Brian Williams and the nature of forgiveness

February 16th, 2015

Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief; Pastor, priest, newsman, chief … all have this in common: Each has the capacity to betray trust in profoundly public and private self-destructive ways.

This brouhaha over Brian Williams and his fall from grace (this link will take you to Jon Stewart’s funny — and a tiny bit off-color — take on the situation) has become the current example of public betrayal. Yet, Williams has only followed the pattern set from the earliest time to embellish the truth in order to make ourselves look better.

Come with me briefly into the story of the first man and the first woman, placed in a garden where they have total intimacy with each other (naked and not ashamed), deep intimacy with God, and the soul-satisfying work of tending the garden. Into this place of vulnerable and joyful relationship sneaks the edges of doubt with the question, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?'”

The immediate response was a classic Brian Williams embellishment: “But God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'” There is nothing about “not touching” the tree recorded. In fact, in order to tend the garden, that particular tree would have to be touched. But the woman does a simple embellishment (and the man standing with her does nothing to correct the misinformation, making him equally complicit), and thus the pattern enters: All of us stretch the truth in order to make ourselves look better.

The more public our presence, the more likely those embellishments will eventually come to light. In today’s media world, these betrayals of truth are then flashed from device to device until shame takes over. But even in private, these betrayals gnaw at us, quietly, subversively, destroying what we most value.

So now what? Again, keep in mind that Brian Williams first betrayed himself by choosing fame over truth. Where have you and I betrayed ourselves and others by choosing something over truth? Safety? Comfort? Finances? Relationship? Employment advances? Romance? Position? Reputation? Public acclaim? C’mon. We all do it.

And we all have to work through questions of forgiveness — both public and private.

An outstanding editorial by David Brooks in The New York Times pulls deeply from Scripture as he offers these four steps to regaining trust. I’ve quoted snippets of his explanations below but encourage you to read the full article to get the weight of this list.

Preemptive mercy: “We are all sinners. We expect sin, empathize with sin and are slow to think ourselves superior.”

Judgment: “A wrong is an occasion to re-evaluate. What is the character of the person in question? Should a period of stupidity eclipse a record of decency?”

Confession and penitence: “At some point the offender has to get out in front of the process, being more self-critical than anyone else around him. He has to probe down to the root of his error, offer a confession more complete than expected.”

Reconciliation and re-trust: “Trust doesn’t have to be immediate, but the wrong act is no longer a barrier to a relationship. The offender endures his season of shame and is better for it. The offended are free from mean emotions like vengeance and are uplifted when they offer kindness. The social fabric is repaired.”

Brooks has said nothing new, but perhaps he has stated the process in terms that many can understand. What I want to emphasize here, however, is the necessity of each of us practicing those four steps for ourselves.

I have seen too many people beat themselves up for their own acts of private and public stupidity. Personally, I suspect much of our human angst, pervasive depressions and the sense of being stuck in repeated patterns that bring unhappiness and despair spring from our unwillingness to walk these steps of forgiveness toward ourselves.

Many have often wondered, “What is the unforgivable sin of which Jesus speaks?” I have decided it is the sin of being unwilling to forgive ourselves, for when we are unwilling to do so, we put to the lie any idea that God’s mercy is also available to us. In effect, our unwillingness to be self-forgiving, to reconcile and regain trust in ourselves as those created in the image of God actually names God as liar.

That’s pretty serious.

Right now, many are entering into a time of societal-sanctioned debauchery known as “Mardi Gras.” Unfortunately, it has lost much of its connection with the liturgical season of Lent, a time of fasting and self-examination before the celebration of Easter.

I suggest that any who are struggling with past guilt and shame consider working through these four steps during Lent, which begins February 18 with Ash Wednesday. While forgiveness of the betrayals of others frees us in many ways, until we can forgive our betrayals of ourselves, we stay in bondage.

We can be set free. But we won’t without a time of careful self-examination and intentional forgiveness. Let’s give it a try. The ideal time is now.

Christy blogs at

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