For those of us who have been deeply hurt, merely reading the word “forgiveness” can trigger a great deal of anxiety and fear. If we have been in a relationship where we've worked and worked to balance our basic needs with forgiving chronically abusive people, this subject can be one of near hopelessness. If we've been manipulated, over and over again, the word “forgiveness” means little more than “I'm damned no matter what I do.” Justice and respect have evaded us for too long, and we're weary of trying to survive mistreatment or perhaps outright abuse. Forgiveness comes to mean resignation to pain and suffering, despite a multitude of attempts to see a better outcome.
We feel a natural fear that if we do forgive our offenders, we will be exonerating them, and it will mean that they never did anything wrong. We've suffered and suffered, but they seem to get off with just a warning. Sigh. If we release them from the debts they owe us in word and deed, our situation will never change, and we will be trapped forever. Some of us have been a part of too many of those spiritually abusive churches that have required us to bear suffering in the name of God, just to keep the peace. We've seen every exploitation of the concept of forgiveness, misapplied to rubber stamp the sinful behavior of others against us. We've been told that we have no rights and that God is using the situation to turn us into diamonds and gold. Seeking to right the wrongs gets redefined as lack of gratitude mixed with rebellion against God's work in us. The word “forgiveness” can cause us to cringe or worse. Forgiveness without justice or protection, even in the name of love and mercy, is a cruel prison.
This misconception and fear is not just a phenomenon seen in abusive religion. Many Christians who value mercy who also don't handle confrontation very well will often skip right over injustice because it seems easier. They claim that they are honoring mercy by bypassing justice, when in fact, they're just heading right down the Path of Denial. This seems to them to be the more “Christian” alternative, but it really just flattens everyone's existence instead of deepening relationships. We try to trade pain and hard relationship work away in order to gain something better, but we only trade one difficulty for another. Noted in an recent post, Ayn Rand penned this so well in Atlas Shurgged:
In the name of a return to morality, you have sacrificed all those evils, which you held as the cause of your plight. You have sacrificed justice to mercy. You have sacrificed independence to unity. You have sacrificed reason to faith. You have sacrificed wealth to need. You have sacrificed self-esteem to self-denial. You have sacrificed happiness to duty.
Some claim that this preserves unity, but as repeated so often on this blog, it's not real unity. It attempts to control outcomes through human effort because it confuses a static uniformity with dynamic and diverse unity which preserves individual liberty. It seems to produce peace, but it is little more than avoidance for the sake of comfort and human sentiment. It's a tradition of men.
I once listened to an elder's wife go on and on about wonderfully mercy eliminated the need for Christians to seek any justice about anything. To her, “righteousness and peace kiss" because justice all but lays down and dies under a covering of love. (Maybe it submits like the obsequious submission required under gender hierarchy?) According to her, though love didn't require any justice, it did require suffering. She explained to me the very same idea that Rand described as a negative, but this elder's wife passed the idea off as what Scripture required of Christians.
Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
The most recent example of this belief can be seen among Jack Schaap supporters who argue that though he was a married man, a pastor, an adult, and a counselor to the teenager that he manipulated and exploited for his own sexual gratification, he should be permitted to pass into the night without facing any consequences. He shouldn't have to go to prison? Though he preached a hard and horribly judgmental message against those who gave into sexual temptation, somehow, people argue that the Church should just have pity on him, blaming the primary fault on the victim-child. “True Christians” should offer him mercy without concern for justice for the needs of the victim. To them, mercy means a pardon for Schaap from all of the consequences of committing crimes against God, man, church, and civil government, without any process of considering those wrongs, and certainly without making any kind of restitution to those who were harmed or ill affected. These supporters also require no contrition from Schaap for the victim (only for getting caught), nearly completely scapegoating her.
Mercy or Collectivism?
Does Scripture really teach that we should forgo justice to rush headlong into mercy, interpreting the meaning of 1 Peter 4:8 (“love covers a multitude of sins”) as a clear and unqualified requirement for Christians to consider love as an instantaneous, automatic cancelation of sin? (If someone has clearly violated you through sin, then the greatest fault for the discord between you stems from your desire to seek some kind of justice through resolution of the matter, not in the sinful act itself?) Under such an assumption, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13) means that a person who truly exemplifies mercy experiences some magical effect that actually cancels out any need or function of justice.
In this aberrant view of Scripture, this belief sees justice as competition for or a condition that is antithetical to mercy. They are understood to be set against one another as opposed to separate stages in or facets that work together within the greater dimension of morality – that which establishes and protects that which is ethical. Justice involves defining, maintaining, and enforcing that which is moral. Mercy which facilitates the act of forgiveness concerns the manner in which one copes with the consequences of immorality. Without first establishing justice, there is no real opportunity for mercy and love to manifest anyway. Both the offended and offender lose out on forgiveness, as it is denied them both.
This aberrant view is an inequitable one: it makes the offended fully responsible for the blame of the sin which the offended committed. Even an atheist like Rand could see the inherent problem in this scenario, and for her, it was not a commentary on Christianity. Her aforementioned quote offers us her assessment and her criticism of collectivism, a tradition of men. Do love and mercy in their perfect expressions really accomplish the same ends as collectivism and totalitarian fascism? They don't. Aberrant interpretation about what the Bible says about love and mercy uses a virtuous end justify the means. It results in the outward appearance of peace with strife on the inside of the system, all suffered to provide an advantage to a select, privileged few. We see no virtue but rather the abuse of virtue itself which results in spiritual abuse.
The Higher Court of Mercy
A number of years ago, I read an excellent descriptive analogy of how justice and mercy work together to complement one another, allowing mercy to triumph over justice concerning wrongdoing. (Consider again that this example assumes that a sin has been committed as opposed to a personal offense or grievance.)
In a court proceeding concerning a felony, judge and jury listen to the facts as presented by prosecutor and defense. Their first and foremost duty concerns examining all aspects of the matter in great depth to arrive at a conclusion about those facts. They establish a reasonable degree of justice by delivering a verdict to the judge about the guilt or innocence of the accused.
While the defense might play upon the emotions of the jury as they present their side of the information to appeal to the mercy of the jurors, showing mercy to the accused is not the task at hand in this stage of the process The mission at this point concerns establishing the truth. Determining truth is the first step towards any justice, and the verdict offers our best human attempt at arriving at truth.
Mercy involves the judge, not the jury, and the showing of mercy comes in a different proceeding of the court. Though a jury may have the privilege of suggesting an opinion about punishment in some cases once the truth has been established, showing mercy falls to the discretion of the judge as that judge considers the most appropriate consequences for the wrongdoing. Whether seeking retributive or restorative justice through sentencing, the showing of mercy and the consideration of pardon takes place in this higher court proceeding. Without the verdict, there is no opportunity for mercy to be shown at all. In fact, if verdicts were unnecessary, we wouldn't have need of the trial or the court. Mercy would certainly be moot.
Making Peace with Justice in Forgiveness
A few days ago, we examined ideas about “what forgiveness is not.” Lewis Smedes lays out of us very well in his books about forgiveness that the process is not one of tolerating injustice, excusing wrongdoing, or a minimizing of harm that a person suffers because of injustice. Though the abused and the chronically wounded may fear the process of forgiveness because it feels like they're required to “rubber stamp” the actions of their offender, step back and again consider that forgiveness is a long journey of change. It is actually a process of establishing justice and following it up with consequences along the way to the final destination. God never asks the abused to accept injustice, only to give up the right to collect on the debt owed. He wants to be the righteous One who can grant appropriate justice and vengeance to the guilty, and sometimes, He's the source of restitution that justice brings when it doesn't or cannot come from the offender directly.
Forgiving other peopledoes not in any way benefitor let them off the hook.It allows us to cancel the debt they owe us,which in all probability they can never pay anyway.David StoopForgiving the Unforgivable, (pg 34)
Establishing truth to arrive at justice becomes an essential part of the forgiveness process. We need justice to help us work through our own grief and to determine what our best course of action will be as we move forward from the pain of the past into the freedom of the future. It is part of the many steps we take as we move through the pain of the past into the liberty of the future. Don't settle for anything less.
Forgiving someone who did us wrong does not mean
that we tolerate the wrong they did.
Forgiving does not mean that
we want to forget what happened to us.
Forgiving does not mean that
we excuse the person who wounded us.
Forgiveness does no mean that
we take the edge off the evil of what was done to us.
Forgiveness does not mean that
we surrender our right to justice.
Forgiving does not mean that
we invite someone who hurt us once to hurt us again.
Lewis Smedes, The Art of Forgiving
Much more to come
on some of the more difficult problems we face
when pursing forgiveness and resolving wrong.