Saturday, March 14, 2015
Those of us who promote Jesus' way of peace and enemy love often speak of things like "self-sacrificing love" or echo Paul's vocabulary of the "foolishness of the cross" and Jesus' radical call to "lose your life to find it." We speak of this way as being "counter-intuitive" and part of an "upside-down kingdom."
This all makes a great sermon. Lots of vocabulary from the Bible. It sounds radical and inspiring and right. But there's little discussion of what this looks like practically. How do I walk this out in my day to day life? How do I tell the difference between the kind of "self-sacrificing love" Jesus wants me to have, and an abusive or hurtful understanding?
If we really want to walk this out, we need to go beyond saying the right stuff, and really get down to what a practical application looks like. Because we simply cannot obey if we don't know how. Faith seeking understanding means saying "Lord I want to follow, show be how to do this well." As a theologian I see part of my task as helping to articulate what that looks like.
Take forgiveness for example. Forgiveness is an idea that almost everyone is familiar with. Much more so than the idea of enemy love. It's common to hear people speaking of the need to forgive for the sake of our own health. If we hold on to unforgiveness, they tell us, this will eat us up inside. So it's not just a Christian value but a value shared by our general culture.
This is all true. However, I'd like to suggest that there is a healthy form of forgiveness and an unhealthy form, and it's critical that we understand the difference. As with anything good, it is possible to do forgiveness wrong. How can we tell the difference? Our culture values forgiveness, just as it values love, but it often has messed up understandings of both, and so do we.
Many times, people simply try to ignore the hurt and “just move on.” They choose not to confront the offending person and continue the relationship as if nothing happened. The problem with the noble-sounding approach of “taking the high road” is that it doesn’t allow a person to legitimize and work through their authentic feelings.
We've all been there: You'd like to leave the issue in the past, but it keeps coming back—sometimes years later—sometimes hidden in the disguise of feelings of low self-worth or depression, or as anger seemingly “out of nowhere.”
On top of this, if you never speak up, the other person is likely to continue doing the same things that hurt you. You may also find yourself in a similar situation with another person.
Like Bonhoeffer's "cheep grace" this is cheep forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness needs to start by honestly facing the hurt. Forgiveness is not conflict avoidance. Forgiveness is not saying "that's okay" when it's not okay. Real forgiveness is about getting past real hurt.
There are basically two ways to do this: reconciliation or acceptance.
Reconciliation involves the other. They need to be open to listen to your perspective and is willing to change their behavior, possibly leading to a full restoration of your relationship with them. For you, it means being willing to release the other from the weight of their offense against you, being open to allow the person to change, being willing to love again.
What makes this different from cheap forgiveness is that this process requires admitting to yourself, as well as to the other, that you have been hurt. It requires that the other asks for your forgiveness (or at the very least acknowledges the hurt they have caused) and takes sincere steps to prevent a repetition.
In the case were you have hurt or wronged someone it's important to remember that asking for forgiveness is something you do for them, not for something for you to feel better. This may seem obvious, but is often difficult for Christians because asking for forgiveness is often synonymous with our seeking assurance of God's love. When "forgive me" means "make me feel less guilty" this does not feel so great to the one who has been hurt. A better approach is to express to the other that you care about them, recognize that you have hurt them, and want to make it right.
Reconciliation is wonderful when it can happen. When you can work through real pain and hurt, and come out on the other side with a stronger and deeper relationship, this is a beautiful thing. But what if the other person is not willing or able to admit any wrongdoing? What if they are completely out of the picture or no longer living? How do you forgive an unrepentant person?
Like reconciliation this includes an acknowledgment of the full extent of what happened, but unlike it acceptance is something you can do without their cooperation. Acceptance does not just mean "letting go" of a wrong. On the contrary, it requires that you validate what happened to yourself and the impact it has had on your life. This is a painful and often lengthy process. Revisiting an injury or loss is very unpleasant, but it is necessary in order to deal with the difficult feelings effectively so it doesn't spill over into other areas of your life. This involves looking at the painful event from every angle possible, including trying to imagine the other party's perspective. Acceptance means developing empathy for both you and for the other, and it means giving up the “hope for a better past” or for what “could have been.”
None of this is easy. Cheap forgiveness or holding on to anger may seem like easier solutions at first, but the price you pay can be your physical or mental health when hurt is buried or allowed to fester in bitterness. Reconciliation is of course the most desirable option when possible, but you simply have no control over the other party's willingness to share your burden. The concept of acceptance allows one to independently process what happened and therefore to heal. Acceptance is therefore a kind of a reconciliation, too -- one that does not depend on the offender, but is a peace-making with your past.