Listen: LifeWords Q&A Podcast, Episode 80
Nobody goes through life without being hurt in some way – and it can leave us wrestling with whether we can forgive. So what is forgiveness, and what is it not? Does it mean we have to restore the broken relationship? Do we have to trust them again? And if we forgive someone who’s hurt us, doesn’t that “let them off the hook”? David Reay and Clare Bruce explore the topic in this episode of the LifeWords Q&A podcast.
Clare Bruce: Welcome! It’s another episode of LifeWords Q and A. Our ever-helpful pastor, writer, thinker, David Reay is on the line – g’day David.
David Reay: G’day Clare, good to be here again.
CB: How are you doing on this fine pandemic morning?
DR: Oh, not too bad. It’s almost, this is the new normal. I’ll be quite surprised when things get back to what we call normal, I won’t be quite sure what to do.
CB: Yeah, look, I’m not sure if you realise this as well, David, but this episode is quite a milestone – it’s you’re eightieth! Congratulations.
DR: Oh, I didn’t think I was that old!
CB: Of course not your 80th birthday, but 80th episode, which is quite an achievement. For those who have just tuned in for your first time listening to LifeWords, every week on this podcast we explore answers to one tricky question about the Christian faith.
And this week – it’s one that sometimes hurts a little, sometimes hurts a lot. It’s about forgiving. “If I forgive, doesn’t that let them off the hook?” Or in other words, “What does it really mean to forgive?” David, how do you tackle this one?
What Does Forgiveness Look Like?
DR: Well, with some care – because forgiveness is, I think, a fairly contentious topic. I mean, all Christians seem to think, “Oh, it’s good to forgive”, but we don’t always have the right understanding and your intro highlighted that: “Does forgiveness, actually let people off the hook?” And I’ll get to that in a minute.
But first of all, I think if I can offer a little potted definition of forgiveness: it’s not letting a hurt done to us, drive us to retaliate. And it’s not letting that hurt done to us, fundamentally shape our lives.
So in other words, we’ve been hurt, we’ve been wounded, someone’s done the wrong thing, but we’re not going to retaliate, number one. And number two, we’re deciding not to let that hurt, define us or dominate their lives. It’ll affect our lives for sure. But it will not fundamentally shape them.
What Forgiveness is Not
Let me also sort of complement that by just reminding people of what forgiveness is not.
Some people think forgiveness is denial. “Oh, well, this person did something wrong to me, but I’m just going to pretend it didn’t happen. I’ll just move on.” Well, the point is, you can’t move on until you’ve acknowledged the hurt.
Some people think forgiveness is excusing. “Oh, well, they didn’t mean it.” Well, they might not have meant it but it still hurt. So that’s not really the answer.
Some people even think forgiveness is forgetting. That, “Oh, well, I’ll just forget all about it.” Well, I’m sorry, we can’t chemically cleanse our brains like that. We can’t forget.
You see, forgiveness faces the hurt realistically. So often, we want to confuse forgiveness as one of those counterfeits I’ve just mentioned, because to face the hurt is painful and it’s costly. You see, if someone says to me, “Oh, someone hurt me, and I’ve forgiven them, and it didn’t hurt at all, didn’t cost me anything at all!” I’d think “No, you’re actually on the wrong track”.
Forgiveness is always painful and costly because it always forces us to realistically face the hurt.
CB: Hmm. Yeah, something that you’ve prompted me to remember is, I learned through a couple of friends who had significant trauma in their earlier life, a couple of women who had much to forgive – and the question came up of whether this forgiveness means that I now have to trust that person. And they learned that there’s a difference; that forgiving someone doesn’t equal, that you have to trust them. Because you may not be able to trust them. They may not be a trustworthy person. And they’re two separate things.
DR: That’s right. We’ve got to make sure we don’t confuse forgiveness with something else there, called reconciliation. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. It only takes you to offer forgiveness. Forgiveness is always like an offer. You make the offer. But for reconciliation to take place, it takes a response. So for example, I mean, Paul the Apostle in one of his writing says, “as far as is possible, as much as it depends on you, be at peace with one another”. In other words, he’s implying, sometimes it’s not possible.
“Forgiveness is not what we call restitution. In other words, forgiveness does not necessarily mean that everything goes back to the way it was.”
Some Christians beat themselves over the head by thinking, “Oh dear me, things aren’t just right between me and the other person; what’s wrong with me?” Well, no, you’ve put an offer of forgiveness out there on the table, but it takes another person to accept that offer to be reconciled. You see, not even God, who offers forgiveness to everyone, is reconciled to everyone. So we have got absolutely no hope of being genuinely reconciled to absolutely everyone. Your job is to offer forgiveness, but hey, you can’t control reconciliation.
And Clare, you mentioned that other thing for those women who have been abused in the past, that leads to another sort of allied situation or clarification. Forgiveness is not what we call restitution. In other words, forgiveness does not necessarily mean that everything goes back to the way it was. A woman who’s been badly and horribly and consistently abused by her husband might end that marriage quite legitimately. But forgiveness, and even reconciliation, does not mean that the marriage survives.
The silly case – it’s a silly example – but someone who’s defrauded a community group while operating as a treasurer, repents of that and says “Oh, look, I’m so sorry”. And the group says, “Well, look, we forgive you. Yes, yep, we’ll be reconciled.” But I’ll tell you what – “they’re not going to appoint them as treasurer again.”
CB: No, they’re not. That’s a really good example.
DR: Because there are consequences. Yep.
Forgiveness Doesn’t Guarantee Reconciliation
CB: Yeah, that’s really good. And I love what you quoted from the Bible there where Paul says, “as much as it is up to you”, in other words, as much as you can do, do your part – but we can’t control the choices or actions of another party.
DR: No, we can’t. And not even God can do that, if I can be a bit contentious. He can’t even demand reconciliation. And you might say, “but that’s terribly painful. I’m wanting to forgive, I’m wanting to reconcile to this person”. Well, all I can say is, “God knows exactly how you feel, because God is always lovingly offering forgiveness and mercy, lovingly wanting us to respond so that there can be reconciliation, but he’s living constantly with the pain of being rejected. And sometimes sadly, we have to live with that pain, and it can go on. Because forgiveness is always a process, Clare. It’s never just a one-off event, or a one-off prayer after church one morning. It usually goes on and on. You can think “Oh, well, I’ve forgiven that person”, and blow me down, you see them walking down the street, in your neighborhood, and immediately you take a few steps back! Well, don’t worry about that. It’s a hiccup along the way. It’s a stuttering sort of journey. It’s not all going to go smooth and it’s not going to go quickly.
CB: That’s right. Yeah, I’ve read stories by people who’ve been horrifically scarred by things like civil war and that sort of thing. And they do talk about that. It’s a lifelong process. It’s a long process that, you know, happens over time by lots of small decisions.
DR: It does, and often they are just a little decisions and sometimes we make the wrong decisions. And you mention something like a civil war and so on, we’ve got to be very careful again, to clarify what forgiveness isn’t. Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook in terms of criminal activity. For example, someone might do a terrible wrong to me, and personally, I am obliged to offer forgiveness, over time, etcetera, etcetera. But I may also be obliged by the authorities to testify against them in court and have them go to gaol. In other words, they’re not incompatible. Because you see, it’s not up to a civil law judge to forgive. You know, they’ve got to execute just judgment.
When we talk about forgiveness, we are talking about personal relationships. So I can forgive someone who attacked me, and you testify against them in court. They are quite compatible.
Forgiveness and Justice Are Not Incompatible
CB: That’s right. Yeah. I love that you mention that, because there will be people listening who have tough decisions to make about wrongs that have been done and that need to see justice. And that doesn’t mean that they are an unforgiving person. Those two can go in parallel lines, I guess you could say.
DR: That’s right. You sometimes do see, don’t you, on the news reports, [eople outside a court saying “I’ll never forgive that person, I hope they rot in hell”, and all this. And you can well understand those people’s pain. But my sadness for them Clare, is that really, unfortunately, they’re doing damage to themselves. The other person is not affected by their refusal to forgive, but it’s going to eat away at them.
“Harbouring resentment is like swallowing rat poison and hoping the rat will die.”
But I wouldn’t say such a person, “Forget all about it, don’t worry, it doesn’t really hurt”, and “Be bosom buddies with this person who did this terrible thing”. No, no, no! It’s nothing about that at all. It is simply saying, “I am not going to let that terrible thing done to me, dominate my life in future number one, and I am not going to retaliate against that person because that’s going to end up damaging me more than them”.
CB: You remind me of a quote that I’ve heard, that “holding on to unforgiveness and bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick from it”.
DR: Quite true. I’ve heard a similar quote to that, that “harbouring resentment is like swallowing rat poison and hoping the rat will die”. You know, it doesn’t figure out.
There’s this lovely phrase that I read from a wonderful book on forgiveness by Michael Lewis Smith. And Smith concludes in his book and a talk he gave on it once, saying, “When I choose to forgive someone, I set a prisoner free. And the prisoner I set free – is me.
Forgiveness is Sometimes a Long Journey
CB: Beautiful. It’s a really nice place to finish. But before we do, I am prompted to bring to mind a story of something happened to me when I was in my 20s that I struggled to forgive for years: a friend tried to set me up with a guy that I wasn’t remotely interested in. And it was kind of a mirthful, 20-something prank that went too far. And I struggled to forgive my friend. I’d say I’d forgiven them. And then years later – like years, 10 years later, I’d find myself telling the story again to somebody else, and getting all heated up about it and going, “Oh, gee, I really, haven’t forgiven!” So I think there are signs that that we can look for, inside ourselves, to see if we hold resentment still.
DR: Yes, that’s right Clare. As long as you are on the journey, that’s fine. You might never reach the end of that journey until the day you die and go to heaven. But as long as you are on the journey – as you say, explore your heart. There will be setbacks, and just because you find little surges of resentment or bitterness or horrible memories coming up, doesn’t mean that you fail, it simply means you’re still on the journey.
CB: Wonderful. Thank you so much, David, as ever. That’s a very pastoral bit of advice you’ve given us there. Thanks for your time.
If you’re listening and you found this helpful, and you’re thinking of maybe a few people who might find this episode helpful too, don’t forget to share it. Send it around. And while you’re at it, subscribe. And if you have a further question that you want to ask David, and that we could answer in this podcast, email us at lifewords@hope media.com.au.