By: Maggie Leonard
I think I might be too churched. Not in a I’m-too-institutionalized kind of way, but rather in the well-duh-of-course-God-and-Jesus-forgive-us kind of way. In Matthew 9, the legal experts are offended by Jesus’ forgiveness, and somehow I am completely unimpressed by Jesus ability to forgive sins. It is odd how blasé we can view the amazing things God is at work doing. These are the two responses—indifference or offense—I have seen time and again in different Bible passages about Jesus forgiving sins, and physically healing someone in the process. Every time I read them, I remain unimpressed.
For the first time ever, I have realized that there is a third response to Jesus—one different than indifference or offense, it is the response of the crowd. After the man leaves, the witnesses ‘were afraid and praised God who had given such authority to human beings.’ Not authority given to the Human One—the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah.—God’s authority of forgiveness was given to human beings, to us. The crowd saw the implications of Jesus’ authority, and it terrified them. They saw that they were called to follow and do likewise, to forgive others.
What would it look like to live in a world in which only God forgives? I shudder to think of it.
What is truly offensive is not that Jesus forgave the man, but that God has the audacity to call us into a life that includes the hard work of forgiveness as well. Jesus does not just forgive sins because he is God and can do nearly impossible things, but because he is forging the path we are so resistant to take.
Writing this article has been challenging for me, and so absolutely necessary. As is true of many of us, I have had a lot of experience in my still young life with forgiveness—sometimes more successfully than other times. Probably like you, I have been the one who needs to be forgiven, the one who forgives, and sometimes the one doing the work all alone. In all its complexity, I think that forgiveness is one of the most important things that we can learn to do—and one of the things that as a society we often quip proverbs about doing but rarely engage in reality.
In preparation for this article I was curious, so I googled, ‘how to forgive’ just to see what would come up. I found most of them lacking. Almost all of the hits involved lists of reasons that pointed to the philosophy of why we should forgive, as if we needed to be convinced that forgiveness is ultimately a good thing.
I hope all of us can agree forgiveness is good.
If the advice went any deeper than ‘this is why you should forgive,’ it was entirely based on self-work. Now self-work is incredibly important for forgiveness, and sometimes our only option. Sometimes, however, we need to forgive people with whom we would like to maintain connection. This is even trickier and something very few articles try to tackle. None of the articles I found tried to take on forgiveness as a joint effort, in large part, I suppose, because it is work that is half-way out of our control.
With God, forgiveness is always there, so it gives the illusion of being something that only we, as the offender, need to engage. Jesus is so good; he lets go of things so quickly. I wish it were so easy for me.
I have started to think of forgiveness as the work we do in our hearts—both the inward look of self-reflection, as well as the outward look of understanding the other person with whom our relationship is broken. True reconciliation—the work of forgiveness between humans—requires inner work and outer conversation. To bring about reconciliation much work and willingness to sit with discomfort is required, but with two willing parties, reconciliation can be truly incredible.
WHERE WE MESS IT UP
Below I have outlined some of the pitfalls of forgiveness and reconciliation that we fall into, both as the forgivers and the offenders. It is not an exhaustive list by any means, but a working list that I am sure I’ll be updating all my life. I hope you will explore the different dimensions of forgiveness with me and in your own life. I will warn you, reading this list is a bit of a bummer and is a little dry. Hopefully, it will help us all become more aware how we might hope to engage forgiveness and reconciliation differently the next time around.
We hide behind God’s power
We are comfortable with God forgiving us, but if someone else hurts my feelings, you’ll be lucky to be forgiven—and I’m surely not going to forget! We often add that last part just for good measure.
By telling ourselves only God can forgive sins, we excuse ourselves as participants from God’s work of reconciliation in the world. We philosophize ‘sin’ to the point that we no longer see sin as the real ways in which we actually hurt one another. As we hear the call in Matthew 9, we are called to give others the same gifts God gives us.
We doubt forgiveness or think it is something to be earned
We really do doubt forgiveness when it is given—either because we do not believe it is truly a gift or we do not see ourselves (or others) as worthy of it. Perhaps this is why Jesus had to visibly demonstrate the healing that had occurred. We put so much more stock in truths that we see—proof, data, and pie charts are crucial to our buying into a vision. Forgiveness is something earned, or so it seems sometimes. It comes with strings—real or perceived. For many of us, forgiveness is something that someone else has held as a carrot in front of us, always out of reach. Other times in our guilt we feel that we must make amends but don’t believe that we have made up for what we did in the first place. We do not believe that a gift can be freely given or that we can freely accept it. When we are unforgiven, we are downcast with hurt or guilt, turning our eyes away from hope. Maybe this is why Jesus told the man, ‘be encouraged’ or ‘take heart.’
Forgiveness is a gift. It is freely given by the person who has been hurt. It is not a tool for manipulation nor is it something we can earn. There may be other consequences for our actions, but the gift of forgiveness is free.
We define ourselves by our hurt, believe we are a martyr, are lonely, or wear our hurt like a badge
Sometimes we tell the story of how we were hurt again and again to our friends, remaining angry about the nerve of the other person. We cling to the hurt. We ban together with others who have also experienced our hurt. We push it in the face of others. We want others to know how hurt we are.
When we feel hurt and lonely, we wish to have company where we are—which is most easily done if someone else also feels lonely or even just lowly. We dwell on the negative and tear down the other person in or conflict—or even lash out at unsuspecting passersby. In a way, we are comforted by someone else feeling what we feel.
Too often we are so focused upon our pain that we forget that the person who hurt us may already feel hurt too. In fact, some of their prior hurt is probably at the root of their action.
Finding solidarity with others who have been hurt is not a bad thing. However, eventually, the healing process takes us outside of our hurt. We have to do the hard work of letting go that Jesus makes look so effortless. We liberate both ourselves and others when we forgive. This work takes time. It is hard. But it is also good to be defined by something other than hurt.
We say it is too hard, avoid it, or believe others should just ‘get over it’
The truth is that forgiveness is hard, so we frequently gloss over it or avoid it entirely. True Christians forgive, we say to the person we hurt. Or we decide it’s really their problem if they don’t like what we did, they should just get over whatever ails them.
Sometimes we even engage the process of forgiveness for a little while, then stop and abandon the relationship entirely—it really was not working out anyway and I don’t have the energy for this.
Some of us believe conflict is to be avoided at all costs, and so we avoid the elephant in the room or even the person if we think that they will make us talk about our difference of opinions. Or perhaps, we tell ourselves, if we turn a blind eye to a problem, it will cease to exist. Even when the other person is eager to put in the work, we step away and make excuses like, ‘I am stable, my life is stable, and those who rock my placid stability do not maintain a lifestyle that I wish to further engage.’
Talking about hurt feelings is always hard and uncomfortable, but it has to happen. Never will we find someone else who agrees with us all of the time. We will find ourselves lonely or without real, intimate relationships if we always run away when conflict arises.
Yes, there are times when the healthiest thing we can do is take time away from a relationship. But at the very least, we should directly name our intention to stop the conversation for a time and express our hope for the health and well-being of all involved.
We get defensive
Defensiveness is not an emotion or a tactic that we are taught early on to identify, like happy or sad or angry. I literally had no idea what the term meant for years. When we are defensive, we all make excuses for ourselves and our bad behavior based on what we intended. When we hear that we have hurt someone, we defend what we did—after all, ‘I am a good person’ or ‘I didn’t mean that.’ Even if we can admit fault, or that we should have done things differently, we forget the simple power of two words: ‘I’m sorry.’
Without blaming the victim, it is important to see how both parties always play a part. Learning happens for both the offender and the offendee—perhaps I need to learn to control how I express my anger, perhaps I need to leave an abusive conversation more quickly, perhaps I acted without consulting someone. Not only will humility be your friend in this process of self-reflection, but it will also help you hear and honor the experience of the other person.
When we stand alone
And when one of us cannot, for whatever reason, engage the process, we still have to separate out what we contributed to the situation from what the other person contributed. Sometimes we will have to learn to forgive someone without conversation. Other times we will have to forgive ourselves for our poor choices in engaging another.
It is such a relief when we offer forgiveness to one another, but we should never remain ensnared in guilt or shame or hurt or anger because someone continues to try and punish us. In every painful situation, there is much more there than is ours alone.
I am grateful to say that I have some truly remarkable colleagues, friends, and family members with whom I have the privilege of sharing the gift of life. Things are not always easy, but they have helped teach me how to live in love and work through both my hurt and their hurt.
We need to have the courage to say ‘I’m sorry.’ We need to have the courage to say, ‘I forgive you.’ So often we say everything else.
Some things are a big deal. Some things are a small deal. But all the things need to be dealt with. To journey through difficult times together, we must be dedicated to our relationships and trust that what is said is said in love. We will both have work to do along the way. When we are healthy, we can allow ourselves to feel the full spectrum of emotions—grief, anger, hurt, kindness, and compassion—toward a person with whom we are in conflict. In forgiveness and reconciliation, we acknowledge our hurt and anger, but more than that, we learn to respond to our feelings from a place of kindness rather than rage. Working through hurt requires both parties to be vulnerable—vulnerable about weakness (I was hurt) and vulnerable about fault (that happened as a result of what I did). We will both feel exposed.
We have to learn to name what we need after a conflict—not to hold another person for ransom, but to help speed the process of reconciliation. Naming needs can help us establish new boundaries or regain trust. Sometimes we just need to sit in silence, to take a break from anger and sadness, or to return to the situation later. Eventually, we are called to learn from our mistakes, to move forward, and to make memories.
Thanks be to God that God offers us the gift of forgiveness and empowers us to forgive each other.