This blog is a discussion we at TCPC have been having on forgiveness as we work on one of our Children's Curriculum lessons on forgiveness. Here are the thoughts of one of our board members- Janice Gregory- on forgiveness. Your thoughts?
Since our meeting in Chicago, I’ve been studying forgiveness – and I have come to some conclusions that I think we should consider for our forgiveness lesson(s) in the children’s curriculum.
I think that my concerns can be met, and the lesson(s) on forgiveness improved, by paying more attention to what forgiveness is – and what it is not.
As you may recall, I was concerned that a Sunday school teacher could unwittingly do harm by urging a child simply to forgive a hurt inflicted by another person. If, for example, the other person were an abusive adult, the child could be put in the position of returning to this person only to receive more abuse, and of thinking that that was the only “right” thing for them to do. Teachers themselves may be confused. For example, there are far too many stories of clergy urging a woman to return to an abusive husband in order to preserve the sanctity of the marriage.
In my inquiries, I found most helpful a book entitled The Art of Forgiving by Lewis B. Smedes (Ballantine: 1996). Much of what follows is taken from that book.
Let us begin with what forgiveness is NOT.
It is not reunion. I think we often believe that forgiveness is like kissing and making up. It is not. If we are in a situation such as in the examples above, we should get out of there as quickly as possible.
It is not forgetting what has happened or assuming everything can be restored to where it was before the hurt was inflicted. If someone has broken trust with us, then that trust is broken and would have to be re-earned before it could be restored. If a co-worker is fired for good reason, we can forgive what they did, but that does not mean they should be re-hired.
It does not mean that we excuse what was done, take the edge off any evil committed, or give up our right to justice.
The quotes at the end of this note from Desmond Tutu might explain these points better.
So, then, what is forgiveness, and when is it an appropriate course of action?
It is giving up the hope of a different past. The first step is to recognize that we have been wronged and to name that wrong and who committed the wrong. If we cannot do these things, then there is nothing to forgive.
It is surrendering our right to get even. This is the nub of how forgiveness heals. This is how the “love channels of the heart get unclogged” to borrow the imagery of Madison’s four-year-old parishioner. A good example is to look at a situation where you are not in a position to exact vengeance on the offender. So you spend your life in hatred, and the person who hurt you is in fact still in control of your heart.
Forgiveness is an option to us when –
- Someone takes an action that seriously wrongs us
- That person meant to take that action
- That person initiated the action
That person is, in essence, to blame for the wrong done to us. If there is no blame, there is nothing to forgive.
Finally, how do we forgive?
Smedes suggests a process of (1) rediscovering the humanity of the person who hurt us, (2) giving up on vengeance (but not on justice), and (3) revising our feelings toward the person so that we can wish them well in the future.
Desmond Tutu’s speech “We Forgive You” published in The Rainbow People of God (1994) includes a statement that “The victims of injustice and oppression must be ever ready to forgive.” But regarding the oppressed and the oppressor coming together, he says, “Those who have wronged [us] must be willing to make what amends they can…..If I have stolen your pen, I can’t really be contrite when I say, ‘Please forgive me’ if at the same time I keep your pen. If I am truly repentant, then I will demonstrate this genuine repentance by returning your pen. Then [reunion], which is always costly, will happen…It can’t happen just by saying ‘Let bygones be bygones.’”
This is because forgiveness is something that is done by a single person, while reunion or reconciliation is something that necessarily involves two persons in relationship. We can forgive without trusting the person we have forgiven will change their behavior; in reunion we must have trust they will not hurt us again.
The difference between forgiveness and reconciliation is also why we must truly repent before we can ask for God’s forgiveness: What we really are asking is that we be restored to our right relationship with God, and that is a relationship question.