There has been much written on the subject of forgiveness as I noted in an earlier post which mentions the work of a few Christian authors including Augsburger, Smedes, and Wilson. (An upcoming post will feature a book list with good titles on the subject.)
Though I don't intend to reinvent the wheel on the matter, I do hope to highlight some of the more subtle things about the journey of forgiveness that most people tend to miss, especially the aspects that are relevant to those who are in recovery from spiritual abuse. As Christians, we should seek to do things in the way the Bible tells, especially concerning forgiveness, considering that God forgives us without us meriting it, and we are called to be transformed in character to be like our Savior. Still, no matter how much we study, there's always a possibility that we do not understand what the Biblical texts try to communicate.
What does forgiveness look like?
One of the places to which I wandered online while considering the subject took me to a website for pastors. I know nothing else about Richard DeRuiter or his background, save for his blog post which discusses the difference he appreciates between forgiveness and reconciliation Here, he points out something rather obvious that many Christians tend to miss when they merge the two and treat the process as something less than one of the greatest challenges of the human condition:
One more thing we must say about forgiveness: if it seems 'fair' to forgive, it's not forgiveness, it's only recognition that we were wrong about being/feeling hurt, or wrong to hold on to the hurt. It's only forgiveness when the other person doesn't deserve to be forgiven, when the hurt was/is real, and we have a 'right' to feel as we feel. The kind of forgiveness that denies the reality or intensity of someone's sin against me, or a loved one, diminishes the nature of forgiveness, and drives the hurt down deeper, where it festers in our spirit. No. It's only forgiveness if we know that the person has no right to it.
He makes several excellent points which open up into vital elements of forgiveness, some of which we've already noted.
Forgiveness isn't fair. It isn't easy or natural, and in all fairness, we have been wronged. Justice requires the party who wronged us to compensate us for that wrong. When we forgive, we pass on what is fair and choose the benevolent thing. We no longer require that the debt owed to us be repaid by that person. It isn't fair. It's offering a cancellation of the debt, even though something is owed to us. It is not justice. It's an act in the spirit of something greater – grace and mercy. Grace and mercy aren't natural for us in the human sense when we've been wronged, and the are anything but “fair.”
The blogger's statement also notes but a few of the potential problems created by swallowing up of justice in the name of forgiveness through mercy, thus bypassing the journey of healing and growth discussed in the previous post.
True mercy never forgoes justice but establishes it first. When justice is ignroed, the victim who has done nothing to solicit mistreatment is forced to suffer twice. They must bear the pain of the initial offense, and then, they must suffer as they watch their abuser get away with what they did. In some cases, they may even be rewarded.
This is a huge problem in spiritual abuse, and posts to come will discuss many the consequences and effects of this injustice. (Some of this can be elucidated by noting what forgiveness is not.) Spiritual abusers exploit love in order to call forgiveness something that it is not in order to avoid accountability and responsibility for their actions.
Denial in the Forgiveness Process
First, the victim can work against justice and in favor of wrong by denying that any wrong was suffered. This self-denial results in self-destructive consequences and works against true forgiveness in the long run. If a person is compelled without choice to excuse wrongdoing by denying it, it creates bitterness. It allows the offender/abuser to continue to harm others because they're never held accountable. It also teaches the offended to accept a very low standard of self-care and expectation. This may be couched as sacrifice, but a required sacrifice results in resentment at some point, and it's harder to understand the root source if denial forces these feelings underground. They come out passively or through the turning of the frustration inwardly.
In the best case scenarios, those who have offended us can accept responsibility for what they've done and can ask for forgiveness. But sometimes, they can respond in anger and denial when we catch them by surprise. This response relates back to the first stage of grief: DENIAL. When people have hurt us, and we go to confront them, they also experience the grief or realization that they were imperfect or that their behavior hurt someone. This is difficult for people when they intend to be good and dutiful, for their actions didn't measure up. In their own grief, the person responsible for the offense can respond from their own grief. They can try to tell the offended party that they really aren't offended, or they can negate or minimize the nature of the harm. It's their attempt at self protection and serves to shift the blame that they feel.
Author Sandra Wilson talks about this in her book, Released from Shame: Moving Beyond the Pain of the Past: “Releasing those who have hurt us includes recognizing the ruthless reality that they are as bankrupt as we are before God.” We generally can't see this as the offended party in the beginning of the process of forgiveness, and we need to complete more of our grieving before we can see things this way. When we are confronted with denial in others in the early phase of the journey, though it is not fair or just to us, it can be helpful to understand why people might wish to deny what is happening. Remembering this can help us feel less threatened, especially when people around us feel uncomfortable hearing about the pain we've endured. (No one finds it comfortable to hear that a person they love and admire has hurt another person through error, oversight, or willful harm. Most people would rather pretend that such events never happened. It's easier for them that way.)
Wilson also says that genuine forgiveness forces us to give up our fantasy of wishing for what we wanted to happen – and that is true to some extent for both the offended and the offender. We want the past to be what we hoped it would be. The offended person wishes that they'd never been offended and seeks justice (which involves safety concerns and restoration when it is possible). This consideration may help us to understand that anger and denial in the abuser or the person who offended us in their ignorance or through their mistakes comes about because they wish to believe that their actions were not harmful. Denial, denial, denial. Both parties (and bystanders, too) are challenged to give up what they wish had happened and must accept the truth of what did happen. Sometimes that truth can be quite bitter. The idea that forgiveness is some blissful and magical process is part clinging to a fantasy, but it is much more pleasant to believe. It's a lot less emotional work, and it shields us from the realization of how emotionally vulnerable we all really are when we risk trusting one another.
Here is a quote that was once shared with me by a counselor, something that came to mind when I read this blogger's statement, alluding to what forgiveness does not look like. I was not given the name of an author. (If you wrote it, send me an email, and I'd be happy to properly attribute it!)
that there is anger,
as if it never happened,
as though it never hurt,
as though it's all forgotten...
Don't offer it.
Don't trust it.
Don't depend on it.
It's not Forgiveness.
It's a magical fantasy.