A dialogue on Forgiveness
Matthew 18:21, 22
(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg
You have given me many questions. I will do my best to answer your question by inserting my comments right into your original text. I hope that you will be able to read this good enough.
Dear Uncle Bill
I have been reading the Holy Bible and I am somewhat confused about forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a whole number of things. Let me list some of them for you. Forgiveness is first of all A PROCESS in which, through GRIEVING we let go of often painful KEY THEMES in our life story. By a process, I mean that forgiving takes many steps, many choices, hard work. Forgiving is not finished with one decision, depending on how deeply a person has been hurt, forgiving may take years (just like grieving does). If someone dies that you hardly know, we might remember them for a day, but after that we quickly forget because they were not very important in our lives. But if someone we have loved deeply passes away, if they have had a powerful influence on our lives, grieving can last for years. Forgiving is much the same. The greater the influence, the deeper the pain, the longer it takes to forgive. To explain forgiving, I often use the analogy of peeling an onion, layer after layer. With each layer I cry some more. But the only way to peel the onion is to work through each layer until there are no more layers. And each layer I peel takes the decision and the work of forgiveness. Forgiving is also like grieving in the fact that both involve very similiar stages including 1: Shock, 2: Denial, 3: Feeling the pain, 4: Depression, 5: The decisions of letting go, 6: Rebuilding our lives. I suspect that you have gone through all of these stages repeatedly as you have gone through the process of forgiving. Forgiveness also involves letting go of painful key themes in the story of our lives. Let me explain. Everyone of us has a life story. In that story, there are different ephisodes, highlights, crisis, sad points, challenges (that is what makes life (and people) so interesting). Through the journey of life we write this story, and in the process of life, we develop key themes that seem to shape the rest of our lives. Sometimes these themes can be very helpful. If one of the themes of our lives is that no matter what comes, I will take on the challenge - we become people who will probably be successful even if we take risks. If one of the themes of our lives is the surprise that God loves us even though he really knows who we are, then we can go through life with joy knowing that God is going to watch out for us. If however, the themes that we build are themes like - "I have no rights, My opinions don't count, I deserve the negative treatment I get" or "Nobody treats me fairly" or "Someone hurt me but I deserve it, it was my own fault" or "I am a victim of..." (as you can tell, there are many possible themes), these themes can shape our future in a very negative way. Forgiving is letting go of what others have done to us FOR OUR OWN SAKE. As long as we do not forgive, what they have done to us forms a theme that has the power to shape our present and future (just like themes often shape how a story develops).
If someone hurts you is forgiveness the first or the last step?
Forgiveness is a PROCESS. We know the process is finished when we start forgetting that we need to forgive (to use the illustration of the onion, we have peeled the onion so many times that we cannot hold onto it any more). Jesus said to his disciples that they had to forgive those who did them wrong 70 X 7 times (490 times) His saying doesn't make much sense unless we realize that forgiving is a process which included many many decisions to forgive those who have hurt us. (In the Bible, the number 7 in the number of completion - Jesus was basically saying, forgive and forgive until forgiveness is completed, no matter how many choices of forgiveness it takes)
When you forgive someone does that mean that you are saying that its OK for someone to hurt you?
Forgiveness never says that it is OK to hurt me! Infact sometimes forgiveness includes making sure that justice is done so that a person who behaves in a way that wounds others will change his ways. To forgive the German people for what they did in World War II is important. But we never say what they did is OK. And it is appropriate to seek justice for those who did atrocities so that they never do it again and so that all of society recognizes that there are actions that are clearly wrong, against God's will and against other humans. Sometimes seeking justice is an important step in forgiving, especially if there is the potential for a reoccurance of the wrong behavior. There is however a limit to the justice that we can accomplish. Sometimes people do things that our systems of justice will never balance against. This is especially true for victims of abuse. To bring the abuser to justice - he/she might get up to two years in jail if not a slap on the wrist. There is no way that that can pay for the years of turmoil and pain it causes their victims. Even with Timothy McVeah, who was executed in the United States last week by lethal injection, that justice was unfair. How can his "falling asleep" and dying ever pay for the pain he caused in the death of over 200 people? He had a painless death! My mother's passing away was, in terms of physical pain, far, far worse than his. There comes a point when our pain drives us to believe in God, the God of justice, who will repay everyone according to what they have done. There comes a point where God is the only one who can accomplish the justice that our hearts long for. Romans 12 says
17 Do not repay anyone
evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.
Does it mean that you don't have to work through feelings?
You have to work through the feelings. It helps to know what it means to work through the feelings though. It involves facing the emotions head on, working at recognizing where they come from, and then, CHOOSING again and again to forgive, let go, of what others have done to you. We must repeatedly choose, as we work through the feelings, to "keep no record of wrongs." (Remember, this is all part of the process of peeling the onion, it may involve a lot of tears.)
For me some things that have happened I thought that I had forgiven a person for hurting me but I am still punishing myself for what happened. Then when I try to forgive myself I feel so angry and I think "How could they have done that to me?" When do you know when you have forgiven someone? I thought that forgiveness was when you were able to forgive the person, forgive yourself and then come to some inner peacefulness about what happened and were able to just let go. Or are these two different ideas? Is my thought forgiveness or is it forgiveness and acceptence?
Forgiving yourself for what someone else has done to you may possibly involve some more complex dynamics which may include the following:
Does someone have to ask for your forgiveness or can you just forgive them even if you know they don't care?
It is always wonderful if someone else asks for our forgiveness. It is so much easier to forgive if someone at least recognizes the wrong that they have done. But the reality of life is that others often don't recognize the wrong that they have done, or they refuse to acknowledge what they have done because to acknowledge their own wrongs is to recognize how sinful they have been, or maybe to face their own pain. Often, we have to forgive FOR OUR OWN SAKE, even though the other person doesn't seem to care about what they have done to us. When we let go of what they have done, WE SET OURSELVES FREE from what they have done.
What if I were to ask for forgiveness and then the person I was asking would not forgive me, do I ask God and Jesus for forgiveness then?
God gives us a basic responsibility. If we have hurt someone, we are to go to them and ask them for forgiveness. We cannot control their response. Nor are we responsible for how they respond. That is between them and God. If we have honestly asked for forgiveness, we have done our part. Asking God for forgiveness for what we have done is at the heart of the daily prayer that Jesus taught us (Luke 11). And we have the promise, that when we confess our sin to God, HE FORGIVES US - ALWAYS! I John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
In the end is it ultimately my responsibility to forgive or is it God and Jesus responsibility to forgive?
Forgiveness is a choice to go through the process of letting go. Because God choose to forgive us (a very painful process of him - it involved dying on a cross), we to as "children of our Father in heaven" are to forgive, even through the process may be very painful. By forgiving others, we demonstrate that we are children of our Father in heaven.
I don't mean to flood you with all of these questions its just that I have been thinking about forgiveness for a long time and the more I try to understand the more questions I find I am wondering about.
I suspect that my response have created many more questions in your mind. That's Great! Feel free to ask them, I love answering.
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.