In the past two articles
, I have tried to explain why Jesus’ life in the Spirit is an example of forgiveness that we can imitate when we receive the same power from the Holy Spirit. Secondly, I said that while forgiveness is in some sense forgoing a vengeance-based justice, it is not simply sweeping something under the rug. The offer of forgiveness is actually a form of rebuke for wrongdoing. Thirdly, I tried to explain that the very nature of forgiveness is the offering of a gift, not a bargaining chip in a transactional process. We can only give that gift freely when we give it through the gift we have received: the empowering grace of God.
When thinking through the Biblical picture of forgiveness and applying it in our own lives, it is helpful to consider how the process of forgiveness can feel on the inside. The truths I’ve gestured towards in the earlier parts of this series are of little help if they can’t find a landing place within our inner emotional and spiritual lives.
One of the challenges of making a topic like this practical is the vast array of circumstances that present an opportunity for forgiveness. Far from a “one-size-fits-all” approach, any pastorally sensitive process of forgiveness is like the act of a good doctor.
A doctor takes the theory and understanding from their training and applies it with attention to the person and situation at hand. Similarly, the process and practicality of forgiveness depends on the severity of the wrongdoing that creates a situation where forgiveness is required.
What I have been reflecting on are situations of offence and forgiveness that take place in relationships within the Church. My approach would be quite different if I was speaking of something more serious like sexual abuse involving children, or murder. These, of course, are weighty and difficult situations, but far more common in the Church are the smaller disagreements that escalate into needlessly broken relationships. These smaller situations can deeply damage Christian witness and the hope of other Christians for the building of a community on the basis of forgiveness.
With that being said, it is first important to recognise, when engaged in a process needing forgiveness, that the process feels different for each person involved. What feels like a minor offence to one can deeply wound another.
While major acts of wrongdoing have a clear offender and victim, other broken circumstances may leave both parties feeling like they are the victim and the other an offender. But when dealing with each in turn, it is helpful to recognize the difference between the experience of the offender, who is offered forgiveness, and the victim who may offer it.
If an offender has a sense of conscience over their actions and sees their need for forgiveness, they will often view forgiveness as an event. I need to be forgiven, you offer forgiveness, and now it is over.
For the victim, forgiveness is a journey. An initial offer of forgiveness, while a herculean task and boundary marker, may only be the beginning of a much longer journey. Once again, the factors are as numerous and distinct as the people involved. A harshly spoken word which caused offence might be resolved quickly, whereas for the victim of an extended abuse, the relationship may never safely be resolved in reconciliation.
I recently heard someone describe grief in a way that might possibly help us understand what it means to live in forgiveness towards someone who harms us, which is itself a form of loss. The processing of a loss or wrongful act can feel like trying to walk with the crushing weight of a boulder bearing down on us. Depending on the severity of the loss or wrongful act, we may carry the boulder, or at least its consequences, for the rest of our lives. What changes through the process of grief and forgiveness is not the weight of the boulder but the strength of our bodies to carry it.
Painful things have happened in my life, many of them decades ago. They continue to be low points in my life’s story. These things have marked me and, in some ways, have contributed to the person I am today. Yet, to continue the metaphor, I am not walking with a limp because I am better able to carry the weight of the boulder.
The Lord, through healing experiences of forgiveness, has strengthened me to carry the consequences of those actions. In many ways, he has brought wholeness to the brokenness caused by those actions against me. God has met me in ways that have led to a gratitude that these actions are a part of my story because without them I might never have known the grace of God in my life to the same depth.
Obviously, this cannot be the same for every wrong action, but it can be the case for many of the wrongs we experience throughout our lives. In a forgiveness process, we are not expecting that the boulder to be removed as if it had never happened, although we would be delighted if it were so. We cannot erase what has been done, but are simply asking for the strength to walk with the weight of loss in step with Jesus who bears it with us and enables us to offer the gift of forgiveness.
In the process of forgiveness, there has to be a place for grief and lament. As Christians, we can often be highly uncomfortable with some of the more unpleasant and unpredictable emotions that arise in the context of loss, conflict and pain, but these emotions are a crucial part of the process. If we shortcut them, feeling a duty to a peppy surface-level positivity, we bury a ticking time bomb of resentment.
If the goal of God’s story is presence, then affirming God’s presence in our places of pain is a key part of the forgiveness process. It is understandable that we fear the kind of pain that arises when parts of our world become shattered through acts that should never have been. When we experience something that requires forgiveness we are confronted with the brokenness of the world and we rightly feel overwhelmed.
Sometimes we are impatient in the process of forgiveness. We hope for a quick process and don’t allow the space we need to appropriately express our grief and lament over the situation we find ourselves in. In the end, space for grief and lament allows forgiveness to work deeper down into our bones than a hasty resolution might.
Lament, in contrast to despair, is not whining into a void. It is a relational mourning, and expresses loss to the One who hears and empathises with us, and who shares in our grief. When we enter into lament, we affirm that even here in our pain, anger and loss, we can meet God.
In this way, we reconcile or return ourselves into an intentional, experienced relationship with God. Too many times, I have seen people who have not been able to engage God in their pain and have shut down any willingness to forgive a person who has wronged them. While they may continue to pay lip service to a relationship with God, the hardness of heart that has developed through their unwillingness to forgive another person seeps into their relationship with God. They cannot forgive and they no longer remain available to receive felt forgiveness from God. Their hearts have grown hard and cold in their insistence for justice and vengeance on their own terms. It is amongst the saddest things I have observed in my entire life.
If we hastily brush aside the felt experience of conflict and loss, we remove the possibility that the forgiveness we are called to offer will reach all the way down into our pain. God entered into the deepest depth of loss in his forsakenness and death on the cross. This is what made his work so complete, so full of integrity, and so trustworthy. If we don’t allow ourselves and others to plumb the depths of our pain, we risk racing towards an incomplete reconciliation that will only hurt us further down the line.
One final practical note here. There are times when a process of forgiveness gets stuck by focusing only on the interior. If this is the case, we need to return to the point I made earlier regarding forgiveness being offered before repentance. Forgiveness cannot be held captive by an individualised process which collapses into introspection and navel-gazing. Often just beginning to express an unfelt forgiveness with the acknowledgement that there is always more interior work to do, can unlock our hearts towards reconciliation. After all, forgiveness matures and gets expressed ultimately between people as reconciliation. In most cases, when forgiveness only happens on the inside, it is not the fullness of what we are called to as Christians.
This is what we will conclude with in the final part of this series.