I’m struggling to forgive

Q. I’ve been reading about forgiveness. My brother was set up to be murdered. I just can’t forgive one person who had a part in this who was close to him and should have helped and protected him. I know that forgiveness is not for the other person, it’s really more for myself in letting go of what this person has done. But how do you get past something like this? I struggle with this a lot and I don’t like the way I feel.

My sincere condolences to you on the loss of your brother. Many readers of this blog have also asked about forgiveness and I hope that the following reflections that I’ve shared with them will also be helpful to you. May the God of all comfort grant you peace.

How do I know whether I’ve really managed to forgive someone?

Can we truly love our enemies?

Couldn’t ‘turning the other cheek’ get someone seriously hurt?

How do I know whether I’ve really managed to forgive someone?

Q. The Bible repeatedly mentions forgiveness. I would like to know exactly what that is, because lately it’s been impossible for me to know whether I’ve really managed to forgive somebody. I’m still angry with them and feel bitter towards them. I think dark thoughts about them. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, the line “forgive us for our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us” really sticks out. I worry that God will not forgive me if I cannot let this go. So what qualifies as forgiveness?

Thank you for this excellent and heartfelt question. It’s one that I’m sure many other readers have as well. To respond to it, let me share some principles of forgiveness that many people I encountered in my years in pastoral ministry found helpful. I believe these principles reflect the Bible’s teaching.

• Forgiveness is an act of the will that must be completed by emotional work.

Forgiveness is something that we choose to do because we know God expects it of us. In other words, it’s fundamentally an act of obedience. It’s true that the Lord’s Prayer implies that we should forgive if we want to be forgiven. But Jesus also taught that we should forgive because we have been forgiven. He told the parable of the unforgiving debtor, for example, to illustrate that because God has freely and graciously forgiven us in His great mercy, we should similarly show mercy to others. So choosing to forgive, in obedience, as an act of the will, is what qualifies as forgiveness. Once we make this choice and stick with it, God is satisfied, no matter how we feel afterwards.

I say that because as soon as we do choose to forgive, we often begin to struggle emotionally. For one thing, we need to deal with the hurt that another person has caused in our own lives. We may also have to come to terms with what feels like the unfairness of it all—”They’re getting away with everything, without so much as an apology!” But as we work through these emotions, choosing not to indulge in things like anger, bitterness, or dark thoughts, disciplining our minds, we can count on God’s grace to bring healing to our hearts and the recognition to our minds that by forgiving, we are being true “children of our Father in heaven, who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

That is, we will find this healing if the same old wounds don’t keep getting re-opened. Which brings me to the next principle:

• Forgiveness does not mean letting the other person hurt you all over again.

Forgiveness is a decision about a specific, one-time wrong or injury, to “let it go” and not seek revenge in any form (whether openly and actively, or in the form of indulged resentment, dark thoughts, etc.). When another person has established a pattern of hurting you, however, the process of forgiveness—which always takes time—will not be able to keep up with the repeated injuries, and you will feel defeated spiritually. What you need to do instead is break the pattern. That will likely mean, initially, putting some safe space between you and the other person, until the old pattern dies off and a new one can possibly be established, once it’s safe to re-engage. Put another way:

• Forgiveness is not a substitute for establishing personal boundaries.

We need to do both of these things in our lives. We can’t do one without the other. We won’t be able to establish healthy boundaries if “unfinished business” in the form of resentment is tying us to the old shape of the relationship. And we won’t be able to forgive if we keep allowing the other person to hurt us.

So when might it be safe to re-engage? This is my last point:

• Forgiveness takes one, reconciliation takes two.

Forgiveness is something you choose to do that sets you free on the inside. Reconciliation is something that two people have to agree to work on together. And before you try to reconcile with a person who has hurt you, before you let them back into your life where they might hurt you again, you need credible evidence that they have recognized their wrong, they are sorry for it, they will not repeat it, and they are committed to doing whatever they can to make things right with you. This is not something we can credibly believe about a person the first time they want to re-engage with us. Instead, we should identify safe confidence-building measures that we can try out a little at a time until we are assured that reconciliation can legitimately begin.

For example, it might be necessary for a while to have no direct contact with a person who has hurt you. Once you’ve had time for healing and strengthening by God’s grace, you might visit with them for a couple of hours in a coffee shop—not go and spend a weekend in their home! But things need to begin with the creation of some space and time for healing. It might not be possible to explain fully to the other person that you’re pursuing this, and why; if the relationship is already difficult, you may be blamed for being the problem, and this would only add to the hurt. But it should be possible to creatively and plausibly structure much more time away from the relationship, and if the other person seems to be catching on, you can simply say, “Yes, I feel as if I need some space right now.” You can’t predict how they’ll respond, but you shouldn’t worry about how they respond, either.

One qualifier: Everything I’ve said applies to relationships where you have some flexibility in how much time you spend with the other person. If it’s a toxic workplace relationship, however, and you have to be there many hours every week, you may actually need to find another job for the sake of your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. (Forgiveness doesn’t mean staying in an unhealthy situation that you are free to leave.) And if it’s a relationship with someone you live with—a spouse, parent, or child—and it’s much more than the regular wear and tear of people living under the same roof, it’s repeated serious hurts without any recognition of the harm being done, then I would strongly advise going for counseling about the dynamics in your immediate family, even if you have to start by going to a counselor alone. The issues at play in such a situation go far beyond a willingness to forgive. They require at least pastoral, and likely professional, counseling.

Can we truly love our enemies?

Q.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”  Forgiveness is one thing, but I think this is impossible.

Jesus would certainly be asking us to do something unreasonable, if not impossible, when he tells us to love our enemies–people who have hurt us, or violated our trust, or taken advantage of us, or who are out to get us–if love means a feeling, a warm and delighted attraction to another person that makes us want to be in a close relationship with them.  A person who’s been badly hurt by someone else simply can’t force themselves to feel those things towards that other person.  Our feelings and emotions aren’t under our control in that way.

But the kind of love for enemies that Jesus commands isn’t a feeling.  It’s a commitment.  It’s a decision of the will, which is under our control.  Specifically, love is the commitment to act consistently in the best interests of another person.

This is clear from the way Jesus immediately elaborates on his statement:  “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  He’s talking about actions, not feelings.

This is also how Jesus’ earliest followers understood his statement.  Paul writes in Romans, for example, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but . . . if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink . . . do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

The goal, in other words, beyond forgiving someone who has hurt us (which sets us free from bitterness and the hold that the other person’s action might otherwise have over us), is to choose to pursue their best interests in our actions towards them, so that good triumphs over evil.  This also makes own our character more godly, as Jesus goes on to explain:  “Love your enemies, do good, and . . . you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Doing loving actions as a commitment to another person’s good may mean, however, actually breaking off our relationship with them for a time, if they would only hurt us again if we stayed in relationship.  We aren’t called to enable other people’s destructive behavior.  There need to be positive signs of change on their part before it’s safe for us to pursue reconciliation, beyond forgiveness.  But we can still pray for them and hope for the best for their lives.

In other cases, we may be able to do something practical to help them, and when we do this, it might even enable them to recognize that they were acting wrongly and that they need to change.  But we need to be led carefully by God’s Spirit to do, in any given case, what is healthy and appropriate for us and the other person.

So, to sum up, the kind of love Jesus commands us to have for our enemies isn’t a feeling.  It’s a commitment to act consistently in the best interests of another person.  And I believe, God helping us, we can do that even for our enemies.

Couldn’t “turning the other cheek” get someone seriously hurt?

Q.  Jesus said we should “turn the other cheek” if someone hits us.  But couldn’t we be seriously hurt if we don’t defend ourselves against an attacker?

Jesus’ teaching about “turning the other cheek” comes at a point in the Sermon on the Mount where he’s contrasting later interpretations of the law of Moses with the true spirit of that law.

In this case, he’s talking about a law that specified that the community should mete out proportionate justice for offenses:  “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  This law was designed to prevent individuals from taking vengeance, and also to prevent disproportionate punishments (whether too lenient or too severe).

However, by the time of Jesus, people were taking the idea of “an eye for an eye” to mean that they should “keep score” personally.  Whatever someone does to you, you do back to them.  In other words, they were appealing to Scripture to justify grudges and feuds!

So Jesus basically tells them, “Don’t keep score.”  Let the other person get “one up on you,” without trying to even the score, in the interests of pursuing reconciliation and peace.

Jesus gives several examples of how not to keep score.  Lend or give money without expecting repayment.  If someone sues you, settle with them generously.  If one of the occupying Roman soldiers exercises his right to force you to carry his load for a mile, carry it an extra mile.  (As it has been observed, you go the first mile as a conscripted laborer, but you go the second mile as a potential friend.)

As for “turning the other cheek,” it’s important to recognize that Jesus says specifically to do this if someone slaps you, not if they punch or strike you.  (See this thread for a discussion of the translation.)  In the time of Jesus, slapping was intended as an insult, not to cause injury.  So the idea is that you don’t return insult for insult; instead, you say with your actions, “Insult me again if you want, but I’m still interested in reconciliation and friendship with you.”

Jesus’ early followers “got it” and they present the same idea in their writings.  Peter says, “Do not repay evil for evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.”  Paul says similarly, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

It must be emphasized that Jesus is not saying here that we should allow ourselves to be beaten up and injured without trying to defend ourselves or escape.  There’s no imperative for followers of Jesus to suffer bullying, domestic violence, and the like without protest or resistance.  If we really want to live out the spirit of this teaching and pursue what’s best for the other person, we need to take the necessary measures to stop them from being violent and help them understand how to relate to others in a proper and healthy way.