How forgiveness works (and how it doesn't)

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. 

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At 2:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forgiveness is very hard, not just for the reasons you've put about it not simply letting go, but because that long painful journey often involves being very angry and we're all too often told that is not we should be

At 10:24 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

It is not wrong to be angry. Anger is an appropriate and healthy response to a wrong. The Bible says "in your anger do not sin" but anger itself in response to abuse or injustice is appropriate and important.

When anger is suppressed this can turn inwards and manifest itself in depression, self-hatred, and resentment. When anger goes "underground" like this it can do a lot more damage.

The process of acceptance is similar to the grief process. You go through the grief process, and in the same way you go through anger on your way to acceptance (assuming that reconciliation is not a possibility). You do not "get over" catastrophic loss, just as you do not "heal" from a severed limb. It either destroys you or it transforms you. Getting to that place of acceptance, where pain and joy can co-exist, involves us really facing and working through the anger we feel in response to injustice. Forgiveness of a grave wrong such as abuse is therefore not something we can just do, like switching on a light, it is something we need to work towards reaching.

At 9:28 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Right now I am in a situation where my mother in law has written me out of her life after blasting me for making a mistake. She never apologized. I still get mad when I think about the situation, now months later. This grudge is something I can't seem to let go of. I know she may never apologize. Forgiving her isn't so much about canceling a debt or wanting her to suffer. It is the knowledge that I am not wanted, not seen as valuable, not regarded worth apologizing to.

Jesus said forgive 70x7 when they apologize thus demonstrating love is patient and long suffering. But then its like it hurts. Forgiving people who out their own broken humanity say I am here for you, trust me, I am your ally. Then something happens and its like now all the opposite.

Jesus says we are to be like our Father in heaven who causes it to rain on just and unjust. But accepting the hurt caused seems like there is cog in the process.

At 10:40 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


It's great that you have that insight of recognizing that behind the anger you feel is the sense of feeling unwanted. Being aware of this deeper emotion beneath the surface ones like anger/hurt is a rare and really helpful quality.

If you are interested in delving deeper into reconciliation/acceptance I'd recommend the book How Can I Forgive You by Janice Abrahms Spring. It goes into a lot more detail of the process.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

After reading about her ideas I think what I am looking from my mother in law, what I feel owed, is an apology for the way she treated me/blasted me. I will definetly take it to prayer. Thanks for shining a light on it. It tookbme a bit to see it as such. Really helpful.

At 4:05 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

Let me try part of my previous comment again. It seems to have gotten lost.

Good post and I agree with it BUT how do you justify it from scripture? DaveW

At 4:07 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

If the issue is child abuse that needs forgiveness option 1 does not seem very practical as one is likely to receive more abuse just talking to the abuser.

At 10:27 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


In case of abuse the first concern should be safety. Reconciliation needs to take a back seat to that. So the primary concern would be to get the child out of the abusive environment and into a safe and loving one. Jesus' comment about millstones comes to mind here. The safety of little ones is #1.

That's of course true with children, but also true in the case of spousal abuse. First there needs to be no violence taking place, and then and only then can work begin on the relationship.

At 10:36 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Can you elaborate more what it is you are looking for when you ask "how do you justify it from scripture?" I'm sure you must know that Jesus taught about forgiveness and reconciliation a lot. So what is it exactly that you feel needs to be justified here? Am I missing something? Seems to me that forgiveness is a central teaching of the NT and this is just a matter of fleshing out how that works. Are you looking for proof texts or something? Confused.

At 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Not sure why you removed your comment. I thought it was a valid and insightful insight (as the admin I can see comments even after they are deleted).


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