Forgiveness

I read Anne Jackson’s free online chapter on forgiveness, which is from her book, Mad Church Disease—Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic.  See www.flowerdust.net to read the chapter. 

Here are a few reflections: 

1.  I’ve heard all sorts of things about forgiveness in the Christian community.  Some say it’s a matter of getting rid of anger and moving on.  Some say we have to be reconciled with the person who hurt us (Matthew 5:24; 18:15); at Redeemer, for example, a handout on forgiveness said that, if we discontinue a relationship with a person who has hurt us, then that’s evidence that we haven’t truly forgiven her.  Some say forgiveness is refusing to punish the person who has hurt us—through slander or seeking to harm him. 

When I was at Harvard, I was talking with a Catholic about forgiveness.  I was repeating certain platitudes that I believed about it: that I’m helping myself when I forgive, that bitterness hinders my relationship with God, etc.  My Catholic friend responded, “Forgiveness also hinders your relationship with the other person!”  That point made me feel uncomfortable.  It’s one thing for me not to dwell on an offense and to focus on positive things instead; it’s another thing for me to be in a relationship with somebody who makes me feel uncomfortable because I don’t like her. 

What I got out of Anne Jackson’s chapter was a combination of some of these views.  She didn’t really mention reconciliation with the person who hurt us, one reason being that, in her case, the offender wasn’t even sorry.  She also had problems with defining forgiveness as getting rid of anger, for that’s not always possible; as she points out, we’d have to undergo a lobotomy to “forgive and forget”!  Rather, she said it includes moving on and resolving not to hurt the other person.  And she also brought in such factors as trusting God to heal you of bitterness and of relying on God’s sovereignty.  Anne Jackson didn’t discuss Genesis 49-50 (from what I remember), but it’s apropos to the issue of God’s sovereignty and forgiveness: Joseph forgave his brothers because God worked out their evil for good. 

I wonder if it’s always appropriate to forgive.  If a person is harmed by somebody else, should he refuse to press charges, whatever the reason?  There are cases in which to do so would be a serious miscarriage of justice.  At the same time, in terms of my personal life, I know that I shouldn’t continually obsess over what people owe me.  I have in mind my feeling that people should treat me with respect, and concluding that people should pay if they did not do so.  I’d be wrong to obsess over exacting that debt! 

I choose not to focus on forgiveness, for I don’t know what it means.  But I do try to focus on love, which I define as seeing others as people of worth, whether I choose to be in relationship with them or not.  Anne Jackson talks about that in her chapter.  However much I may not like a person, he still has a story and a self, like I do.  I don’t want my bitterness to influence me to dehumanize those who have hurt me. 

2.  Anne Jackson states regarding trust: 

Some think that it takes two to dance the dance of trust. That trust must be earned. That people must be proven trustworthy over time. While there is some truth to this (you wouldn’t trust a convicted child molester to babysit for you), the Bible talks about trust in a different light. The apostle Paul writes, “[Love] . . . always trusts” (1 Corinthians 13:7). The kind of love he writes about here is agape love—a sacrificial love that places the needs of others above yourself. You have to be reckless in the way you love, even after you’re hurt. And even if you are hurt again.

I’ve always had problems with how people have interpreted I Corinthians 13:7. If it means that I shouldn’t always think the worse about people, that’s fine. If it means, however, that I have to be gullible and to let people walk all over me, then I have problems with that. There are places in the Bible that exhort us to have wisdom. Jacob didn’t go with Esau to Mount Seir, even after the two had reconciled; he may not have trusted his brother completely (Genesis 33). David forgave Saul, but he didn’t return to Saul’s palace, for he realized that Saul could change his mind and kill him (I Samuel 26). Jesus told his disciples to be wise as serpents, and helpless as doves (Matthew 10:16). Whom we trust is a personal decision. I don’t believe I should force myself to be gullible by seeing I Corinthians 13:7 as an absolute command from God. I know that Anne Jackson doesn’t, since she says I wouldn’t let a convicted child molester babysit my children. But there are cases less serious than that in which I may choose not to trust someone. 

I also have problems with defining love as self-sacrificing. Why’s it have to be a matter of me losing and somebody else winning? I like what Stephen Covey says in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Think Win-Win.” Try to find a way for both of us to gain what we want. In addition, of course I’m going to think primarily about myself. If I have to pay my rent, I’m not going to donate my rent money to charity. I don’t see love as me having to sacrifice myself, but rather as helping others when I have the means to do so. 

3. Anne Jackson’s personal story about forgiveness made me ask myself: “Why do people have to be so evil?” Her experience was that a person at church asked her if she’d be interested in doing a project, and she said “yes.” The person then concluded that she must not like her present job, and he proceeded to undermine her at every opportunity he could get. 

I have problems forgiving or having positive feelings about people who dislike me, but I can at least understand where they’re coming from, since there are people whom I dislike. Personally, I wish that the Christian community were more accepting, but it’s human, like any other institution out there. What I don’t understand is somebody who is evil: who leads a person on, only to turn around and undermine her. 

Was the offender somebody who was hurt himself and misused his power to hurt others? I can somewhat understand that. I went through life feeling powerless, so there have been times when I’ve been quite oppressive once I got power. And then there were times when mistreating others was fun. But that was when I was a kid, and I hope that people (including myself) are more mature than that once they become older—especially when they’re Christians and have committed themselves to an ethical path. 

Some may read my post and say that I’m “picking and choosing” which parts of the Bible I accept. Maybe. For me, it’s a matter of trying to find a system of ethics that works for me. Telling me I need to be friends with my enemies (as some Christians have done) does not work for me. Saying I should trust everyone or sacrifice myself also doesn’t work for me. There are good concepts here—not being overly defensive and selfish—but I have problems with absolutizing them. How I apply them is my personal judgment call, but I should make sure I do so responsibly. 

That said, I got a lot out of Anne Jackson’s chapter. I’m sure that she looks at trust and self-sacrifice through the lens of common sense, as do most Christians, so she wouldn’t say that we should trust without discernment or forego our necessities to give to others. It’s just that, throughout most of my Christian life, all I’ve seen are commands, and I’ve not known entirely how to follow them. My blog is part of my process of figuring that out! 

 

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Forgiveness

  1. Anne Jackson says:

    Really great thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to work through that chapter.

    Some more thoughts on forgiveness/reconciliation:

    http://flowerdust.net/2008/09/15/reconciliation-vs-forgiveness/

    (And the story about the person in the church that hurt me is actually two stories about that person, as well as the person who sexually abused me in high school. Creative liberty.) 🙂

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thank you for your link, Anne. I’ll post it under my blogger blog so that my readers there can read it.

    Like

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