Forgiveness: A Journey, not a Moment

Photo by Polina Sirotina from Pexels

A few weeks ago I read the social media post of a prominent pastor, someone whose work and ministry I respect. To paraphrase, he stated that unforgiveness is a form of idolatry in which an individual worships their hurt more than Christ.

You know the kind of post, the mic drop that leaves nothing to be said but an “Amen,” “Preach,” or even “Ouch” and “Convicting!” The comments were littered with those brief affirmations. (On a separate note that could fill a separate post, there’s a problem in culture with oversimplifying complex issues with brief sound-bytes, Twitter takes. Check out Haris Hosseini’s 2019 NSDA National Championship winning speech, “Simply Put.”) But something must be said.

So I did. I said a little more. Except, my comment was deleted.

I wasn’t even trying to stir up trouble or negativity. I rarely leave comments that could be interpreted as disagreeing with the author’s views; it’s just not really how I approach social media. In this case, I merely wanted to extend the conversation around a sensitive topic. Here’s the gist of what I said (I can’t remember word-for-word because, well, the comment was deleted):

I agree with the post, but we must be careful and recognize that calls for forgiveness have also been used by abusers to distance themselves quickly from their abuse. Spiritual mentors must help victims to recognize the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. We must remember that forgiveness is complex especially in the case of trauma and abuse. Within that context, I heartily give my own Amen to this post.

I was a little stunned to learn that my comment had been deleted. I felt guilty for a moment because my intent was sincere, and I never meant to add negativity. But as I’ve considered the post and my response, I stand by what I said and especially its urgency in an age in which many people who have grown up in faith have left their faith due to abuse (spiritual, sexual, verbal, etc.). Now, to be fair, I don’t know the reason behind the comment being deleted; perhaps there were valid considerations. So I’ll dedicate the rest of this article to the issue in general rather than one specific post because, truth be told, the idea posted to this particular pastor’s social media is not unique to him.

I believe that the idea that unforgiveness is a sin is one of those Christian platitudes that can be very harmful. It’s a classic example in which cold theology in a vacuum doesn’t align with the clear compassion of Christ; it’s just not the intent of the law, a reminder that Jesus gave his followers over and over again.

Now he [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.

Luke 13:10-17 ESV

Here Jesus makes it clear that biblical mandates were meant for human flourishing and not for harmful and neglectful legalism. Sure, forgiveness should be sought consistently and radically. Jesus responds to the norm of the day by saying forgiveness should not be given seven times but rather seventy times seven! But if he fought religious legalism then, wouldn’t he say the same now?

What about someone who has experienced abuse: physical, verbal, sexual, spiritual? What if their only response to the mandate of forgiveness is simply, “I can’t,” eyes cast down like the tax collector beating his chest in Luke 18? Is there no space for them in God’s ecosystem? In fact, in religious circles, forgiveness has even been weaponized by abusers. “Shut up! Stop making a fuss. Forgive, just as Christ has forgiven you,” declared without remorse (or momentary remorse, only to repeated again when it’s convenient).

So, yes to forgiveness. It’s healing. It’s important for people who have been wronged and is representative of the act of Christ’s blameless sacrifice on the cross, an act of sacrifice, substitution, victory, forgiveness, and every other conceivable act of glorified response to the problems of individual and systemic evil throughout history. But, let’s stop treating everything as straightforward. Let’s recognize nuance. Mourn with those who mourn rather than adding salt to open wounds. Walk alongside victims and understand that forgiveness often takes time.

Forgive like Jesus? I can’t. That’s why I need Jesus.

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