Every now and then there’s a verse from the Bible that returns frequently to convict me. One of the most powerful of these is Proverbs 19:11, and I feel guilty every time I stumble across it:
A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is one’s glory to overlook an offense.
Most Christians like to think they are forgiving. That they are good at it, even. And whenever I stumble across Christians who do confess trouble with forgiving, it’s always over something like rape or murder or some incomprehensible personal pain or betrayal. “I just can’t forgive,” they say, tears welling up, “even though I know God wants me to and I should.” And we comfort them and soothe them because man, forgiving rape and murder and personal betrayal, that’s tough stuff.
We like to think we’re good at forgiving everything else.
But we aren’t. We aren’t for a lot of reasons. We aren’t because we consider forgiveness to be a matter of personal closure rather than communal grace: something we do to help ourselves move on and to feel better, rather than an act of love extended to another. We aren’t because we reduce forgiveness to a moment in time – the act of saying “I forgive you” – but don’t comprehend it as an attitude. We aren’t because we like to parse out what “forgiveness” actually means, and we like to say that forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting or overlooking or that we should trust again or that we should go on just like before.
But here we are, staring at a Bible verse that says “it is one’s glory to overlook an offense.” To overlook an offense. That is the exact opposite of what most “forgiving” Christians do. Sure, we forgive and we say something’s fine and we won’t hold it against you and don’t let it happen again and please grow beyond this, but we don’t overlook something. We let the pile of offenses grow in our minds and we keep track of them and they shape our subsequent opinions and behaviors and responses to the person we’ve “forgiven.” We forgive, but we don’t forget. We forgive, but we shape our concepts of what we should do and how we should act based on the offenses we know about or have suffered.
And every now and then when I think I’m being too generous in interpreting this verse – when my instinct says my definition of forgiveness and overlooking offenses is being too nice or naive somehow – I think about Jesus and how He was willing to leave the entire future of His church on earth in the hands of men who betrayed Him, abandoned Him, and hurt Him. He was willing to trust part of the work to Peter, of all people. Peter!
No really, I’ll stay with you no matter what, said Peter, and then fled and cursed and denied he’d ever known a man for whom his loyalty was supposedly boundless. And for Peter, after that horrible hurt, Jesus grilled some fish and commanded, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). Christ overlooked the offense. He was patient, and in His wisdom knew the offense would not make the man and that Peter, given the Spirit, would rise to heights of ministry none of them could imagine.
I wouldn’t have handled Peter that way, if I’m being honest. I would have forgiven him, yes. I’d have waited for him to come to me crying, full of regret, and I’d have said something loving like, “Peter, you know I’ll forgive you. The Lord commanded us to be forgiving and I love you and you’re my brother in Christ.” And then I absolutely would not have put him in charge of anything or even permitted him to be part of any major project! I would have started him off with something small and menial, to make sure we could still trust him, to make sure he wasn’t going to run off on me the same way he did before, to wait until I had reassurance that the sin and offense of before had been properly uprooted and cleansed. I would remind him periodically that this was all happening because he had failed, and while we had all forgiven that, he had to prove himself to us all over again.
(Think, too, of what Jesus’ response to Peter’s failure must have meant to the other disciples. Can you imagine what a reassurance it was if they also felt regret over their sins? Can you imagine how difficult it would have been for any of them to hold a grudge against Peter for his behavior after seeing the way Jesus responded to him?)
Jesus overlooked the offense. He overlooks ours all the time. And when I say “overlook,” I mean forgiveness, yes, but I mean also that he doesn’t let our failures blind Him to what He knows we were made to be for Him. He sees our failings, yes, but He also sees what yet can be.
Can we honestly say the same? When we forgive someone, can we accomplish such grace? Can we not only forgive, but overlook the offense?
I pray that I, and that you, can grab hold of the glory permitted to us in this instance and look to overlook offense as much as we can. If our forgiveness and grace functions in the same way Christ’s does, no one will be left unchanged.