Forgiveness is one of those things we are taught from a very young age. When you play with friends or siblings and you accidentally hurt one another, you are told to forgive instead of hitting back. If you grew up Christian like me, then you will have heard about forgiveness much more often as God forgave our sins through the death of his son Jesus.
But when you’re an adult, this becomes a lot more complicated. As you get older, feelings become more complex and people’s wrongs have more ways to hurt you. The damage caused is not fleeting and can last for years if not decades if harmful enough. This post is about the complicated nature of forgiveness from both sides of the story. As someone who has been hurt and has hurt others I am developing a far more nuanced, if not necessarily more comfortable perspective.
Being wronged by someone else hurts a lot, and it can hurt in a lot of different ways; physically, financially, but for the sake of this blog we will focus on emotionally. Being hurt can trigger a wide variety of emotions such as sadness, anger, confusion, feelings of betrayal, fear, etc. You can feel like all of these emotions are being felt simultaneously, swirling around and cascading down on top of you. But one question you will need to answer for yourself is ‘can I forgive this person for what they have done?’
Forgive us as we forgive
The Lords prayer is a prayer delivered by Jesus, and is perhaps the most famous prayer ever uttered. For centuries Christians have used this prayer as a model for the perfect prayer. In a sense it is the distilled elements of any prayer that might be given, whether standing in front of a congregation, or alone on your knees at the foot of your bed. But for our purposes, we need only look at one part. In this line, Jesus does a very important thing; he ties our ability to forgive to God:
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt 6:12, NIV).
Lets be unambiguous here; you will not always be the victim. As a human being, it is pretty much guaranteed that you will be on the other side of this equation at some point, and depending on your beliefs or creed you may approach God for forgiveness. Jesus understood this, and therefore chose to make sure that we understood that our ability to be forgiven is based on whether we can forgive others. Later in Matthew Jesus tells us ““Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Matt 7:1). When we have the power to forgive and choose not to, we are making a moral judgement, that this persons crime is not worthy of forgiveness. Jesus reminds us that we also have to ask for forgiveness sometimes, and that if we are not a forgiving person, we cannot expect God to be for us.
The Cost of Forgiveness
I love the phrasing of the NIV version of the Lords prayer for the passage we used. Rather than other versions that might translate to sins, this translation uses the word debts to refer to our wrongs.
We live in a world that bases itself on economic value, personal worth, compensation and debt. I’m sure you will have seen adverts on the telly offering short-term loans, and then in the small print collect huge rates of interest. We grow up learning to pay others back for what we owe them, and thats not a bad thing. Its a good practice to get into and also saves you from being a drain on your friends.
Being wronged is like someone incurring a debt to you. You expect to be paid back, or in some ways to collect on that debt. Lets say someone hits you in the face – you want to punch them right back, right? Or when you were younger and one of your siblings broke one of your toys, you want to break one back to make things fair. When someone insults you or hurts you emotionally you want to lash back, calling them names and saying the things you know will hurt them most.
It all goes back to our concept of repayment and fairness. The fact this person wronged you was unfair, and that must be made right somehow. But that is not how the gospel works and its not how Jesus operated. When Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive his brother, Jesus told him seventy times seven times. This number is not to be taken literally, but as a symbolic gesture; numbers in the Bible often represent different things, and the number seven represents completion. So Jesus is telling Peter that forgiveness must be complete every time, and also an unlimited number of times.
To forgive is to wipe away the debt owed. The slate is wiped clean, no additional payment can be collected. And I’m not going to sugarcoat this; that’s really hard. Its painful. It costs you to do it because it means you have to let go of that righteous rage that you feel when you confront that person. And its so natural to find it difficult because its the opposite way to every instinct of every person who has ever lived. Except one.
So why is this spiritual debt relief important? It all comes down to power.
Every relationship you have involves a power exchange. Power is unevenly distributed between people based on any number of things; money, athletic ability, looks, popularity, expertise, age, gender, race, you name it. If its a thing, power can be exchanged. As we have discussed, forgiveness is a way of wiping away the power you have over your wrongdoer, but it also has a positive effect for you also.
Proverbs 29:11 reads Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end” (NIV). Acting on your impulses for revenge may feel good initially, but only bring more anger in the future. Sometimes it can explode out in unexpected directions, hurting others not involved in the original wrong. But letting go of the anger and the power you have also means that that person no longer has power over you. Holding a grudge means that that wrong is taking up valuable space in your head when it could be used for something far more beautiful than anger and hate.
You can free yourself from that by forgiving. Wiping away a debt owed involves you taking on an enormous cost on yourself initially, but eventually you will be better off for it, having achieved a spiritual peace.
So that’s the perspective from the position of being wronged. These thoughts are not new thoughts, as I have been ok with this for a long time. What follows however are thoughts from the other perspective, and they are thoughts that I am far less comfortable with, but I feel they are the right thing.
Welcome to the other side. If you haven’t already, you will probably end up on this side of the equation at some point in your life. You may also be seeking to repair the damage done, or at least considering it. Hopefully this letter will help you understand some stuff a bit better, but fair warning, it may not make you feel better about it.
You have to ask
Seeking forgiveness is the most important step you can take. You must show remorse for what you have done, be truly sorry for the hurt you have caused. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry Ron and Hermione discuss Voldemort’s horcruxes, enchanted objects that contain parts of Voldemorts soul that he created by ripping his soul apart in acts of extreme evil. Ron asks Hermione if someone with horcruxes could put themselves back together. Hermione says the only known way is remorse, truly feeling what you have done, but that its extremely painful and that the pain of it can destroy you.
You have to be willing to put yourself in a position to be hurt (we will come back to this later). This involves removing your own pride from the equation. The temptation may be to try to defend yourself at the same time as apologising, issuing a sort of non-apology that allows you to emerge with your ego in tact. Politicians and social media figures do this all the time, “Im sorry that your feelings were hurt” being a very popular way of subtly shifting the blame to the victim for supposedly allowing your words or actions to hurt them.
The Bible uses the word repent to talk about sin a lot. Its an old-fashioned word but is useful in this context because it means a complete change in direction, a full 180 degree turn. For you to be forgiven requires an acknowledgement that you need to change. You must work on the things that cause others pain, otherwise the same things will happen over and over again.
All of this takes a lot of work on your part and assumes you are committed to showing remorse and rebuilding what once was broken by you. But perhaps the most difficult part of all of this is that things may never be the same again.
Forgiveness is not Forgetting
I write this letter because I have been in the same boat as you. In the summer of 2018 I reacted badly to a situation which in hindsight was so stupid and small, but at the time really overtook me. And that was all it took. Although things carried on as normal for a fair while after that, eventually it was one of the things that sort of ended the friendship as it was before the incident. At the time we had discussed it and I foolishly thought it was behind us, but their opinion of me had been changed once they had experienced that side of me.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about it over the past months, and I have had to come to a conclusion about being forgiven. If you’ve read the last post on this blog, then you’ll know my opinions on needing to forgive people. I think its a very healthy thing for the wronged person to do and also removes any need for further hurt in the future. However, I must make it clear here that sometimes forgiveness is seen by Christians as a sort of get out of jail free card when we hurt each other. The Bible commands us to forgive, so we then force it upon others. But forgiveness cannot and should not be a forced thing, and to do so can lead to more damage and worse consequences.
Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to accuse Doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Nassar was the doctor for the USA Olympics Gymnastics team, and has been sentenced to between 40-175 years in prison after sexually abusing 140 women. However, Denhollander has more recently become critical of some attitudes held by churches (Denhollander is an Evangelical) that leads to them not doing due diligence to victims of sexual abuse, particularly within the churches themselves. Doing a twitter seach using the #churchtoo and the word ‘forgive’ brings up a number of stories where a victim of sexual abuse was told to forgive their perpetrator because thats what jesus would do, and the perpetrator faces no consequences.
Now this is quite an extreme example, but does get to the heart of what I want to say to you. Just because we are told to forgive, you cannot expect the person to forgive you for whatever youve done. If you said sorry and then they didn’t accept it then, you do not get to turn around and complain that they are not doing what Jesus commanded! People are complicated! Hurts can really damage us badly, sometimes destroying parts of ourselves like our ability to trust others. You are in the wrong, so you do not get to determine whether your’e worthy of their forgiveness.
But lets say that the person does forgive you or has forgiven you. What then? I think we all want things to return to how they were before we our partner/friend/colleague/stranger. we think we should act like the hurt never happened. And again, thats easy for you to say, but for the other person, that may not be possible. My actions caused my friend to look at me differently, and the damage could not be undone. It would be unfair of me to expect them to carry on as if nothing happened because that would mean I would have suffered no consequence. And thats also the thing, because the Bible does not guarantee freedom from consequence. Even where forgiveness is possible, you are not owed a continued normality afterwards. If a friendship had to end, or a relationship, then you have to accept that. It was your fault in the first place.
I’m sorry if that’s a really harsh reality. I know its tough. But sometimes the best thing you can do is to ask for forgiveness and give the other person space to heal. It may take hours, days, weeks, months, years or even never happen, but you need to let them process what you did in their own time.
So those are my thoughts on forgiveness. What do you think? Please leave a comment with your thoughts below!