There was a time in my life when I struggled with the religious idea of forgiveness. I even wrote a letter to a famous TV pastor and asked him questions about forgiveness. I remember receiving his reply in the mail and feeling crushed, unheard. You see forgiveness had been presented to me as a band-aid, one that covered over another person’s mistake in such a way that abusive people were off the hook. They made little or no distinctions between a small offense and an offense that is enormous. I also watched a family member continue to forgive their spouse for infidelity and abuse without a change in behavior. Is that Biblical forgiveness?
I’ve thought a great deal about forgiveness. And I believe in forgiveness. But it’s not a band-aid that covers over great wounds nor should it ever be used to enable a human being to batter, beat, abuse or continue to wound. That concept of forgiveness does not have a sense of justice for the victim of such abuse. Even God asks us for repentance and change.
So, what is forgiveness and how does one work through various kinds of offenses in relationships, in marriage, in the community? Let’s look at some simple definitions.
First, Forgiveness in its simplest form is to let go. The Greek meaning translated as forgiveness is to let go—usually of a debt. We find this meaning in the story of the poor man who owed the wealthy man a great debt. Usually if one could not pay one’s debt, one could sell oneself or a family member into slavery to pay that debt. In our story the wealthy man forgives the poor man his debt.
Forgiveness is letting go of a debt owed.
Next forgiveness is also letting go of retaliation.
In this kind of forgiveness we choose not to retaliate or get the other person back for the wrong they did to us. It is also a form of letting go—we are letting go of the need to get that person back. We are letting go of revenge. We are letting go releasing that person into God’s hands to meet out a just consequence. This kind of letting go does not mean that the person who wronged us will receive no consequences. There are a variety of consequences that come with offenses.
Most small offenses, we can just let go of… sort of like letting go of a stone or a rock. We just drop it and move on. Larger offenses are the ones we are careful about in choosing not to retaliate or get revenge. However great offenses—betrayals, abuse or exploitation requires greater consequences—some of which come through law enforcement.
An abuse victim does not forgive and allow the abuser to continue the abuse. Forgiveness does not mean trust can be given again or that the relationship can just go back to the way it was before the abuse. If abuse happened here, I would call the police because it is a natural consequence.
Matthew and Shelia Linn in their book, Don't Forgive Too Soon tell about the two hands of forgiveness. One hand lets the offense go but the other hand invites the person to grow. There are times when growth is invited by a consequence.
So having examined the meaning of forgiveness, how does one forgive another person?
The answer to this question depends on the severity of the offense. Adam Hamilton in his book Forgiveness offers some strategies for small offenses, medium size offenses and large offenses. Each kind of offense has a different response or process in doing the work of forgiveness.
Let’s begin with the small ones.
Most small offenses can be resolved by simply letting them go. Hamilton suggest we use R.A.P. as a way to remember how to let these small offenses go.
R-remember: remember that you are human and have wronged others.
A-Assume: Assume the best about the other person.
P-Pray for them, for your ability to let go. It’s pretty hard to continue an offense when we are remembering that person in prayer.
R.A.P.: Remember, Assume the Best and Pray.
What kinds of offenses are small ones: And these are just examples. When your spouse forgets to pick up his socks. When your sibling borrows your shirt without asking. When someone forgets the time you were supposed to meet. These are examples of small everyday offenses between regular people. One example that Hamilton gave in his book was this: when a woman’s parents came over, they would change all of the toilet paper rolls to be over instead of under. It was irritating but easily forgivable.
What about medium offenses? How can we offer forgiveness with medium offenses?
Adam Hamilton suggest we add fourth letter to our acronym R.A.P. Remember, Assume the best, Pray and seek to understand.
This is using empathy to be able to let go of an offense. For example: One of our friends grew up with a dad who struggled with addiction. This dad loved his daughter very much but continued fighting his addiction until he died. What she didn’t know as a child was that her dad had been in the Vietnam war. During the war he had a horrific experience that left him with PTSD. He was never able to fully recover. During his lifetime, treatments for this disorder were less available than what is available now. Seeking to understand this helped her forgive her dad and let go of whatever offenses were present. She knew he was a good man but that war had harmed him and changed him. He struggled his whole life with nightmares, flashbacks, guilt and shame.
So what about really big offenses? Abuse, exploitation, violence, continued battering, rape, betrayal.
Forgiveness in these situations is much more difficult and challenging. They may take more time. People in these circumstances may need more helpers to treat these enormous emotional wounds. And everyone moves through healing in their own way.
Think about it. How does a victim of sex trafficking forgive?
How does a person who has been enslaved for many years forgive?
How does a person who has experienced severe physical abuse forgive?
How would a soldier who experienced torture be able to forgive?
How does someone who experiences the betrayal of infidelity forgive?
These are major wounds to the human spirit.
First, it is important to name what happened.
In some cases it is hard to give what happened a name. For many years, we thought of sex trafficking as simply prostitution. The onus was on the woman who sought to earn money through selling her own body. But what our society has discovered is that this is rare. Most women we would call prostitutes are really enslaved by pimps who control their every move. Most of these victims are under age children. We need to get the name of the offense right. Exploitation. Real human beings are bought and sold for the consumption of a sex buyer who does not even recognize their basic humanity. The trafficked person is not to blame, the trafficker and the buyer should be held accountable. Name it and assign proper blame.
The offense has to be properly named and appropriate blame must be assigned.
Some physical abuse victims are told time and time again by their abuser that if they are just good or if they behave properly, they would not get hit making the victim responsible for the abuse they are receiving. We have to name that abuse properly. The abuser is the one responsible for the abuse.
This is different from blaming someone for one's experienced. Most victims will blame themselves. It's important to name it and assign blame accurately. Sometimes we need helpers to help us discern well.
In the scripture, when we see serious offenses often the whole community laments. When Israel was taken into captivity, they lamented. (Psalm 88 is an example) What does lamenting look like. Lamenting can be feeling the rage and anger and telling God about it. Lamenting can be writing down the feelings and the pain—saying it out loud or in a journal. It can be writing a song that expresses deep emotion or feeling. Sometimes there is a period of sorrow.
The Bible is full of laments as God's people struggle with enormous feelings after being taken into captivity. Lament is a Biblical idea.
Third, letting go might mean letting go a little at a time.
Forgiveness for enormous wounds might involve small acts of letting go or forgiveness that might even take many years. Some offense are so great that forgiveness does not happen in one fell swoop. It takes time. For many who have experienced these great wounds, we will need helpers. Therapists, Dr.’s, friends, small groups or other kinds of healing ministries.
Fourth, finding meaning and redemption.
For some of these great wounds, we may find ourselves letting go and forgiving when we move through the naming, the lamenting, the healing process and coming to a place of discovering something redemptive in the experience. Perhaps a trafficked person begins to work for others so they might find freedom. Perhaps someone who has lost a child is there for another person who lost a child. These persons have moved through the grief, the loss and the healing to find something in their experience that can help others. This is redemptive.
Finally, there are times when we need to confront someone about their offense. I usually ask people to weigh this carefully. There are some who when confronted receive that confrontation and change their behavior. This is amazing. And an apology is very, very healing.
However there are others who cannot receive such a confrontation. So one must carefully weigh whether or not to confront. It also depends on how severe the offense was and if the one wounded will be further hurt or victimized.
So if we choose this route, how should we confront?
Remember last week we talked about how to bring up complaints in a relationship. This can also be applied to the kind of confronting that leads to healing and forgiveness in a relationship.
Use a soft start-up.
When bringing up an offense to another person, it is best to begin gently and using kindness. We teach couples the Soft start-up formula. It looks like this: “when you (name the offense), I felt, (describe how you felt and how it affected you), I need you to, (describe the change you need or what you need them to do.)
If the one who wronged you receives it and offers an apology, then changes their behavior… this is a good step toward healing and growth in relationships.
Take someone with you.
This is not advised for everyday offenses but only those offenses that create great wounds. I would perhaps do such a confrontation in a therapy situation with a therapist who can offer their support, expertise and counsel.
Scripture tells us in Matthew 18, that if we go to our brother and he receives us, then we do not need to bring another person. However, if our brother or sister does not receive our words, then scripture tells us to bring someone with us who will support us and be a witness to our experience.
I want to say two more things about forgiveness, the first is it’s not for the other person alone. Often the ones who are most held in captivity are the ones who will not forgive—they cannot let go. And they are the ones caught and tied up, bitter and resentful. Forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness takes great courage. Forgiveness takes time. But ultimately forgiveness frees us to move on with our lives.
The last thing I want to say about forgiveness is: when Jesus was on the cross, he experienced excruciating pain and abuse. When he neared his death he said, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. He let go by placing his executioners and victimizers in the hands of God knowing that God knows all things and will bring the justice needed. In this we see a very human Jesus who let go, surrendering to a God who can bring justice.
Sometimes, we have no other option but to let go… let God take care of the injustice and the consequences. And we remember that one day, God will make all things right. He will set the injustice right--he will hold those accountable who need to be held accountable.
He will hold those who bring evil accountable.
In closing, I want to share a video. "Praying" by Kesha. As some of you know Kesha was exploited and abused by her agents. In the video, Kesha moves through the process of forgiveness. In her darkness, she laments, she prays for her abusers, she names her pain. She pours out her soul, her emotions. She notices God’s love and owns that she is beloved. And in the end the color returns to her life and she walks on water above it all. This is her comeback song after the enormous violations and healing.
Colossians 3:12-17 New International Version (NIV)
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.