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Serena Williams, probably the greatest female tennis player to ever live, several months ago came into particularly brutal contact with the difference between saying “I forgive you” and meaning it. According to this ESPN.com article (by ESPN and the Associated Press), Williams found out that her sister’s murderer (her sister was shot and killed in 2003) was paroled three years before the end of his prison sentence only ten minutes before her match in the finals of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, a match she went on to lose.
Talking about the situation during the post-match press conference, Williams talked about forgiveness: “I’m not there yet. I would like to practice what I preach, and teach [daughter] Olympia that as well. I want to forgive. I have to get there. I’ll be there.”
“I have to get there. I’ll be there.” These words bring to mind one of Jesus’ lesser-known parables (Matthew 21:28-32), that of two sons who are asked by their father to go work in a vineyard. The first son says no, but then later actually does go to work. The second son says yes, but, in the end, doesn’t go. Which son, Jesus wants to know, did the will of his father? The answer, to us, is obvious. The son who actually does the work is the one who has done his father’s will, of course. It’s so obvious, in fact, that even the chief priests and elders, those constant misinterpreters of Jesus, get the answer right. But the point is deeper.
In the parable of the two sons, Jesus is saying something pretty radical: if you don’t feel it, don’t say it! This is the exact opposite of the “fake it ‘til you make it” philosophy that is often espoused. The son who refuses to do what his father asks—to his father’s face no less—is said to be in the right! Jesus, of course, is playing the long game. As he pointed out so often, God is far more interested in what is going on on the inside than what we show on the outside.
Say it again…and this time…mean it.
Serena Williams is being honest. She isn’t yet able to forgive her sister’s murderer. Like the first son is Jesus’ parable, she lets the truth of her heart show. She must have felt some pressure, both as someone who wants to forgive—who knows it’s the right thing to do—and who wants to set a good example for her daughter, to say “I forgive him,” even if it wasn’t true. Think of the pressure you might feel if someone asked you how your walk with the Lord was going. Or how you’re enjoying your daily quiet times. The urge to project a goodness that doesn’t actually exist is almost overwhelming. The second son succumbed. But Serena didn’t.
That second son didn’t want to go work in the vineyard. Of course he didn’t. He said he did because he knew that working in the vineyard was the right thing to do, and he wanted to be someone who did the right thing. But his heart wasn’t in it, so he never went. Serena is like the first son: she doesn’t want to do the right thing right now. Her heart’s not in it, and she’s strong enough to admit it. This is confession.
John writes that, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8) This is that second son. There is no good news for him yet…he has not confessed. But John has good news for the sons—and for you and me and Serena Williams—who confess their weakness, rebelliousness, and sin: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v.9).
So, in the end, Serena’s right. Like the first son, she will be there. She will get to forgiveness. But not through saying the things she thinks she’s supposed to say, or even doing the things she thinks she’s supposed to do. Jesus, who is faithful and just, will forgive her unwillingness to forgive. He will change her heart. And he will do the same for you.