The problem of a false and dysfunctional idea of forgiveness is an ongoing topic of interest around here. I mentioned it again below in my post on the Duggars. I notice it whenever someone who has been wronged and wants justice gets pressured by the surrounding Christian community to "forgive" (that is, drop her charges and "move on" to reconciliation) by making "an act of will." If she hesitates—because it feels like's something's wrong with the picture being drawn for her—she immediately becomes the focus of heavy concern and more pressure. There will be proof-texting, and conscience-twisting, and lots of sympathy and support for the offender, who is now regarded as the victim of her hard-heartedness and "unforgiveness."
Among the problems with this mode of approach are:
1) It neglects justice.
2) It neglects the voice of the heart and exaggerates the power of the will, leading to alienation and inauthenticity.
3) It papers over wrong and injury, instead of resolving and healing them.
4) It overlooks the role of time and grace in deep spiritual acts of the person.
I won't go into all of it again now, but I want to share a passage from a book I've been reading called The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. The authors' perspective and approach are Protestant, so missing some things, but still generally very good in exposing and analyzing a problem that, in my opinion, goes farther in explaining the rising tide of unbelief than we like to think. We like to blame that on the aggressions of secular culture. We don't want to come to terms with the probability that rampant secularism has quite a lot to do with abuses in Christian culture.
Anyway, here's the passage:
Matthew 18: 21–22—“Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’ ” This is another verse that can be terribly abusive if taken out of context and used against Christians for the wrong reasons. It is so frequently misused that we feel it’s necessary to take some time to explore the true meaning. Misapplications of this vary, including: “Don’t notice the abuse,” “What’s wrong with you that you can’t forgive?” and “You have an unforgiving spirit, or a root of bitterness.” It has also been used to get people to act as if they forgive an offender before they really do. When this happens they continue to struggle with forgiving them over and over again, and are indicted because they haven’t been able to let the matter drop. But the matter cannot be dropped because wrong was never addressed.
It goes on.
Do you remember Jesus’ warning? He who cannot forgive from the heart will find himself handed over to the torturers. Jesus is telling us many things with this story; first, that one “from-the-heart” forgiveness is better than 490 “forgivenesses” that come from trying hard or pretending. In other words, forgiveness is so important that it must be real. Second, he is showing where true forgiveness comes from. It doesn’t come from self-effort, designed to meet some standard. It comes from realizing our desperate situation and that our only hope is in God’s mercy, and then letting it flow into our hearts.
That's it exactly. It reminds me immediately of the talk Dr. Peter Damgaard-Hansen gave for us some years back on the art of loving your spouse. One of his key points was, "I want you to be okay with not being able to forgive." He didn't mean that it's okay not to forgive, but that in the case of serious injury, it's impossible for mere mortals to forgive, just as it's impossible for us to walk on water or move mountains.
We can't "just do it;" we can only beg God to do it in and through us. Those who put pressure on us to "just do it" are out of bounds. They are compounding the already inhuman difficulties we're facing.
Even more, if the offense hasn't been duly addressed, if, in fact, it's being denied or minimized or swept under the rug, then those pressuring the victim to forgive are in practical effect allying themselves with the offenders against her. They're perpetuating wrong and injustice.
I like this too:
Finally, this teaching follows Jesus’ charge to let an unrepentant offender “be as a tax-gatherer.” I think this means that it is possible both to forgive someone and still stay away from them. Forgiving someone means you release them from debt. It does not necessarily mean you are going to trust them, or have a close relationship with them again. As Luke 17: 3 says, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents forgive him.” Notice that in this passage, our forgiveness of another is based on their repentance.
This coheres perfectly with Catholic teaching on the sacrament of reconciliation.
There's a great scene in the (wonderful, too-little-known) movie Warrior. (Warning: It's not for the faint of heart or anyone sensitive to violence.) The recovering-alcoholic father shows up at his son's house. He wants to see his grandchildren and celebrate 1000 days of sobriety. But by going there uninvited, he's violated a firm boundary his son has laid down to protect himself and his family from the craziness he grew up in. The father pleads, "Can't you find it in your heart to forgive me?" His son replies, "I forgive you. I don't trust you."
In this case, the father has repented; he is trying to amend his life. But a lifetime of bad acts have had consequences in the lives of his sons. The damage done is real. Trust can't be re-built with words, especially the words of someone who has a history of breaking promises. It will take time and patience and effort and sacrifice. (Violating boundaries won't help.)
Real relationship is all the more impossible with an offender who can't or won't see what he's done; can't or won't take responsibility for his abusiveness; when his efforts at reconciliation are full of denial and self pity and blame—not about making amends, but about pressuring his victims to drop their claim to justice and redress. That's not "preaching the gospel;" it's not Christianity. It's abuse.
If we want people we've offended to show us mercy, we should start by doing them justice, and working to repair the harm we've done in their lives. No one can be guilted into forgiveness from the heart.
I suppose I sound like a broken record to some. If so, feel free to move on by. I'll stop bringing it up when I stop coming across new examples of false teaching and new instances of the bad dynamic. Meanwhile, I'm getting enough public and private "thank you, thank you, thank you!"s to convince me that speaking up might count as a spiritual work of mercy—a way of "setting free the captive" and giving drink to the thirsty.