Like many survivors, I have been clobbered over the head with demands that I forgive those who have wounded and almost destroyed me. Some of those “clobbering” me have meant well; they believed that forgiveness was the key to my healing, or even that there was a magic equation whereby forgiveness=instant healing.
Others were more selfish. If I forgave, they thought, all this unpleasantness would go away, we could forget anything ever happened, life would return to normal, and they wouldn’t have to be uncomfortable.
I know survivors whose friends and loved ones told them, “We forgave your rapists and we’re over it now! Why can’t you forgive and move on?”
In some Christian circles, unforgiveness and the resulting “bitterness” is seen as a worse sin than the original offense. I wish I could say I was making this up, but I’m not.
This — and other false, damaging teaching about forgiveness — grieves me so much that I have wanted for a long time to write a series of blog posts on the topic. The problem is that I’m still working out my own thoughts and beliefs. Even worse, I still balk and struggle.
From my own experience, I’ve learned that forgiveness often comes in stages, and that it requires a full understanding of the offense against us. To use a silly example, I might find it easy to forgive you if I thought all you did was steal some loose change out of my drawer. After all, it was less than a dollar. But if I discover you also took my life savings, that would be much harder to forgive. When we rush a rape victim to forgive, before she has had time to process what happened to her and assess the damages to her body and soul, before she has experienced life as a rape survivor beyond the immediate aftermath, it is far too soon for her to know the full extent of what it is that she is forgiving. To her, it sounds as if you are demanding, “Pretend it never happened. Get over it and love your rapist!”
Then again, I cannot ignore the Biblical commands to forgive…to love our enemies. I have come to the conclusion that these things are impossible…at least for me. That which we find impossible or difficult should never be what we demand and insisted upon for others. I have purposed to strike the words, “You need to forgive!” from my vocabulary.
At the same time, I believe that those of us who claim to follow Jesus will eventually be brought to that time and place where God asks us to do the seeming impossible. There are some who will experience a somewhat instant forgiveness breakthrough, like when Corrie ten Boom was able to forgive, when she met him years later, the concentration camp guard who treated her beloved sister so cruelly. (She tells that story here.) Others, like me, are more hard-hearted. I’ll be honest — I have struggled immensely to forgive the worst of my offenders. It came in stages and layers: I’ll forgive this part or this offense, but not this other thing. I argued with God, But this part — surely even You agree that it is beyond forgiveness! Look at the damage it caused! Look at what it cost me! Look at how evil it was! Somehow…eventually…God forgave through me, for me, in my place, and He freed me to forgive my rapists and others who had abused and mistreated me.
But recently — as in these past few days — God has shown me how unforgiving my heart still is. I claim to be a follower of Jesus, yet I still refuse to follow His example in forgiveness, especially for the day in and day out bumps and bruises we inflict on each other, knowingly or not, whenever there are imperfect people doing life together. But You don’t understand! I have the audacity to argue with my Creator, the One who created the universe. I have to see this person all the time and how do I know they won’t do it again? Besides, isn’t repentance a pre-requisite for forgiveness, and how can people repent if they don’t know the full extent of how badly I was hurt? I don’t think they even know how wrong it was!
God helps me in my human frailty. He is so good and so merciful. He puts up with me. He helps me.
It wasn’t until after I experienced the joy of God enabling me to forgive more utterly and completely than I thought possible, to replace my hurt, suspicion, and withdrawal with more love than I thought my puny little heart was capable of — it was then that He reminded me of Jesus’s words on the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
I’m so unlike Jesus. It breaks my heart.
I don’t want to be like the unforgiving servant Jesus described in one of His stories. The immensity of my rebellion against God makes people’s sins against me pale in comparison — which is exactly the point Jesus was making. But sometimes forgiveness is more than just hard — it’s completely beyond me. It’s in His forgiveness of me, in His love for me, that I find the ability to do the impossible.
It’s in being able to forgive…the big and little things, the nagging things I don’t want to let go of…it’s in finally letting it all go — like smoke up a chimney — that I make one little faltering step closer to being more like the Jesus I claim to love.