Friday, January 02, 2009

On Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a difficult thing for all of us to extend when we have been hurt, especially by people or deities who should know better.

I think part of the conflict is that we've conflated forgiveness and restoration into a single act; i.e., "If you've forgiven me, why am I still in the doghouse?" It's like when Bill Clinton apologized for his adultery, his denials and obfuscations and then his perjury. "I said I was sorry. Why are we still dealing with this?" Because while forgiveness may be extended and received, there is still an aftermath to the offense that includes damaged trust among the other more obvious consequences of the offense.

Even God's forgiveness is like this. He may have forgiven David for having Uriah set up to be killed, but consequences lingered. Joab had a hold over the king that helped lead one day to civil war.

Forgiveness can, and perhaps should, take place in an instant. But restoration can take years of someone demonstrating to the other person that they can be trusted with the power, authority and position they once had. I don't doubt that Swaggart received God's forgiveness for his scandal back in 1987, or that Haggard could receive forgiveness for his escapades and scandal, but I think in both cases their advisers/supervisors were right to say "It's time for you to step down from this ministry."

All that said, I think there is a power in real forgiveness (as opposed to just "letting go," which is often a means of avoidance) since christocentric forgiveness involves restoring a relationship that has been sundered. But that's also a forgiveness that can't be done in a vacuum, by yourself. It requires talking to the person who needs to be forgiven, and explaining why what they did was so fucking painful, so they can actually appreciate for themselves what they have done.

Of course, that's really easy to say, but it's much harder to accomplish. I've had some really good conversations with Natasha in the past where I was able to explain just how badly she had hurt me and why I didn't want it to stay there ... and I've had conversations with pastors, former co-congregants, friends and even a mother who just could not understand what I was on about, no matter how I explained it.

In the former scenario, it's wonderful; you have salvaged a relationship that otherwise might have been dealt a fatal blow. In the latter, you at least have made the effort, taken the lead toward reconciliation, and can have a clean conscience that you have extended a true olive branch to someone else.

What I can say is that I have found Christ to be in that effort of reconciliation. In reaching out to people who have wronged me, I have found forgiveness myself for resentment I hadn't realized I was harboring; I've found the mystic communion with Christ that comes when two people make peace; and I've also known his suffering, since he often has extended forgiveness to people like me who rebuff him because they just don't see why they need it.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.