Forgiveness is a tricky concept. Similar to coming out of the closet, forgiveness is an extremely personal process. Just as no one can tell you when to come out, no one can tell you when it’s “time” to forgive.
I’m beginning to suspect that one of the next steps for my own healing and wholeness from years of closet-living is to forgive those who inadvertently kept me there—perhaps even forgive those who still wish I was inside that closet.
Again, I can’t help coming back to the notion that forgiveness is extremely personal, and therefore takes on multiple meanings for different individuals in different situations.
Forgiveness is a word that is vaguely defined and haphazardly applied. What does it really mean to forgive? What is the scope of forgiveness? Does it include reconciliation? How does forgiveness look, practically speaking? It seems kind of empty to merely say the words “I forgive you.” There needs to be something transformative about it for the person forgiving. Ideally, it should also be transformative for the person being forgiven.
Unfortunately, those who have suffered physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual abuse—even as a child—are often told that in order to heal, they need to forgive their abuser. One might as well say to a person with a compound fracture in the leg: “Don’t just sit there crying! Reset your broken bone, grab some needle and thread, sew up your wound, and put a plaster cast on your leg.” These may be the steps needed to heal the injury, but it is completely impractical and non-empathetic advice, not to mention absurd for the person to try to follow these steps on their own.
This metaphor, while helpful, doesn’t capture the complexity of the healing process for those who have been abused. A physical injury like a compound fracture can be treated in a straightforward manner by a doctor, and the injury will heal. The healing process for an abuse victim is much more complex.
Various authors of the Bible talk of healing for those who are oppressed and downtrodden. Jesus and others reference taking care of “the widow and the orphan.” Jesus teaches about the Good Samaritan who helped a robbery victim. The prophets in the Old Testament rage against the injustice toward the oppressed in Israel. In all these situations, the directive is toward helping and healing those who are abused, oppressed, and victims of injustice. The directive is NOT toward the widow and the orphan, NOT toward the oppressed, NOT to those who are ill-treated! We need to stop demanding forgiveness from victims of abuse, and tend to their needs instead. Forgiveness toward their oppressors and abusers, if and when it comes, will be personal and will occur as a part of their own healing process.
NOTE: See David Hayward's post about The Anger Clock for more on this strange emphasis on the abused "getting over" their anger.
At this point you may be saying: oh, but Shoop. Didn’t Jesus say to love our enemies? Didn’t he say to forgive those who trespass against us? Didn’t he say to forgive, time and time again, those who do wrong against us (i.e., 70 x 7 times)? Yes, but in all these instances, Jesus is describing life in the Kingdom of God. I believe one has to balance the Bible’s teaching about the oppressed with these Kingdom of God directives.
Being a white, cisgender male living in the United States, I have a lot of privilege. Luke 12:48 records Jesus himself saying: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required.” Understanding the thematic context of justice and healing for the oppressed throughout the Bible and Jesus’ teachings, isn’t it absurd to spend so much time telling the abused to forgive their abusers? Much more is asked from those of us who have so many cultural and situational advantages.
Where does that leave those of us who are privileged and haven’t suffered abuse? Jesus is looking at us, straight in the eyes, and telling us to forgive and to model forgiveness. To have thick skins and open hearts. The good news is that Jesus tells us to do this because we ourselves are already forgiven. As I grow older, I realize more and more that my “sin” rarely has to do with the things I do. It’s more often the things that I don’t do. I don’t do a hell of a lot to feed the hungry, help the oppressed, comfort the emotionally distraught, befriend the friendless, or advocate for justice.
These convictions move me to act in three ways: They bring me back to God in order to ask for help and guidance. They move me to find ways to do the things I’ve neglected to do as a Kingdom chaser. And finally, they encourage me to forgive those who have wronged me by their acts of omission.
To be completely open with you, readers, I have held much anger and bitterness toward members of my own family who haven’t pursued reconciliation and relationship with me after I came out to them (about 4 years ago). One of the primary reasons I came out was to have a more honest relationship with them; happily, this has occurred with many family members, including my parents. Still, many familial relationships remain strained.
I’m at a point in my life where I want to forgive those who haven’t accepted and affirmed my relationship with my partner. However, as I mentioned earlier, this decision to forgive is extremely personal. I could never and would never encourage anyone to “stop being angry and just forgive.” I am still figuring out what forgiveness actually looks like for me. I don’t want to force it. But I am curious to see how it works and how transformative it could be.