The most painful experience in life is being seriously and deliberately harmed by someone else.
Car crashes, even fatal ones, are accidents; no one sets out to deliberately injure or kill with their car. Cancer is also an impersonal attacker, an internal cellular malfunction.
But when someone willfully abuses us – verbally, physically, financially, emotionally – that feels altogether different. That pushes our pain levels off the scale and can feel worse than the most serious physical injuries or diseases.
It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a mistake, it wasn’t a malfunction. Someone purposely decided to wrong and damage us. There’s a personal choice, a human will, behind the pain.
That’s searing agony.
Was that not the worst part of Christ’s sufferings? Not so much the nails or the thorns, but the malice of the soldiers, the denial of Peter, the desertion of the disciples, the betrayal of Judas, and, above all, the felt abandonment by the Father.
Avoid or Attack
Our most common responses to being abused are either attack or avoid, retaliate or distance, both of which result in even greater damage to ourselves and others, including anger, bitterness, resentment, and even depression. But there is an alternative to taking vengeance or taking cover, and that’s giving forgiveness.
The fullest and best kind of forgiveness is when our attacker or abuser confesses his sin, asks for forgiveness, and we are enabled to do so from the heart, just as God for Christ’s sake did for us. This kind of reconciliation is one of the greatest joys for any Christian to experience. It is so liberating, so refreshing, so exquisite.
However, what if there is no confession, no repentance, no request for forgiveness? We’ve maybe tried to bring the offender to repentance and reconciliation, but without success. What then?
Are we doomed to carry around this burden for the rest of our lives? Do we just keep turning our back or looking for an opportunity to get our own back? Or do we just forgive anyway, regardless of whether the person wants any forgiveness?
The answer is not avoidance, nor attack, but neither is it unconditional forgiveness, giving full forgiveness where none is sought. There is a fourth option: maybe we can call it “lesser forgiveness.”
Lesser forgiveness has two parts. First, there is a forgiving attitude, being ready to forgive, eager to forgive, even praying for the opportunity to forgive. It’s about being forgiving without actually giving forgiveness.
Second, there is a giving of the matter over to God. It’s saying, “I’m not going to carry this around any longer. I’m not going to attack or avoid, but neither can I reconcile. So I give it over to God, I let it loose from my heart, and I say, “The judge of all the earth will do right.”
Giving up by giving over
There is a giving up of the hide-and-seek, a giving up of the search-and-destroy. There is a giving up of the matter to God. It’s a letting go and letting God.
There is no pardoning and there is no reconciliation. But neither is there condoning, excusing, minimizing, or tolerating of the offense, which is what unconditional forgiveness results in.
Both of these kinds of forgiveness, full and lesser, are patterned after God’s forgiveness and required by the prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
And although this is not the full forgiveness that we crave to give, it is better than the alternatives, and better for us too.
Bitter or better?
Although psychologists lack the theological basis for offering true forgiveness to their clients, they recognize that forgiveness helps bitter people become better people. In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky argues that whereas “preoccupation, hostility, and resentment that we harbor serve only to hurt us, both emotionally and physically” empirical research confirms that forgiving people are:
- More agreeable
- More serene.
- Better able to empathize with others
- More spiritual or religious.
- More capable of reestablishing closeness in relationships
That’s seven major benefits of forgiving, to which we can add the benefit of an improved relationship with God as well (Matt. 6:12, 14-15).
Amazingly, Lyubomirsky’s first strategy for practicing forgiveness is to appreciate being forgiven! It’s a pity that it’s taken scientists a couple of thousand years to discover that what Jesus was teaching all these years ago is true.
Horizontal and Vertical Motivation
Of course, “scientific” forgiveness is only on the horizontal plane. To motivate us, Lyubomirsky asks us to recall an instance of when we did wrong to someone and were forgiven. However, if such relatively minor offenses against such relatively minor people can help us to forgive, how much more being forgiven by a holy God for offenses not just against His law but against His love? As Jesus said, He who has been forgiven much, the same loves much.
For more on this subject, read Mike Wittmer’s review of Chris Braun’s excellent book, Unpacking Forgiveness.