When is it too quick to show forgiveness? Is it ever too early to forgive somebody or something?
It’s been awhile since Lance Armstrong’s confession interviews with Oprah, but I felt compelled to write about my take on the situation, in light of some relevant themes that extend beyond doping and cycling. Here’s what I think: Some people will never forgive Lance Armstrong for what he did and the lies he told. But others are maybe too quick to forgive. I’ll explain further in this post.
I don’t think for one moment that this is a simple situation. You can’t deny all that Armstrong did to help the cause of cancer awareness. Beyond giving hope and encouragement to so many cancer victims and survivors, he also tangibly raised a huge amount of money towards the cause.
But as I watched the Oprah interview, it struck me just how articulate Armstrong was. He was direct, honest and looked genuinely repentant. It really made you want to extend him some sympathy, and forgive his mistakes. That’s how good he is at getting people to believe him — just as he had done so expertly in the past to cover his schemes, and defame those who tried to hold him accountable.
So how should a viewer respond to his honesty and seeming sincerity?
Harden his or her heart, and disregard all the good things Armstrong has done, and view any word out of his mouth with cynicism? That doesn’t seem right. Or sympathize with him, being willing to overlook or “move past” the severity and extent of his transgressions?
How we respond to an apology or admission of wrong reveals a lot about our own hearts and character.
I don’t think there are only two options, however. Here’s my stance when somebody says they’ve done wrong, and wants to change or make things right: wait and see.
I won’t discredit Armstrong and his words, but I also won’t let him off the hook too easily. I want to see: Is he genuinely committed to building the rest of his life and work on truth, humility, service and all the things he says he wants to stand for? After all, his life isn’t over and he does have time to show what he’s made of. Jesus said that people should know a good tree by its fruit. That’s proven by actions and consistency. It takes time for a tree that’s been producing bad fruit to die, be replanted and re-nourished, and grow to better health over the long-term.
This is a theme upon which I’ve been reflecting on a bigger level. When somebody is confessing to a wrong, or pledging to do better next time, sometimes I wonder if we are too quick to appease them, and acknowledge the good in their expression of repentance. I’ve especially noticed this temptation among ethnic minorities, who have lived so long at times without privilege and power, that we are hasty to give others the benefit of the doubt.
But when we’re tempted to do this, I’m reminded by Armstrong’s example to not forget the gravity and consequences of what’s been done. Not all actions are equal, and not all should be forgiven with the same level of comfort or ease. To forgive comes at a cost, and sometimes the cost is not only to us, but to others we care for and represent.
I’ll never forget the dilemma about forgiveness posed by Jewish Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal in his book The Sunflower.
He recounts his demoralizing life in a concentration camp, where he sees sunflowers marking the dead Germans’ graves, and assumes his own will be an unmarked and forgotten mass grave. One day, Wiesenthal is summoned to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier who is seeking a Jew’s forgiveness for a crime that has haunted him his entire life.