About forgiveness. It’s not very concrete or tangible to me. In other words, it’s not so much something I do (i.e. a formula). It’s certainly a process. But it’s less of a focus on the act of forgiveness, I suppose, and more a side effect of choosing again and again to trust God, against all odds.
That was part of my response to someone who asked me about my thoughts and experiences of forgiveness.
As I thought about that, after I wrote it, I realized something else. I don’t choose to trust God in that way in a vacuum. It’s not blindly saying, “Well, I trust God to be sovereign, so I can automatically let go of this thing and forgive the other person.” That’s sort of true, but not completely.
The thing is, I think about forgiveness as a releasing the other person from a demand from me for them to have to pay for/carry the price of their offense (this says nothing about punishment or justice being carried out. Those things may need to happen. I’m only talking about the personal attitude inside of me that is involved in forgiveness; not the broader level implications of someone’s wrong). Because I’m forgiving them, I am choosing not to defer the pain they’ve inflicted on me back on them (that’s an illusion anyway to think we can do that. When we try, we end up being the ones to stay miserable, but that’s a separate point, and one which I may seem like I contradict with my next statements).
In order for me to release the other person from carrying the weight of their offense against me, in some ways I’m choosing to receive totally and fully the impact of that offense. By not deflecting it back onto them, I’m receiving onto me what they intended for me (or sometimes what they did not intend, but which they, nonetheless, inflicted on me). None of the offense is being held on to and accumulated as an angry grenade to be lobbed back at them (of course I don’t do this ideally or perfectly and I do at times hold onto pain with the intent of lobbing it back).
I’m not saying that as soon as the pain comes I just easily “let it go”. While forgiveness is about not holding on to the pain to lob it back onto the offender, neither is it a minimizing of the severity of the pain and nonchalantly letting it roll off my back.
Forgiveness only can happen in a context where I receive the pain–let the offense knock me over, knock me down, if that is the intensity of the pain in response to the degree of the offense. I’m receiving it in full impact, but in a different way than the holding onto it as a weapon to direct back to the other person.
What I’m struggling to say is that the context where I can trust God with my pain and hurt IS the actual pain and hurt.
It’s facing that pain, feeling that pain, crying out in anguish with that pain. I don’t focus so much on the offense or on whether or not I can forgive. I just feel the pain. I feel the offense. I feel the breath knocked out of me. And I walk in and through that pain. And that is where forgiveness happens, because in all of that pain–not in desperately trying to get out of it, to pay for it, to recover from it; only in feeling it and crying out in that anguish–that is where I’m trusting God. That is where I’m screaming out in anguish from my heart and sometimes anger, often in sadness and darkness, “God help me.” That is where I read the Psalms and Proverbs, Lamentations and Job, and the words and cries in those books become my own.
Also, just like the trusting God can’t happen in a vacuum without feeling the full impact of the pain, so experiencing the pain does not happen for me in a vacuum apart from deeply trusting God. Bitterness can come when I feel the full impact of the pain, if the pain is removed from the context of my trust in God. Bitterness also can come when I step outside of the pain and my experience of it and look at how awful it is as an observer and in that position reject that pain, instead of truly feeling and absorbing the impact of the offense. Bitterness comes when I look at the person who did the offense to me, instead of walking in and through the offense and bearing the full impact on myself of what came to me. Bitterness comes when I try to keep myself from feeling that pain and want to make sure, at any cost, that (a) it never happens again or (b) the person who did the offense is going to pay for at least part of the price of the suffering they have inflicted on me. When I direct that anger back toward the offender instead of feeling the anger and pain as effects of what was done to me, that is when bitterness happens.
All of this might sound more spiritual than my experience of it really is. On the one hand, I think the ability to forgive when awful things happen is certainly tied into trusting God and believing that there is always a bigger picture than I can see at any given moment (once again, Viktor Frankl’s writings have impacted my thinking on this topic). On the other hand, I must confess that sometimes forgiveness, for me, is pragmatic.
The bottom line is, I hate pain. I bet it doesn’t sound like it after I’ve gone on and on about receiving and feeling pain. But, I’ve found that the purest, least complicated pain is the pain that happens in a cause and effect way: something happens, I feel the pain that is a real and very normal response to that type of situation.
The pain that comes from trying to figure out how to pay the other person back or make them suffer for what they’ve done to me, or obsessing about making sure that not one iota of what I suffered goes unforgotten, well, that pain ends up being so complex and so much more painful, I think at some point, choosing to absorb the pain that happened and then trust God in that pain, becomes not only a release, but a relief.