Friday, November 1, 2013

on forgiveness

Somewhere along the line, I was taught that once we choose to forgive, it will automatically make everything better. The hurt, the anger, and the bitterness will just stop. But in my experience, this has not proved true. 

I have felt a tremendous amount of guilt and shame over it, because when "good Christians" choose to forgive and pray a little prayer, everything's fine. 

At least that's the message I was taught.

I wish it were that easy. But it's not.  Because as I am learning, forgiveness is a complicated process

One of the chapters in our pastor's latest book, When Dreams Come True: The Story of Joseph, talks about forgiveness. And as seen in the chart illustrated below, it depends on many factors:

In his book, Pastor John explains how two people who experience almost identical situations will respond very differently.  If you are betrayed or wronged by a long-term friend, it hurts much more than if a stranger treats you unkindly. Similarly, the more sensitive you are, the more other people's actions may hurt you. Some people are hardly ever offended. Others become deeply insulted by a seemingly small thing. It all depends on these factors. For someone who has been wronged, forgiveness will likely be much more difficult if the act was severe, intentional, frequent, and not acknowledged by the offender.

When forgiveness is rushed, forced out of obligation, or simply done in the name of Christian duty, (rather than genuine sincerity), the whole process backfires.

As you start information gathering (asking questions, processing events), it triggers the original feelings of hurt and anger. What most people don't understand, is that this is a crucial and necessary part of the healing process. Sometimes it seems to go on forever, but (and I can't stress this enough!) you have to let this process run its course.  How long it takes depends on the degree and nature of the offense.  I have been chastised for not being able to "let things go." But contrary to what those well-meaning people (including a pastor) once told me, some people don't just "get over" something. Depending on all those factors, forgiveness doesn't usually happen overnight. Forgiveness is a process that takes time. 

In her book, Surviving a Shark Attack (on Land), the famous therapist/talk-show host, Dr. Laura Schlessinger writes:

"Time is the smart part of life. Time reveals character. Time permits healing and growth. Time gives perspective. Time is one of life's greatest embraces."

Dr. Laura likens forgiveness to the idea taking a trip. People need to come to that place of forgiveness by travelling though a lot of small towns. "It takes some people a bit of travelling time...[and they] have to run by the the road signs of hurt, grief, and anger [first]... 

Unfortunately, betrayers often tire quickly of efforts at rehabilitation [and]...rebuilding trust.... They usually get impatient and require that the injured party just 'forgive (excuse) and forget.' News flash: that means they haven't changed..."

That realization in itself, can be even more painful than the original betrayal.

I can truly say that there are some cases in which I've walked out the process to completion. It doesn't minimize the hurt or excuse the harm that was done. But when you are able to finally release it for good, you feel so liberated! Especially when there is true reconciliation that happens afterwards. 

But there are some hurts that have cut me so deep and are still so raw. I am highly sensitive. I have been hurt by many people I trusted. I have been abandoned by many close friends when I needed them most. Many of these wrongs were never acknowledged by the one who committed them. And some were indeed very intentional. To simply "let it go" or "forgive and forget" would be for me to live in denial. But that's how so many people in Christian circles are living. In denial. Refusing to acknowledge the hurt and the anger. Pretending to have moved on. But let's face it: pretending to be someone or something that you're not, is exhausting. 

So, I am still working through this whole forgiveness process. Really working on it. I have chosen to forgive those who hurt me. My human nature doesn't want to, but I know it's what God wants requires of me. I know that emotionally and psychologically it's the best thing for me. But there are a few cases where I am not yet able to release all desires to retaliate (though I haven't acted on these desires!) In all honesty, I am not yet in a place where I am prepared to wish some of my offenders well. So, no,  I have not completed my forgiveness process with everyone. Because it takes time. It is a moment by moment, day by day, and sometimes, a year by year process. 

But I know eventually I'll get there. And in the meantime, I will not live in denial. I will not rush the process to appease the legalisticI will not feel like I'm a "bad" Christian because I'm not "there" yet. I refuse to feel guilty for not being able to "just let it go." Because forgiveness is a process.

***To hear more, listen to Pastor John's sermon entitled Forgiveness As a Process.***

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