Unpacking Forgiveness: More than a Feeling

Almost every summer during my childhood, I spent a week with my cousin. This cousin and her family are devout Christians so spiritual training was a priority in the home. Along with many other fond memories, I remember bedtime when my aunt would sit on the side of the bed, tuck us in and then my cousin and I would recite the Lord's Prayer. After this we would ask God to bless everyone we knew by name. It was quite the little prayer meeting, but reciting the Lord's Prayer at such a young age helped lay the foundation for learning to forgive.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us ...We learned everything in the traditional King James back then.

As I said, this scripture laid the foundation for learning to forgive, so much so that when I began to suffer deeply-felt hurts in the junior high world, I didn't question my youth pastor when he advised me to forgive. I didn't want to go to hell, after all. And I wanted God to forgive me too. Part of that advice included going to the person who had hurt me to tell them how I felt. Though painful, this approach usually worked out so that the person apologized and we became friends again. I didn't like this process very much, but it seemed biblical to me so I did it.

This was in the mid-80s. About that time, according to author Chris Brauns in his book Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds, a book called Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve by Lewis Smedes was published. "This book sold hundreds of thousands of copies," Brauns writes. "It is both representative of, and responsible for on some level, a great deal of wrong Christian thinking about forgiveness."

Brauns continues:

Smedes essentially defined forgiveness as ceasing to feel resentment or anger over an offense or perceived offense. The way he views it, forgiveness is a private strategy for defeating bitterness and hate. L. Gregory Jones summarized: '[According to Smedes,] forgiveness becomes a means of being 'healed' of your 'hate,' of which Smedes argues people have a right to be healed. Smedes internalizes and privatizes forgiveness by making it primarily an activity that goes on within individual persons' hearts and minds.

It's weird. I remember this shift. I don't recall exactly when it happened but it suddenly became okay to forgive someone in my heart and to try to stop feeling angry (and try to hide the anger until it stopped) without going to that person and actually talking to them. Brauns calls this version of forgiveness "therapeutic forgiveness," because in it Smedes has turned forgiveness into an emotion from which we have a right to be healed. "He redefines forgiveness," Brauns writes. "According to Smedes, forgiveness becomes an emotion rather than a transaction or commitment between two parties. Specifically, forgiveness becomes the universal antidote for bitterness."

Remember Brauns' definition of forgiveness? Forgiveness is a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.

So what's wrong with the therapeutic view? I can speak from my own experience about what is wrong with it. It's not good to be angry or bitter. Since I have employed this method, I have seen many friendships fade - either because I chose to drift away or they did. People also quit being truthful about being offended. I remember practically having to drag the information out of one of my acquaintances when I offended her, otherwise she would ignore me for months. As I grew older, people even began to hide information about who I had offended (or seemingly offended) rather than try for reconciliation. This is a "wonderful" environment for gossip to flourish, thus ruining reputations and causing people who aren't involved in the alleged problem to have hard feelings toward people they may or may not even know. This environment breeds paranoia and an unwillingness to become close to others.

Conversely, my husband and I have a very healthy relationship. We tell each other when we feel we have been wronged. Bringing it out in the open helps us analyze what we are feeling and the viewpoint of the other person. Once this is done, we kiss and make up. The problem is over as far as we're concerned. Why do I have so much trouble doing this with other people? I see it as a lack of love in my heart because of the hurt I've suffered in the past.

The therapeutic view says that we are to forgive automatically. We are to immediately shut down any negative feelings. Yet, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we know that this is virtually impossible. Buried feelings reap a bitter harvest. It appears that the biblical view, which includes a two party agreement and reconciliation is much healthier for ourselves, the other person, and for the community at large.

Brauns' book has a great chart comparing and contrasting the biblical and the therapeutic view of forgiveness. He also offers sound reasons as to why the biblical view is the best way. I urge you to purchase the book or borrow it from a local library*. I have simply summarized the chapter here and used my own experiences to illustrate Brauns' view. Maybe you'll have a different outlook after reading the chapter yourself. I'd love to hear what it is.

*If your library does not have the book, ask your librarians if they will obtain it through an inter-library loan. Our librarians here in town are quite happy to do this. Yours probably will be too.