Seven observations on forgiveness

What does forgiveness really look like? And what are some practical tools we can use in our everyday lives? A few of us have been workshopping forgiveness lately, so here’s our collective wisdom so far. This is a work in progress, so if you have things to add, let me know and I can put them in a later newsletter.

Observation 1: Forgiveness is in the present. You can’t change what has already happened, or nurse old wounds. Somehow, you need to find ways to let things go. Then you are free to deal with new things when they come up, one at a time, rather than sandbagging someone with a sackful of grievances dating back years.

Observation 2: Forgiveness is slow. It isn’t quick or cheap. It takes time to understand what is going on for ourselves, and for the other person. Maybe we’re hurt or angry because the other person is being a jerk. But maybe we’re being the jerk, and the person we need to forgive is ourselves. Or maybe someone’s action evokes in us old hurts, which colour how we experience what is happening now. Or maybe it’s part of a whole system of sin. For example, thinking of Sunday’s gospel, we might have been raised with clear familial and cultural expectations around what a ‘good’ husband and son does, which are nevertheless suffocating. And so we may reject these expectations, and yet in rejecting them we might also feel guilty because we are disappointing people we love, including ourselves, for not living out shared values. Then when someone places those old expectations on us, that guilt can make us feel defensive and angry. It takes time to notice, unravel, and respond well to what’s actually going on.

Observation 3: Forgiveness is liberating. It is enormously freeing to refuse to be defined by other people’s expectations or by the hurts they inflict on us, and to refuse to be driven by guilt. Nadia Bolz Weber has a lovely image of forgiveness as being like bolt cutters snapping the chain which links us to evil (watch here (2 mins)). The only risk with her image is that you can conclude it means an end to relationship, when I think it’s about cutting through the ties which bind us to evil, but seeking to restore relationship.

Observation 4: Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting.  It’s not about sweeping things under the carpet. Instead, it’s saying, “You did this, and it hurt me badly. Yet I love you, and I want to continue in relationship with you. Therefore, I will no longer hold this against you. Instead, I simply hope that together we will grow out of this experience.” Over time, refusing to replay and rehearse the hurt may lead to the episode dwindling and fading; perhaps, one day, you will forget. But this is not the same as pretending it never happened at all.

Observation 5: Forgiveness is a response to the scandal of grace. Since God has already forgiven us, who are we to withhold forgiveness from anyone else? One person commented to me this week that knowing that both criminals were forgiven by Jesus has been tremendously freeing for them. With such an abundance of grace in this world, they feel much more able to forgive themselves their own flaws, faults, mis-steps and limitations; and this has made them more able to forgive others. (If you missed that reflection, read it here.)

Observation 6: Forgiveness does not require repentance. Reconciliation may require repentance; but forgiveness is different. Observations 5 and 6 point to this. Because forgiveness is about refusing to engage in evil, and refusing to be defined by anyone else, then it doesn’t require the other to repent. Instead, it is an act of freedom we can do freely, wholeheartedly, and independently. Whether or not the other accepts, rejects, or even knows about that forgiveness is a different question. Our model is Jesus, who forgave people left, right and centre before they repented; for many, repentance came afterwards, and for some, not at all.

Observation 7: Forgiveness is the work of the victim. This observation is so obvious, and so offensive, that it is often overlooked. But forgiveness clearly requires an injured party, and it also clearly requires the injured party to do the work. Our human sense of justice screams in outrage at this: for surely the perpetrator must put the effort in. That would be nice, but this is not how things work. Forgiveness must necessarily be the work of the victim but, as noted above, it is also an act of freedom. Of course, telling a victim that they must forgive is abusive; but for a victim to freely choose and enact forgiveness can be extraordinarily healing and liberating. It declares that they are no longer enmeshed in and defined by the hurt, and it enables them to find a freer, more expansive way of being. Jesus the forgiving victim is our model, and it is revolutionary: for it suggests that God is vulnerable, suffers from our hurts, and yet always chooses to forgive. Taken seriously, such an image of God can transform human self-understanding in ways which will heal the world.

But that’s more than enough for this week! Next week, I’ll suggest some practical steps to forgiveness. And if you have any suggestions – good earthy tools for helping us forgive, let go, and move forward in our relationships – let me know and I can add it to the list.


Emailed to Sanctuary 13 June 2018 © Sanctuary, 2018.

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