Do I Really Have to Forgive?

I had a conversation with a parishioner one time that still vexes me. At one point some years prior, she and her husband had opposed me on the issue of homosexuality. A wealthy and influential couple, they were convinced that I was leading the flock down the road to perdition. I was a young pastor at the time, so their opposition proved particularly worrisome from a vocational standpoint. But, after a great deal of work, we mended fences–unfortunately, without ever really addressing the hurt I’d experienced.

A few years after the controversy, we were sitting in my office speaking candidly with one another–about what I don’t remember. But I do remember feeling like it was important for me to say something out loud about the kerfuffle we’d had. So, apropos of nothing we happened to be discussing at the time, I said, “Gladys, you know that whole big thing we had a few years back over homosexuality?”

I saw her eyes widen. She nodded her head, perhaps more as a warning gesture than an affirmation. “Yes,” she said.

Gladys was a true southern woman, one who did not like to engage in direct interpersonal dust-ups. She was the kind of person who preferred never to attack a problem head-on. Instead, she preferred to circle it for a while, sneak up on it, then strike passing blows–hoping, I think, to wear it down and force it to surrender. I, on the other hand, grew up in the North thinking that speaking directly is a virtue. Two different ways of communicating, the conflict between which often trips me up still.

“Well,” I said, not picking up on the signs, “I felt very hurt by you and Henry in that whole thing.”

I’m not sure what I was expecting. I guess I hoped she would say, “I know, Derek, and we’re so sorry about that. I hope you’ll forgive us.” Or, “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. I wished that had never happened.” Or maybe even, “Mistakes were made.”

Instead, what she said was, “That’s behind us now. We don’t need to talk about it.”

I wanted to object: “No. It’s really not behind us. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bring it up.”

What I said instead, however, was . . . well, not much of anything.

I’ve been thinking about forgiveness. There are things in my life I need to forgive, things for which I need to be forgiven. But what exactly does that mean? Say, for instance, you’ve been involved with an addict, who’s left a trail of devastation behind. This person has done some work to get clean and work through the process of recovery. What now, though? What does forgiveness look like in this situation? I don’t think Gladys’ response that “that’s behind us now. We don’t need to talk about it” is the answer. Forgiveness is not willed forgetfulness.

On the other hand, I realize that forgiveness at some point means taking a chance on getting hurt again. When is it time to take that chance? If I’m the offended party, is it up to me to decide when is the right time? This seems right to me.

But what if I’m content to nurse my wounds, to savor the wrongs? Does the offender ever have a right to say, “I’ve said I’m sorry every way I know how. I’ve tried to regain your trust, but you won’t let me near?”

I’m torn because I realize that some hurts are so grievous that getting past them seems impossible. The offender has a difficult time regaining the moral high ground in this interchange.

But as someone who follows Jesus, who regularly preaches that forgiveness isn’t part of the optional special off-road package upgrade, I think the offended has certain responsibilities to the offender.

(I’m a thoroughgoing liberal, so let me just say, that last sentence scares the crap out of me–since this sounds eerily like what the powerless are often urged to offer the powerful who’ve hurt them.)

What does that forgiveness look like? When, and under what circumstances should I offer it? I wish there were an algorithm into which I could plug my experience, the depth of the hurt, the nature of the offender’s remorse and recovery, and have it spit out answers to those questions.

But I don’t have such an algorithm. All I have is a community. So, let me ask you: What does forgiveness look like? When, and under what circumstances should I offer it? Do I really have to forgive?


7 thoughts on “Do I Really Have to Forgive?

  1. To me it looks like leaven a woman kneads into a 150 pounds of flour. Thus it does not take a lot to grow into KOG. When is the hardest question. Yet I must add I believe we often delay allowing the forgiveness to grow in us, because we can not forgive ourselves for something within the exchange or worse something unrelated. It seems to be the first step for me. For the last question, IDK.


  2. Wow, tough question. I have to agree about the complexity and tenderness of the issue. What you mentioned about the powerless being told to forgive those that hurt or abuse them rings true with me, in a funny kind of way. Three adult met raped me when I was 14. They never admitted it, asked for forgiveness, took any sort of responsiblity. They are not even in my life. As a young (and i do mean young) Seminarian, I was TOLD I HAD to forgive them. I refused, saying that was God’s job, not mine. But over time, I have forgiven them. It was gradual, almost in an organic way, as I grew closer to God and deeper into the Kingdom of God work.
    Now, also as a child, I was abused by my biological father. He has actively denied the abuse, even while abusing other children. Do I need to forgive him? What would forgiving him mean? I live 500 miles away and refuse to be in his presence. I have made peace with my past, even while I choose to not be around him. That is simply a matter of self protection, keeping myself away from his begging for me to come back and recant the abuse stories. I refuse. I do not fear him, but neither do I tolerate him. Do I have to “forgive” him while he still tells everyone what a liar I am? I think that taking myself out of his sphere of influence, preventing the showdowns and finding the strengths in an abusive childhood is a way of forgiving, while not giving up my own reality and power. So forgiveness in this situation looks like normalizing my life and protecting myself and forgetting him for years at a time between phone confrontations. Is that a “religious” forgiveness? Possibly not. Possibly it is a functional forgiveness. But I tell you…there is no regret in my heart, no yearning for some “good dad”, no anger at his behavior or desire for revenge. So maybe it is a “religious” forgiveness after all. God has given me peace. My abuser finding his peace is up to him.
    Many may disagree with these definitions and decisions, but they are the way I have empowered myself to be active in the job of making the kingdom in this time and in this place. If I feel joy in that, and there is no nursing a grudge, I am at peace. I would entertain discussion of my particular definitions and not have a problem with that.

  3. I don’t have the answers. I do know that cooling off is important, because what’s even worse is giving out forgiveness that you don’t mean, forcing yourself to forgive someone or saying, “Fine, I forgive you”, that isn’t real forgiveness. I do know that often I feel, not really a push, but more just like a reminder from God, telling me that I’m going to have to find a way to forgive. It’s so hard. Talking things out is important, acknowledging hurt is important. I think I’m just saying thoughts on the subject rather than answering the questions, I can’t answer the question, it’s so complicated, so I hope you’ll excuse the ramblings. I think knowing you’re supposed to forgive someone, while it might be able to stop anger or hurt from escalating, can’t really make you do it, I think forgiveness really comes when you can put something behind you, not in a way that it’s not still part of your life or where it doesn’t hurt you anymore…but when it doesn’t haunt you. I think when you can do that you’re ready to forgive. It’s this little nuance, and it’s hard to tell, but I think it’s important. I think that…ultimately, we do have to forgive. I don’t think it can always or even often be immediate, I think it takes time, sometimes years, and it takes longer when we can’t talk it out with the person, but I think we have to, for no other reason than it eats us up otherwise. We forgive for all sorts of reasons, either because we realize we’ve reached that point or we want to start over, or often because we realize that we love the person who hurt us enough that we have to let it go. I think though, that talking to God about it is important, particularly in cases where the person you need to forgive is yourself. I made a mistake the past year, not a horrible one, but it was still significant to me, and I finally told God that I was sorry, for sinning against myself and him and another person involved. And it wasn’t automatic, but once I could admit that, instead of just saying that I did something that wasn’t right, but actually telling God I was sorry, while the forgiveness for myself was not immediate, it loosened the guilt’s hold, so that while it was still there, it did not consume me and allowed me to start to move forward. Forgiveness is so complicated, for yourself, for other people, for God…it’s so complicated, and it’s hard because the Bible makes it seem like it should be so simple and it’s not. But I do believe that somehow, even if takes many years, there’s a road to peace and forgiveness after each hurt. It’s hard, but I think one of the first steps is asking the questions you just asked.

  4. Forgiveness is less about what you offer to another person but, instead, an introspection into yourself. Dealing with standpoints on an issue like homosexuality, it is impossible to separate these ideals and believes from either politics or religion. Jesus teaches us forgiveness, but the political world encourages us to hold grudges for our security of freedoms.
    I, myself, have had to deal with the issue of forgiveness in terms of opinions on homosexuality, so I feel somewhat invested in offering my thoughts from past experiences. It is easy to say that those who have done the persecution deserve to feel what it’s like to be persecuted, exiled. But that is NOT the Christian belief I “bought” in to. As a gay person, I accepted Jesus Christ because he offered the unconditional forgiveness that most people would not and do not offer me. But, most importantly to try to answer your question, it is forgiveness that teaches, that heals on both sides of the argument, whether that is immediately present or experienced through time. Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Mollenkott wrote that Jesus Christ cared about “the most hated, discredited persons in the society in which He lived…He felt their pain, knew their hunger and thirst, recognized their humanity, saw the image of God in them. In short, He loved them,” (1980, 135). I am not a theologian, nor do I pretend to obtain the infinite knowledge of God, but I do possess a degree in political science and understand the consequences of relinquishing power on to those who are powerful. To forgive and forget is not true forgiveness. Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness requires strength of will, fore those who truly offer forgiveness do it not for their own sake but for the sake of those whom they are forgiving.
    Specifically speaking on the issue, honesty and openness are the best policy. When confronting disagreeing standpoints on homosexuality it typically comes down to fundamental beliefs and those cannot be changed with words, arguments, or exhaustive publications. Actions, in my opinion, resonate louder. I wish to marry the love of my life one day. I cannot legally do so in this state right now. Until then, I will continue to live my life as an example of God’s love. All I can do in the face of prejudice, hatred, and ignorance is to let my story be known and forgive those who believe that my life and love is a sin. Because those who are truly Christian, who can see through the imperfections of humankind and strive to follow Jesus Christ’s footsteps will understand what forgiveness entails. And then, hopefully, one day we can experience our common humanity through God.

  5. When an addict prepares to make amends to all the people she had harmed she is usually told “just because you are making amends does not mean the person you hurt has to forgive you.” Likewise, we are told that we must forgive others for hurting us regardless of whether they have apologized or made amends in any way. The reason to forgive others really has nothing to do with the other. It is entirely about caring for ourselves. We cannot be spiritually well if we are carrying anger/resentment/pain around with us.

    Over time I have learned that forgiving isn’t something I can just decide to do – it’s a process. For example, I can tell that I have forgiven an ex-husband for the physical abuse because I no longer have a visceral reaction to memories of that time in my life. I cannot and should not forget what he did and I won’t go anywhere near him because the man is dangerous. But he no longer controls my emotions. I don’t hate him anymore.

    On the other hand, whenever I see or even think about a former member of the congregation who tried to have me fired 6+ years ago I get all tangled up in anger and fear and resentment. In her case I still have a ways to go before forgiveness is reality.

    I have to ask God for help forgiving those who have harmed me. I also have to ask God for help forgiving myself for the anger or hatred I have felt/expressed/acted out on toward them. It takes awhile to do that. Sometimes it takes all of seventy times seven times.

    And that’s the other part, of course. Jesus made it very clear that we must forgive others because we are forgiven. He did not say it would be easy. He just said it was necessary. It is part of loving the neighbor.

  6. Forgiveness doesn’t have much of anything to do with anyone who has harmed me. Forgiveness is about my transformation. Those who harm me are in no way affected half as much by my decision to forgive as I am. I must embody Jesus by forgiving. It’s never easy, but always necessary, in my own spiritual journey.

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