Would you ever think it possible that a person seeking reconciliation could alienate or even offend? Well, it can happen. For example, certain people have come to me and, after they established that I am Jewish and they are not, they proceeded to apologize to me for the Holocaust. In one case, and picture this, a man my own age moved closer than one would stand for ordinary conversation. He began speaking in most earnest terms, and with great intimacy—almost confidentiality—he peered into my eyes and asked, Would you forgive me for what we did to your people?”
Now here’s the problem. I was born in 1958. Like most Jews, I lost relatives in the Holocaust. But by the time I (or the person apologizing) was old enough to know anything about those horrifying events, the perpetrators were either dead or in denial.
I suppose we should never be offended by someone’s good intentions, but that friend put me in an untenable position by asking forgiveness in that way. If my petitioner had involved himself in the Holocaust or shared some of the sentiments that led to the Holocaust, he would be right to seek forgiveness. At least I could have pointed him to the right Person to grant that forgiveness. But even if he had been involved, I can’t speak for all Jews, let alone the six million whom the Nazis tortured and murdered.
For thousands of years, Jews have been persecuted as a class of people. Hardly a Jew growing up in any country, except possibly Israel, hasn’t been accused of being a Christ killer. In the fifth grade, my friend Joey very matter-of-factly said, “You Jews are Christ killers.” I didn’t respond. I didn’t know how. I knew that I didn’t kill anybody and I already knew who Jesus was. Both of my parents, while Jewish, believed in Him. I could not imagine myself in the mob that yelled, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” I was also confused by Joey’s accusation because I knew the Bible said that, though Jesus died for our sins, He rose again on the third day. What judge would ever convict a person, let alone a whole people, of murdering someone who is alive today? But Joey’s accusation did cause me pain and, if he ever wanted to apologize, I could accept that apology and forgive him.
What the person who apologized for the Holocaust failed to see was that his seeming belief that he could be guilty for something that he did not do is the very mentality that taught someone like Joey to call me a Christ killer.
Now softhearted people, when they know someone is suffering, will express their sorrow over that suffering. God values that softness of heart that causes people to reach out and genuinely say, “I am sorry for your loss and I feel pain over your suffering.” It could very well be that this is what the person apologizing to me meant to do, and maybe I need to apologize for not being gracious enough in that moment to help him see the difference. But sometimes Christians confuse a softhearted humility with a need to repent for what they didn’t do, and frankly, the assumption that it is always right to apologize can be very detrimental.
As I stumble through serving God as the executive director of Jews for Jesus, I have inherited any number of accusations against our ministry. Many leaders in the Jewish community accuse us of being tricksters and deceivers. More recent is the charge that we have misappropriated Jewish symbols.
My response is usually that their quarrel isn’t with me or with Jews for Jesus, but with Jesus Himself because it was He who took common Jewish symbols and gave them Christian meaning. The best example is communion, where Jesus applied the Passover symbols of the matzoh and the wine to His body and blood.
It becomes more difficult, however, if an accusation comes from a fellow believer. Recently, I received a letter from a former staff member who talked about his unhappy service with Jews for Jesus. He was calling on the Jews for Jesus organization to repent because of what he perceived to be bad actions or bad attitudes during his time of service over 20 years ago. Well, if the things that he alleged to have happened really happened, I can express my regrets and sorrow for his pain, but I can’t place blame on all of my co-workers in Jews for Jesus because of a past incident.
Can an organization, an ethnic group or a city repent? The answer is yes and no. We can only repent for the wrong that we’ve done or the wrong that we’ve allowed. We can regret history but we can’t repent for it. It is true that God calls nations to repent. But a nation consists of people, and individuals must decide whether or not they will repent. Leaders can sometimes help and encourage those who follow them to repent, as in the case of Nineveh, when Jonah called the city to repent and the king heeded that call. Leaders might have a greater responsibility to repent when necessary because others may follow their example, but all of us need to live in constant repentance.
God’s children can unintentionally cheapen the meaning of repentance by confusing it with expressions of regret over what someone else has done, or by believing that it is somehow humble to apologize for something that is not wrong. It is much more difficult to accept responsibility for the real wrongs that we do.
I don’t want anyone to come to me and apologize for something they did not do, any more than I want someone to ask me to repent for things I have not done. But wouldn’t God be pleased if all believers would be more sensitive to His Spirit regarding those areas where we honestly do fall short? Maybe others are a lot holier than I am, but it seems likely that most of us commit enough real wrongs to keep us busy repenting. Oddly enough, many wrongs people commit against one another are done in the process of insisting that they are right. The irony is, a person can start out actually being right but become wrong. The wrong is in attitudes or behavior they develop to defend their pride when others do not recognize that they are right—attitudes or behavior like self-righteousness, bitterness, contentiousness or an overbearing manner. All of these defenses are offenses to God, but perhaps self-righteousness is the worst because it is so easy to see in others and so difficult to see in ourselves.
It takes real humility to admit real wrongs. Anyone can feel bad about the wrongs others have done, but it is not so easy to feel bad about our own wrongs. Anyone can admit, “I’m not perfect,” but how many of us are vulnerable enough to let God point out our specific imperfections? Even more, how many of us are vulnerable enough to let God use another imperfect person to point out our specific imperfections? That’s a vulnerability I am still learning, but I hope God will not stop giving me lessons. What would be worse than the unpleasantness of having others put a finger on my shortcomings would be for me to be satisfied to remain just as I am.
Satan teams up with our flesh to encourage us to hang on to self-righteousness because it keeps us from the benefits of genuine repentance. When we truly examine ourselves confessing our own sins, looking forward and living in the light of repentance, we undergo spiritual renewal. Our vision is brightened and we get a fresh burst of spiritual energy. That is what I want for myself and for all of our Jews for Jesus staff. That is what I hope you will be praying about for us.