I’ve been reading Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? I’m normally a fast reader, finishing at least two books a week, but this one is so heavy on the topics of grace and forgiveness that I’m forcing myself to slow down. But it’s a slower read for me because it’s bringing up some personal issues I’ve spent my entire Christian life trying to process.
The topic of forgiveness is not without controversy. I’ve met survivors of assault, domestic violence, and drunk driving accidents who firmly believe that forgiveness is a tool of oppressors to claim more power over their victims. Forgiveness is treated as a “get out of jail free” card, in which a perpetrator can escape the consequences of his wrongdoing by uttering a few words, albeit insincerely.
Getting What We Don’t Deserve
The concept of grace, which walks hand-in-hand with the Christian teaching of forgiveness, is about getting what we don’t deserve. This matters because that’s what Jesus did for us, but it’s frequently misunderstood. Just wait until you’re on your deathbed to apologize, critics say. Then there’s no need for acts of contrition, let alone a sincere apology to the person who was wronged.
This mistaken notion of forgiveness saddens me because it misses the point of the gospel – mainly that the Good News is transformative.
A genuinely repentant person won’t want to continue the behavior that necessitated forgiveness in the first place. The person who understands the magnitude of their sin and the relief of a clean slate should be genuinely motivated to change their ways. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, not our own will. The person who claims to love Christ but persists in harmful behavior has never genuinely encountered grace. He may call himself a disciple, but his behavior will expose him as a liar.
Forgiving The Unforgiveable
Yancey’s book is full of stories about forgiveness and grace that will honestly make you think the Holy Spirit has to be real. How else could survivors of genocide forgive the soldiers who murdered their family members in Rwanda? How else does a grieving parent hug the mother of the man who murdered her son? If that seems crazy to you, well, I think that’s precisely the point. Christian forgiveness is a truly scandalous thing.
I’m simultaneously moved and made deeply uncomfortable by these stories. I believe in the power of forgiveness, but I know I’m reluctant to show it in my own life. I believe I am making steps in the right direction, but I honestly don’t know if I can truly say “I forgive” when the consequences of sin committed against me are still so apparent, still throbbing with pain.
Can I say I genuinely forgive the man who raped me in college, leaving me with injuries that damaged my fertility? Can I forgive that violence that would inevitably affect my marriage, long before I even met my husband? You know, I don’t think I’m there yet. And not for lack of praying about it, either. As I move further into my thirties and the desire for a child of my own increases, I find myself back at square one. Full of rage and devastation as if it all happened yesterday.
Small Steps In The Right Direction
I may spend my entire life struggling to forgive, but there are practical things I can do to stop feeding the rage monster that’s lived inside me for so long. The biggest improvement I’ve made was not buying wine for the house. That way I’d have no crutch to turn to for a short-term “fix” in the event of a trigger. I’ve removed from my phone – or refused to download – catchy songs that feed anger or thoughts of revenge. I’ve unfollowed some social media accounts that dwell on those things. If I can’t fix my own heart, I can at least guard my mind. That has helped a great deal.
If the Holy Spirit could bring me out of that deep pit of rage, despair, and anger, to a point where I can start to enjoy life again and even consider forgiveness, well, then anything is possible. I believe it’s possible for anyone to experience true grace and repent, no matter what they’ve done. But my personal healing no longer hinges on it. My ability to forgive depends not on remorse for what was done to me, but on gratitude for what was done for me. Christ knows that pain I felt, am still feeling. The cross redeems it. It’s not my burden anymore.
For The One Who Says He Doesn’t “Need” Forgiveness
The seeds of unspeakable violence are sown in the human heart long before a hand is raised against another. We commit emotional violence every time we conveniently diminish the Imago Dei in others – and who hasn’t done that? Any one of us is capable of anything, under the right circumstances.
The ground at the foot of the cross is level. That evens the playing field between me, you, my rapist, or a Nazi. We all need to be forgiven. And through Christ, we are. Forever.