I ended the previous story of betrayal with the faint beginnings
of a desire to forgive. But our wanting to forgive doesn’t mean we’ve granted
forgiveness any more than wanting a beach vacation gives us tickets to
Tahiti. It’s a start, an important start, but only a start.
Our desire to forgive is undermined by our memories, recollections of
the betrayal that relentlessly resurface with stunning clarity. With the
vividness of slow-motion video, I recall a half-erased whiteboard, the
buzz of a fly, and the shadows on the wall.
A friend of mine remembers the jingle of an ice-cream truck and the
smell of lilacs through the screen porch.
We want to forgive, but images flood our mind, and something in our
soul recoils. We try to forgive and forget, but those memories scratch
their way out of the holes we buried them in.
We want justice; somehow, in some form or fashion, we want payment.
Like David, our heart cries, “Let death take [them] by surprise; let them
go down to hell while still living” (Ps. 55:15).
Or as Freud said, “One must forgive one’s enemies: but preferably after
they’ve been hanged.”
It twists our
Last week, I heard a talk radio host interview a therapist. The therapist
claimed that “un-forgiveness is a major contributor to heart disease,”
and that “bitterness can kill us.” The wrong done to us begins to take
root in us. The evil inflicted on us begins to flow out of us.
Mirslov Volf wrote, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude my enemy
from the community of humans and I exclude myself from the community of
sinners.” We begin to dehumanize our betrayer, and in turn we are dehumanized.
Agony and anger twists our souls.
On hearing the consequences of non-forgiveness, the radio host responded,
“I don’t want a stroke, so I’d better start forgiving. I’ll just let it
But it’s not so simple. No magic wand will wave away the stain. To claim,
“I’ll just let it go,” is like getting over stage-fright by saying, “I’ll
stop being self-conscious.” It makes matters worse.
And it completely misunderstands the essence of forgiveness.
does have to pay
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the World War II martyr who died resisting Hitler)
If you’ve ever really forgiven somebody, forgiven some real wrong, all
forgiveness is suffering. If you say “I forgave and I didn’t suffer,” it
wasn’t that serious a wrong. But if you have ever really been wronged,
and if you have forgiven it, then you have suffered. Because all forgiveness
is a form of suffering.
When we’ve been deeply wronged—not just an accidental slipup but a treacherous
betrayal—we know there is a debt, a deep-seated sense of injustice. We
can’t shrug it off as if nothing happened, we can’t simply dismiss those
memories in a momentary fancy of forgiveness.
When we remember the injury, we must choose between two paths. We can
make the perpetrator pay (by finding little ways to make them suffer, poking
pins in their memory, disparaging them to our friends, or snubbing them
in our heart); or we can forgive.
If we make the perpetrator pay, evil wins. The road to hell is not paved
with good intentions, and not even with our betrayal of others. The road
to hell is paved with our non-forgiveness.
So what does it
mean to forgive?
Everyone thinks forgiving is a wonderful idea. Until they have something
real to forgive. Because forgiveness means suffering. If we don’t make
the perpetrator pay (and somebody has to pay), it means we pay.
Forgiveness means we pay our betrayer’s debt.
It’s normal life. If I borrow your car and wreck it, then either I cough
up cash for the repair, or—if I don’t have any money—then you do. The damage
doesn’t disappear magically. Somebody pays. (Or you drive a wrecked car,
which is just another form of you suffering for my mistake.)
How do we pay? When we’re tempted to dwell on their cruelty, we stop
(it costs not to punish them in our thoughts). And when we have a chance
to tell others of their betrayal, we shut up (we suffer when they enjoy
a good reputation). And we pray for their welfare, not punishment.
Of all Christian disciplines, this is the hardest. First we suffer the
horrible wrong done to us, and then we pay for their wrongdoing. It’s double
baked death. Compared to forgiveness, chastity, charity, and contentment
seem like sipping lemonade on a summer’s evening.
Forgiveness also brings us closest to Christ. It is suffering, thorns,
nails, and a cross.
Forgive me for
To settle a debt requires capital. We need a full bank account (either
financial, emotional, or spiritual reserves) to write that check. We need
deposits in our account before we can pay out. But our reserves were depleted
by the wrong done to us. What are we to do?
Our ability to forgive is wholly dependent on our being forgiven. When
it seems impossible to forgive, our only hope is to understand our debt
to God, and to grasp our own forgiven-ness.
Jesus said of the prostitute who washed his feet, “She loves much because
she’s been forgiven much, and whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
With the deposits of our own forgiven-ness, we pay our debtor’s debt. And
little by little, we find we have forgiven.
Over time (not magically in a moment) something miraculous happens.
We begin to really hope for them, to really wish them the best; we even
begin to love them.
The evil done to us has been executed.
P.S. Don’t think that because I can write this that I can also
do it well. But I’m getting better.
P.P.S. Forgiveness does not mean disconnection with reality.
Our betrayers may still act like jerks toward us or toward others. Forgiveness
doesn’t mean we should go back and work in that ministry or become best
pals with that former friend. But it does mean their debt has been paid,
that we have shredded our case files, and that we desire their welfare.