Forgiveness Tested

Forgiveness is hard work. Stories of forgiveness inspire me to keep working on “forgive one another.” Here’s one from a good friend, whose name I’ve changed to protect the other party.

Jane attended a small private college about 40 years ago. In her senior year, she became engaged to a young man who had graduated from that college and was an adjunct professor there. Shortly thereafter, Jane’s fiancé became concerned about some college policies and expressed his views to the administration; he was fired. Jane’s mother wrote a letter to the college president in defense of her future son-in-law; the president responded with harsh comments about her character, and declared that Jane was ineligible to graduate from the college. So, with just a few credits to go, Jane had to leave that college without a degree.

A committed follower of Jesus Christ, Jane knew she had to forgive the college president, and over the years, God gave her the grace to do that. Jane says it was in some ways harder to forgive the president for the hurtful comments made to her mother than for what he did to Jane herself. Jane married her fiancé, they moved out of state, and they have enjoyed a happy marriage and fruitful ministry.

But Jane’s forgiveness was tested last month: Jane happened to be flying out of the airport of the city where the college is located, and when she got to her gate, she spotted the college president and his wife waiting to board her plane. After a quick prayer, Jane approached the now-former president, identifying herself as a student who had enjoyed her years at the college. The ex-president and his wife were delighted to talk with her. Their flight got delayed, so the ex-president invited Jane to join them in the airline club, where they continued their pleasant conversation. They parted with hugs all around. Jane never mentioned the non-graduation/libel incident to him, and he evidently never made the connection, that this lady whose company he was enjoying was the one he had deprived of a diploma forty years before.

We can say that we have forgiven someone who hurt us in the past. We can truly believe that we have forgiven that person, especially if we never see them again. But if we do see them again, our decision is tested: did I truly forgive him? And perhaps the real test is when the new encounter is unexpected—Jane didn’t have time to work through the forgiveness process as she sat at the gate trying to decide whether to engage with the college president. She had already done the hard work—her heart was clear.

It would’ve been easy for Jane to have ignored the president—we can think of a million justifications. She says she knew the Holy Spirit was prompting her to engage with him and his wife, so she obeyed, however reluctantly—and she was blessed for her obedience.

There are times when it is right to gently confront the other person with their sin, and part of me wishes that Jane had confronted the ex-president with his foolish, vindictive decision to deny her the diploma she had earned. But the man is elderly now, his presidency long behind him. Correction now won’t help him be a better college president. And bringing up the painful incident could have spoiled the pleasant encounter.

Jane’s behavior humbles me in two ways: First, I’m awed by her ability to forgive this injustice. It was a mean abuse of power, and could have had life-long repercussions for her. Could I have forgiven this? Second, I’m impressed that she walked over to the ex-president in the airport terminal, and engaged him. I can well imagine myself deciding to forego the opportunity—he would never know, and if I’ve already forgiven him, why test it?

Peacemaker Ministries offers four promises that “test” whether we’ve really forgiven someone:

I will not dwell on this incident.
I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.
I will not allow this incident to stand in the way of my relationship with you.
I will not speak to others about this incident.

My friend Jane passed the test! Could I? Could you?

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