Friday, November 9, 2012

Embarking Upon Paths of Healing in the Process of Forgiveness

How easy if would be for us if forgiveness were just a simple matter of a few simple steps! We expect such things in our society today, as if we could add water and stir to find hassle-free answers to difficult problems. I've also read that years of television situation comedies and dramas have created the anticipation and expectation that most of our relationship problems can be resolved in under sixty minutes. But people and relationships are far more complex than this.

Though we can make general observations about how to go about addressing offenses, we have no definitive road maps that guide us . Jesus, John, Peter and Paul gave us parables and instruction about the basics about disagreements and offenses. They outlined our part and God's promises in repentance, forgiveness, and pardon in terms of our sins against God and sins committed against us. Disagreements result in offense, and we have a little bit of guidance concerning them, too.

We know that forgiveness involves the cancelation of debt so that we no longer demand or seek what is owed to us by others. We've scratched the surface of the idea that forgiveness flows directly out of the gratitude we learn at the foot of the Cross. The rules of how to live have been written on our hearts, and it is that guidance we must follow as we learn and grow in faith. Forgiveness not only challenges the measure of love in our hearts for others, but it radically challenges our faith, reflecting how deeply we have allowed the love of God to permeate us. We must also trust that God will work righteousness and goodness, even though circumstances may not seem so by human standards or from our vantage point.

Each person is like a unique work of art, and our relationships become all the more complex when two people build a friendship. We can use the general principles to find our way through the journey on our way to forgiveness, but we must work and search our souls for the proper answers in their proper time. Each puzzle piece in the process fleshes out of a precious promise to us from a loving God. To simplify the process of forgiveness would cheapen us and the lovely complexity of the dance we engage in within our relationships. But considering how connected forgiveness of others is to God's forgiveness of us, we also cheapen the Cross when we make forgiveness out to be simple.

The hidden benefit of working through forgiveness, embracing it's difficulties and lessons, comes through precious experience that illustrates new and more powerful elements of God's heart for us in new ways. We learn both the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings in a small way which opens our eyes to the depths of His love and mercy. And in following this painful path of death to our desires for earthly justice in the ways that we would prefer, we find a new aspect of love's transformative power within our relationships and ourselves.

The Path of Healing

In the most general sense then, we can develop a general idea of what the path of healing looks like following an offense, as David Stoop outlines in Forgiving the Unforgivable, adapted here for our benefit.

Appropriate Blame

Blame tends to be a misunderstood concept, even though one might think that we imperfect creatures it well as the trait of dutiful, mature responsibility which mistakes tend to require. Instead, the word generally carries a negative connotation used to shirk responsibility. Many posts to come will focus on many positive aspects of this first stage of “appropriate blame” as Stoop defines it, a subject that countless books have pondered. So many complex factors affect this as illustrated in our brief discussion of the Path of Denial alone. Wishful thinking as opposed to Sandra Wilson's radical realism which births healthy expectation, boundaries in relationships and “boundary busters,” gaps in our emotional skill and maturity, obvious and hidden desires of our hearts account – they account for just a few of those things which affect our ability to see offenses clearly.

If relationships are something of a dance of giving and taking, striking a balance of mutually beneficial, gracious care with enjoyment of benefit in which both parties give and receive that care, then both parties must share responsibility for the state of the relationship. Sharing blame requires love, trust, and faith in the process and in the parties involved. Surely this cannot be something that can be easily reduced to a list of tips and pointers on a screen at a lecture or a in a single page in a book.


Another trait we inherit from God along with justice is the deeper desire to be perfect. When we fall short of perfection, we suffer some type of disappointment or loss, and that loss must be mourned. Relationships are precious commodities because the people in them are precious, and the more important the relationship to us, the more we need to grieve those related losses. If we are truly sensitive people who honor what Christ did for us on Calvary, we want to learn from our failures and grow through what we learn from them. Grieving becomes a vital part of that process.

Grief reminds us of who we are in relationship to God – that He is God and we are not. In that sense, our grief becomes a powerful act of worship that we can yield unto God, declaring His strength and our dependency on Him in our weakness. And we can celebrate the fact that our High Priest knows exactly how we suffer, knowing intimately of our pain as well as the comfort we need before we even know that we have need of it. Grief draws us close to the heart of God and reminds us of the tender love that provides all we need to offer forgiveness to others, just as its unmerited blessing clothes us in beauty when we really only deserve ashes and woe.

We also learn the discipline and self-control that emotions like anger teach us as we venture through the grief process. We learn to tame our tongues, cleanse our hands, and then again yield them to God in worship. Would we even venture such a cause apart from forgiveness and the lessons that the process brings along with it? Would we be so compelled to take these emotions, and through discipline, redeem them to work justice and stand up in the face of adversity, ignoring justice because cheap forgiveness without grief makes it a much more comfortable alternative? Would we develop the precious commodity of perseverance apart from grief's transforming process?

Grief also brings with it a sadness which helps us understand ourselves. As Stoop describes it, in the anger phase of grief, we focus primarily on the person who hurt us and the other factors involved – all external factors. As we understand and resolve those aspects of our losses, we slip into the melancholy phase wherein we turn our focus inward. We evaluate others, we evaluate the world, and then we evaluate ourselves as we make the whole experience a part of ourselves as we embrace it. As a consequence of this process we develop the remarkable ability to empathize with others – a gift of grieving that no king's ransom could ever purchase. This part of the transformation that grief works in us prepares and enables us to serve as a healing agent of comfort for others, just as Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 1:5-6.


Forgiveness is a process that takes through a labyrinth of choices which we have to make, over and over. Forgiveness initially begins with a choice, but we continue to make and affirm it again and again as we walk through the experience and the lessons it teaches us. We move back and forth, in and out of anger, in an out of bargaining and depression. Even after we seem to make peace with all that has happened to us, we can still find ourselves remembering the feelings we felt so strongly in the beginning of the journey. 

Especially if we are in a relationship with a particularly dysfunctional person, and if we are dysfunctional ourselves, new offenses challenge our resolve and can tempt us to backtrack. We may find that, despite our best efforts to work through forgiveness effectively the first time through it, we can find that we left a corridor in our heart untouched, and a new experience reveals it to us. God takes forgiveness to an even deeper level in us when this happens, but that new process brings with it new temptations to serve ourselves and resist the Path of Healing. remember the onion!

Of the many things that Stoop suggests in his book, he notes that it is most beneficial to avoid walking the Path of Healing alone. Friends, loved ones, and counselors can help encourage us and can give us perspective and feedback. Like the Word of God does for us, good companions on our journey with whom we enjoy love and trust can serve as a mirror for us into which we can gaze. They can lovingly reflect back an image of our strengths and weaknesses so that we can see how we can improve and grow.

I also like the suggestion of developing a forgiveness ritual, and I've found them to be helpful to me on my own journey. A good example of such a ritual that I use involves writing a letter to those who have hurt me and what I understand of the process. The last time I went through the process, burning the letter wasn't convenient, so I shared the letter with a trusted friend, then shredded it with her in her paper shredder after I prayed to surrender it to God, and I left the shreds there for her to discard. I couldn't allow myself to go back to paste that offense back together again if I tried, even if I had access to the tiny pieces anyway. Developing such rituals can help us comprehend the process in a more meaningful way, affirming our resolve and self-discipline in the process.

Considering Reconciliation and Learning to Trust

The step of reconciliation, if warranted, has been discussed in some depth here and further posts will expound upon the topic, as will the subject of trust. For now, note that Stoop includes these as the final step in the Path to Healing for individuals to choose to take these next steps. I might quibble with him, though, as I would argue that trust precedes or coincides with recociliation as an integral function. But for the purposes of an overview, like a satellite photo that shows us the most basic landscape, we can develop an idea of our journey's destination and primary tasks and landmarks along the way.

Forgiveness is the final form of love.
Reinhold Niebuhr


More encouragement to follow concerning
the Path of Healing
in the process of forgiveness.