When forgiveness is preached, the concept feels so simple, so easy. Yet there is simply nothing easy about it. Sometimes it feels like forgiveness, well, kind of sucks. I heard about forgiveness so much growing up in church that at times the mention of it became nauseating (which is probably why I have avoided writing about this topic for so long). When I hear or read about forgiveness, my eyes glaze over, my body swoons a bit, and I simultaneously feel a mixture of guilt, rage, and disgust. I don’t understand forgiveness. I know I should take it seriously, and frankly, it irritates me that it just doesn’t come naturally.
Forgiveness is one of those religious words that, Frederick Buechner writes, “are so familiar you don’t hear them.” If forgiveness has fallen asleep for you, how can you rouse it from slumber? This is a journey of faith I know I must continue to take. How can something I have heard a thousand times remain so difficult to put into practice? I am aware we cannot fully receive forgiveness without also freely giving it away. As I have dipped my toes into the pool of forgiveness, I remain too frightened to fully submerge. I fear I will lose part of myself if I fully surrender to it. Frederick Buechner, in his marvelous book Wishful Thinking, illustrates forgiveness in this way:
You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights, I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.
To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, and thus both parties must swallow the same thing: their pride.
What a difficult undertaking. To swallow pride sometimes is as problematic and painful as swallowing knives. I want to keep hold of my pride; sometimes it feels like the only thing keeping me afloat. My pride protects me from the terror of getting hurt again. For me to forgive would mean risking love, and that is what I can’t quite stomach. Repairing what has been broken sounds lovely, but trusting again? Opening my heart again? Love is truly a terrifying proposition.
What I do know of forgiveness is that it is a verb, an action. It rises and crashes like a wave, spilling over the broken pieces of our pain, sometimes washing them away and other times spitting them back onto our shores. Authentic engagement with forgiveness might enter my heart suddenly, but it can depart just as quickly. Certain days, I’m able to release my contempt toward those who have harmed me; on other days, I am just as livid and bruised as the day it happened. And I’m okay with that. This view shows us that forgiveness is no longer passive; instead, it’s alive and must move. While it’s messier and more nuanced, at least it has a heartbeat. We forgive anew with each day we feel our hands grasping at old grudges.
I often hear of forgiveness being used as a weapon to inflict shame rather than as a tool for gaining freedom. I hear it used to silence those who come into my office looking for healing from their past sexual abuse, from a violent marriage where the husband regularly violated his wife sexually while citing scriptures of submission and forgiveness, or from their well-meaning pastors who are saying, “You just need to forgive your father/husband/grandpa, etc., and move on with your life.”
Forgiveness that is used to hush victims rather than set the wounded free isn’t true forgiveness, but a false counterfeit of God’s glorious intent. We should forgive those who have abused us, but it is not to be the first or final response to our exploitation. Before we enter forgiveness, we must enter the rage and mourn the fullness of the injustice. Allow yourself to feel your fury at the unfairness, your anger at the innocence lost—with a fierceness that affirms you matter, that you are worth raging over.
After the wrath, the only appropriate response is grief. Yes, grief is the doorway toward forgiveness. As we grieve, we learn to surrender. I believe surrender is one of the closest terms to forgiveness that I know of. Humility and surrender must become our very breath. If we take this grieving journey first, then true forgiveness is possible.
Whatever you do with forgiveness, it is important to look more closely and reflect on your relationship with it. Quick and cheap forgiveness does not hold the weight of the deeply holy journey of forgiveness that God has called us to. God invites us to the radical place of forgiveness through the example of his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus’s forgiveness of us cost him his very life, and for us, the call is no different. We must suffer and die as we forgive; it will be painful, and it should be.
The beautiful part of our Christian faith is that we have a God who has already gone and suffered before us. May we, too, suffer into forgiveness.