I went to Jesus and said, “Teach me how to forgive the way you forgive.”
Jesus smiled at me and asked, “Do you know what you are asking?”
“No,” I admitted, “but I want to learn anyway.”
“Before you can learn to forgive like I forgive, you first have to learn to forgive as the world forgives.”
“I don’t understand,” I confessed.
Jesus led me to a vast farm where a large number of potatoes had been harvested. He handed me a large sack and said, “Think about everyone who has ever wronged you, or hurt you, or cheated you, or abused you, or picked on you, or lied about you, or sinned against you in any other way. Whenever you recall one of those people, carve his or her name into a potato and place it in the sack. Wherever you go, and whatever you do, you are to carry the sack with you. Come back to me in a week and tell me what you have learned.”
So I sat down and began to think of all the people who harmed me, or hurt me, or sinned against me in any way. I carved each of their names on a potato and put it in the sack. By the time I was finished, I had hundreds of potatoes in the sack. I closed it up, threw it over my shoulder, and proceeded about my life.
It was awkward at first, but it really was not big deal. It was heavy and cumbersome, but I am strong and healthy, and I felt that carrying this added weight around would actually make me stronger. But there were times when it the sack of potatoes just got in the way. I could not do what I was doing, or what I wanted to do, because every time I tried, the sack of potatoes would fall in the way, or keep me from being able to do it. There were also times when the sack of potatoes would seem unbearably heavy. I knew it was the same weight as it had always been, but it just seemed to be impossible to lift or to carry some days.
After a couple of days, those potatoes began to stink. Carving names into them initiated a process in which they began to decompose. So after a few days, not only was I carrying around a heavy burden, but I was carrying around a rotting stench. The weight and the stench made me feel ill. Soon flies and insects were gathered around me. I could not eat. I could not sleep. I was exhausted and ill. I was not stronger after all by the end of the weak but weak, tired, ill and unpleasant, not simply because the sack of rotting potatoes generated an unpleasant smell, but because my mood had changed and I was simply unpleasant to everyone and everything that crossed my path.
I knew what Jesus was doing from the beginning when he told me to gather the potatoes and carry them around in a sack. But I did not realize just how exhausting and unpleasant the experience would be, or how exhausted and unpleasant I would become.
The week was over and I went back to Jesus and told him what I learned. “I get it. Not forgiving people is like carrying around a heavy, smelling sack of potatoes. It gets in the way. It is exhausting and it makes me weak and sick.”
“But you knew that already, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I agreed, “But I understand it better. It is more real to me now.”
“If not forgiving people is like carrying around that sack of potatoes, what conclusion did you come to about forgiving.”
“I decided I want to forgive them all.”
“Good.” Jesus said with a huge smile. “For every person you forgive, take the potato with their name on it and throw it away.”
I went through the sack, one potato at a time, forgiving the person and the wrong represented by the potato. When I was finished, I went back to Jesus.
“How do you feel?”
“You smell better too.”
“So forgiving people is like removing all the heavy, rotten potatoes from the sack. I understand.”
“But, again,” Jesus said, “you already knew that, didn’t you?”
“But I understand it better now. Thanks, Jesus, for helping me to understand.”
“Hold on there, my friend! You are not done yet. This week, while you were carrying the potatoes around, did anyone hurt you, or wrong you, or sin against you?”
“Yes, Jesus, there were a few times when that happened.”
“Then grab some potatoes, carve their names into them, and put them in your sack.”
I sighed and went to the pile of potatoes. I once more thought of a wrong and the person who had wronged me and carved the person’s name into a potato, and placed it in the sack. When I was finished, the potato-filled sack was nearly as full and as heavy as the one I just emptied.
I lugged the heavy sack back to where Jesus was standing and I said, “Wait a minute, Jesus! If this is what forgiveness is, then the whole process is exhausting. It isn’t just carrying around the potatoes, but it’s taking time to remove potatoes, replacing the old potatoes with the new potatoes. It’s just a lot of work. Even forgiving is a lot of work.”
“It IS a lot of work,” Jesus agreed. “You’ll always be carrying something you do not need to carry. You’ll always be clouded by a stench from carrying something. You’ll constantly be throwing potatoes out and replacing them with new ones.”
“I don’t get it!” I said with a tone of panicked exasperation. “This is how you forgive?”
“Oh, no! This is not how I forgive. This is how the world forgives when it bothers to take the time to forgive. A lot of people never forgive anyone for anything, and they just keep adding potatoes to the sack without ever taking any out and throwing them away. Others hold on to most of the wrongs done to them; they’ll forgive some and remove those few burdens, but even their bags get increasingly heavy over time. The people like you, who are committed to forgiving others often, do it the way you are doing it now. Carrying around some wrongs for a while, making a conscious decision to forgive, removing the rancid potato, but ultimately replacing it with a new one. Over and over, in a never ending process. This is how the world and even those in the church understand forgiveness. But that is not how I forgive at all.”
“But that’s why I came to you in the first place – to learn how to forgive like you.”
“I know. And I will show you how I forgive. But first I wanted you to understand how even the most forgiving people like yourself are forgiving others. It is good that you are so forgiving. It is good that you honor my Word and strive to forgive. But you yourself have admitted that forgiveness the way you understand it and practice it is never-ending and exhausting. It is not that it is wrong, but it is inefficient and imperfect. There is a better way.”
“Show me that way, Jesus. I want to know how to forgive like you!”
“Let me ask you a question. What is the difference between you and me in terms of forgiveness?”
“Well, you don’t have a bag of potatoes flung over your shoulder,” I said sarcastically.
“Exactly!” I was surprised that my sarcastic answer was the correct one. “But think about it. Look at me. It is not just that I am not carrying around a sack of potatoes…” I thought long and hard, examining Jesus as if the answer were hidden somewhere on his face, or written on his clothes. “Come on,” he would occasionally insert amidst my “Errs and Ums,” occasionally peppering it with, “You’re a smart boy, you can figure this out.”
Then it hit me. It was the clearest thing ever! It was so obvious and so simple that I just could not see it. “It isn’t just that you are not carrying around a sack of potatoes, it’s that you don’t have a sack at all.”
“Yes!” he said excitedly. “And what does that mean?”
“It means that most people like me who are striving to forgive are constantly stuck in the process of being wrongs and forgiving because we think the wrong is the thing, but it’s not. It’s the sack! I can only carry around all those potatoes because I have something to carry them around in. When I remove the potatoes, I end up replacing them with new potatoes. But it’s not the potatoes that are the problem; it’s the fact that I keep carrying around the sack allowing me to carry around all those potatoes. If I get rid of the sack, then I get rid of the potatoes because I won’t be able to carry them around anymore.”
“And that,” said Jesus, “is how I forgive.”
“Okay, Jesus, I get the idea. But how do I get rid of the sack?”
“The sack is your pride, your ego, your self-centeredness. The more you have these things, the bigger your sack it, and the more weight you have to carry. Remember, ‘the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.’ The ego is the part of you that wants to be served. The ego is your sack. The more you focus on serving others, the smaller your sack will become. The more you take your focus off of your wants and desires and needs, and strive to help others get what they need and want, the smaller that sack will be and the less you will be able to carry. Over time you will end up with a small pouch that can only carry one potato, maybe two. And after even more time, you’ll just stop carrying anything around at all.”
“I get it! I always thought being of service to others was like a requirement because you demand it, or because it is what religious people should be doing, but helping others, even though it is helping others, helps me! By helping others, I take the focus off of me, which makes my ego shrink, and the smaller my ego is, the more I can become the person I was created to be.”
“You got it alright. Have you ever noticed that when you do something nice for someone, or help someone else in some way, you feel good?”
“Yeah, everybody feels good when they do something good for someone else.”
“And yet, everyone always seems to be surprised when it happens. You know why it feels good?”
“Because serving others is what you were created for! It is part of your design plan! It is in your programming! People were made to help each other, and when people help each other, they feel good. When they ignore the needs of others, or only try to help themselves, they feel nothing. Sin and ego take the focus off of others and place them on the self, and that sack starts growing, and you start filling it.
“I think I get that part.”
“If you have no ego, then no one can ever wrong you.”
“I don’t know how to give up my ego.”
“I just told you. You lose your ego by serving others. But no one expects you to be perfect. My Father knows that you are not perfect and your ego will flare up from time to time. He only expects you to try to do your best. You’ll have forever to work on it. It’s about progress, not about perfection.”
“Thanks, Jesus. I really learned a lot.”
“Any time. That’s what I’m here for, right? You just have one choice now before you go.”
“Do you want to take your sack with you, or do you just want to give it to me?”
I thought for a second, and handed Jesus my sack. Jesus smiled and winked, saying, “That a boy!” as I gave it to him. Then I turned around and went home.