Few of us have escaped the wretched experience of being emotionally sucker-punched, wronged, or betrayed. We didn’t see it coming. This wasn’t supposed to happen! Our belief that life is fair and predictable is shattered.
To add insult to injury, we are often cajoled to get over it and let it go, when we still feel raw and confused. I think the faith community could often justifiably be accused of emotional band-aiding in its hurry to dispense forgiveness and tidy up messy, complicated situations. Scripture certainly teaches us that we must forgive as we have been forgiven by God. And it is clear that God’s grace is available to everyone, even the really rotten ones we think don’t deserve it. And yet we resist the very thing we know we are supposed to do.
Here are some common objections to forgiveness:
He’s not even sorry for how he wronged me! We reason that we can’t let it go. If I just obsess and ruminate long enough, if he sees how I suffer, he’ll eventually get how wrong he was...sounds like a form of magical thinking, as if my mental and emotional powers can actually force someone to change!
If I forgive him, he gets away with it! One of the most helpful analogies I ever heard was in a conference with Byron Keller. He compared forgiving to sending a delinquent account to Accounts Receivable. When we hand our case over to God, we aren’t letting anyone get away with anything. Rather, we are saying it matters but we choose to let him handle it so we can turn our attention to something else. Brilliant. After all, Scripture teaches that vengeance belongs to God. We are told to judge not…which, to my mind, is a gift. I don’t have to spend precious emotional energy on this issue.
If I forgive, it’s as if what she did wasn’t a big deal.We reason either I hold a grudge and that proves it was a big deal, or I let it go, which means it wasn’t a big deal. But what if we embraced the idea that it was a big deal, and I choose to let it go–to Accounts Receivable? We forgive in part because we want to avoid the corrosive effects of toxic bitterness Scripture warns us about. Bitterness is ugly and bad for us, even if it is understandable. Ruining our own lives and happiness doesn’t affect the one who wronged us. Do I really want the rest of my life to be defined by this?
If I forgive her, it’s as if all my pain didn’t matter. Absolutely it matters! But what we do with our pain matters as well. Make your pain work for you in healthy ways. It helps to specifically identify what was lost when we were wronged and how it can be restored. God doesn’t waste our pain-it can be redeemed for something good if we will allow that.
He doesn’t deserve to be forgiven! You are probably right, but our forgiveness doesn’t depend on the receiver’s worthiness. It’s what God asks us to do. And it is good for us. When I forgive, I free up mental, emotional, and spiritual space for me.
I don’t FEEL forgiving toward the person who wronged me. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. Forgiveness is a judicial act, not an emotional one. It’s a choice, a decision. Another insight from Keller’s talk on forgiveness was to look at forgiveness like a credit card charge. In using our card, we essentially confirm our intention to pay, but the entire bill may need to be paid in installments. Great analogy! I may intend to forgive but bitter memories will crop up from time to time. That’s typical. But each time that happens I remember my original intention, and recommit to forgiveness. We act our way into better feelings. I don’t have to feel all warm and fuzzy toward the person who wronged me, but if I keep committing myself to forgiveness, over time, I find my feelings follow my intentions.
I can’t forgive him because I don’t trust him. Forgiveness and trust are two entirely different things! It is a HUGE mistake to mix up trust and forgiveness. We are prone to be a quick fix kind of people. Some of the adolescents on the psychiatric unit where I once worked would complain about their parents, “I said I was sorry….geez…why don’t they trust me?” We had to explain that breaking the trust was like falling off a cliff. You have to climb back up one step at a time. Our choices have consequences. In some cases, it would be very foolish to trust someone again. I might forgive Bernard Madoff for defrauding me of my investments, but I would never trust him to be my financial advisor. Trust is earned back–if at all–over time.
Forgiveness is a messy journey, but one worth taking.