RECENTLY I WAS with a group of acquaintances, mainly fundamental Christians. The conversation got on to estrangement from one’s family. This was something one of the ladies had recently begun to experience, while for me it has been nine years since I saw my two daughters and their five children, my grandchildren. Immediately, one of the women in the group told me that the answer to this problem was forgiveness. I was not amused.
Firstly, that woman did not know me at all; it was the first time we had met. Secondly, she had not even heard my story—the dreadful complex challenges that had marred my life from birth and that had flowed on to my daughters turning their backs on me; and, thirdly, she did not know that forgiveness had already been a integral part of my healing journey.
I was angry with that woman. She was typical of so many people in many churches who are so swift to mete out judgment on those experiencing deep wounds from problematic families, wounds that they often have no idea what happened to cause them and from which they seek healing in the midst of a mess they did not create. Even when I challenged her belief, the woman remained adamant that all you need to do when life is tough is to forgive. I learned later that she herself was struggling with a difficult relationship with her daughter and could not understand why it was continuing, even after she had forgiven her—or at least tried to forgive her. Such situations are far more complex than simply mouthing words of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process, an often arduous journey dependant upon the circumstances leading up to the need to forgive.
So, what is forgiveness? What’s it all about?
Perhaps we need to first understand what unforgiveness looks like. Unforgiveness is about holding grudges, becoming bitter, resentful, judgemental; holding onto the anger, hurt and desire for revenge that comes through a whole range of distressing and disturbing situations that cause us deep heartache, grief and despair. When people are devastated by the actions of others that lead to crushing feelings of intense angst and anguish the last they need are words of judgment from the pulpit or supposed “godly” counsellors telling them that unless they forgive their abusers they themselves will not know God’s love or forgiveness. In times of such overwhelming devastation, people need to know God’s compassion, kindness and care. They need to be held in his arms of love, hear his promises to be with those who are bruised and broken, understand that he does not condemn them for hurting, being vulnerable, feeling foolish for being in situations that led to their distress and for which they were not responsible.
Christians, do you understand this?
Before you go preaching forgiveness, walk with the wounded in their distress. Hold their hands to help steady them in the mess of their lives. Hold your tongue—desist from mouthing words that can kill, cruel words that come from the pit of hell, not from the Word of God who is himself love.
There is a time for forgiveness. But ideally it should come in an environment where the intensity of one’s pain has eased, one’s emotions have settled, and when one can once again make lucid decisions about how best to cope with life’s difficulties.
Forgiveness is a rational response that helps us address our most painful situations. It includes the releasing of our hatred towards those who have betrayed us, our desire for revenge, and the need to know they are sorry for what they have done—none of which removes the power they still have over us if we hang onto our own bitterness and unforgiveness.
Forgiveness, the letting go of the wrong that was done to us and learning to release those who have caused our pain into the loving care of our Father who knows how best to deal with the whole situation, enables us to move on in life’s journey free from the heavy burden others have tried to place upon us.
When I think of the distress others have caused me, my thoughts move towards Christ on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they have no idea what they have done.” I am reminded that not only did he speak those words to those who hurt me, but to myself who so often needs his forgiveness for the wrongs I do, both knowingly and unknowingly.
Forgiveness. It is a journey—one we all need to be on.