I ended last week’s story of betrayal with the faint beginnings of a desire to forgive. But our wanting to forgive doesn’t mean we’ve granted forgiveness any more than wanting a beach vacation gives us tickets to Tahiti. It’s a start, an important start, but only a start.
Our desire to forgive is undermined by our memories, recollections of the betrayal that relentlessly resurface with stunning clarity. With the vividness of slow-motion video, I recall a half-erased whiteboard, the buzz of a fly, and the shadows on the wall.
A friend of mine remembers the jingle of an ice-cream truck and the smell of lilacs through the screen porch.
We want to forgive, but images flood our mind, and something in our soul recoils. We try to forgive and forget, but those memories scratch their way out of the holes we buried them in.
We want justice; somehow, in some form or fashion, we want payment. Like David, our heart cries, “Let death take [them] by surprise; let them go down to hell while still living” (Ps. 55:15).
Or as Freud said, “One must forgive one’s enemies: but preferably after they’ve been hanged.”
It twists our soul
Last week, I heard a talk radio host interview a therapist. The therapist claimed that “un-forgiveness is a major contributor to heart disease,” and that “bitterness can kill us.” The wrong done to us begins to take root in us. The evil inflicted on us begins to flow out of us.
Mirslov Volf wrote, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude my enemy from the community of humans and I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” We begin to dehumanize our betrayer, and in turn we are dehumanized. Agony and anger twists our souls.
On hearing the consequences of non-forgiveness, the radio host responded, “I don’t want a stroke, so I’d better start forgiving. I’ll just let it go.”
But it’s not so simple. No magic wand will wave away the stain. To claim, “I’ll just let it go,” is like getting over stage-fright by saying, “I’ll stop being self-conscious.” It makes matters worse.
And it completely misunderstands the essence of forgiveness.
Because someone does have to pay
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the World War II martyr who died resisting Hitler) said:
If you’ve ever really forgiven somebody, forgiven some real wrong, all forgiveness is suffering. If you say “I forgave and I didn’t suffer,” it wasn’t that serious a wrong. But if you have ever really been wronged, and if you have forgiven it, then you have suffered. Because all forgiveness is a form of suffering.
When we’ve been deeply wronged—not just an accidental slipup but a treacherous betrayal—we know there is a debt, a deep-seated sense of injustice. We can’t shrug it off as if nothing happened, we can’t simply dismiss those memories in a momentary fancy of forgiveness.
When we remember the injury, we must choose between two paths. We can make the perpetrator pay (by finding little ways to make them suffer, poking pins in their memory, disparaging them to our friends, or snubbing them in our heart); or we can forgive.
If we make the perpetrator pay, evil wins. The road to hell is not paved with good intentions, and not even with our betrayal of others. The road to hell is paved with our non-forgiveness.
So what does it mean to forgive?
Everyone thinks forgiving is a wonderful idea. Until they have something real to forgive. Because forgiveness means suffering. If we don’t make the perpetrator pay (and somebody has to pay), it means we pay.
Forgiveness means we pay our betrayer’s debt.
It’s normal life. If I borrow your car and wreck it, then either I cough up cash for the repair, or—if I don’t have any money—then you do. The damage doesn’t disappear magically. Somebody pays. (Or you drive a wrecked car, which is just another form of you suffering for my mistake.)
How do we pay? When we’re tempted to dwell on their cruelty, we stop (it costs not to punish them in our thoughts). And when we have a chance to tell others of their betrayal, we shut up (we suffer when they enjoy a good reputation). And we pray for their welfare, not punishment.
Of all Christian disciplines, this is the hardest. First we suffer the horrible wrong done to us, and then we pay for their wrongdoing. It’s double baked death. Compared to forgiveness, chastity, charity, and contentment seem like sipping lemonade on a summer’s evening.
Forgiveness also brings us closest to Christ. It is suffering, thorns, nails, and a cross.
Forgive me for repeating myself
To settle a debt requires capital. We need a full bank account (either financial, emotional, or spiritual reserves) to write that check. We need deposits in our account before we can pay out. But our reserves were depleted by the wrong done to us. What are we to do?
Our ability to forgive is wholly dependent on our being forgiven. When it seems impossible to forgive, our only hope is to understand our debt to God, and to grasp our own forgiven-ness.
Jesus said of the prostitute who washed his feet, “She loves much because she’s been forgiven much, and whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” With the deposits of our own forgiven-ness, we pay our debtor’s debt. And little by little, we find we have forgiven.
Over time (not magically in a moment) something miraculous happens. We begin to really hope for them, to really wish them the best; we even begin to love them.
The evil done to us has been executed.
Sam (see also, Betrayal)
P.S. Don’t think that because I can write this that I can also do it well. But I’m getting better.
P.P.S. Forgiveness does not mean disconnection with reality. Our betrayers may still act like jerks toward us or toward others. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we should go back and work in that ministry or become best pals with that former friend. But it does mean their debt has been paid, that we have shredded our case files, and we that desire their welfare.