Real Forgiveness Has No Strings Attached

This is a continuation of the topical series about forgiveness. In the last post, I supported the position that forgiveness is not romantic through the story of Joseph and his brothers. In this sequel, we’ll study forgiveness through the relationship between a different set of brothers (Jacob and Esau), who also happen to be Joseph’s father and uncle.

Jacob and Esau have been jockeying for position since the womb, literally! The oldest son in this time and culture would inherit a double portion with extra responsibility, called a birthright. Esau was born first, so this should go to him. However, over the course of two meals, Jacob takes Esau’s birthright and steals the blessing their dad meant for Esau. (A father’s deathbed blessing was similar to a final will and assigning executorship.)

Jacob’s choices are going to cost Jacob plenty! Jacob has to run for his life and stays away for twenty years. He gets deceived over and over for the rest of his life. (His father-in-law tricks him on his wedding night, his sons trick him into thinking his favorite son is dead, etc.). We pick up the brothers’ story when Jacob is finally coming home. Jacob sent messengers ahead to let Esau know he was on his way. Jacob’s messengers return with a new message: Esau’s on his way, too…with four-hundred men.

Whoa! Four-hundred men are meant to send Jacob a message. It isn’t spelled out in the text, but we can imagine what this means. Whether it is to burgeon his reputation, to intimidate his brother, or even to kill his brother, there’s no “water under the bridge” intent behind bringing four-hundred men with Esau to meet up with his lying, cheating, stealing brother. So then, when these two brothers are about a field apart, comes this dramatic moment between them…

“As he [Jacob] approached his brother, he [Jacob] bowed to the ground seven times before him. Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. And they both wept.” (Genesis 33:3b-4, New Living Translation, [Jacob] added.)

It sounds happily-ever-after, and it is happily-ever-after if Esau’s forgiveness isn’t contingent on Jacob to be any different. I say that because at the end of this reunion Jacob agrees to follow Esau back home, and then doesn’t do it. Picture Esau preparing for his brother’s arrival, watching and waiting for him. Jacob’s not coming, and he’s still the same old Jacob.

An excellent psychologist taught me to think of a relationship as though the relationship itself is a separate person. For example, there’s me, there’s my friend, and there’s our friendship. What’s good for me might not be good for the friendship. Jacob and Esau each have the same problem: each has been doing what is good for themselves without considering what’s good for the relationship. Put a mental placeholder here. We’ll come back to these two in a moment.

It’s easy to have unrealistic expectations attached to forgiveness. We can mistakenly expect our forgiveness to prompt the other to change their habits (or character) in return. This could look like a father forgiving a drug-addicted son for stealing money from his wallet, expecting the son won’t steal from him again. Or it could look like someone forgiving their friend for constantly lying, expecting forgiveness to change their friend’s character. Forgiveness with strings attached smells like manipulation. When we want someone to treat us differently, the way forward is to talk through that. Sub-conscious bartering for healthy relationships by dangling “forgiveness for benefits” is a fool’s errand. Whenever we give to receive, it is selfish. It is self-centered, not relationship-centered.

I often hear betrayed women say, “I want to forgive him, but I don’t know if I can trust him.” Neither trust nor forgiveness works this way. We cannot earn someone else’s trustworthiness, period. This approach puts the shoe on the wrong foot. Only the one who broke the trust can put in the work to earn back trust. People earn trust by being trustworthy — not by merely accepting their victim’s forgiveness.

Let’s go back to the day Jacob stole Esau’s blessing and see what blessing their dad had left for Esau. (Genesis 27: 40, New Living Translation)

You will live by your sword,
    and you will serve your brother.
But when you decide to break free,
    you will shake his yoke from your neck.

I like to imagine the scene of Jacob and Esau’s reunion this way: Esau, with his entourage, watched his brother bow all the way down to the ground and get back up over and over, and it changed him. Maybe he heard his father’s words and decided he had “stewed” (pun intended) over Jacob and his lying, cheating ways long enough. As Esau runs towards Jacob, the yoke starts to loosen up. Their embrace finishes the job — Esau “breaks free”, no longer yoked to his bitterness towards Jacob. He was free to live in the lightheartedness of forgiveness. (Like I said, I don’t know if it happened this way, but I like to imagine it did.)

We’re not told what Esau’s reaction was when Jacob didn’t show up, but I sure hope he stayed free. And friend, this, in a nutshell, is what forgiveness is: freedom. We forgive to set ourselves free. We give away our right to this grudge. We forgive the debt. We move on in freedom. Victim becomes survivor.

So, are there any other examples in the scriptures about no-strings-attached forgiveness? (So glad you asked.)

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:6-8, New Living Translation, italics added)

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins.  He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14, New Living Translation)

Christ gives us this example to follow. He didn’t make us clean up our act first. He knew we’d still struggle with our character defects. He didn’t make us earn forgiveness because as the *song goes, “I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it”. This is how real forgiveness works…no strings attached.

Stay tuned…more to come on forgiveness. Do you have questions about forgiveness? Put them in the comments.

*Song reference: Reckless Love, written by Caleb Culver, Cory Asbury, and Ran Jackson. My favorite rendition is by Bethel Music and Steffany Gretzinger. Here’s their video, enjoy:

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