Having just spent five days in Memphis, the topic of forgiveness is ripe in my mind. While I was in town for a family friend’s wedding, I wanted to make sure I spent intentional time with family even though I knew that would mean long, hard, emotionally draining conversations.
I am not going to walk through the details – that is our business – but I will say that forgiveness was discussed often and in great detail. The word forgiveness, similar to the word love, is an enigma in the English language. It is thrown around far too often and without regard to definition or context. In the English language, we abuse the word “love” because it seems to have no clear meaning. “I love these shoes!” “I love my spouse.” “I love this coffee.” The Greeks had multiples words for love to accurately capture what each term meant, which I think is so much easier to understand.
This makes me wonder how and why we use the word forgiveness. “I forgive you/him/her/them” is thrown around far too casually, especially in Christian circles. Christians, of all people, should have a pretty firm grasp on the concept of forgiveness, but we seem to be the worst at it. Most of us offer Burger King Forgiveness – it’s fast, cheap, and greasy. It has no substance and therefore no real weight to it.
Real forgiveness is hard. It’s painful. It takes work and effort and time and tears. It’s not a one-and-done. It is a lifelong process and a daily decision. Forgiveness does NOT equal forgetting. In fact, true forgiveness (as I have experienced it) involves remembering the offense and still choosing to not let it have power.
When I moved back to Memphis in 2007, an acquaintance attempted to have sex with me without my consent. I fought him off and took myself to safety. Once I recovered from the shock of this experience, I all too quickly moved towards what I thought was forgiveness. I tried to ignore the offense, ignore my pain and shame and anger, and thought forgiveness meant pretending like it had never happened.
Five years later, as I recalled this experience with my therapist, I realized I had not only never forgiven this man, I had completely denied myself the much needed anger, grief, and healing that I needed. Unfortunately sexual assault is something I have repeated experience with. I have spent thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and many late nights wrestling with all of the destructive effects of it in my life. So what does it mean to forgive men who have done so much damage?
Diane Langberg, a brilliant psychologist and trauma therapist, beautifully describes the process of forgiveness. This is my paraphrase of it: If you approach forgiveness in the same way you would approach finances, look at it this way. You may choose to loan me money with a set time and amount for that sum to be paid back. Let’s say I am not only late on my payments, but that I never repay you the money which you loaned me. Let’s say you choose to forgive the loan and never ask for payment again. You have several choices in this situation. You can choose to loan me money again, never trusting my word and driving yourself into debt, or you can forgive my loan, but choose to never loan me money again. This does not diminish the loan forgiveness in any way, but it protects you from further financial harm.
Relational forgiveness is very similar. You don’t get back what has been lost. Rarely does anyone compensate for the damage done. But, as one who has been harmed, I can choose whether or I not l allow you to keep hurting me. There are many people in this life whom I have forgiven but have chosen to protect myself from moving forward. There are also people whom I have forgiven who I trust to re-engage with in relationship. Each situation is unique and requires a different response.
Either way, forgiveness hurts because it costs me something. I would love to send a bill for my 16 years of therapy to everyone who has ever caused me harm. But that’s not forgiveness on my part. That would be me seeking revenge and restitution. The pain of harm done by others still hurts, but I get to wake up every day and choose what I will do with that.
From a Christian perspective, I am taught in Micah 6:8 to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly…” It is not my job to administer justice. That work belongs to someone else who is far more capable than I am. My job is to act (do) justly, embrace (love) kindness towards others and myself, and to do all of this with humility.
Some relationships in my life have and will cease because they cause so much damage. I have had to hold this truth with a heavy heart. However, without putting a figurative bow on things, I have hope that even the most damaged relationships in my life will be restored one day. It may not happen not this side of heaven, but I still have hope. And hope, my friends, is so much stronger than pain.