A few years back, I had a routine meeting with a friend for one of my seminary classes. Though we were on good terms, it hadn’t always been that way. We’d fought and had an ugly falling out several months prior. Things smoothed out over time, yet I went into the meeting with the sense that I needed to apologize and take responsibility for my part. I knew it was the right thing to do, still I wondered, What if bringing up old stuff just brings it all back? What if it just reminds the other person that he should still be mad?
As I read Genesis earlier this year, I was caught up in the story more than usual. In one particular scene, Jacob is finally going to cross paths with his twin brother, Esau, for the first time in years. Before a long sojourn, Jacob had tricked and stolen from his brother one too many times and Esau was bent on revenge. Jacob legitimately feared for his life as their meeting drew near. In an effort to butter his twin up, Jacob sent ahead many flocks as a lavish gift.
When Esau was in sight, there’s a moment where you don’t know what is going to happen. Esau brought 400 men along with him. He knew it was his brother approaching. Did he see this as his chance to finally get revenge on the treacherous Jacob? Would there be a slaughter? My breath caught in my throat, as surely Jacob’s did when he finally encountered his brother.
Their eyes locked. Jacob humbly bowed before Esau. Esau had a very different response: “Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. And they both wept” (Genesis 33:4).
Jacob declared, “And what a relief to see your friendly smile. It is like seeing the face of God!” (v. 10)
One could argue that Jacob was once again laying it on thick to save his skin, but I think he honestly recognized the sacredness of the situation. Jacob prayed for God to deliver him from his brother’s wrath and sure enough it was completely gone. Truth be told, Jacob didn’t deserve forgiveness. He really was awful to Esau. But Esau didn’t hold it against him. Such forgiveness could only be God’s hand at work.
To see such grace was to see the Lord.
I waited until the end of the meeting to bring up my own apology. I can’t remember what I said, though I know I stumbled over my words. [One would think that I’d be quite good at apologies with as much time as my foot spends in my mouth. They never do get easier.] I tried to stop myself from crying, but it didn’t work. My tears flowed freely down my cheeks, betraying my sorrow and fear. Like Jacob, I knew I didn’t deserve forgiveness. Though time had passed, it didn’t change the fact that I had been awful. I said things I couldn’t take back. I braced myself for his response, afraid to even lift my gaze.
What followed were words of forgiveness, words of redemption, “It’s okay. All of that is gone.”
David said in Psalm 32,
Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those
whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty!
I left that office feeling lighter. I was no longer chained to my past and could actually move forward. Admitting my wrong and receiving grace was seeing the face of God all over again. When we freely give and receive forgiveness to one another, we are echoing the message the Lord sent in his son, Jesus. “You messed up, but I forgive you and want you to have life where there was once only death. Your sin matters, but my relationship with you matters more.”
Oh what joy, indeed.