Monday, September 14, 2009

Practicing Forgiveness

Good morning God,
I need your help in untangling the pseudo-religiosity and 'niceness' of contemporary Christianity from the way in which you call us to forgive.

Now I know I need to tread carefully here; it is all too easy to presume that just because I am angry, I have a right to be angry, or worse, that just because I am angry it is a righteous anger... but I am beginning to believe that the greater danger lies in always trying to damp down an anger, in the mistaken presumption that practising forgiveness means denying the pain and the hurt that has been caused and being placid (or should that be passive), and 'gentle'.

Being able to recognise 'why' people do things which cause you hurt or harm is often the precursor to being able to 'forgive' their weakness, ignorance, mistake, stupidity.. whatever.. But does the practice of that forgiveness mean that from that time on, the anger which it provoked, or the hurt which it caused, must/should be forgotten, ignored, or just 'lived with'? Is there some magic switch that can be turned on to turn the hurt and the anger off - because if there is, I haven't found it yet. I can acknowledge the desire for forgiveness, I can 'accept' that someone has said 'sorry', but I can't always 'pretend' to reconciliation - especially if I don't really believe that the person would behave any differently next time around. The old saying - 'make a fool of me once, shame on you, make a fool of me twice, shame on me' - is a real hindrance to the practice of forgiveness.. even whilst hearing the echo of 'seventy times seven' ringing in my ears.

I guess, God, what I am talking about is atonement theology.. not on the grand scale of saving the world, but on the smaller scale of saving souls, one at a time - mine included.

I know that I am supposed to forgive everyone everything.. but what I am less certain about is whether this forgiveness should automatically mean living as though nothing has happened - when clearly it has.
Should a paedophile be expected to be reconciled and allowed to presume a 'loving' relationship with their victim - as though nothing has happened - after simply seeking forgiveness? Should an adulterer presume that nothing has changed in their relationship with their spouse once they have said sorry for the betrayal? Should a bully be able to presume a friendship with their victim once they have repented of their bullying ways?
And so the demand for restitution - for penal substitution or sacrifice begins..

The reason that this all feels wrong, upside down and inside out is that it puts the entire burden of care on the victim - which makes them a victim twice over.
When a wife is raped or beaten by her husband, does the gospel really demand that she be expected to be reconciled to him as though the rape or abuse never happened - simply because he asks that it be so? Because when he is sober he is 'sorry'? When a man is denied access to his children at the key stages in their life as a result of a divorce which he did not want, or did not instigate, does the gospel really demand that he be reconciled to his ex-wife as though the loss of that precious time with his children was as nothing to him- simply because she now desires it?

Are we trying to be like gods when we demand such of ourselves and of others?
When we dare to proclaim such a gospel - is it any wonder that domestic violence, paedophilia, racial abuse, and bullying are rampant in the Church?

How is this 'life-giving'?

But what are the alternatives?
I believe that the practice of forgiveness is an acknowledgement that forgiveness is not immediate, it cannot be demanded or presumed, it is not a right- but is a gift of grace, which you and you alone can grant.
Practicing forgiveness means honestly owning the hurt and the anger, until sufficient grace is given by you to be able to release it. Often this is not given until 'justice' is done, the violence exposed, the situation is changed.
Practicing forgiveness means not making a lie of reconciliation by pretending to an affection or a relationship which does not exist, but offering both to you in trust.
Practising forgiveness means not being crucified time and again, but acknowledging that the time in the tomb is an important part of the process of healing and reconciliation. The gospel story suggests that it is important for humans to take the time to experience the hurt, to allow the anger to be expressed, to be transformed into the new creation which is the end result of all that has happened.

So God - this is my prayer to you this day, that all those who need to, myself included, might learn what it means to practice forgiveness by taking the time to wait on your grace, not by burying anger or hurt, but by burying the lie that everything is OK.


  1. I'm struggling with a forgiveness issue right now - thank you for your insight.

  2. You are right in saying that forgiveness can never be presumed by the offender. It is not a right, but a gift of grace. And as such it needs to be un-coupled both from repentance and reconciliation... The hope is that both of those can and will take place ultimately, but the forgiveness is the gift of the victim in all of this, and cannot be expected by the perpetrator or commanded by the wider community, Christian or not. It is not a matter of saying that "everything is OK..." but rather that the original offence is NOT OK, but that the victim is not going to continue as a victim. We need a much more robust theology (and culture) of forgiveness than the wishy washy, meaningless one that is often sold as Christian doctrine... falling into the category of what Bonhoeffer described as cheap grace... whitewashing over problems and driving victims into a second, internal victimhood...