Shepherd of the Valley is holding virtual confirmation meetings every couple weeks. Our participants are looking at the Small Catechism, discussing things like the Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer. In the course of those things, talking about weighty theological issues, they tend to have questions. With the permission of those who asked, I’d like to share some of their questions with you, as well as some thoughts about them.
One of the big ones that came up on Sunday was this:
“Should we ever reach a point where we stop forgiving someone?”
Before we explore this one, we have to unpack what we mean by forgiveness.
The popular definition, adopted by most churches, paints forgiveness as one or more of the following:
· Not holding a wrong against someone
· Saying the wrong was “ok”
· Continuing to engage in a relationship with the person who has done the wrong
· Forgetting that the wrong occurred
· Minimizing the impact of the wrong
If these definitions of forgiveness are true, then yes, we should reach a point where we stop forgiving.
With some wrongs, that point should come immediately after the wrong was done. Abuse, domestic violence, assault, and a host of other things can be considered, “Not even once!” offenses. It’s perfectly sane, safe, and faithful to say, “Once these behaviors have been shown, I am out of this relationship.”
Abusers often manipulate our traditional definitions of forgiveness to maintain access to the people they’re abusing. They’ll hurt someone, then say, “The Bible says it’s right to forgive! You have to let it go and continue in this relationship with me.” In this way, forgiveness and scripture get twisted into another form of abuse. They trap the person being abused in a relationship centered on wrongness and control.
If forgiveness really does follow these definitions, it would be better for the person being hurt to NEVER forgive than to get stuck in a harmful relationship that crushes them in the name of “forgiveness”. That’s not what forgiveness is meant to do.
Fortunately, the popular definition of forgiveness is not correct…or at least it’s not complete. Forgiveness involves releasing, decentralizing, letting go. It’s an exhale that takes the weight of sin off of your shoulders, to be replaced by something better.
Forgiveness makes a simple claim: whatever wrong is done in our lives will not form the central core of our identity. Something better than evil lies at the heart of our relationship with life, God, the world, and each other.
Forgiveness does not say that doing wrong is “ok” or acceptable. If we justify wrong as right, we don’t need forgiveness in the first place. Who requires forgiveness for something good? Forgiveness names hurtful, selfish, inappropriate things as such.
At the same time, forgiveness looks at the wrong and says, “This is real, but it is not the only reality in my existence, nor is it the central one. I am something more than this. I exist as a real, integral, beloved human being even in the face of evil and wrongdoing.”
Forgiveness acknowledges the power of sin without making it the determining factor in all of existence. It’s breathing out the pain, disappointment, and fear that sin brings in preparation for breathing in something truer and better.
We say this is possible because this is what God does with us. God sees the wrong that we do, yet chooses to define other things as central to our identity and relationship…things like love, hope, trust. God sees us as more than the accumulation of our mistakes. We are called to see ourselves and the world that way too.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting that wrong has been done or acting like it has no effect. It does not require us to remain in relationships where wrong is being done to us. The claim, “Something else is central to my identity besides being hurt or hurting others” drives us towards healthy, mutually loving relationships.
When a relationship violates us or others, forgiveness may mean stepping away from that relationship. If we claim that wrongdoing is not the centerpiece of our existence, but a relationship keeps putting wrongdoing in the center, at some point that relationship is not congruent with our identity and purpose in the world. It does no good to exhale if the air around us is constantly polluted. Our next breath won’t be better than the last; we may need to think about change. These are things we’re all called to wrestle with as we’re forced to deal with the brokenness of the world.
The important thing is that anyone who says, “Forgiveness means you have to stay in this bad thing and pretend it’s good” is counseling you into the opposite of forgiveness. They’re claiming a harmful thing is central to your existence and love is optional. In reality, it’s the other way around.
Summing up: Forgiveness says, “I acknowledge wrong has been done. That is not ok. I will tell the truth about the pain this wrong has caused. At the same time, I will affirm now and always that my life, the world, and the relationships I pursue are centered on love, joy, and trust. I will live for those things, with the wrong that was done as part of the story, rather than making the wrong the whole story and the center of my existence.”
By THIS definition, I would hope we never reach a point where we stop forgiving. I hope there never comes a time when we claim that wrongdoing is the center of our identity, the core definition of ourselves, our main reason for living.
Hope that gives you something to think about! We all need to consider and reform our concepts about forgiveness, so we can help each other live into goodness instead of pain.