Random Blog Clay Feet: May 24, 2008
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Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Troubling Truth about Forgiveness

Forgiveness is something that has changed color quite dramatically for me in the past few years, especially after I learned what it really meant and involved. Letting go of many of the false preconceptions generally believed about this concept and embracing the real truth about forgiveness also involves facing a troubling aspect that was never seen before.

I usually find it helpful for context to explain some of the old ideas commonly held about forgiveness that I now realize are not accurate. I suspect that stopping nearly anyone on the street and asking them what they think forgiveness means would produce some of the following ideas.

Forgiveness is forgetting about what someone has done to hurt us.

Forgiveness is letting someone off the hook who deserves to be punished. (But if the heart is consulted about this option it will usually be discovered that a great deal of resentment is harbored as a result.)

Forgiveness is pretending that we were not hurt by someone when in reality we still feel the pain, we are just trying very hard to suppress it in the name of Christianity, or whatever other ideal we may hold.

Forgiveness is trying to ignore the pain that an offense has caused us because someone insisted that we had to forgive. This is not really successful but we sometimes think it is if we can repress our pain so effectively that we don't notice it anymore.

There are many more subtle definitions of forgiveness that I suspect could be uncovered if people were interviewed about this, but what I have realized is that none of these things is real forgiveness the way it must take place for effective and long-term healing to occur. (Not noticing our pain after lengthy repression is not healing.) And if the heart could be interviewed about any of these commonly held beliefs about forgiveness I think it would be quite dissatisfied with most all of them. But since it is the intellectual part of our brain that commonly steps in to answer these questions based on what it thinks is the “correct” answer, the heart is seldom heard on this issue. It is usually suppressed both internally and by society around us in an effort to comply with the demands that we mistakenly believe forgiveness requires of us.

A few years ago I watched a video by a Christian pastor/counselor who illustrated true forgiveness in a story he told about a couple he was working with who had very intense problems in their marriage. As is often the case, the story was far more effective at conveying the real meaning of the word much more than simply an intellectual explanation of what it means. But I have also found it helpful for the kind of thinking I like to do to condense the principles uncovered in the story to words that explicitly lay out what it means. Maybe that is because my right brain relates better to the story with its emotions and drama, and my left brain relates better to logical explanations that correlate to the reasons the story is so effective. With both sides of my brain tracking in the same direction, maybe I then feel more balanced and congruent.

Even as I am writing this, part of my brain resists the need to tell the story as I remember it because it would take so much time and effort to write it out in length. But another part of my brain says that if I don't I am a hypocrite after all that I have just stated about the importance of stories conveying the meaning far more effectively. So to avoid contributing to undermining my integrity with hypocrisy I better take the time and effort to go ahead and relate the story before I go on.

As I remember it, this couple was on their last attempt to possibly patch their marriage back together even though the wife was quite certain there was no hope. The husband had had an affair while away from home on business and the marriage had been in turmoil, separation and pain ever since. (I am sure I am leaving out many important details, but it has been awhile since I heard the story myself.)

The wife related that her family had been Irish Catholics for many generations and no one in their family had forgiven anyone for generations. Evidently it was just not something they ever did in their family. As they sat there in the pastor's office locked in their pain and memories and emotions, the solution to reconciliation seemed impossible.

The pastor turned to the wife and asked, “How much money could your husband give you to take away the pain he has caused you?”

The wife was shocked and almost angered by this question. She looked at him in unbelief and exclaimed, “There is not enough money in the whole world that would effectively take away the pain that I feel inside from what he has done to me!”

The two people sat facing each other in front of the desk but they could not look at each other's eyes. The husband was numb in his emotions and just sat staring at the floor. He could not feel repentance like what might be expected of him even though he regretted what he had done. He really did not know what to do or where to turn at this point. The wife sat across from him pondering the dilemma they were in and the implications raised by the question that the pastor had asked.

As she began to see more clearly what the real situation was and her husband's complete inability to remove the pain that she felt inside, it began to become clear to her what her real option was. She made a decision and looked up as she said, “There is nothing that he can ever do to eliminate or remove all the pain and suffering that he has caused me. So I choose to accept full responsibility for all this pain that I feel and I do not hold it against him any longer. I accept the pain as my own.”

In that moment her husband looked up at her with a look of shock and amazement and instantly burst into tears and lunged into her arms. The two embraced for a long time crying onto each other's shoulders and allowing their hearts to once again engage with each other in what was the real experience of forgiveness.

As I listened to this intensely emotional story for the first time, and in fact each time I hear it, I was struck with the amazing truth of what forgiveness really means. But the implications of this truth resonate far beyond this story. When I take the principles revealed in this story and apply them to not only my own relationships with others but to God Himself, I am amazed at all the implications and insights that suddenly burst into the open about the whole plan of salvation and what is really going on with the Great War between Christ and Satan. I begin to get a much clearer view of how God goes about winning this war and the relationship that He has toward everyone who has offended or spurned His love for them.

But as I thought about it over the past few years since hearing this story, another aspect of this suddenly struck me as very troubling. I believe if we view forgiveness in this new light that we will be forced to rethink very seriously the flippant or mindless ways in which we often relate to forgiveness or the ways in which we try to force our children to ask for forgiveness.

Think about it seriously with me here. Forgiveness means that the only way I can become free of the pain of an offense is to take full ownership of my pain and release everyone else. I also have to let go of all desire on my part for vengeance or retribution, even at the heart level. When I come to realize that the offending party is completely incapable of bringing healing to my damaged heart by anything they can do, say or experience, then I can choose to stop holding them hostage by my bitterness toward them and release them to be responsible to God in their own relationship to Him. I will accept that the pain I feel is resident within my own heart and no longer try to link it to the one who incurred it to begin with. And after I release believing that they can fix me, either directly or through their being punished, I can then be ready to find healing and release in my own soul and spirit.

If I am not willing to take this act of intentional forgiveness and release in its true form, then I will continue to harbor either an open or a secret desire that somehow, sometime that person will experience pain that will force them to know what they have done to me. We mistakenly believe that we will somehow feel “healing” satisfaction in seeing others suffer who have hurt us and thus we will somehow become freed of our own pain. But this is an illusion, a lie that is so deeply rooted in the human psyche that we mostly assume it must be true. But it is really part of the deception of sin that has infected our thinking since the fall of the human race into sin.

This belief in the need for revenge or punishment, to make others feel the same or worse pain than we feel, lies at the root of much of our reasoning and even under girds much of our mistaken theology about how God is going to resolve the problem of sin. It is pervasive in many of our suppositions about justice and is the foundation of most of our legal apparatus and system of punishments. But nevertheless, it is still a false presumption and keeps us locked in a cycle of pain and dysfunction that takes us lower and lower as we get farther away from the ways of God.

Because of these assumptions about crime and punishment that pervade most of our thinking, our notions of forgiveness parallel that false line of reasoning. If an offense must have a punishment as we normally assume it does, then forgiveness must mean escaping deserved punishment and thereby getting away with an offense while leaving someone else holding the bag of pain and consequences. But all of this is reasoning based on the kingdom of darkness and upon which all the kingdoms of the world are founded.

Understanding real forgiveness, like so many other aspects of true reality, requires a complete and radical rethinking of all of the aspects of reality and truth. But that is more than I have time or space for right now but is something that I am continually seeking to understand better. At this point I would like to explain the other side of forgiveness that should change the way we think about it from a different perspective.

It is one thing to accept the true meaning of forgiveness – accepting full responsibility for the pain someone has caused me and releasing them from being our hostage. This allows me to then turn my pain over to God and in turn receive His forgiveness, peace and joy in my heart in place of the former pain. (see Matt. 6:12) But what about when I ask for someone else's forgiveness? In light of a clearer understanding of the real meaning of forgiveness, what am I really asking them to do for me? I know that for myself this new understanding has given me pause before glibly asking someone to forgive me. It is one thing to forgive someone else, as difficult as that may be. But what does it really mean for me to ask for someone else to forgive me?

It appears to me that what I am really asking the other person (or God) to do when I ask for forgiveness is for them to take full responsibility for all of the pain I have caused them and no longer hold me responsible for it. That sounds rather wrong in the way we typically view fairness and justice, but in the light of what I have learned I cannot avoid facing this fact. If this is what forgiveness really means – and I believe it is, for it is far more effective in resolving our relationship problems that the false notions about forgiveness ever accomplish – it makes me think much more seriously about what I am really asking a person to do when I ask for forgiveness. I hesistate to use these words so lightly as I often have in the past.

What complicates the problem is that while I may better understand what I am really asking someone to do for me when I ask them to forgive me, I also realize that quite likely they are hearing my request with the false ideas about forgiveness still firmly embedded in their own assumptions and so they will not understand what I am really asking for if I simply use the word forgiveness. But if I explicitly spell out what I am really asking them to do it becomes even more painful for both of us, because what I am asking for is generally considered highly unfair and unjust. It almost seems to be an affront to ask for someone's forgiveness in the light of a true understanding of the word; but on the other hand forgiveness is the only path to real reconciliation and healing for both parties.

It is a truth that forgiveness does not have to be asked for to be extended. Forgiveness can be refused but still be valid for the person forgiving. A request for forgiveness can be rebuffed and rejected as well, but the need to seek forgiveness is still no less important on the part of an offender. All of these aspects of forgiveness require further exploration and I want to do that. But for this time I simply wanted to expose some of the real issues involved in forgiveness and the implications involved in asking others to forgive us.

(part 2)