When I was turning eleven, the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world was a gas powered model plane, the kind with its own little engine and propeller and a control grip with strings that connected to the elevators so you could make it take off and land and climb and, if you were really good at it, make it do loop the loops. So when, on my 11th birthday, I unwrapped a large box to discover a balsa wood scale model Piper Cub (some assembly required) with an 18 inch wingspan, I was over the moon!
Over the course of the following weeks I stole time from my homework and from practicing my clarinet and piano to carefully put the plane together, paint it a deep cherry red, then meticulously place all the decals so it really did look exactly like a miniature version of the Piper Cubs I had seen at the Long Beach Airport. This was hard work for me because at that time in my life meticulous was not my strong suit. Finally, though, my beautiful little plane was ready to fly.
To prepare for the big first flight, I read the accompanying instructions over and over again. I practiced holding my hand firm and steady on the control grip, rocking my wrist in small, steady movements just like it said in the booklet. I waxed the control lines with beeswax so they would move easily through the guides in the fuselage. I checked and triple-checked that they were properly and tightly connected to the elevators. And then I told my dad she was ready to go.
Here’s the thing. It took two people to get one of those planes off the ground. This was 1964. Radio controlled planes existed but they were rare and expensive. What I had was the kind where the “pilot” held a control grip 25 to 30 feet away from the plane. Two strings went from the grip to the plane. By rocking your wrist you could make the elevators on the tail of the plane go up or down, which made the plane go up or down. All of that was a one-person operation. But once you got the engine started, somebody had to hold onto the plane and keep it in one place while the pilot took control at the grip. If you tried to start the engine then run back to the grip, the plane would be likely to zip off to its own destruction before you could get control.
Dad had already convinced me that it would be best for him to start the engine which was done by twirling the propeller. His argument was simple: the blade of that propeller could do a lot more damage to my smaller, fingers than it could to his if said fingers didn’t get out of the way in time. So fine. Dad would start the engine on my plane’s maiden flight. That seemed reasonable.
What didn’t seem at all reasonable to me, though, was when he insisted that I hold the plane while he ran back to the control grip so he could take the plane up for its first flight. He pointed out that he was an aerospace engineer who designed fighter jets and spacecraft for a living. He reminded me that he had piloted a B-24 during the war. Yeah, I said, but it’s my plane, my birthday present! I’ve read all the instructions! Didn’t matter. I was overruled.
Dad started the engine. I held the plane in place. Dad ran to take the control grip. He gave me a nod, I released the plane, and it was airborne almost immediately, lunging upward at a steep angle. Then, just as suddenly as it had leaped for the sky, it plunged straight back into the ground, burying its propeller in the dirt and breaking the wing. Apparently the skills required to fly a B-24 didn’t translate well to flying a scale model of a Piper Cub.
I was heartbroken. And furious. Dad mumbled that he would fix it then disappeared into the house without another word. No apology.
That plane sat on his workbench in the garage for a long time. I started to fix it myself once but Dad stopped me saying angrily that he would fix it. At some point it got moved to a shelf above the workbench. It was still there when I went off to college.
Forgiveness is hard. It’s especially hard if the wound is deep or if the person who wronged you doesn’t acknowledge what they’ve done.
We have close friends whose daughter was murdered. Her husband deliberately drove their car into a wall, killing them both. The fact that he died, too, doesn’t lessen the pain for our friends. The fact that their son-in-law was mentally ill doesn’t reduce their grief or make it any easier to forgive him. And they know they need to forgive him. They know that holding on to their anger and their desire for retribution only keeps them shackled to the pain and ugliness of what happened. They know this in their heads. But it is oh, so hard to let go of it in their hearts.
We should be careful when we talk about forgiveness. When we quote Jesus telling Peter that he needs to forgive seventy times seven, we need to remember that behind the hyperbole, Jesus knows forgiveness is not easy. It’s not our default mode. We need to make sure we don’t wound people who are already hurting by making something so difficult sound trifling or easy.
Jesus tells Peter a story about two servants who are in debt. It’s a good metaphor, because when we’re wronged or when we wrong someone else, it creates a kind of debt. There is a new imbalance in the relationship.
Our natural desire is to balance the scales. We want the wrong acknowledged. At the minimum we want an apology. Usually we want a price to be paid, and if that doesn’t happen, we dwell on it. We hold on to the wrong done to us. It gets magnified. We pick at the wound inflicted on us. It gets inflamed and festers. Interest gets added to the debt.
The problem with all this is that even if we get the vengeance or retribution we want, it doesn’t change what happened. It doesn’t heal the wound. It doesn’t repair the relationship. What happened still happened. The debt can’t really be repaid. The scales can’t be balanced because they’re broken. And you can very easily end up in an endless exchange of tit for tat and spend the rest of your days keeping score.
“Not forgiving,” said Anne Lamott, “is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
Forgiving is hard. But it’s the only way out.
Anne Lamott also wrote, “Forgiveness, means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare… forgiveness means you’re done.”
The Greek word that’s translated as forgive in the New Testament is aphiemi. It means to release, to let go, to let it be. Forgiveness is a decision to let the past be the past. To quit dragging it into the present. It is a decision to move forward, to release both yourself and the other party from whatever chains bind you to that episode of wrong.
Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
When Jesus tells the story of the two indebted slaves in Matthew 18, he uses outrageous hyperbole. The first slave owes the king ten thousand talents. That’s a staggering amount of money, equivalent to the national debt of a small country. As Peter and the disciples listen to Jesus telling this story, the only thing more shocking than the size of that debt is that the king simply forgives it. But even more shocking than that is that the forgiven slave refuses to grant the same kind of grace to his fellow slave who owes him only a hundred denarii.
The traditional interpretation of this parable goes something like this: we should always be mindful of how much God has forgiven us, so we should forgive each other.
Okay. Sure. But let’s go back to that staggering number. The ten thousand talents. Sixty million denarii. What if, instead of thinking in terms of all the ways known and unknown that we’ve offended God, that number represented all the ways known and unknown that we’ve offended each other. Especially the unknowns. The forgotten promises. The stinging remarks. The things left undone. The unkind things said behind the back in the company of others. The slow death of relationships by a thousand paper cuts. And then one day there’s a come to Jesus moment and we have a choice. Do we forgive? Do we let the past be the past?
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you forget. Forgive and forget is not a thing. Human beings are not at all good at forgetting their injuries.
So forgive and remember, but don’t let that memory bind you to that injury.
Forgiving doesn’t mean you trust the person who wronged you. But it may mean you give them an opportunity to earn your trust again. Maybe. Forgiveness means you release them from that old injury. It doesn’t mean they automatically get a chance to injure you again.
Forgiving doesn’t mean you make yourself available for or vulnerable to more wounding or abuse.
Forgiveness is hard. It may take planning. It may take time.
Forgiveness also takes understanding.
It took me a very long time to forgive my dad for wrecking my Piper Cub, especially since he never apologized for it.
It took me a long time to understand how he must have felt about crashing my plane. Sure, it broke my heart and infuriated me all in about fifteen seconds. But Dad was a pilot! He was an aerospace engineer, a designer of supersonic aircraft and flight systems! And here, in a moment of patriarchal arrogance he had destroyed his son’s toy plane! And along with it more than a little of his own self-esteem.
It took me a long time to appreciate that he had wounded himself at least as much as he had hurt me. It took me decades to realize that the cloudy look I saw on his face as he stomped back to the house, the look I had thought was anger, was actually shame.
My dad, was so capable of so many things, but putting his emotions into words, especially emotions that troubled him, was not one of them. No wonder he never wanted to talk about that plane ever again. No wonder it just sat there for years, untouched, on the workbench, a mute reminder of the day he failed to be both the father and the pilot he wanted to be.
The parable of the two indebted slaves ends this way: the king is furious that the slave whose enormous debt he has forgiven has shown no such mercy to his fellow slave who owes him only a pittance, so he hands the greedy slave over to be tortured until he can pay his entire debt. Jesus then says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
So, forgive each other or off you go to eternal debtors prison? Is that the message?
Well, maybe it is. Because if you’re not forgiving, you’re shackling yourself to old wounds and grievances. You’re locking yourself in a past where the script is engraved in stone and the players always move through the same blocking and say the same lines. The same scenes repeat endlessly just on different stages.
Better to let it go. Let the past be the past. Let it be.
Forgiveness is a decision to love.
“You can’t forgive without loving,” said Maya Angelou. “And I don’t mean sentimentality. I don’t mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, ‘I forgive. I’m finished with it.’
I eventually forgave my dad for crashing my plane. I’m finished with it.
I wish I had told him while he was still alive.
 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith