A few weeks ago, I touched on a topic in one of my sermons that not only opened some avenues of thought for the congregation but also made me return to a topic that I regularly have to struggle with–forgiveness.
For many years, I have thought about and studied and prayed about and occasionally practised forgiveness. As a follower of Christ, I have a strong belief in forgiveness–but at the same time, I have questions and concerns and issues with forgiveness. In my pastoral work, I often hear the same questions about forgiveness. You would think that with all the time and effort, I would have the matter settled–but the reality is that I keep coming back to the questions because of my own experience and the experience of people I work with.
One struggle that I have and have spent time helping others deal with goes like this. Someone does something truly awful to another person–not a small thing like taking their coffee cup but a major think like abusing them in some way. The person who was abused is or becomes a believer and is counselled to forgive the offender. Depending on the nature of the faith group the individual belongs to, the counsel can even be that they must forgive the offender.
But, the hesitant reply comes, if the abuser is forgiven, doesn’t he/she get away with it? As long as the victim withholds forgiveness, the abuser can’t get away with what they have done. Logically, it makes sense. Practically, the logic falls apart.
I talked with one victim of terrible abuse about that logic. Her abuse was never reported, so the abuser was never charged and then died several years after the abuse. When others told her to forgive the abuser, she struggled because forgiving him felt to her like he was getting away with abusing her. But truthfully, forgiven or not, he had got away with the abuse, in the sense that he never “paid” for the abuse–even if it had been reported when we were talking, he was dead and nothing could be done.
But the victim could not forgive. The interesting thing is that as far as I know, she is the only person still suffering–and a significant part of the suffering is that she can’t let go of the need for the abuser to suffer some kind of punishment. Lacking legal recourse, her only option seemed to be withholding her forgiveness.
But, really, what good did that do? He was dead, no one else actually cared because it was in the past and she had worked through a lot of the pain and trauma over the years. The only person suffering because of her inability to forgive was herself.
Maybe forgiveness at times has nothing to do with the other person–maybe it is something we have to do for ourselves so that we can get a better handle on the pain and suffering and struggle that we carry as a result of the things have been done to us that we can’t or won’t forgive. Holding on to the trauma and pain and hurt to prevent the abuser from getting away with what he did really only penalizes one person and it isn’t the abuser.
Forgiveness is something we give so that we can be free, at least at times. Forgiving isn’t always an altruistic and other directed action. A lot of the time, perhaps most of the time, the real secret of giving forgiveness is so that we can be free. Certainly, there are a few times when someone begs for our forgiveness–but even in those cases, if we refuse the forgiveness, we suffer as much as the one asking for forgiveness.
I worked that particular issue through years ago, at least theologically and psychologically. But when confronted with someone who hurts me, I still struggle with being willing to let myself forgive the person–and so in the end, I make myself at least as miserable as the person I won’t forgive. And if I am honest about it, I am often more miserable than the person I won’t forgive because the lack of forgiveness doesn’t bother the other person all the much.
Maybe the person I forgive will get away with what he/she did. Maybe my lack of forgiveness doesn’t bother them at all. But it sure bothers me–I am not really free until I can forgive. Maybe being selfish and seeing the benefits of forgiveness for me is a good thing.
May the peace of God be with you.