I remember a while back, I was at a holiday festival in the park and there were little kids running and playing all over the place. One boy got a little overzealous in his play and pushed a girl, knocking her to the ground. The nearby parents immediately responded. The little boy’s dad told him that what he did was wrong and that he needed to apologize. After the little boy told the little girl he was sorry, the girl’s parents spoke on her behalf. “It’s OK,” they said.
As I witnessed this scene, there was something about the response given by the little girl’s parents that deeply bothered me. True, no real physical harm was done. But what lesson was being taught here about forgiveness? That it’s OK to be pushed to the ground?
As grown-ups, we continue to follow this script—even when “kids will be kids” is no longer an excuse. Consider this (unfortunately) typical scene. After a difficult day at work, a husband comes home and takes his frustration out on his wife and children, shooting off some scathing remarks. Later on in the evening, he regains his cool and realizes what he did was wrong. “I’m sorry,” he tells his wife. “It’s OK,” she replies.
It’s the response we hear all the time. And although it appears to be an offering of forgiveness, it’s not.
Here’s the problem
Forgiveness is the hard work of rebuilding torn-down relationships within community. It involves recognizing the other as God’s child even when our anger would like to paint them as something else. It involves recognizing our own propensity to sin and our own need for God’s mercy.
When we say, “It’s OK,” we verbalize that none of what forgiveness entails is necessary. Skip straight to the good feelings … for those who wronged us. While they get permission to not feel bad about what they did, we have to keep a stiff upper lip and just deal with it.
By saying, “It’s OK,” in response to someone’s apology, we are—perhaps unintentionally—verbally condoning the offense committed. It’s one thing when an old lady accidently bumps into us at the grocery store; it’s quite another when someone is negligent, careless or just downright mean.
The wife mentioned above could have given her response out of thinking that she and the kids would be OK. The tensions of the evening would dissolve the next morning. However true this may be, this does not make the husband’s actions OK. His words were hurtful and need to be identified as such.
When Jesus hung on the cross, He identified the evil done against Him, crying out, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). His persecutors’ ignorance may have been excusable, but their sentencing Him to death was not. They may have unwittingly been participating in God’s salvation for humankind, but that didn’t make the crucifixion OK. It’s important to see that Jesus asked God to forgive them. Never did He ask God to condone their actions.
If Jesus lived by the “It’s OK” slogan, He would have had to act as though His persecutors did nothing wrong. And He wouldn’t have asked for their forgiveness.
Easy Answer, Difficult Consequences
When one of my friends was in high school, a teacher who learned he was a Christian asked him, “How can you believe in a God who forgives murderers?” It was only until later on that my friend learned about the anger behind this question: The teacher’s husband had been murdered.
Perhaps “It’s OK” is the reason why we are so reluctant to forgive or why forgiveness can appear so offensive. After dishing out this fast-and-easy reply time and time again, we unconsciously learn that forgiving someone means begrudgingly accepting the wrongs done to us or having to pretend that nothing happened. But what do we do when we have been wounded so deeply that we can’t even bring ourselves to verbalize “It’s OK”? What do we say then?
A Better Response
The response “You’re forgiven” goes deep. It’s more difficult to say because of that. People may look at you strangely when they hear you say it. They’re expecting you to say “It’s OK”—the default response we learned as kids. But why should they be let off the hook so easily? If you had to do the hard work of offering forgiveness, then they need to do the hard work of receiving it.
We need to tell the truth. If someone comes to us with an apology (and if we’ve done the work that forgiveness entails), then why don’t we say what we mean? Why don’t we say, “You’re forgiven”?