I have often been very uncomfortable with the way we sometimes talk about the doctrine of forgiveness.
Here’s what I see too often happening: Someone is hurt very badly by someone else. Maybe it is sexual abuse; maybe it is some other form of abuse; maybe it is a major betrayal (like an affair). They are then told that the only way to heal is to forgive. In fact, God demands that they forgive. If they don’t forgive, then God can’t forgive them.
Suddenly the person who has been the victim is now the person in the wrong, because they are still struggling to forgive. So God must be mad at them. Not only do they feel distant from God because of the hurt; now guilt pushes them away from God, too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately for two reasons, and allow me to share a bit of a stream of consciousness post on something God’s been showing me.
First, let me take you back to my teenage years.
I struggled a lot in my teen years with forgiving my dad for leaving us and for really having very little to do with me as I grew up.
(I saw him a week a year; several years he was too busy to do even that). I would read all of these books on how I needed to forgive, and I would pray all the time about being able to forgive him, and it never seemed to work. Whenever I saw him I would get stomach pains.
It got worse when my children were born and I realized what an all-consuming love I felt for them. I couldn’t bear to be away from them.
Why did my dad not feel that way about me? Sometimes he would visit for a few hours when he had a stopover in Toronto on his way to a conference, and he’d ask if I could bring the kids to the airport to see him. And my stomach would ache for several weeks afterwards.
When Katie was 2 we moved to a small town and I started attending a women’s Bible study. For the first time I did really in-depth studies of several Scriptural themes. I started teaching some of the studies. Our marriage was getting super strong, and I loved being with my kids. And one day my dad came to visit, and I realized that I hadn’t been angry and my stomach hadn’t hurt. Somehow, in all of those Bible studies, I had managed to forgive him without really trying. Instead of crying and praying about forgiveness, I had spent several years just focused on Jesus. And He changed me.
I learned from that the truth that whatever we focus on expands. When we stare at the hurts in our lives, it’s very hard to get over them. When we focus on Jesus, it’s often much easier.
None of this is meant to say that we should not seek counselling for big hurts; I think that’s a very necessary step. It’s just that we should also seek to simply know God. When we grow in Christ, He changes us, and that enables us to forgive.
When my dad died 10 days ago, I was able to spend his last days with him with no anger and no bitterness.
I was changed a long time ago. And that really was a wonderful gift.
Now here’s part 2. This week I went on a bit of a rabbit trail on the web and I did some reading on the abuse that many missionary kids suffered in boarding schools throughout the world from the 1940s to the 1990s. I grew up with some missionary kids who went to boarding schools; I know that not all of those kids have done wonderfully as adults. There was a lot of hurt. I watched the documentary All God’s Children, which you can watch free on YouTube (Start here; the documentary is divided into 10 videos that are all on this channel). It’s about the horrendous abuse suffered by children as young as 6 who were sent to the Mamou boarding school in Guinea for 9 months at a time each year. Decades later the denomination was finally forced to acknowledge what had happened there.
On a website started by missionary kid survivors of abuse, I read something very insightful about forgiveness. Talking about a Columbia Theological Seminary professor John Patton’s work, the article writes:
He sees this process of forgiveness as something that we discover has “happened” in our lives over time, rather than being forced or just a decision we make. Perhaps forgiveness is a by-product of healing, rather than being the source of healing.
Read that again, because it’s brilliant. Seriously. “Perhaps forgiveness is a by-product of healing, rather than being the source of healing.”
And it’s just what occurred with me. One day I woke up and realized that forgiveness had “happened” within me. And it had happened because I had been healed.
As we know God more and focus on Him more, He changes us on the inside.
As we learn more of God’s character, we realize that He is angry about the abuse, betrayal, and abandonment too. We see that God understands.
As we learn that God understands, we also learn that He cries with us, and that we were never alone.
As we understand that we are not alone, and that we are deeply valued by God, we allow God to start defining who we are, and we stop giving that power to others.
As we are able to see ourselves as precious to God, we become more confident. We stop looking inward and start looking outward. Our lives become bigger. The hurt is no longer the focus of our lives.
And as the hurt is not the focus, we find it easier to look at it, and let it go. We have something else to live for now.
Yes, forgiveness is a choice we that we do make. Yes, we need to decide to turn away from bitterness. But rushing this process BEFORE we have truly gone to God and made these realizations simply buries pain.
It’s like when the Duggars announced so loudly that their daughters had forgiven Josh for his sexual abuse right away, way back when they were 6. Some elements of the church have no real concept of what forgiveness looks like, and how it is linked with healing. We can’t magically say the words “I forgive you” and then be healed; we have to allow the healing process, through humility, before the forgiveness truly happens.
Here’s how I think the process works: No matter what the pain, healing happens when our mind and our spirit is able to see the event with the same perspective that God does, when we develop “the mind of Christ”. Having our mind see it in God’s way is an act of will on our part; having our spirit sense it the same way is an act of healing on God’s part. It’s not really about just saying “I’m not going to hold this against you.” It’s about the WHY:
“The reason I’m not holding this against you is because I see the incident now the way that God does; I see that God was angry. I see that I was not alone. I see that there is justice. I see that Jesus paid for the sin that was done. I see that I am precious to God, and that it is God who defines my worth, not this thing that was done to me. Because I choose to see with a bigger perspective, I am now able to forgive you.”
Yes, there’s an act of the will, but forgiveness ultimately happens because we change our perspective and see as God does.
I wanted to forgive my dad as a teenager. I wanted to let go of bitterness. And I think that act of the will was important.
But I also don’t think I was able until I grew in Christ. And maybe if we adopted that more nuanced understanding, we would stop rushing victims of abuse and asking wives of porn addicts and wives whose husbands had affairs to forgive, and stop heaping guilt on already broken people, and instead help them see their value in Christ. Help them see with God’s eyes. And then forgiveness is something you will discover has actually already happened.
What do you think? Is this fair to say? I thought that was such a big insight when I read it that I sent it to a bunch of other bloggers who deal with difficult marriages! So let’s talk: what does forgiveness mean to you?