Textures of Forgiveness

Three blind men, having never seen an elephant are given the opportunity. An elephant trainer comes to town and allows each to touch the elephant, so that each will know (by feeling it) what an elephant looks like. John Godfrey Saxe expressed the legend through poetry in 1878.

It was six men of Indostan 
To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant
 (Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
 And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,
 At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant
 Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
 Cried, -“Ho! what have we here

So very round and smooth and sharp?
 To me ’tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant 
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal, 
And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands, 
Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
 Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand, 
And felt about the knee.

“What most this wondrous beast is like
 Is mighty plain,” quoth he,

“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant 
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
 Said: “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most; 
Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant
 Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
 About the beast to grope,

Then, seizing on the swinging tail
 That fell within his scope,

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant 
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan 
Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion 
Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right, 
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars, 
The disputants, I ween, 

Rail on in utter ignorance 
Of what each other mean, 

And prate about an Elephant 
Not one of them has seen!

Typically, this poem by John Godfrey Saxe is used to help temper theological arrogance, and help us all remain humble when it comes to what we think and say when we think and speak about God. But as I re-read it recently, I couldn’t help but think of how applicable it is to our current study on Forgiveness.

This image of six blind men groping about an elephant none of them have seen, is very much what the experience of forgiveness is like. Forgiveness can FEEL so different, to so many, depending on which side of the elephant we stand.

In those moments when we, ourselves, are in the wrong; when we have failed;
when we have fallen; when we have really blown it…
Forgiveness can FEEL like a breath of fresh air.
Smooth, comforting, reassuring.
Like the cool side of the pillow.

Other times?
When we have been hurt; when someone we love has been treated unfairly; when the injury is still fresh and we’re not quite ready…
Forgiveness, can FEEL exasperating, exhausting, like breath taken away.
Rough, uncomfortable, course,
Like a burlap pillow case.

There are textures to forgiveness. Forgiveness can feel so different to so many, depending on which side of the elephant we stand.

No passage of scripture illustrates this reality better than Luke 15:11-32.
It is the parable that could have many titles:

“The Loving Father.” “The Prodigal Son.” “The Bitter Brother.”

Call it what you will, it is a beautiful (and revealing) story of how forgiveness is FELT from three unique perspectives: The one who seeks to receive it, the one who longs to grant it, and the one who struggles to watch it unfold.

returnoftheprodigalThe very best reflection I have read on this parable is the short book by Henri Nouwen, entitled The Return of the Prodigal: A Story of Homecoming.

Using as his inspiration, Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” Nouwen reflects on the story from each of the character’s unique positions. Using both, scripture and art, Nouwen points out that this passage is about all of us, and each of us, and the God who makes us whole. We each assume a different role in the parable at different points in our journey. Sometimes, we are the prodigal. Other times, the bitter brother. And occasionally, rare as it may be, we discover the grace to live as the loving father.

It is a revealing and life-giving book, and I recommend it to you for your own devotional reading, as we journey together in this current series.

Shaun King
Senior Pastor
Johns Creek Baptist Church

3 Comments. Leave new

  • Mary Lou Parrish
    April 30, 2014 5:19 pm

    Thank you for introducing Henri Nouwen to this generation. His books were so special to some of us in ours. I did not know that the remark about the blind men and the tail of the elephant was taken from a poem.. We only heard the part about the tail being felt and thought to be the whole animal… Sometimes as we hear people speak of Jesus with so little passion -One may wonder if they have read and truly grasped the amazing end of the Salvation History Story? The subject of forgiveness is the essence of GOD’S AMAZING LOVE FOR ALL OF US. The theme is timely in every generation. Well done.

    • J.Ray Batson
      May 1, 2014 8:49 pm

      I am a total IG NER RAM US when it comes to using a computer . I sat down over an hour trying to send an email to you this afternoon concerning you sermon last Sunday on
      Forgiveness. Thank you for the way you allowed the Holy Spirit to use you.

      I know what it is to truly forgive after great hurt, pain and loss because I stood up to my convictions about Women in Ministry. And then I know how to accept the forgiveness.

      • J.Ray Batson
        May 1, 2014 9:12 pm

        This is my third attempt to reply to your asking for comments. I am a total IG-NU-
        RAM-US when it comes to computers. I will try to sum up the 2 hours I lost.

        Thanks for a great Spirit filled sermon last Sunday . I know the experience of forgiving those who greatly hurt me because of my stand on Women in Ministry.
        I also know how to listen some three years later when I walked up on the Chr..of the Missions ,when I lost my job,as he said, “Ray, would you please forgive us for what we did to you. I have wanted several times to drive to your office to ask your forgiveness”. Before he could say another word i replied,”You can rest assured I forgave all of you within a few days after it happened. You don’t have to ask me to forgive you”. IT has already been done. We both walked away with a good feeling.
        I am glad I can sit at your feet to listen to what GOD HAS TO SAY TO US THROUIGH YOU! Will be praying for you as you continue this series of sermons.
        Yours in Christ
        J>Ray Batson


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