During the Lenten season we often think about forgiveness–not only the forgiveness offered to us by God, but also those whom we need to forgive or those who need to forgive us. But anyone who’s been around the block of life more than once knows how difficult that can be. God may be able to forgive instantaneously, but human beings? Not so much.
Preachers often exhort their parishioners about the need to forgive and the Gospels have plenty to say about it, but they don’t tell us how. What I have learned over my life is that forgiveness in a process.
Lewis Smedes, late theologian and psychologist, wrote a marvelous book called Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve. He talks about forgiveness as a four stage process.
FIRST, WE HURT
The first kind of hurt we face is personal pain. We can only forgive people, not nature, not systems–even though those can hurt us. People are the only ones who can be held accountable for what they do. People are the only ones who can accept forgiveness and decide to come back to us. Then there is unfair pain. Forgiving is love’s remedy to be used when we are hurtfully wronged by a person we trusted to treat us right. There is pain and there is unfair pain. It hurts to lose $50 on a fair bet; it also hurts to be mugged on the street and robbed of $50.
SECOND, WE HATE
You might object that Christians shouldn’t hate or feel hatred. But we’re also human. Hate is our natural response to any deep and unfair pain. It’s our instinctive backlash against anyone who wound’s us wrongly. There are two kinds of hate: passive—not being able to wish a person well and active —we wish them ill. Regardless, it separates us from others and eats us alive. Hate is not anger. Anger means we’re alive and well. Hate means we’re sick and need to be healed. Anger wants to change things for the better; hate for the worse.
THIRD, WE HEAL OURSELVES
When you begin to forgive someone for hurting you, you perform spiritual surgery of the soul; you cut away the wrong done to you so that you can see your “enemy” through the magic eyes that can heal your soul. In doing so you begin to receive several gifts. The first gift we get is new insight. We see a deeper truth about them—they are weak, needy, fallible human beings, not ogres or monsters. They are not only people who hurt us; that is not the deepest truth about them. New insight always brings new feeling. When you forgive me, the wrong I did to you becomes irrelevant to how you feel about me now. The pain I once caused you has no connection with how you feel toward me now. How do you know that forgiveness has begun? When you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.
LAST, WE COME TOGETHER
While there are some people with whom we should never try to reconcile (an abused child with her abusive father), the ideal is that we can come back together. If we ignore the wrong as if it did not really matter, we take our first step into an amoral life where nobody really gives a damn. Things will never be right between us if we ignore the wrong between us. It is what people do to us in spirit and space that hurts. The price of the journey to freedom and a renewed journey together includes:
truthfulness—they must understand the reality of what they did to hurt you, how it impacted you, and about your future together. Forgiving is not having to understand. Understanding may come later in fragments after forgiving. Human existence and human relationships are mysterious.
What we see here in this brief review is that forgiveness is possible, but it takes time. It’s just as complicated as human beings are. The anger, resentment, and lack of forgiveness is a cancer inside of us. But you know what? It’s eating us up not the one we need to forgive.