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.

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