Rethinking Forgiveness

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One of the most interesting discoveries I made in the past year is that our concepts of forgiveness have undertaken a dramatic redefinition in the modern period. The notion of forgiveness is popular today, and it is typically conceived as an individual decision, unconditional and independent of the other person’s worth and often even their repentance. A person forgives the person who has wronged them and in this way finds freedom from the burden of their anger. “You will never fully heal until you forgive,” is a phrase I’ve heard quoted like timeless wisdom more times than I care to acknowledge. Along with such platitudes has come significant pushback from abuse survivors insisting on the damage such casual advice can do to a trauma survivor who cannot forgive and for whom forgiveness becomes just one more burden to add to their sense of shame. “I’ve gotten to the point I cannot hear the word forgiveness without feeling sick,” one abuse survivor commented.

Various strategies have been offered to address this problematic use of the concept forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process that comes with healing, many insist. It is not a requirement that should be pushed on survivors before they are ready. Others point out that it is not contradictory to justice and should never be used to let an abuser off the hook for the gravity of their crimes. Another strategy to negate forgiveness’ potential to allow further abuse has been to separate forgiveness from reconciliation. “Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation,” is a phrase you may have heard. Severing any necessary connection to reconciliation – reconciliation as an optional step depending on whether or not the offender continues to be unsafe or toxic – is helpful to abuse survivors, but leaves the concept of what exactly forgiveness is pretty unclear. Recently I heard forgiveness compared as cutting the final string (anger) connecting an abused person to the abuser. While that's a helpful image and goal for many survivors, I wonder if completing separating ties from the one who hurt you can really be considered forgiveness in any recognizable sense.

Through Mario Mayo’s important book The Limits of Forgiveness and reading the early church fathers, I came to realize that all of these nuances do not escape the problematic assumptions inherent in our modern ideas about forgiveness. Mario Mayo’s wrestlings with forgiveness arose out of a context where she had been brutally beaten and nearly killed. While she was still in the hospital she was already facing the tired line: “You will need to forgive the person who did this to you to ever heal.” Something is deeply wrong with this idea of forgiveness, she knew. She did not even know her attacker, had no relationship to him, but she was required to feel some sort of warm feeling of forgiveness towards him for her own healing?

These questions sparked her exploration into the history of forgiveness. Part of what she discovered was that our ideas about forgiveness have significantly changed over time, and perhaps not for the better. For most of the early church fathers, the relationship between forgiveness and repentance was non-separable. You could not, and should not, forgive someone who was not repentant. Forgiveness was not just a vague feeling of love for another person, or surrender of hatred or anger. Forgiveness was stating the truth about another person: that they were truly forgiven and loved by God, that they carried all the signs that they had fully faced the horror of their sin and were being transformed by God. Forgiving someone was serious business, not to be taken lightly. One must be confident someone’s repentance was genuine to forgive. Origen in particular was deeply concerned about the possibility of accidentally forgiving someone who was not truly repentant, and listed numerous “tests” to try to prevent such an event from happening. In Gregory of Nyssa’s thought, our forgiveness of others is an imitation of God’s forgiveness: God allows no one in his glorious presence who is still clinging to grave sins and refusing to be changed through Christ. By implication, neither should we. Souls are at stake here: if we let people enslaved in gross sin off the hook we prevent them from the necessary journey into the presence of God. Our forgiveness might prevent their experience of salvation.

This is particularly interesting because many of the early church fathers were universalists. Their worldview was not based primarily in a fear of hell or God’s judgment; they were confident that in the end God’s love would finally win over every heart. Their strong focus on repentance arose from a sense of the high destiny of each human being. Every unrepented sin keeps us from the kind of transformation each of us is intended to have, the cleansing and healing that brings us closer and closer to the likeness of God. Within this worldview, forgiveness that looks like a shrug, saying in effect, “I know you don’t understand what you did was hurtful, but I forgive you anyway” – is an insult to the offender’s personhood and destiny. If what the person did was serious enough to need forgiveness, it is also serious enough to require their full repentance.

In my own life, I have found it very helpful to distinguish between forgiveness and releasing any anger or desire for another’s harm. Hanging onto a desire for revenge and another’s destruction is indeed harmful and self-destructive. Part of the healing process is releasing such a need for revenge and opening oneself up to the possibility that someone may repent and be saved. However, I do not consider releasing a desire for revenge the same as forgiveness itself. I wonder for how many abuse survivors their agonized rejection of forgiveness is not rooted in bitterness but in a God-given love for justice, an instinct that there is something wrong about letting go of the desire for repentance and restitution for serious crimes. What this ancient concept of forgiveness allows for is the recognition that people should not feel shame or guilt for not being able to shrug off serious crimes. Forgiveness is not a mysterious feeling that allows crimes to no longer really matter. We do not need to feel guilt for not having forgiven unrepentant sin, and we need not feel guilty if we can never feel any warm feelings about the person who has harmed us. God himself requires repentance for such crimes and in Christ required full justice and restitution. By withholding full forgiveness to someone unrepentant, I show I am hoping for their full salvation, hoping they will open themselves up to the truth that will save them. I am also respecting their freedom, recognizing I cannot force them into repentance and change by the sheer force of my forgiveness.

Language changes over time, and I know that it’s unlikely we can fully recover the early church’s robust sense of the justice of God in relation to forgiveness. Forgiveness will probably continue to be talked about as simply the wronged person releasing their anger. It is also possible that the truth about forgiveness lies somewhere in between ancient and modern ideas, because for most of us, repentance is also a journey. If complete repentance is always a requirement for forgiveness, few of us would ever experience this gift. But it strikes me how helpful it would be to abuse survivors, who are certainly victims of crimes serious enough to require full repentance, if we could regain at least some of this sensibility in our conversations about forgiveness today. Instead of asking abuse survivors, “Have you forgiven yet? How did you come to forgive?,” we might spend more time asking, “Has your abuser ever shown signs of true repentance? Has he faced consequences for his crimes? Has the church held him or her accountable to change?”

A framework that takes true repentance very seriously would see such accountability as non-optional: if we truly love abusers, then we must want their hearts to change – to let go of the last rationalization of their serious sin. We would realize that such justifications for their crimes are separating them from the love of God and any hope of being in his loving presence. We would stop idealizing the forgiveness of emotionally or physically battered persons, who repeatedly allow their spouse to harm them and belittle their personhood. Instead of churches commending an emotionally abused woman for her Christ-like “submission” to her abuser, which happens far too often, we might gently challenge her to recognize that allowing her husband to continue in unrepentant and serious sin is enabling a barrier between not only him and her, but him and God.

This picture is still so far from how most faith communities respond to abuse that it feels like a distant hope. But something like this, I think, is the journey communities of faith are required to take if we want our churches to be places abuse survivors can thrive. Within a faith community that takes sin very seriously, forgiveness might start to feel less like a burden to abuse survivors and more like the miracle and gift it is.

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Thanks Monica for this very thoughtful post! Forgiveness is so difficult. I like the idea that both forgiveness and repentance are a journey and must not be taken lightly.  Serious sin has serious impacts, and it then makes sense that there would be serious consequences. I resonate deeply with your call for increased accountability. For the sake  of Christ and his Church, may we move in the direction of taking the sin of abuse seriously enough to hold those who abuse accountable.