Friday, March 19, 2010

Forgiveness When There is No Apology

In a recent article I shared about forgiveness and reconiliation. Here I wanted to share some different views on the tough question of forgiving when there is no apology which came up in our recent Life's Healing Choices reading and small group discussion.

In "Life's Healing Choices" Rick Warren and John Baker stress the importance of unconditional forgiveness. Forgiving others relieves resentment and prevents us from holding a grudge (resentment and bitterness are not good things to hold onto, Job 5,18,36; Eph 4:31). They point out that failure to forgive is ususally a sign they don't feel forgiven themselves. As a result, they suggest forgiving another is needed even when there is not an apology.

Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas in "The Five Languages of Apology" takes a different view. They suggest that forgiveness without apology is asking Christians to do what even God does not do. Forgiveness in scripture is based on confession, and reconciliation on repentance. Forgiving without an apology hurts chances for reconciliation, and they echo Bonhoeffer (martyred by Nazis) in saying this reflects a 'cheap' form of grace.

In our small group Mary M. shared some excellent thoughts about these two views...

"I do agree that apology AND forgiveness, together, is an outcome that we should stive for: both apologizing ourselves when we realize we are in the wrong, and forgiving when we have been wronged. I see the tremendous power for good of the two together, allowing for reconciliation. Reconciliation is indeed based on repentence.
   But, we have no control whatsoever over the actions of the other person.  We can only do OUR OWN apologizing, OUR OWN forgiving. I also think that there is great value in forgiveness WITHOUT reconciliation when someone is in a pattern of unrepented sin.... There are many examples in history of forgiving without or before an apology. I think of Jim Elliott's wife going back to the Waodani people who had murdered her husband, for another example, or Betsie Ten Boom planning for a place/program for healing for both concentration-camp victims and concentration-camp prison guards, even while she herself was still dying in a concentration camp (her vision became a reality through the work of many, including her sister Corrie who survived).
   It seems to me this is how it works.  We see God forgiving first - forgiving withOUT apology and withOUT real repentence or amendment of behavior (at first) -- He makes His forgiveness freely available at the tremendous cost of the suffering and death of His son. (I might even go so far as to claim that the power to repent and to amend behavior COMES FROM God's forgiveness of us - that is the only energy source powerful enough to effect such a change.) We then strive to do this holy and supernatural thing that we see our Lord doing - and although it is impossible to do in our own strength, He helps us, and with His help we find we are able. And the results are that surprising, amazing chain reaction that constitutes personal and social/global revival. This glorifies God and brings joy to many. The standard is radical holiness: 'Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.' - Jesus (Luke 6:27-28)"

In another small group Rick B. shares:
I don't know about the Luke 17:3 passage but I think the I John 1:9 passage is putting the emphasis on the faithfulness of God. God's forgiveness is available and offered to us but it isn't appropriated until we confess our sins and repent. When we confess our sins, God is faithful and will not withhold the forgiveness that He has offered through Jesus Christ. We don't repent of our sins and then God decides if He will forgive us or not. I still believe that according to Romans 12:17-21, Ephesians 4:31-32, and Colossians 3:13 we are to let go of our grudges, trust God to deal with those who hurt us, and forgive whatever grievances there are. This does not negate the offender's need to take responsibility and repent of their sin. It's just not a condition for my forgiveness. It is a condition for them to apply my forgiveness to their lives. My forgiveness won't mean anything to them until they acknowledge their wrongdoing and repent of it. I Peter 2:21-24 is another passage to consider.
Pastor Chuck had some good practical points on discussing forgiveness with others, especially with those for whom this is a struggle. Is this person a Christian who has truly experienced God's forgiveness? Are they new in their walk with Christ, or are they approach biblical commands from a position of spiritual maturity? What is their own understanding and experience of God's forgiveness? If it's a matter of no apology, have they gotten to the point of being at least willing to forgive if asked? Is there sufficient time and support available for this person to make a tough and painful decision?

My own conclusion? Here's where I land on whether it is a biblical command to forgive unconditional and/or a good idea from a psychological perspective:
  • Willingness to forgive is a universal command for Christians
  • Ridding ourselves of bitterness is an unqualified command as well
  • Forgiving others is a super way to do this and can bring healing
  • Apologizing is not required for true forgiveness, but apologizing and repenting are necessary for reconciliation - for a relationship to begin the process of restoration.
  • Forgiving is both an event (a decision) and also a process - a healing and restorative process which takes time, and which benefits from prayer and support
  • Releasing the pain to God and leaning on him for healing the hurt, is another good idea, especially in cases where reconciliation is no longer an option (maybe the offender has passed away)
  • Radical forgiveness towards someone who has hurt you very badly demonstrates God's love and willingness to forgiveness in a powerful way
  • If you're helping someone else to deal with this, be sure they understand how God has (or wants to) forgive them, show patience and understanding as this can be a hard and lengthy process. The last thing the hurt person needs is (more) guilt!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

We've been discussing several of Life's Healing Choices at Calvary and a very tough question that came up that was: Do you need to forgive someone even when they don't apologize? For people who have been hurt badly, this is not a theoretical question. Let's unpack forgiveness a bit and go beyond a simple yes/no answer.

Who gets hurt when we don't forgive?

Primarily, we do. Mental health experts recognize that resentment, bitterness, anger, and stress that come from an unforgiving heart can lead to a lot of pain, psychological and even physical harm to ourselves. In the case where the person won't apologize, is in prison, or is no longer alive, clearly the only person remaining to be hurt is yourself. It's not easy - but it's worth it. Forgiving others takes the focus off the pain, what was lost, and centers instead on healing and moving forward. Experts also realize forgiving others is not easy. It's a process, and one that takes times. Forgive and forget is a myth. Premature forgiveness, without coming to grips with the pain and grief felt, can also be a problem.

Forgiveness, Restitution, Reconciliation, Rebuilding Trust

I think a major cause of confusion and pain about forgiveness comes when we lump together several parts of the forgiving process together. Dr. Raymond Richard makes some excellent points in his article on Forgiveness in "A Guide to Psychology and its Practice".
  • Anyone who has been victimized must make a tough choice on whether to forgive the perpetrator. There's really no middle ground, forgive the offender or hold on to bitterness and anger. 
  • Forgiveness can be a "problem for many because they are not clear about what forgiveness really is. All too often forgiveness gets confused with reconciliation, a larger process of which forgiveness is but one part."
  • Reconciliation is distinct from forgiveness. It's about being able to restore a relationship or to become friends again. "The act of reconciliation involves two parts: forgiveness and penance."
  • Penance (as he describes it) involves three parts: confession, repentance, and a penalty or restitution. Confession is simply admitting the act. The reconciliation process can't proceed without this basic step. Repentance involves asking forgiveness. Accepting a penalty may include restitution or accepting some other punishment when restitution is not possible.
  • Richmond provides a simple psychological definition of repentance: Forgiveness is the refusal to hurt the one who hurt you. It's a choice not to hold a grudge against another person.
  • Forgiveness can occur even without an apology, without penance. "That’s because forgiveness by itself is still psychologically preferable to holding a grudge. Why? Because the bitterness of a grudge works like a mental poison that doesn’t hurt anyone but yourself. Seeking revenge or wishing harm to another will, at the minimum, deplete your strength and prevent your wounds from healing. In the worst case, the cold hunger for revenge will make you into a victimizer yourself."
  • Forgiving someone does not mean that you must be reconciled with that person. Reconciliation is made possible by the mutual free choice of the both parties. 
This article doesn't discuss a key part of the reconciliation process - the rebuilding of trust. Even after an apology and forgiveness are made, and the relationship is restored, it can take a long time to rebuild trust. When the offense involved lies or deceipt (like an affair), the other person does not have to 'earn' the right to be forgiven, but trust is something that must be earned, and this may take quite some time. The greater the love between us, the more genuine the repentance, the better we are able to rebuild trust.

How God Forgives (and wants us to forgive)

There is much in common between the biblical teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation with this psychological explanation - and a few unique features as well.
  • God is love, and has already decided to forgive, before we even ask. (Romans 5:8)
  • Confessing, admitting we have sinned, is the critical first step to receiving God's forgiveness
  • Repentance is also necessary, which goes beyond being sorry. It literally means "to change your thinking", and involves asking for that forgiveness.
  • Is there still a penalty? Yes. If not, God would not be perfectly just. But because he shows perfect mercy, he chooses to literally pay that penalty Himself. Jesus' death on the cross paid the penalty for our sins. HE pays the penalty. We can't, and don't. 
  • Reconciliation is the result. Our relationship with God, which sin has broken, is now fully restored. 
In the New Testament, this forgiveness through Christ sets the standard for how we are to forgive. We forgive just as God forgave us, as several parables and passages teach. Is this easy? No! Next post I'll expand on this a bit, and I will share (with permission) some thoughts from friends that came up in our small group discussion on forgiveness when there is no apology.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Review - Take Your Best Shot

What can a nine-year old boy do to fight AIDS and help orphans in Africa? What can he do by shooting hoops? FAR more than you might think. Take Your Best Shot is the story of Austin Gutwein, founder of Hoops of Hope. The book tells a wonderful story, from the perspective of this very young but very passionate and wise young man. Touched by a 4-minute video about AIDS orphans, he could not shake a desire to do something to help. In Sunday School he was taught "God wants to use you for something special" - but the difference between him and other folks... he actually believed it!

The back cover describes it well: "Take Your Best Shot captures' Austin's amazing adventure and challenges readers that no matter where you are, no matter what your skills are, no matter what your age, you can make a difference." What impressed me about that book that it wasn't just trying to tell a story but Austin really wants to encourage us that we can make a difference, one person at a time. It's also inspiring that he did this doing something he loves, shooting hoops.

The book is super easy to read, and has questions for individual or small group use, as well as suggestions for activities to consider. I would recommend it for readers of all ages. Check out Take Your Best Shot, from Thomas Nelson Publishers, at Amazon or other retailers.