I’ve spoken and written a disproportionate amount on what forgiveness is not. And for good reason. I have found that on a fundamental level, many Christians around me do not know what it is. The term has been loaded with inadequate, vague or simplistic notions that end up oppressing those severely hurt by evil, preventing the Christian community from being lights in a dark world while becoming obstacles to true forgiveness. And this is more than tragic because forgiveness is part of our birthright as Christians, it is the gift of Christ within our hearts that we can give freely to those around us. It is a powerful weapon we all have within us to fight the powers of darkness. It is a visible proclamation of the Kingdom of God over and against those with a zero-sum conception of power that simultaneously invites them also into new life or condemns their continued rebellion against God.
When we hollow out the term “forgiveness” and replace it with merely “letting go” (of what?), not being angry or making friends with vicious predators, abusers or those who, for whatever reason, wish to continue to hurt us or our loved ones, we functionally support a kingdom of unrighteousness, injustice, and social system where might makes right. Ironically, by insisting that an abuse victim “forgive” the man who just raped her 5 seconds ago, we have despised the Son of God who stood up for and became one with the abused. We have heaped inappropriate and oppressive burdens, and messages on targets to not bother us with their pathetic cries of pain, desperate pleas for solidarity and desire for a world of true peace where they are seen, heard and safe.
Instead, we have opted, inadvertently, to maintain the hold of the one who thinks they should be in the place of God and that they have the right to mangle, warp and rape the image of God. And ironically, by our own simplistic understandings of forgiveness, and like the servant in the parable of the forgiving King, we have refused to “forgive” targets of abuse for sins the perpetrator and community committed. That is, we have insisted targets pay in full a debt they never accumulated both making them reconcile or make right the sins of the perpetrator and by wrongly insisting they harbor a “sin” of bitterness in their trauma thus releasing the rest of us from the responsibility of setting right what we allowed to happen or placing the task of restitution squarely on the one who exploits. We the community further abuse targets as we project onto them the labels of “bitter,” “unrepentant” or “unforgiving.”
That said, before I get further into a theology of forgiveness built off of how I understand biblical teachings on forgiveness, out of necessity, here are some things which forgiveness is not: limited to the ambiguous “letting something go” (the PTSD & traumatized brain will replay the wrong over and over again and this is a brain change and injury not a heart problem), reconciling, enabling further abuse, putting oneself or others in harms way, becoming unjust, denying, pretending or conveniently forgetting something happened rather than do the hard work identifying or sorting through the wrong, always a one time instance that magically makes all the trauma go away, lack of consequences on many levels, automatically restoring one to their original status, remission of ingrained habits and patterns, or impersonal or purely distributive. Additionally, note that forgiveness is one of many things Jesus did AND not everything Jesus did falls under the term “forgiveness” i.e. reconciliation may be related to or made possible sometimes by forgiveness, but is not itself forgiveness.
And now we turn to forgiveness: what it is, why we do it, and how it can be accomplished.
What is forgiveness? Forgiveness may be defined as, “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” This is not a bad definition. I prefer the following based on how I understand the Scriptures: “Forgiveness is giving up one’s right to hurt another for hurting you. That is, it is forfeiting malice, hate and revenge for specific wrongs committed (whether by commission or omission, on accident or on purpose).” If the conditions are right, forgiveness might serve as a starting point enabling reconciliation, restored or new positive relationships, or, at the very least, prevent a spiral of vengeance on top of vengeance. And if anything, forgiveness as an outworking of the fruits of the Spirit identifies those who are in Christ or are responding (even progressively) to the Spirit’s work.
Forgiveness is rooted in God’s goodness and love that embraces all people without exception. Hence human dignity, value and accountability are also embedded in the forgiveness process and are key to justice. Legal Justice (in a just society or organization) may still hold you accountable for murdering my nephew to ensure more murders do not happen and to identify your behavior as wrong, but I will not be killing yours as payback. You may spread lies about me to my neighbors, bear false witness to authorities or try to tear be down, but I will not do the same towards you. I will not seek to tear you down nor undermine you, I will instead seek your good ‘and’ speak the truth. You may not deserve anything from me, but I did not deserve anything from Christ. I have been given a gift and a new way of living and so I give this gift to you and invite you to join me in doing the same. You grabbed for power, sought to harm and lacked compassion and restraint. I will act out of love, mercy and grace even while still hurting and even when there is no justice or safety for me. I will do this even while seeking safety and well-being for myself. Martin Luther King Jr lived by this while facing abuse, death and racism. Still, he consistently sought “constructive ends” over destructive ones towards those who sought to harm him in a context where he could not get justice for death threats, beatings and murder. He both lived and died by the Gospel of peace both seeking justice and exercising forgiveness while looking ahead towards God’s reconciling work that was possible in even in his time.
A necessary component of forgiveness is identifying, illuminating or voicing the wrong committed internally and ideally, externally. One must recognize a wrong has committed in order to forgive it. This may occur in an instant or over a “pilgrimage.” Many abuse survivors enter into the process of forgiveness as they spend years figuring out what was done to them in the first place, declaring forgiveness anew as new layers of pain and injury are recovered. Additionally, sometimes hurt comes up again and for some this hurt can start to sow bitterness (best not to assume pain = bitterness) and one simply needs to forgive again. To feel these things are not sinful, but they can become so if they are not put under the power of Christ and re-purposed. Forgiveness is both a spiritual battle and a sacred process as one embraces safety in Christ, while delving into moments of pain, suffering the material reality of being unsafe.
Naming the sin empowers those who are injured because it identifies it as something wrong done to them. It is a step in the right direction of justice. Enabling the target to vocalize the wrong committed allows the one who was wronged to stand up straight and say: I am a someone, a person who is worthy of respect. I matter. As such, there are constraints on you to act rightly towards me. Its important to allow this publicly because it also marks a change in community values from protecting the perpetrator to the reintegrating and coming alongside the one wronged. The basis of this ability to name or illuminate the sin is the imago Dei, just as it is also the basis for forgiving another.
In Matthew 8 for example, where it speaks of forgiving one’s brother 70x7, it also says in v15, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault…” and includes layers of others gradually getting involved if the person will not stop their behavior. The immediate basis for this in the text, is God being on the side of the “little ones,” taking great pains as a shepherd to not lose even one, and it being better not to have an eye if it will cause one to stumble. In turn, since God takes great pains to care for, protect and restore his sheep we are warned against doing the opposite to the vulnerable: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” In other words, God is watching and refusing to care for those who are vulnerable or outside the circle will not go unnoticed.
God’s Word further conveys the necessity of one who wrongs another having to face the wrong committed (and not sweeping it under the rug) with this command: “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). In other words, those in charge and the community are not to support or buddy up with the perpetrator in order to display an unbiblical form of “grace” or “forgiveness.” This is called marginalizing the target and promoting injustice. This is not what Jesus did when he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes (the underdogs of society). Rather, the community and leadership are told to visibly side with the target or one wronged and not associate with the one who demonstrates 1) they will not acknowledge their specific sin or 2) change their behavior.
Interestingly, in Revelation 2:20 the term for “forgiveness” is used, but in such a way as to indicate how one should not exercise forgiveness. Note, ἀφεῖς or “forgiveness” is the term used in many other passages on forgiveness (cf. Mark 11:25, Matt 6:9-15, 12:31-32; 18:15, 21-22, 27; 26:28…ect). In Revelation 2:20 the church has “forgiven” or tolerated very wicked behavior, in this case idolatry and sexual immorality, from a false prophet Jezebel who was given opportunities to repent, but wouldn’t.
But I have this against you: you ἀφεῖς that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.
We have multiple indications that a biblical practice of forgiveness is not “wiping the slate clean” or “forgetting” the wrongdoing of someone who persists in sin. The community is not to act as though no wrong is committed when it continues to be committed or when there are not concrete indicators (described above) that the person has repented. “Forgiving” in this unbiblical manner will continue to influence others. In the case of ongoing abuse, one also has a person to defend, protect and restore on top of not allowing someone who will not repent to keep doing evil. Part of what forgiveness is involves the community publicly siding with what is right and with the one who is vulnerable and not publicly acting as though no wrong has been committed in the name of peace. Doing so is not promoting peace, but saving face at the expense of others, and it is acting against God’s expressed wishes.
Further, in my opinion, it is a good idea for a target not to associate with someone who demonstrates perpetual, targeting and destructive behavior towards them since we are told not to associate with those who persist in rebelling against God who call themselves believers, but also because doing so puts you at risk and may serve to further allow them to abuse you. From another angle, don’t help them sin! Limit contact as much as is safe and possible. Unfortunately, this is often not possible when you are not kept safe by or kept safe from the wider community when they side with the perpetrator in their actions.
Truth telling and the naming of sin is necessary for the good of the perpetrator(s). Jesus said, “the truth will set you free,” in the context of his identity and connection to the Father (John 8:32). In this passage, he is referring to those who have held to his teachings and are not enslaved to sin. Those who sin or wrong others are in bondage to sin and cannot be free until they embrace truth in a multifaceted way. They must recognize their sin for what it is and actively pursue a different path, the way of Christ. One who is repentant and actively Christian will demonstrate remorse in the context of acknowledging the wrong without minimizing it or manipulating. I.e. not a letter someone shared with me from an abusive mother where years of physical and emotional abuse were cloaked in an “apology” for an inability to adequately “express her love.” I’ve gotten plenty of these types of letters before too. They belong in the trash.
That said, the target or receiver of a wrong does what is best for themselves and the community and the perpetrator when they name the sin. Without facing sin, there is no transformation and no freedom in Christ. We all need Jesus and we all need each other. Even the well known “sinner’s prayer” involves admitting one is a sinner. Identifying sin allows another person to rectify a wrong and change their heart. It may also help the one wronged avoid festering bitterness or resentment that morph into malice and revenge which are sins. The corruption and nihilism of one person does not necessitate the corruption and forsaken hope of another.
Forgiveness is expressed commitment to God’s values, future, kingdom and fruits of the Spirit even when tempted by others to abandon them. The former holds true even in the absence of wrongs committed against you. Forgiveness is an instance of exemplifying the values of God’s vision of humanity whether those who betray us acknowledge it or not. We seek to be conformed into what God wanted a human to be, the image of the Son. The Son full-heartedly embraced God’s vision for humanity with his ethics even to the point of death and so we also will be willing. In Matthew 26 Jesus acknowledges one will betray him even while saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness in God’s reality remains constant whether or not the one forgiven ultimately choose forgiveness or personal destruction as was the case with Judas. Forgiveness reaches out to the other, but does not force the other. Forgiveness is not based on the merits of the one committing evil, but on the merits of Christ and one’s active agreement with his new way of living (faith). All the better when the one who does the wrong decides to enter into this kingdom reality with us!
Yes, forgiveness has the potential to wipe the slate clean on a relational level, though it is not to be equated with wiping the slate clean interpersonally. And, we can always wipe the slate clean in terms of not holding grudges or seeking revenge (no eye for an eye). However, it is not always possible to do so in the sense that the relationship is restored depending on the level of trauma committed or the unrepentance of the perpetrator (i.e. the ultimate act of forgiveness is not always the person who becomes best buds with her rapist afterwards). Forgiveness has occurred to the ultimate degree by Christ and yet not all forgiven receive eternal life. Some do not want to enter into that kingdom reality like Judas above. There is indeed tension between God’s kingdom reality and things not being quite right in the here and now, yet no contradiction when it comes to following after Christ. Hebrews 10:17 recalls, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” for those who the law of God is written on the heart and yet also, “he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool” (v13). And even in Numbers 14:18-25 we get a lengthy expression from Moses on God’s forgiving and merciful heart. God decides to forgive Israel for their wrong, but still rules that those who tested him will not enter the promised land. It turns out, God has boundaries.
All of this to say, yes the Bible speaks of hurling sins into the sea, but not without context or qualification.
Still, relational restoration is often possible when there is forgiveness and whenever possible should be pursued! When everyone cooperates with God, amazing things happen. I can see in the face of each person the potential of God’s love to transform them into the person they were meant to be just as I can be transformed. There is hope for every person in Christ. It is this hope that led Martin Luther King Jr to speak of his oppressors as brothers! And to look ahead to the day when they will walk “hand in hand.” He did not only see murders, de-humanizers, and racists, but also sick brothers who although they claimed the cross, still needed the cross. They said they worshiped a crucified Christ and yet nailed and hung black men, women and children, loved by God and agents of his world, to trees. He did not deny reality, but saw more into it.
Even when one looks in the face of another who is full of hate or fear or power lust we can see hope for the present and if not the present, overcoming someday…in the Lord’s day if they will give their lives to God and renounce their demonstrated allegiance to Satan and the world. This drive can inspire us to forgive again and again 70x7 through trauma, through continued slights, disrespect, dehumanization, and destruction and through loss. Forgiveness is our offering to Christ even if a restored relationship will only be realized in the eschaton. “See you then!”
Forgiveness is compatible with safety and distancing.
When someone has slighted me, I am generally quick to overlook it. I generally also make tons of allowances for extenuating circumstances, disorders, people being deceived, immature, dropped on their heads as children…etc. And really, its not like I am perfect either and I hope others will forgive me when I have been grumpy, selfish, desperate, or misinformed. I also tend to have a quick bounce back and am not easily injured regardless of how “mean” someone is, and so I am generally able to resume as normal even if someone does not do the right thing and own up to it. Frankly, I usually do not even remember what they did a couple of hours or minutes later. Sometimes, forgiveness can be forgetting especially if the slight need not be significant. But then there is prolonged abuse and trauma which creates changes in the brain that are out of one’s control.
When someone has caused me severe damage (no, not hurt feelings), habitually abused me or exhibited patterned behavior and I am in a context that is safe to have boundaries, I gauge whether someone is ready for reconciliation or whether I should believe them when they make overratures before I restore relationships with them. Although, it does not mean I will never try and restore baseline friendliness if they still hate me, are angry or hostile. Contrary to popular belief, most people who cannot “let it go” are those who hurt others and won’t own up to their actions. They want to keep believing the people they hurt are the problem or attempt to force subservience and silence in the name of peace. Far from the good Samaritans, they are the thieves that attack the vulnerable and leave him on the side of the road to die and prefer he remain out of sight and out of mind.
That said, here is what I look for if someone who has done something habitually and extreme enough wishes to be friends or have a relationship that goes beyond casual, baseline friendly or required professionalism:
1) Have they named their specific sin? Or have they owned up to something much smaller, minimized it, avoided, or denied it?
2) Have they apologized for their specific sin? Not: “I am sorry you feel that way” or other variations that avoid actual responsibility.
3) Have they indicated remorse and committed to not doing it again?
4) Have they actually made restitution or attempted reconciliation?
That is, have they attempted to set things that they made wrong right? If they told lies about you have they set the record straight? If they injured you have they paid your medical bills? If they stole X have they replaced it or if unable to directly undo the damage made an effort to help in a way that they can?
In the context of those exhibiting predatory and abusive behavior, further:
5) Have they bound themselves with an outside force of accountability so that they will not easily be able to hurt you again?
6) Have they gotten help? Abuse is a habitual pattern of behavior based in problems with the love of power (i.e. sexual abuse is not about sex and physical abuse is not about anger). They need professional help to address this.
Without these, I do not trust they have repented or that I will be safe with them so I keep them at an arms length. Some of the above I apply towards a community or group that exhibits sexist, racist, or marginalizing behavior on purpose or not, but it depends on the pervasiveness and severity of the marginalization or joining/buying in on abuse or siding with the predator if there is one. One size does not fit all.
Some red flags that you should try and keep even more distance from the person if they exhibit these in the context of your attempts to lay down some basic boundaries or if they do these when “apologizing:” Go on a psychotic rant or fit of rage about your inferiority and their superiority (trust me, it happens), attempt to manipulate you or keep you in line, attempt to confuse you by making it all about you and your issue somehow somehow, attempt to make themselves your “resource” for recovery (power play). If you see/hear these, stay away and seek further protection. Head over heart here. Yes, they may indeed be hurting, had a sad life, have extenuating circumstances…etc. but that is something for them to work out with their therapist, not you. Don’t be their power drug “supply.”
Scripture calls us to be oriented towards peace, not revenge. The former should be our active disposition regardless of any wrong committed. We pray for everyone so “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2). Still, although we may seek peace, not everyone will. Some will seek the destruction of others for their own gain and some (including ourselves) will have moments of vice and selfishness. Romans 12:14-21 tells us how to treat those who wrong us in the context of a general Christian disposition of recognizing the value in others and not seeing ourselves through an inflated lens: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse,” “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” live in peace as much as others will allow for it, and seek the good of those who seek what they think is their own good at your expense. The entire passage is as follows:
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
A last word on this before moving forward, those who have a distorted view of themselves will not like it when you meet their evil with loving-kindness and decency, when you do not regard them as superior, but as an equal and when you treat yourself as a fellow human being. They will be enraged and insulted. But there will also be those who will be grieved and want to make changes, even if it takes a long time. The Bible consistently calls for those considered “low” to see themselves as higher up and those who perceive themselves “high” to lower themselves so that we can rightly see one another face to face. Many who habitually hurt others are unable to grasp this reality for whatever reason. They are like rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was unable to “see” Lazarus while alive and so was not truly a child of Abraham. Even while in hell, perhaps connected to his way of life, he still could not perceive “Lazarus” rightly, demanding that Lazarus leave Abraham’s bosom to come and serve him! Its absurd, but it is the prison many live in. If you are in the right frame of mind, have pity on those trapped in a hell of their own making.
The key here is to continue on proclaiming a new kingdom with new social norms and continue to be transformed into the image of the Son. Others can take it or leave it, join in or not. Let God deal with it.
Why forgive? Because, in keeping with the wording of Romans 12 (some of which is quoted above), it is the logical or natural (λογικὴν) response for a life oriented towards worship of God and transformation (12:1-2). The Spirit has worked in us to bring about a different character and way of navigating through life than those around us. The world patterns itself in such a way as to elevate the self, whereas we pattern ourselves after Christ. How we act at our jobs, churches, online or in person matters. We do not start to live our “real” lives once we leave work. How we worship God in our treatment of others defines us in all places.
Our overall disposition must be one of loving others. Who we serve whether God or the world, is evident in who we associate with and how. Put another way, those who want to move up the ladder in organizations to accumulate power, position and wealth for themselves position themselves towards this end by associating with and flattering those above them. Those pursing a calling and future with the Lord, associate with and lavish on others based on their inherent worth as human beings. This includes those who others discount, those who cannot “repay” them. Biblicaly, it is more imperative to associate with the latter given the example of Christ who also pointed out that God notices when one invites “friends” who can pay us back while leaving the poor out. Forgiveness is an extension of the general principle of giving without strings attached, and without expecting anything in return since we are “storing up treasures in heaven.” Our actions reveal what we have invested in whether God’s future or the worship of the self or idols.
We forgive because we desire the thriving of others whether friends or enemies. In 1 Timothy 2 we are told to pray for others on the basis that God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of him. Additionally, 1 Corinthians 13 tells us what love is: patient, kind and that it does not envy or boast…really it paints a picture of one who values others and does not value themselves at the expense of others. Unlike worldly conceptions of power, one’s position is not viewed in zero sum terms in Scripture. When someone wrongs us and we are in a position to hurt them with or without them knowing, we refrain. When someone is repentant and has demonstrated it, we do not attempt to shame them by reminding them of their wrong. When the other must be held accountable for their actions, we do not try to shield them from it, but we do use self-restraint and not try and inflict maximal or as much damage as possible. Maybe we do on occasion refrain from having them face the consequences (be careful here). One size does not fit every situation.
There is generally no reward for helping someone who has proven they will keep being your enemy, but we can do it out of love. Often those we must forgive will not accept forgiveness. They might. But often they won’t. Either way, we continue on in our worship of God whether wronged or just going about our day. Our bodies are offered to God as “living sacrifices” hence we follow a different path than others that is consistent with out life orientation. We have bought into the vision of God’s kingdom and walk accordingly.
Ultimately, alongside the inherent worth of a human being, our basis for forgiveness moving forward is that we were forgiven by Christ. In Ephesians 4:31-32 we are told to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” God knew we would crucify him yet he still came to live among us and show us a better way. God wanted us to see how far he would go to forgive us and asked that we would follow in his footsteps. We owe forgiveness towards others to the God of love.
What about anger? Well, sometimes we get angry. Jesus was angry at times. Its human. Jesus was human and without sin. And it is ok to be angry at someone and certainly at a horrible situation. The sentiment we should follow in the above passage (if we do not want to contradict with other passages) is not to cease to be angry perse, but not harbor it in a way that wants harm for the person or resents them. Just right above this statement we are told how we are to be angry. Ephesians 4: 25-28
“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
Interestingly, the behavior attached to anger in these verses is a slew of outright sins all associated with the consequences of not regarding others as part of oneself: lying, deception, brooding, and stealing. In the place of negative actions are positive things: telling the truth, working instead of stealing so that one can share with others. The idea here is not to remain in a perpetual state where one entertains hurting another person or sinning. And note, most of these sins in the context of not being angry seem to easily go with the one who wrongs the other! Sometimes in our quest for vengeance (a twisted form of restitution) we have failed to see that we are actually the perpetrator!
We are to look upon others with compassion. They are a person and people make mistakes, sin on purpose and can also be quite cruel. None of us were not made for those things, but it is what some do. Those who continue to sin, refuse to be reconciled with those they wrong or repent are described as enslaved to sin (see discussion further above). They are not free. They do not know that life in Christ is worth all of the punishment they can dish out and more. Often, they are not easily able to do other than sin because they have not been liberated. They have not pledged their allegiance (faith) to Christ or are not listening to or working with the Spirit. If they did, their life would be so much better. They would not need to try and survive with layers of pacifying lies and manipulations, with power plays, by hiding and avoiding, by stealing, by projecting their faults onto others. They would not need to live drowned in their own torment and guilt offset by compensating “greatness.” They would not need to become their narcissistic masks. And all of us sin. No, not all sins are equal (the Bible describes degrees of punishments depending on wrong doings and has a list of what God hates the most), but we all have those parts of us that are not surrendered yet to God. We all have work to do and it is an honor to enter that process with another person. When we forgive and restore relationships (where possible) we have opportunities to grow ourselves.
How to forgive
How does one forgive? Maybe it will look different for different people in different situations. Ideally one forgives almost automatically out of the abundance of the life and hope given even in those days where one is flooded with fear, despair and depression. When days seem darkest and one is plagued by horrific images: the flash of the eyes, the patterns on the wall and the years of personal deconstruction from years past. Or that proverbial knife that seems to re-appear at the moment when you needed this or that person the most. Or when that person(s) you helped turned on you even after swearing they would never do it again. When you just got back from the ER and those who helped marginalize you snicker behind your back as you struggle through the day. When others did not do all that they could or thought it was ok for your health to decline because they had other priorities. Or when you have been traumatized and act traumatized and the people who caused it use it as proof that you were X all along or lacking in character and you feel helpless. Generally, due to experience I see through a lot. I’ve also been tricked. I have trusted people I shouldn’t have, people I had no choice but to and in varying degrees. I’ve been let down in major and minor ways.
I’ve seen a million and one apologies and “apologies” made to various people including myself. Many were manipulative, some by those who merely felt bad and wanted to save face after exposed (they did not apologize again when it mean exposing themselves), some from people who felt they meant them (even had me fooled) and then did it again, and some by those who made real changes. I’ve been told by this or that person through the years that they were going to help me in X way, make X changes…etc. One even looked me in the eyes and said “I can tell you don’t believe me, just watch.” Nothing changed. They checked in to make sure I was saying “hello” to my predator.
Given life experience, when I forgive I generally do not believe the people I am forgiving will change. Often I don’t feel anything when I am severely wronged or when someone tries to turn it around, too much has happened over the years. But somehow the promise of the kingdom and participation in it and with it forgiveness, seems greater than the felt despair, horrifying replay of images, humiliation great or small (maybe this is why I am not easily embarrassed?).
And I speak generally of no one instance in this space.
Generally, I try and think about how to get through or survive another day. To be honest, forgiveness at this stage in my life is not something I struggle with much. I’ve had years of practice. I am not saying it was not easy or that I am perfect. What has helped me in the past that has been internalized was seeing Christ in the dark. To see beyond the painful and dark present and into the light that will be manifest. I would think of the love of God that both embraces me as an individual in all my particularity and also wraps around and covers everyone around me. It was understanding that although I was the lonely child who did not have anyone to sit with at lunch that had Jesus visited my school he would have sat with me and simultaneously being taught by the Spirit and Scripture that I was to do the same. It was the Spirit teaching me over the years how much he loved all of us and wanted us to be with him. I’ve bought into the Incarnation, his life, death and resurrection. Ultimately, I want what he wants and believe anything is possible in the present because of God’s future.
I have learned that one is emboldened to forgive when they want more than anything to be like Christ, are open to the work of the Spirit—and ask for it often—and take a good look at themselves sorting through and working through everything not of God. Even now, I try my best to own up to personal failing, mistakes and those corners of the self one would like to hide from, cover or pretend do not exist and expose them inwardly, bringing them to God and continuing to ask for help. It is being mindful of that feeling that one is frozen and scared of that inner darkness and slowly releasing it and thinking “its ok, God is with me.” It is being able to go to others to admit wrong doing whether normal mistakes and imperfections or moral failings and trusting in God and his formation. That way, when someone comes to me for forgiveness or slights me in the moment I can let go of that same part of the false “self” that wants to hold tight to a false image or hold tight onto a twisted form of status or ego and instead open my hand and then take theirs. Love in the context of forgiveness both insists those “above” are really your equals in the Lord (it perspectivally lowers them if they are in power), but also attempts to raise those who feel low, up.
For me, having empathy for another person and trying to see things from their perspective, their internal walls and obstacles also helps with forgiveness. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with their actions, outlook on life or reasoning, but it helps to bring those who anger or hurt me into perspective. Personality wise, I already tend towards “liking” people. On the downside, when I misjudge people it tends to be for the better and this can be dangerous. Still, on the advantage, I find it helpful to perceive and bring out their good qualities which are God given and formed and be constructive when interacting with them when I can and where possible. I do not make up good things or pretend good is there when it isn’t, but everyone is made in God’s image and there is usually some good. And where it is not perceived there is always Jesus to remember.
So, to sum up how I forgive: I use what was developed and learned from my relationship with God to recognize the human in myself (both in terms of what I was created to be and what still needs formation), in others and in Christ and let the latter animate and re-contextualize the good and bad of the former. Despite my tendency to try and snatch joy and happiness from snippets of life, my life as a whole as not been happy. But I find it worthwhile. I know very well what it is like to be an injured human who does not always feel good and my understanding of forgiveness informed by Scripture helps me to be patient with myself and others going through hard times. And I am able to see suffering, lack, deprivation and shortcomings great and small through the lens of the Crucified Messiah who rose again and will raise us up with him one day. Life is not easy, but I see forgiveness as an opportunity, one of those good things we can do in the name of Christ and hope that others will do the same for me.