Friday, October 19, 2012

Finding the Path Through the Journey of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is perhaps the most abused Christian virtue and is used as a billy club to bludgeon others into compliance with the high demands of users, both within religious settings and personal relationships where religious values are shared.

We're already off to a good start in this post which defines the terms used in the New Testament to describe forgiveness, terms used to describe financial transactions. Don't miss this essential info.

Oversimplifying Forgiveness

In the previous post on forgiveness, we mentioned that not all Christians have the same opinions about how the process of forgiveness looks in application and practice in our real lives. We've now gone through the Biblical language that concerns forgiveness and reconciliation, noting that the New Testament establishes them as two different but related concepts. We are responsible for translating those ideas that we know in theory into actions, hopefully creating a living example of virtue.

That's not always so easy.

When the ideal situation occurs and the person who offended us repents, our situation will better fit the the basic templates we read about in the Bible. But what do we do when our offender doesn't repent? What if the offense is devastating to us? What if restitution is not possible? And what if our offender repents in word only and proceeds to repeat the offense and the damage? What if they repeat the offense and feel entitled to do so?

Forgiveness becomes a longer process that takes time, healing, and growth. Forgiveness is a journey, not necessarily an easily met destination, and we often back track when it comes to emotional events.

Forgiveness: A Journey of Hard Choices and Commitment

The Bible gives us general, guiding principles with some specifics, and sometimes the experts (theologians and counselors) don't agree amongst themselves or even with each other. When seeking guidance and help with our own, practical matters, we're still faced with the burden of decision for the best course of action as we attempt to discern what we believe God requires of us. Rather than finding simplified, “black and white” answers, we often find ambiguity when it comes to figuring out what we must do to follow the best path to forgiveness with those who have wronged us Following a prescribed process based on someone else's expectations becomes an exercise of compliance with rules and required performance under threat, not a free decision of liberty made for the right reasons, in the right spirit, and at the right time.

It's not a journey for the fainthearted or the naïve.

Offense, disappointment, betrayal and loss involve a great deal of grief. Before the offense or the loss, we had something – be it a sense of relationship, a sense of safety, or a good opinion of someone or something. Perhaps we had something tangible that we owned or just enjoyed. After the event, we're left without those things. Some things are quite easy to forgive, but for the big things in life, forgiveness is not quite as simple. When there is loss, grief will follow, and we must be honest about the process.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the first definitive list of the process of grief, the process On Grief and Grieving, as they are experienced by not only those who are contemplating their own deaths, but also anyone who copes with loss.
she observed in people who were dying of terminal illness. Soon, it was evident within the helping professions that this pattern applied not only to those who were anticipating death, but it was also the process of grieving as well, prompting Kubler-Ross to follow up with the book (for which she collaborated with David Kessler),

The stages of grief and loss:
  • denial
  • anger
  • bargaining
  • depression
  • acceptance

A Biblical Example of the Stages of Grief

When I first learned of these stages, I remember thinking of Jonah as a good example of how this process works. In his case, he grieved having to go to a people who he didn't think worthy of God's mercy. The Israelites hated the people of Nineveh, so whether or not he wanted to be a prophet, the average Jew would not be highly inclined to see that city spared. We also see this self-interest when Jonah believes that God makes him out to be a bit of a false prophet in the short term when He decides to spare the city.

As circumstances and his own growth propel him through the process of grief, you do see him bounce back to anger and denial again before the end of the account where he's essentially required to accept God's personal response to him (for we're not told about whether he comes to a place of true acceptance or what that looks like for him when he gets on with the rest of his life). The book abruptly ends with God's rhetorical question to him, prompting him to acknowledge his own willfulness. I can think of no better example of how human beings cycle through this process of loss. Jonah lost what he wanted to be true and was forced to accept what God made manifest instead. It was a dramatic journey of pain.


As you progress through your own recovery, remember that those who try to push you through to acceptance of the wrong done to you actually do you a great injustice. I don't know anyone who would not love to circumvent the hard parts of the process of forgiveness by delving right into the easy phase of a best case scenario where forgiveness results in a free, easy, spontaneous reconciliation. I've actually spent many years of my life feigning such a state, but it does not last because it was not real. True forgiveness is a miracle that I believe God places in our hearts as a seed, and it takes time for that seed to grow. Jesus used the analogy of the kernel of wheat that must die in order for new life to spring forth. I can find no better analogy for the process and the journey of forgiveness. The process takes time, and the transformation that comes about in a person as they honestly work through things in their own time and in their unique way can be complex. As you progress honestly and openly with God through the process on the journey, be patient with yourself.

Posts to come will present many reasons why forgiveness is not a simplified process, though many make it out to be one. In my own life, I struggled because I understood forgiveness as purely an act of the will behind which I expected my emotions to follow close behind. Though I believe that forgiveness does come as an act of the will for the Christian, I found that my emotions as well as my ability to comply with my expectations of logic did not happen at the same time. I had to “work through my salvation with fear and trembling” as I embarked upon the journey. If anyone wanted it to be simple and less painful, it had to be me! And I wanted full healing to come instantly. I was so impatient in the early part of the process. I would have done anything to find a way around it or a strategy to help me jump through it into perfection. (If forgiveness is “the 'f' word” for many Christians, patience was my “'p' word.”)

I will also remind the reader of something I repeat, over and over, to many regularly concerning the nature of emotional healing. Those who tend to oversimplify forgiveness and strip it as a mere logical process usually portray forgiveness as a “linear” process. This means that it like a straight line, and a person progresses from “Point A” chronologically to “Point B” without backtracking. 

If you tackled an element of the process, when healing is viewed as linear or on a straight line, waking up one morning to experience the pain of loss that you thought you already grew through at an earlier stage means that you lost growth and healing. Looking at the process this way discourages those who are making great progress.  If you wake up one day or experience something that triggers your anger or denial or elements of the forgiveness process that you thought you'd already accomplished, don't worry.  You haven't "lost" your forgiveness for person, and you didn't go back to "pick up offenses," a common phrase used in many religious circles.  This only means that you have a new opportunity to do some deeper healing, a reminder that emotional healing is not a linear process like physical healing is.
There are many options available to bring healing after loss.  I would like to encourage you to remind yourself that emotional healing is different from physical healing.  Emotions heal in layers, and you will often find yourself “backtracking” to what seems like lessons you learned before, as though you are failing to make progress.  Think of emotional healing like peeling an onion.  As the onion grew, the framework of every layer drew water and nourishment from the same source, putting some of those nutrients into each layer as it grew.

As you progress into deeper levels of healing, each layer will greet you with reminders of the old paths of pain that shaped your past.  When you peel each new layer, your eyes will burn and tear with the grief over the disappointments and loss concerning that past.  This is normal and healthy, and it is not something to be feared.  That is just how emotional healing takes place.  There will always be a few tears of grief as you mature, getting down into the deeper places when deep calls unto deep.  This is a good sign of positive growth, something that should encourage you with hope.

More to come 
on the process and journey of forgiveness.

Link to the next post HERE.