then only God can forgive, and we humans have nothing to do with forgiving one another. Well, you can see how complicated this can get, and I'm not going there today.

Instead, let's just focus on how we humans treat one another. If someone mistreats me, how do I deal with it? Do I demand that the other person apologizes? Do I just forget it, so to say, like water running off of a duck's back? Do I stay mad for a short time--or forever? Much depends upon what the other person does.

In this day and age, we have so many standards that we are expected to follow. But we do not have a written or unwritten standard of behavior for how two people treat one another when one gets out of sorts with the other and says or does something mean-spirited or hurtful to the other one. I am not talking about major crime; I'm referring to the kinds of things that hurt our feelings and we have trouble getting over. So, what do we do?

I live in St. Louis. One day last week the news was all about seventeen people having been shot and killed the night before in the greater St. Louis area. Well, that is one way to settle things when we get our feelings hurt or get mad at one another. But it's certainly an inhumane way to settle differences! Nor does it work to just yell and shout at each other.

Earlier this week, I read that the president of a major state university had been dismissed by the governing board. As he left his office on campus for the last time, he held a news conference and verbally blasted several people who had worked under him and whom he blamed for getting him fired, ending by announcing he had placed very unfavorable performance reviews in their personnel files. That, too, is not a very practical way to settle things. You know the old saying about not burning the bridges. What he really accomplished was making the national news circuit and calling to the attention of the entire world that he had been fired. In my opinion, not a good move!

Or a person can just pretend that nothing happened and harbor deep inner feelings against the other person. But if that inner frustration is allowed to fester, I can guarantee that the inner turmoil will just eat away at that person--day after day, week after week, year after year--eventually making him or her a depressed and disgruntled mess, unable to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Let's get personal! If someone you have loved, cared about, or respected has said or done something that really hurts you and you are having trouble dealing with it, what do you do? I don't have all the answers to life, but based on my experience as a clergyman, here are some suggestions.

First of all, make sure that the other person really is to blame and that you are not at fault or that both of you do not share equal blame for what has happened. If you are to blame, then I advise you to apologize as quickly as possible and do whatever it takes to make up with the person you have offended. If the two of you share equal blame, then take the initiative and apologize for your share of what happened. In all probability the other person will do the same, and the two of you will mend your ways and move forward with your lives. Life is just too short to have un-reconciled differences with family and friends.

If, on the other hand, you are sure that the other person really is the one who has created the problem, then here are some things for you to think about.

Just remember that no one is perfect. We will all make mistakes. If the person who mistreated you apologizes and you think the apology is sincere, be grateful, accept the apology, and get on with life. If, however, the other person doesn't apologize or the apology is not sincere or he/she continues doing the same thing, telling the other person off or badmouthing him/her to others doesn't really accomplish very much that is constructive over the long haul. Furthermore, sometime in the future you may come to regret what you have said. Regardless of how difficult it is, in my opinion a better course of action would be to be polite to the other person, but to keep your distance, knowing that he/she is not the kind of person that merits your love, friendship, or respect.

Martin Luther King, Sr. suffered two tragedies in his life that by reason should have left him very angry and bitter: his oldest son, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed in 1968, and his wife, Alberta, was murdered in 1974 while sitting at the organ of their church. Even after these events, it is my understanding that King said, "Hate is too heavy a burden to bear." He had that right!

And if you want peace of mind and happiness in your life, you had better get it right!