Updated: Aug 13, 2020
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. Matt. 5:23-24 NIV
She was on the verge of tears, and I felt a little bit sorry for her, but I sat there firm in my resolve all the same. “It’s like they all have something against me!” she said. “They all think that this whole situation is my fault!” Her voice and body were tense.
“How much of this do you think is your fault?” I asked. Her eyes opened wide and she stated indignantly, “None of it! I didn’t do anything!”
This statement was so patently untrue that for a long moment I couldn’t respond at all. My silence encouraged her to expand on her innocence. She had, she claimed, simply been trying to help by telling everyone whatever they wanted to know. It was vicious gossip that had done great harm, “But”, she continued, “It’s not my fault if they…” I listened, but this conversation was not going the way I had hoped. As I listened to the excuses, I remembered when had I learned the lesson that I needed to pass on that day.
It was a chilly spring morning nearly twenty years earlier, and was the day I was destined to learn the real key to healing. It remains crystal clear in my mind still today.
The car was incredibly low on gas. Of course it was. The warning light had to have been on when my husband had come home the night before late from a meeting. “That warning bell must have rung half way home! He couldn’t hear it and stop for gas? Of course not! Why would he do something that easy and obvious?” I conveniently forgot how unusual it was for my cosiderate husband to leave the car low on gas. I also conveniently forgot how late it was when he had come home and how stressful the meeting had been. I knew nothing except my own troubles and frustrations.
I was already running late, the day's tasks were piled up to the point of being overwhelming, and several volunteers had left me hanging. As a full time Christian educator and programming director at our church, I was way too dependent on volunteers and here it goes again. I was, I thought bitterly, going to have to be three people. Again. As usual. Typical. And now, no gas.
Then I remembered something that brightened my mood a bit. There was a new technology available at a few gas stations in our area that made gassing up your car a little faster. You could actually pay at the pump! I mentally praised the genius that invented this process and headed for the only station between work and home that had this new and improved method of automobile fueling. Today, anyway, it would be well worth the extra five cents per gallon.
I made it to the little store on fumes, and sighed in relief. Something had actually gone right this morning. But the car clock reminded me that my most pressing issue was time. I casually read the instructions for using the pump credit card reader, and confidently began the process of fueling my car faster. But there was a message on the screen telling me to go into the store and see the cashier. “What?! Why? Go into the store? No!! You’ve got to be kidding me!!” But the flashing screen insisted.
No one who saw me in that moment could have missed how irritated I was. My facial expression coupled with the tension in my body were a neon billboard of frustration. Full of this heightened emotion, I marched into the store, approached the cashier, and began to “explain” my problem. And I mean all of them. No gas, already late, and now this wasted time using what should have been helpful technology, etc.
All of my woes were being piled onto this poor young woman as though she were the orchestrator of them all. Then, of course, I had to pump the gas and go back into the store to pay for it. I stomped and snorted and acted like a sixth grader who wasn’t allowed to go to her friend’s house. I didn’t use bad language, but I was not polite.
Having finally completed the transaction, I stormed out of the store and back to my car. The rear of the car was facing the store and about half way between the door of the store and my champagne colored midsize sedan I saw it. The sight took my breath away. My face began to burn with shame. I wanted the earth to swallow me up. My frustration melted away in a moment, and I stopped in my tracks for what seemed a long moment. Just looking. My eyes filled. I kept looking, and my heart sank.
The fish symbol on my car glared at me in shiny, plastic, glued on condemnation. Even worse, I had the fancy fish symbol. You know the one I mean. It had the Greek word for Jesus written inside it. That was to prove that not only was I a Christian, I was a smart, well educated Christian who knew the Greek word for Jesus. How special.
I kept staring at my car and things got even worse. On the opposite side of the car from the special fish, was a magnet proudly displaying the logo of our denomination, which will not be named here, since I’m still active within it and want them to continue to like me. I was mortified as I remembered the words I had just said.
I stood dumbfounded in the parking lot of a store in which I had been incredibly rude staring at my car which proudly declared that the driver was a very good, smart, Christian member of a very good, smart, Christian group. In other words, there were more people a lot like me. How special.
I got behind the wheel of the car, my frustration spent, tears in my eyes, and I started the motor. As I drove away I began to pray and ask for forgiveness. As I prayed, the Lord made one thing very clear to me. It is all well and good to ask God for forgiveness, but what about that young woman who was just working at a convenience store for a low hourly rate? Did she deserve my outbursts? Of course not. I knew what I had to do. I trembled a little at the thought.
I arrived at work, went into my office and turned on the lights. I pulled a phone book out of the desk drawer (internet searches were far less reliable then) and looked up the phone number of the store and dialed it. A young woman answered.
“Hi. My name is Teresa, and I was in your store about fifteen minutes ago and I was very rude. I’m calling to apologize. Did I speak to you?”
“I am so very sorry. I have no excuse. I was rude, and it was not right. I’m really sorry.”
“Oh. it’s okay.”
“No it’s not. It’s not okay for me to behave that way and you shouldn’t have to put up with that.”
And then I knew what I really needed to do to complete the healing. There was a beautiful phrase I had learned from the example of Jesus and had seen it modeled in the home of one of the best mothers I had ever known. This phrase consists of four simple and powerful words, and I used them now. I took a deep breath, and spoke again.
“Will you forgive me?” I asked. And then I stopped to listen. There was a pause.
“Yes. Of course I will.” Her tone of voice had lightened noticeably, and she sounded surprised as she began to tell me of other “bad” customers she had had. I listened and we chatted for a few minutes and then she said,
“Thank you so much for calling. I’ve never had anyone do that before and, believe me, I’ve had much worse than you come in and bawl me out for no reason.” I smiled to myself at the gentle rebuke and ended the conversation by thanking her for her forgiveness.
It’s hard to describe how light and at peace I felt after that encounter. Suddenly all the cares of the day seemed manageable. The pile of tasks, the extra responsibilities left behind by volunteers, the challenges to be resolved were all going to work out. The sky was a little bluer and the air a bit warmer. It took me a moment to realize what had happened. I had been healed. The harm I caused to another with careless and unkind words I had caused to myself as well. In the end, I needed healing as much as the woman in the store. In asking her to forgive me, I had created a space in which we could both heal.
In any Harbor Home, there will be many times when hurtful words fly, and they can’t be taken back. Of course, it is better to leave them unsaid, but we are all products of a sinful nature. We will wound one another. But here is an eternal truth: what we do to others we do to ourselves. Wounding another wounds us as well. When one hurts another, the only path to healing is through repentance and then forgiveness. These two things are forever entwined. Repentance and forgiveness. They work together like gears in a fine watch. One without the other creates a lesser form of function.
Many Christians want forgiveness but, like my friend at the beginning of this story, are unwilling to repent. They seek instead to justify themselves; to explain that what they did was not worthy of repentance and indeed was completely understandable in the circumstances. Because of this sense of rightness, most will not seek forgiveness. If your home and mine are to be true Harbor Homes the four words of healing must not be avoided. They should be embraced. Will. You. Forgive. Me. There is great healing power in those words. Train your children to use them. Use them yourself.
The act of repentance is what Christ has expected of us and forgiveness cannot be assumed without it. In fact, scripture is full of examples in which forgiveness follows repentance. Jesus forgave without repentance several times as noted in the gospels, but Jesus and the Apostle Paul gave us the mandate to repent of our wrongs and seek forgiveness. I think that it is because everyone is healed that way. The most powerful four words of healing are “Will you forgive me?” Use them when you need to.
Oh...do you want to know what happened with my friend from the beginning of this story? Sadly, she is still truly convinced that she does not need to repent. As a result she remains unhealed and so do others. Some of the wounded have been able to move on, but most have not. There is anger and self-righteousness in our community that could be healed with four simple and powerful words. Will you forgive me?
I have created for you, my friends, a five step guide to offering a genuine apology along with a reminder about the four most powerful words that heal everyone. To receive this free printable PDF to put on your refrigerator or family bulletin board, simply click the link below. Thank you for following Harbor Home, and I wish you shalom.