It is lovely to meet a fellow South African!
Thank you for taking the time to write this question down; I imagine that it resonates with a lot of us. When I read your words about those who have been able to forgive heinous crimes committed against them, truly living a life free of bitterness and resentment the old adage comes to my mind: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine.’ There is something that causes us to stop and wonder at this, because it is so unusual, so wonderful, and so beautiful.
However, that being said, I think your question is a very valid one. It is possible for there to be some confusion around the topic of forgiveness and I have taken a few days to respond to this question because I feel it is so foundational and important. Thank you for your patience!
You mentioned that it can feel sometimes like there is disconnect between uttering the words, ‘I forgive you’ and the reality of what is going on inside our hearts. Perhaps this is a helpful place to start. One thing that is clear in scripture and that I find so comforting is that God knows our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7, Psalm 139:1-18). Another thing that is clear is that we are invited to cry out to God, to pour out your hearts before the Lord (Psalm 62:8). The Psalms are a good example of the intimacy that we are allowed to have with God, where we see that there is no need to try and sugar coat what we are feeling, all can be laid bare.
Emotions are complex and it is a source of great comfort to me that the Bible does not hide from the reality of the depth and complexity of who we are and what we feel. (The book of Job is another great example of this). I am comforted by this because, as many professional psychologist and counsellors will tell us, it is essential to become comfortable with our whole range of emotions. If we become comfortable with them, we can allow them to teach us things about ourselves; our hopes, desires, our beliefs and our pain. The God of the Bible never tells us to shove down our emotions, instead, He lovingly invites us to come to him bringing all of how we feel to him: anger, frustration, confusion, fear and sorrow. He is not someone who tries to tells us what we should and shouldn’t feel, instead he welcomes us to come and process all of who we are and what we feel with Him in a way that allows our hearts to grow, deepen, and heal.
In the mix and mess of all of these emotions, then, what is true forgiveness? What does it look like? How do we know if we have forgiven someone? The Bible says that we should forgive as God has forgiven us. So, Perhaps, it is helpful to look at what can we learn from how God has forgiven us. A few questions have helped me with this. Does God pretend that he is not angered by sin? No. Does God act as if the wrongs we do don’t grieve his heart? No. Does God get frustrated with us? Yes. God is completely real about the depth of the wrong and the depth of its consequences. But whilst feeling and acknowledging all of these things, God chose, in an act of self-giving love, at great cost to Himself, not to hold our sin against us. He is not worried that our wrongdoing implies that He is worthless, He knows that our wrongdoing says something about who we are, not who He is. Out of that place of strength, despite our great offence, rather than being defensive and malicious, he is able to offer us forgiveness by absorbing our wrongdoing and offering us a way to repent and come back into relationship with Him. Knowing that it is not possible for us to ever make full restitution for what we have done He does not exact full repayment for our sins from us.
This then is a model that God asks us to follow in how we interact with others. He has not just told us what to do but He has shown us and gone before us in this difficult, painful but ultimately beautiful process.
As I look at the cross and how it teaches me to forgive as God has forgiven me, I see that an essential part of that process is learning that to forgive someone is not to say that their wrongdoing was not grievous. However, it is to acknowledge that it is not possible for this person to fully repay me what they have taken from me. (I must mention here that it will later be important, for reconciliation to happen, that the perpetrator does need to want to and begin to make amends) but forgiveness does not require this. In fact, forgiveness involves acknowledging that there is a very real sense in which no-one is truly able to make full amends for what they have done. It is not actually possible for any person to undo something wrong that they have done. To use a slightly inane example, if someone steals something from you, while they may return it to you, perhaps even pay a fine on top of that, there are aspects of the wrong that simply can’t be repaid. For instance, they can’t make up for the sense of insecurity (or worry, or whatever other feeling accompanies being wronged in some way) that they caused you in wrongfully taking what was yours. They can’t repay the sense of well-being and peace that you were robbed of during that time, to name but a few things. Because of this I see it as important to acknowledge that I can’t ‘hold this wrong-doing over their head’ as if it were possible for them to ever repay me.
Sometimes a lack of forgiveness in me can actually be rooted in an unwillingness to accept that truly bad things happen in our world and that none of us are able to escape being affected by them. In refusing to forgive someone we can, in fact, be staging a protest, an unwillingness to accept and grieve the reality that in many and various ways it is possible for us to be robbed of happiness and wellbeing in this world.
And so, a vital step in the process in dealing with myself when someone has wronged me is to really and truly grieve. When a wrong has been minor this may be a short-lived experience, but if someone has hurt us in a deep and significant way, it is important to allow ourselves time and space to mourn, grieve, be in anguish, feel anger, frustration, whatever we feel, for as long as we need to. My understanding is that the persistence of these feelings is not a sign that you haven’t forgiven someone, but a healthy sign that you are actually processing and grieving whatever has happened – a vital step to health. A feeling of resentment could in fact build up as a result of not truly processing the pain that you feel. This is why I believe that it is vital that we don’t associate our negative emotions with unforgiveness, as it may be that not allowing ourselves the space to feel those negative feelings, might actually hold us back from true forgiveness.
As previously mentioned, in the West we can be uncomfortable with experiencing negative emotion. I want to reiterate, however, that from my understanding this is cultural, not Biblical. Feeling the full force of our emotions can make us feel afraid. Perhaps we want to view ourselves as always calm and steady, this might actually be our pride at work, not wanting to admit to ourselves and others that we have a host of needs that we are desperate to get met; that we are full of deep longings, yearnings, hopes and desires. I don’t believe God wants those to be quashed but rather, he wants us to come to him and to feel free to express the full depth and breadth of these needs before him. The Bible is absolutely full to the brim of lament, lament at childlessness, evil, injustice, loss, etc. etc. In the West we are only just learning again what it means to lament. I have found in my own life that I am richer and more connected to myself and others when, in times of deep pain, I allow myself to truly feel (without fear of judgement) the full extent of my feelings before God in prayer and before trusted friends.
One other aspect of this (not always applicable, but important to mention anyway I think) is an awareness of how, when we are wronged, we can consciously or subconsciously internalise that wrong in an unhealthy way. We can interpret the situation as revealing how unvaluable we truly are. We can think, ‘If that person mistreated me, perhaps it is because I am not worthy of being treated better, perhaps I am such a worthless person that I deserve that sort of treatment.’ It is my observation that this inner dialogue whether conscious or subconscious, can play a part in unforgiveness. We can feel that in forgiving someone we are somehow saying that what they did wasn’t that bad, more than that, that in forgiving them, I am in some way coming into agreement with them about my lack of worth. Unforgiveness can then feel like a vital lifeline. While this can be a long and complicated process to untangle, especially if the hurt was inflicted at a young age when our sense of self-worth was being forged, in my own experience, it has been helpful for me to try completely separate out for myself the other person’s actions (or what their actions imply about their opinion of my worth) and my own beliefs about my worth. Again, this might take a long time and we might need lots of support from others. But this is an opportunity for me to practise separating my sense of my own worth from others’ opinions or treatment of me. And can be ultimately what enables me to ‘release’ them, and walk into true forgiveness.
But it is also important to notice the other ways in which the cross tutors us about forgiveness. God offers it to everyone. Forgiveness, (i.e. not exacting a full repayment) is not contingent on anyone else. We don’t need the other party to do anything or say anything before we choose to ‘let them off the hook’ in our hearts. However, what happens next is very much dependent on their decision. We have offered them a gift, but this gift needs to be received and there is one condition on which it needs to be received; repentance. Biblical repentance (according to Leslie Vernick) consists of three things, a) seeing what I have done wrong, b) taking responsibility for what I did wrong, i.e. not blaming it on someone else, and c) a true desire to change. In response to the amazing gift of forgiveness we can either respond by receiving forgiveness with repentance or we can sneer at the gift and refuse it. If, in response to the amazing grace of God’s forgiveness offered to us on the cross we choose to repent, God promises that we can be reconciled with him. However, reconciliation cannot happen without repentance. This is a helpful and important distinction to make in the way that we understand forgiveness towards others. While God always calls us to forgive those who have wronged us in order to open the door for reconciliation, if that person shows no sign of seeing what they did wrong, taking responsibility for what they did and working to amend their behaviour, then reconciliation is not possible. Sometimes we can mistake lack of reconciliation for lack of forgiveness. But they aren’t the same thing. And in fact, premature attempts to reconcile can in fact hinder someone from the opportunity to repent. Again, our Christian culture in the West at the moment, has I think, had some struggles in this area. We have muddled God’s command to forgive with, not just reconciliation but also full restoration of relationship too (see Judy Dabler). This can in fact be incredibly dangerous as it could in some instances lead people to believe that the Bible is telling them to stay in an abusive situation, as they believe that the command to forgive is a command to reconcile. Many atheist thinkers have, I think also misinterpreted the Biblical understanding of forgiveness and assumed that it leads to a sort of ‘doormat’ mentality whereby your sense of self gets slowly eroded as you constantly allow others to mistreat you. In fact, this is not at all what the Bible advocates. Jeremiah for example says, ‘They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace, where there is no peace.’ (Jeremiah 6:14).
Getting back to forgiveness then, having looked quite a lot at what it isn’t (which hopefully has helped to bring some clarity to this discussion) and having discussed at length how complex, painfully, complicated a process it often is (and that that is normal and OK) I want to end with a few things that might help us to feel inspired to forgive.
Firstly forgiveness helps us to be humble, which is a wonderful thing. The Bible asks us to consider whether we are really in a position to be so exacting of others, to ask ourselves, ‘Am I really standing on such steady moral ground that I can truly say I am in no-one’s debt?’ (Matthew 18:21-35) Begin forgiven, though painful in some ways, is actually one of the most beautiful experiences. And as we remember that we have been forgiven much, by a God who is so beautiful, perfectly loving and kind, that He has forgiven me of absolutely every little or big thing that I have done against him, we can begin to want to share that with others around us. We also feel the hypocrisy of standing with a self-righteous attitude of moral superiority over others and pretend that I have never needed forgiveness myself. If I feel worried that offering them forgiveness might prevent them from truly seeing the depth of their error and changing, I can remember that no-one has a true change of heart in the presence of harsh punishment, I certainly never have! But it is grace that has the power to transform. Forgiveness is the only answer to stopping the cycle of violence in our world. Sometimes it is only once we extend the hand of forgiveness that someone will choose to repent. They may not, and that is a free choice that they are making, however in offering it to them we are creating the opportunity for a new story to begin.
Secondly, we can forgive and let an offender off of our hook, because we know that we have a loving heavenly father who is eternally able to provide what we need. While others cannot repay us, God is infinitely able to give us what we need. I do not primarily need to look to others to supply my needs, I can, in full trust, turn to my God and ask Him to provide for me.
This morning I was rereading the story of Joseph found in the book of Genesis, 42-50. As I read it I was moved to tears. At the end of story Joseph says to his brothers who had brought him such anguish, ‘”Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid, I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.’
Part of how Joseph was able to forgive and move forward was his confidence in God’s ability to turn what people mean for evil, or to harm us, into something good. This is found throughout the Bible, in the book of Romans St Paul writes ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28) and for me, most movingly in the passage of Old Testament scripture that Jesus quotes to describe the essential nature of his ministry, Isaiah 61. ‘The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted hearted… to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.’ The writer goes on to say that it is possible for ancient ruins to be rebuilt, that places long devastated can be restored.
I am so encouraged by these ancient words, a promise that it is possible for the places long devastated in our hearts to be restored and that things that have been ruined for as long as we can remember, can, in Jesus be rebuilt.
I hope this is also an encouragement to you!
If you are interested in reading more on this topic some here is some literature that I have found helpful: Miroslav Volf, ‘Exclusion and Embrace’, Leslie Vernick, ‘Emotionally Destructive Relationships’, Melodie Beatie, ‘Co-dependency No More’, John Stott, ‘The Cross of Christ’ and Judy Dabler’s teaching series on Joseph.