Spiritually Speaking: Forgive, but don't forget to take action

This morning I nearly hit a man who was riding his bicycle.

No, Oprah, I wasn't texting. I could blame it on bad landscaping, the sun in my eyes or the mystical experience of prayer but, truthfully, I just wasn't paying attention.

When he began yelling, I snapped out of it and realized what I had just done. Mortified, I turned my car around and approached the man standing (furious) next to the stop sign I had ignored.

"I am so, so sorry," I said immediately. "I wasn't paying attention. I was wrong to do that."

My apology clearly caught him by surprise. His anger subsided and he said, indignantly, "You darn near killed me."

I agreed, "I know. I ride my bike here, too. I can't believe I was so careless."

"Well be more careful next time," he said, riding away.

Believe me. I will. I'm sure he will be, too.

If you profess any type of spirituality, chances are you've been in a scenario where the "F" word has gotten tossed at you. No, not that one. I'm talking about forgiveness.

At some point we can all relate to the poor cyclist I encountered this morning. We are wronged, we get mad, and, in the heat of our fury, someone says, "But aren't you (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, vegan, etc.) and aren't you supposed to forgive?"

Oh, the humiliation, when our professed spirituality gets thrown back in our faces at a moment when we're already feeling offended.

It can catch us far beyond our social circle, too. Athletes, politicians and other celebrities will do repugnant things, then follow up with a press conference in which they look deep into the heart of the American living room and say they're sorry.

Then, somehow we feel like the guilty party for throwing out our "Livestrong" bracelets or slapping an opposing candidate's bumper sticker on our car.

Are we forgiving?

Obviously, forgiveness is important if only for our mental health. To remain angry and carry a grudge will only leave us miserable. Forgiveness is also (not to be cliche) what Jesus would do. The gospel of Matthew records Christ commanding us to forgive "not seven times but 77 times" (Matthew 18:22), implying that forgiveness should be without limit or condition.

A sincere apology, however, is not just words. It must be accompanied by actions. When we hurt someone with our actions, we should use our words and deeds to repair the injustice we have caused.

Consider a famous conversion recorded in Scripture -- that of Zaccheus the Tax Collector (a.k.a. "sinner"). You may remember him from your Sunday school class as the vertically challenged man who climbed a sycamore tree to catch sight of Jesus.

Zaccheus was seen in the tree by Jesus who called to him -- by name -- to climb down so Jesus could visit his home. So touched by this acceptance, Zaccheus stated that he would give half his possessions to the poor, and "if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over" (Luke 19:8). His apology was not just words -- it was action.

My apology to the biker this morning won't mean much if tomorrow I careen past the same stop sign and continue to terrorize the neighborhood, and I'm sure the cyclist will be especially cautious if he sees my car coming down the road. We should pray for the grace to forgive; with the help of God, it will make us happier and holier.

However, we should remember the conversion of Zaccheus and realize that a sincere apology should be accompanied by action. While we can't force sincerity from everyone, we can begin with our actions.

Or, in my case, stop signs.