Forgiveness & the Habitual Offender
by Amy Alexander
I still remember the first time I was exposed to the Old Testament Minor Prophets Book of Hosea. I was six years old, sitting in Sunday night church, and on my lap was a sermon insert on which I was supposed to take notes. While I am certain that much of the text was beyond my comprehension (especially the analogy with unrepentant Israel), I did understand that God was calling Hosea to marry an unfaithful woman. I wrote, "Why?" in large letters on my paper and then started embellishing them like I always did.
The Book of Hosea brings to mind intriguing questions: "Is behavior change necessary for forgiveness? Can you forgive someone who will hurt you again?"
In the book of Genesis, Joseph's brothers, tired of his insufferable boasting and special privileges, strip Joseph of his expensive multicolored coat, cast him into a pit, fake his death, and sell him into slavery. Many years and trials later, Joseph, from his position of power, tests his brothers to see if they have changed their jealous ways. Indeed they have. However, the reader can only wonder how Joseph would have acted if the brothers were unchanged, if the leader Judah had not been willing to substitute himself for the youngest, Benjamin.
Does forgiveness mean excusing repetitive behavior? In cases of abusive relationships and societal injustices such as racism and sexism, the book Forgiven and Forgiving makes an interesting distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. Author L. William Countryman writes: "Forgiveness can hold open the possibility of reconciliation. ... The only forgiving and loving thing here is to demand change."
I love the Greek word that the author emphasizes here, anakypto (to come up from a crouched position) and the author's interpretation of the word "martyr" as a witness, not as a sufferer per se.
As a young child, I stole a magnet from a friend's bookstore. The magnet display was always so tempting and right at my eye level. I remember my mother marching me back into the bookstore to return it and offer my apology. The bookstore owner friend forgave me and told me to keep it. It always remained on our refrigerator as a reminder of forgiveness and the importance of honesty. Keeping the magnet as a forgiven child was almost worse than giving it back to its rightful owner.
Hosea and Joseph from their different eras and situations are both using forgiveness as a platform for behavior change. From this perspective, forgiveness is aware of a wrong, testifies against the wrong, and still gives the offender a chance to correct it, even after multiple offenses.
In many small ways (and probably larger ways too), I am a habitual offender.I often yell at my kids in the morning, trying to get them into the car and to school on time.I then apologize to them in the car for losing my temper, knowing it will happen again.The people I see the most, such as my spouse and colleagues, can describe to you much better than I can the many ways that I am a daily nuisance.Forgiveness is about accepting the possibility–and probability–that behavior may need forgiving another time.