Bryan Maier, colleague with me here at BTS Graduate School of Counseling, has just published, Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach (Kregel, 2017). Over the last 11 years I have enjoyed listening to and debating with Bryan regarding matters pertaining to individual and corporate forgiveness. I now commend this fine book to you for your reading! It is good to see his work in print.
As you likely know, forgiveness is a pretty popular topic these days, even outside of Christian circles. Bryan describes some of these approaches to forgiveness (do it because it is good for your health, do it to restore relationships, do it following a prescribed set of steps, etc.) and lays out a clearer definition of forgiveness and related concepts (justice, empathy, grace, repentance, and more). Without being overly methodical, Bryan examines the processes needed to move to active, other-centered forgiveness. However, along the way he spends a good deal of time talking about things such as the imprecatory Psalms (asking God for justice)–something not often found in literature encouraging us to forgive.
Here’s what I said in my book blurb (inside cover),
Dr. Maier makes a persuasive and entirely readable case that biblical forgiveness happens only in response to authentic repentance. You will find this book clear, logical, and pastoral in its treatment of the concepts of forgiveness, repentance, and justice. Though forgiveness is a popular topic in mainstream literature, Dr. Maier gives a rare treat: cogent definitions and illustrations of God’s view of forgiveness from Genesis to Revelation. Using case studies, the reader experiences not only a better definition of the final acts of forgiveness, but also the necessary pre-forgiveness activities of healing and repentance. Victims of injustice will find comfort and relief in knowing that the focus of the forgiveness process falls squarely on the shoulders of the offender.
Harm. Abuse. Accident. There are any number of ways that one human or an institution can harm another. Some “harm” is intended, others unintended. Some completely accidental, others planned and still others the result of unthinking and self-focused neglect.
How you feel about the harm likely has something to do with your assessment of the motives and intent behind the harmful behavior. Now, imagine for a minute that you were about to meet with someone who harmed you in a significant way. Do you know what their motives were at the time of the harm? Do you know how they think about it now? Further, do you know what you think about concepts such as forgiveness and reconciliation? Repentance?
It is my experience that we sometimes rush individuals to meet and reconcile with someone who has harmed them before gathering some important data. Before you meet with someone who has harmed you, consider the following questions in order to clarify what you think and believe:
1. Of the person who harmed me:
- the intention behind their harmful behavior and their intention behind this meeting (if they requested it)
- Did they intend to hurt me?
- Do they want to apologize? Do they want to blame me?
- their understanding of harm they caused and their current feelings now
- Do they really believe they caused me harm?
- Are they remorseful?
- Have they made changes in their life so this won’t happen again?
- their current relationship desires and expectations
- Are they looking for me to forgive them? To forget? To take ownership of a portion of the problem?
- Do they expect me to act as if it never happened?
- Do they want me to release them from the consequences?
- Do they want an ongoing relationship? Do I have the freedom to choose?
- Am I ready to speak the truth in love?
- Am I tempted to sugarcoat the truth? Rage?
- Am I tempted to offer forgiveness too quickly, too slowly?
- Do I see the offender as no different from myself, in need of mercy?
- Do I know what outcome I desire?
- Am I willing to give a fair hearing rather than prejudge?
- Do I know the difference between justice and revenge?
- Do I know the differences between reconciliation, restitution, restoration, and repentance?
- Do I know what forgiveness looks and feels like (and what it does not look and feel like)?
- Do I want to forgive even if the person asking for forgiveness doesn’t seem to get how badly they hurt me?
3. Of the system
- What are the human system consequences of meeting/not meeting. Similarly, what are the consequences of reconciling/not reconciling, forgiving/not forgiving?
- What are the system pressures/expectations on me?
- What promises does God provide in the kingdom system? What protections? What comforts?
- What expectations does God place on Believers? Does the command to forgive mean to forget or live as if it never happened?
It is important to be prayerful as we answer these questions. The intensity of the meeting and the swirling emotions will make it hard for us to evaluate ourselves, the offender, and the system. The more preparation, the better shot we will for being at peace with our responses to a difficult situation.
In his 3rd hour last week, Miroslav Volf spoke on forgiveness. I say hour, but really it was only about 40 minutes with breaks and chatting. Here’s some of his thoughts that you can find in both End of Memory and Free of Charge.
1. We tend towards one of three reactions to wrongs: (a.) Revenge (taking mode). Doesn’t measure the response, just reacts, (b) Retribution (exchange mode). Deserving punishments meted out. The eye for an eye. And this mode considers not just what is taken but compensation for the violation itself. (c) Forgiveness (giving mode). Giving the gift of not counting wrongs against the wrongdoer.
2. Modern culture sees forgiveness as a gift to self to get rid of the poison of bitterness rather than a gift to the offender. While forgiveness may have this consequence, to view it only this way is to minimize the gift of releasing the other.
3. Why do we forgive? Because God is a giving and forgiving God.
4. Be careful not to minimize the hard activity of forgiving the offender. Forgiveness names the other as a criminal. It claims an injustice. It is a call for justice. But then follows up the call with a generous deed–not counting the act against the person.
5. Why does God do this? Because time does not run backward. Our misdeeds stick to us and we need freedom.
6. What about forgiving and forgetting? For 2500 years these two were tied together, that forgiveness should lead to forgetting or not remembering the acts done. The modern world has cut them apart. We want to forgive but remember. And yet the most amazing gift would be the forgetting of our sins. “Properly understood, forgetting is the crown of forgiveness.” Volf (in his books) is not unthoughtful about the difficulty in forgetting, but thinks we may be too quick to untie the two acts.
7. Finally, we cannot talk about forgiveness without also talking about the need for repentance. If we do not repent we do not receive God’s gift. If we forgive another, the gift cannot be received without repentance. While you can give a gift unilaterally, it will not reach its full goal without the proper response. Gift giving is a social relationship.
THUS, You can say “I have forgiven you.” But unless it has been received with repentance, then forgiveness hasn’t occurred nor can reconciliation.
I’ve just gotten notice that the Leadership Institute of the Episcopal Diocese of PA is sponsoring a lecture by Volf on December 13, 1-4 pm at St. Thomas Church in Ft. Washington (poster says Whitemarsh, but it’s just on Church Road not far off 309).
He’ll be giving a talk entitled: Forgiveness and Injury: Moving Forward through Life’s Adversities. He’s a theologian from Yale and will probably be talking some of his experiences of dealing with anger and intrusive memories resulting from his life in Yugoslavia. I blogged chapters of his book, “End of Memory” which you can find here. I imagine the book and lecture will have many parallels.
Cost is $20. I’m planning on attending. He’s a very thoughtful writer so hoping the presentation will be good. Info for directions and registration found here (you’ll need to scroll down to the event listing for the 13th).
Can an apology come too soon? I was listening to an NPR show discussing a national apology for slavery in the US (and reparations). One guest on the show stated that if a government or organization apologizes before there is adequate dialogue about the real effects of that entity’s misdeeds (i.e., support of slavery), it kills further dialogue.
Really? Why is it that if we apologize for hurting someone that we think the conversation is over?
Point of fact: true apologies invite further discussion, including exploration of the effects of the “crime.” When discussion ends because of an apology, we discover that the apology was really cover for, “Will you let me out of jail for what I did to you? Will you forget my bad behavior?”
True apologies are not formed as questions or requests–either explicitly or implicitly. It is offerings of forgiveness that end or at least change discussion regarding criminal activity. When we demand instant forgiveness or apology acceptance we inappropriately tie apologies with conversation endings.
Do you agree with this next statement? The truly repentant do not mind apologizing as many times as necessary nor engaging in conversation about the effects of their misdeeds.
In relationship to slavery, the matter is complicated in that the conversation is happening between those who either indirectly benefit or suffer from slavery. Because of our overemphasis on individualism, we often fail to acknowledge corporate sins and that some of us benefit from those corporate sins. Read Ezra and Nehemiah and you see a different picture. A people repenting for sins done by the previous generation. Now there’s a novel idea.
Someone sent me a link to a recent ER show where a dying man is talking to a chaplain about his guilt and whether or not he can be forgiven for his taking innocent life. While some of the chaplain’s comments are relativistic mumbo-jumbo, she has one very insightful comment. The dying man says something to suggest he can’t make up for his sins. The chaplain says,
“[Sometimes I think] it’s easier to feel guilt than forgiven….that your guilt is your reason for living…but maybe you need something else to live for.”
I may not have gotten that quote just right at the end as I was scribbling it down. But, this line is very powerful. In fact, some make a living out of guilt, depression, hopelessness, etc. They can’t imagine life any different. Pride makes it hard to give up what feels to have become a central feature to their identity. While her counsel was terrible, she was right on the money about the nature of guilt and the difficulty in giving it up. He would have to accept that he received something he did not deserve and could never pay back.