About 13 years ago, when I was interning at a church, my boss/pastor said that we would not just preach about forgiveness; we would practice it. He said, “Whenever we let each other down and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ we are not going to respond, ‘It’s okay.’ Instead, we are going to say, ‘I forgive you.’”
I remember thinking, What a great way to bring Jesus into our everyday conversations!
It sounded like a good idea until the first time I heard him speak those words. It happened one day when I showed up late for a meeting. I said, “I’m sorry I’m late.” And my pastor responded just like he said he would.
He said, “I forgive you.”
What surprised me was not what he said but how I felt. At first, I didn’t want to hear those words. In fact, my heart rebelled against his mercy. I thought to myself, What’s the big deal? I wasn’t that late! And the meeting hadn’t started anyway. I don’t think I really need forgiveness for something like that.
My internal response said something about my apology. If I needed forgiveness, then I really did something wrong. And I don’t like being wrong. That’s called pride, which according to God’s Word has the power to turn angels into devils.
But my pastor didn’t give up on me. He continued to break through my hard heart by lavishing me with God’s love. After each slipup and each apology, he followed up with those words: “I forgive you.”
As the year went on, those three words stopped stinging. They became words of healing and hope. Those words told me that we were at peace. Because he forgave me, he was not going to hold my past failures against me. More important, those words pointed me back to Jesus in a very real way. His death and resurrection were not abstract events but tools of reconciliation for all my relationships with others and with God.
Not only did I welcome my pastor’s forgiveness, I started giving it out as well. He had his shortcomings, apologized, and I responded to my boss, “I forgive you.” And that simple practice spilled over into my marriage and family. I’ve even caught my kids giving out grace to each other.
I’m convinced that what my pastor taught me is what Jesus is teaching us in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus puts these challenging words into our mouths for a purpose: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4). Jesus wants us to have forgiveness constantly on our hearts and our lips so that we would always remember how gracious God has been to us.
Why don’t you give it a try? Stop saying, “Don’t worry about it. It’s okay” and start saying, “I forgive you.” At first, it might sound strange, even forced. But over time you will treasure those three words. They will sustain your most important relationships. And they will continue to point you back to Jesus, the fountain of forgiveness.