The Forgiveness Quandary

One of the simplest, yet most profound, truths I have encountered in life is that “hurting people hurt people.” When we’ve been deeply hurt, we have a tendency to lash out, to want to exact retribution and revenge, to make the person who hurt us hurt as much as we do. We tend to believe that this is justice, and perhaps it is, in a sense. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, etc.

This desire to exact retribution is even stronger when we are convinced that our suffering is undeserved. When we are convinced that we are blameless in a situation, that all of the fault lies with the other person, then we’re free to stoke the fires of our own anger and bitterness to our hearts’ content. This carte blanche pass to bitterness is so attractive that it can even blind us to our own part in a situation, or to rationalizing away our own wrongs. “Well, yeah, I did that, but they did thus and such, which is a lot worse!” Anyone who has spent much time around quarreling children has heard this kind of rationalization; sadly, many of us engage in it as adults, and we’re far less likely to be called on it. Wrapping oneself in the mantle of victimhood becomes an excuse for all kinds of behavior. Why? Because victims are almost never held accountable. One need look no further than the Arab-Israeli conflict to see this dynamic played out at the level of nation-states; it is somewhat less obvious, but no less destructive, when it plays out at the level of interpersonal relationships.

Christians aren’t immune from this desire for retributive justice. However, if we take our faith seriously, we’re faced with a quandary: how to square our hunger for retribution with Jesus’ commands. Commands like:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt…Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27-29, 31)

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)

“Be on your guard! If your brother or sister sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive.” (Luke 17:3-4)

There are basically three answers to this quandary. The first answer is to simply acknowledge our own refusal to forgive. “I know I’m commanded to forgive, but I don’t want to.” While not ideal, this response to the quandary at least has the benefit of being intellectually and emotionally honest. Granted, it’s disobedient to the commands of Christ, but at least it is honest disobedience.

The second response to the quandary is just as disobedient but far less honest; it involves cloaking the refusal to forgive in some other motive. “Oh, I forgive, but I need to protect myself (or others) from this evil person, so I’m going to do such and such.” Too often this notional desire to protect is used to justify and rationalize not only a refusal to forgive, but outright vengefulness as well.

The third, and perhaps healthiest, response is to openly acknowledge and repent our unwillingness to forgive. Presenting our hurts to God, we ask God to heal them. We ask God to heal the bruised and battered places in our hearts that cry out for vengeance, and to conform us to the likeness of Christ. When we do this, remarkable things happen. We regain the ability to see things as they are, including our own part in our broken relationships. We stop lashing out, and begin reaching out. We break the endless cycle of repaying evil for evil. We begin to heal, and so do those around us.

This is by no means easy. It demands a lot of us. But being disciples of the crucified Messiah was never promised to be easy. Besides, the alternative is almost to ghastly to contemplate: after all, at a certain point, “an eye for an eye” just leaves the whole world blind.

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