Forgiveness doesn't come naturally to anyone. Perhaps the main reason is that it is so basically and totally unfair. I'm the one who has been injured, and now I must do the forgiving? No way! And if the offense is horrendous, forgiveness is not only unnatural, it seems impossible. Or what if the other person isn't sorry, or isn't even alive anymore? How do I forgive in that situation? It's impossible. Or is it?
How do you forgive when your own child is murdered? And what if the one who commits the crime is also part of the family? How do you forgive someone you love for killing another loved one?
Wayne and Arlene attended our church. They had two beautiful daughters, both married and growing with their families. There was nothing apparent about the family that would make anyone think such a horrible thing could happen. Yet it happened. Wayne and Arlene's son-in-law shot and killed his wife, their daughter, during an argument in their kitchen. One can hardly imagine the pain Wayne and Arlene felt.
Then, in the midst of their grief, not only did Wayne and Arlene step in and take over the raising of their grandchildren, but they also stood by their son-in-law during his trial and prison term. When he was released, they invited him to live with them and his kids until he could get his life started again. The reality of the forgiveness given by Wayne and Arlene has been proved over the years by their actions.
But what if complete strangers killed your child? What if your beautiful young daughter was a Fulbright Scholar working halfway around the world, seeking to improve the lives of people trapped in poverty, and you suddenly were confronted with the reality of her brutal death?
Amy was a young woman from our community who was pouring her life into a black squatters' village in South Africa, helping the residents begin their slow march out of poverty after apartheid was eliminated. After spending over a year there, she felt the community was accepting her and her coworkers. Then the whole world heard the news that four young men from that same community had beaten her to death.
The world watched as her parents walked into the hearing room of Truth and Reconciliation Commission and then publicly offered these men forgiveness, and stated that they would support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission if it decided to grant them amnesty-which it did. Yet it made the front page of our local paper only when Amy's parents talked about how they were going to help continue the work started by their daughter and set up a locally run business making "Amy's bread-the bread of hope and peace."
Are There Situations When the Damage Done by and Offender is So Severe That Forgiveness is Inappropriate?
Although it may certainly feel that forgiveness is impossible when we begin to look at the deepest hurts inflicted upon us, it is important to understand that there is nothing that can happen in our lives that is beyond our ability to forgive. We must always put our ability to forgive in the context of how much we have been forgiven. That's one of the main points of Jesus' parable in Matthew 18 regarding the unforgiving servant. Here is a man who had been forgiven a debt he could never repay. It was his failure to internalize the reality of his forgiven-ness that kept him from forgiving his friend. Jesus is clearly saying that when we compare what we are called on to forgive-even the worst possible sin against us-it is less than what God in Christ has forgiven us. It is out of our gratitude for His forgiveness that we can always forgive.
It is important to remember, however, that the deeper the hurt and the earlier the hurt takes place in our lives, the more time we need to work through the process of forgiving. We are always called on to forgive, but the time frame for that forgiveness will vary with the severity of the offense.
It Doesn't Seem Fair That I Am the One Hurt, and I Am Also the One Who Has to Do the Work of Forgiving. The Offending Person Seems to Get Off Too Easily.
It isn't fair! But the one who benefits from forgiving is the one who does the forgiving. Our forgiving the offender does not in any way benefit the offender. One can easily say that forgiving is a very "selfish" act-or maybe a better word would be "selfcarish." It is selfish in that it focuses on us, but it is also a caring act, in that we are the ones who are set free. We are the ones who benefit physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Lewis Smedes says, "forgiving is the only way we have to a better fairness in our unfair world; it is love's unexpected revolution against unfair pain and it alone offers strong hope for healing the hurts we so unfairly feel." We don't revise the past; we accept it.
We need to be careful that we do not take forgiveness out of its spiritual context. Forgiveness can best be understood only in the context of our being forgiven by God. The theological and spiritual roots of forgiveness are what give it its healing power. Apart from that, forgiveness can be a helpful tool but never to the same degree as when it is connected to the reality of God's forgiveness of us.
God longs for us to be forgiving people. Counselors and pastors need to model forgiveness; families need to model forgiveness as a way of life; couples need to model forgiveness with each other in order to build strong marriages. We can only truly model forgiveness when we ourselves know how to forgive. When we can recognize our own sinfulness and see the universality of sin, we are less likely to develop a condemning spirit. Whenever we experience a deep wound in our souls through the action of another, we have a choice as to which path we are going to take. Make certain you pick the right path-the Path of Forgiveness.
The above piece is an adaptation from Forgiving the Unforgivable, by Dr. David Stoop. Ventura: Regal Books, 2003.
Dr. David Stoop is a licensed clinical psychologist and the director of the Center for Family Therapy. He is the author of more than 20 books, including Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves and Making Peace with Your Father. David co-hosts the daily New Life Live! radio program heard nationally on over one hundred and eighty stations and at www.newlife.com. He is also speaks at the New Life Weekend, a conference with specialty programs for Marriage, Anger, Fear, Boundaries, Depression, Weight Loss, Abuse, and Forgiveness.